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Is that the end of Woody Allen?, 21 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Watching "Café Society" was such a depressing and frustrating experience I couldn't believe I was enduring something from Woody Allen. Yet it makes sense because only a director of his caliber, who accustomed us to thought-provoking and/or heart-warming gems of originality, could heighten our expectations so high they would literally smash into deception, breaking in thousand pieces of disbelief. That's how I felt when the film ended, it wasn't even bad, it was just a lame and lackluster attempt to explore all Allen's shticks, for a plot so vacuous it couldn't have made a decent short film.

The story? In a nutshell (and I mean a very small one), a young New Yorker named Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to work in Hollywood for his uncle, a rich and famous producer (that's for the pleonasm) named Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Phil has a mistress, his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), naturally, Bobby falls in love with her, the resulting triangle cannibalizes the first act until Vonnie picks Phil and we can't even tell if she did it like she meant it. Never mind, a defeated Bobby goes back to his Big Apple of a hometown, and with the help of his gangster brother, opens a restaurant, meets a young woman (Blake Lively), they marry and have a kid. Bobby meets Vonnie again, she's married, they share a romantic night in Central Park. Then they get back to their lives and the film ends with the two of them feeling alone.

I could add that there's a criminal subplot supposed to spice it but you might as well throw a pinch of salt and pepper on Lake Ontario. One could say that it's not "what" happens but the way it does. Sorry, but even the treatment couldn't have been worse if it was someone trying to imitate Allen, and badly at that. Each element of the story is a poor man's version of what he did before, and better. The real love letters to Hollywood and show business were "Broadway Danny Rose", "The Purple Rose to Cairo" and "Bullets Over Broadway". The bittersweet romance is an Allen staple ever since "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan", the Jewish family element has never been as endearing as in "Radio Days". There's not a single element that doesn't feel like we've seen it before.

But even then, it would have been acceptable if it these copycats were half as good as their originals. Woody Allen has lost his touch on this one, Eisenberg tries desperately to make an impression of Allen in his earlier scene, falling in a similar trap than Kenneth Branagh in "Celebrity", why all the actors feel the need to impersonate Alvy Singer when they're in a Woody Allen film? Kristen Stewart isn't bad but the role is rather unflattering, she just plays a secretary who goes from being an unpretentious free-spirited girl above the 'starlet' mentality, to a sophisticated socialite. In between, she's torn between the two men and you can tell she tries to get rid of that awkward 'puzzled' expression inherited from the 'Twilight' series.

You can tell Eisenberg and Stewart, growing up with Allen as THE director to be with, were honored and had fun playing in his film, but I wonder if they were really pleased in these bland roles. Even Steve Carell isn't given many scenes where to shine, everything is handle in a casual, peaceful and matter-of-factly way, which isn't what you expect from Woody Allen. And if the romance is toned down and subdued, Allen insists on the ethnic element more than needed. Allen has always been a window to New York Jewish culture, but talk about overplaying it. I mean, if another director made the same film, let alone a Gentile, this would have been raised a big polemic and even accusations of stereotypical portrayals.

I always laugh at Allen's references to his nagging Jewish mother figure or his interaction with his rabbi, this is one of the defining elements of Allen's humor, just like self-derision is prevalent in Jewish humor, but in "Café Society", it is overused to the point of… pointlessness. So, the producer is Jewish, the nephew works for his father, a Jeweler, named Marty, his mother is a version of Julie Kavner after she went in a dryer, overcooking food because of germ-phobia and uttering Yiddish expressions every five seconds. Even the prostitute Bobby calls in Hollywood, happens to be Jewish. I swear there are more ethnic references in "Café Society" than all of Woody Allen's movies combined. That critics would point it out in an Allen film can give you an idea.

We would have guessed Bobby's background without it be thrown to our faces every forty-seven seconds. If it was a religious film à la "A Serious Man" (the underrated masterpiece from the Coen Brothers) it would have made sense, but here, it was uncalled for. This insistence from Allen while the film was devoid from the usual excitement and creativity left me puzzled at the end. I didn't know if I had to be angry or sad, but I guess I'm worried. I'm worried because I felt like Allen lost his touch and could only rely his plot on (another) nostalgic letter to Hollywood, New York and his Jewish roots. In fact, there's a well-meaning intent behind "Café Society", but I felt like an over-nostalgic or maybe melancholic Allen made it.

2016 wasn't the best year for homage to old Hollywood anyway, both "Café Society" and the Coens's "Hail Caesar" were forgettable movies but they say a lot about the evolution of filmmaking, forcing directors to be reminiscent of good old days, "La La Land" did better without turning it into a period movie. I hope a too-nostalgic Allen doesn't mean he lost his touch with the present. I hope this is just a misstep and Allen has one or tow masterpiece under his sleeves.

Big Fish (2003)
Not Just the Facts, M'am..., 21 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Big Fish" tells a story… about a man who tells stories. I think we can do better. It's about an ordinary man telling extraordinary stories, thus being extraordinary by proxy. His name is Edward Bloom, a man who spent most of his life inventing tales about how he met his wife, how he proposed her, how he built his house etc. In fact, all the "who", the "what" and the "why" that cover the chapters of his life seem to drain their inspiration from tall tales and fantasy. It gives a man a certain charm, he's like an old grandfather whose rambling is easily forgiven, but the film presents him from the standpoint of his son Will (Billy Crudup) and he doesn't exactly share this view.

It's understandable because we've only met Edward (Albert Finney) for five minutes and he just told us a nice little story about a giant catfish he caught with his wedding ring, but the son heard it a thousands times, so much he can recite it, even tell it better than him. Will has had enough and can't stand the fact that his father would steal his thunder, the very day of his wedding, and to babble the same old story, over and over again. There starts a shift of three years, until he learns that Edward's at the verge of death, so he travels from France with his pregnant wife Josephine (Marion Cotillard), convinced that it's time to settle that old record. Will might not be likable but we kind of understand his troubles, it's not about the stories but what they hide.

Maybe Will hates his father's stories like people hated Ed Wood's films but Tim Burton, wizard of imagery and at times, storytelling, can turn any lousy premise into a beautiful and emotional experience. Maybe that's what Edward meant by sugarcoating or reinventing the things of the past. I'll make a chronological leap: near the end of the movie, Will hears the real story about his birth, and it's certainly less colorful and memorable than the way Edward Sr. described. it had the merit to be the truth. Will obviously loves his father but blames him for his incapability to make a distinction between what is true and what is not. Burton doesn't allow us to make the distinction either because the point is elsewhere, the frustration of the son is duly noted, but the trick is to lead him to reconsider his personal frustrations.

The movie, through regular flashbacks, enlightens us about the life and times of Edward Bloom, his younger self, played by Ewan McGregor. The story is obviously exaggerated, we don't really care because within the framework of the film, it's the only story we'll take for granted, especially since Will won't get many real "versions" apart from his birth. The film's premise is a real paradox, we know we don't follow Edward's story but his personal vision, from our perspective, it's "his" story because he's the storyteller.We're basically torn between the anger of the son who only wants to know what kind of a man his father was and our personal enjoyment that doesn't necessarily seek any truth, unless we would care for Will.

Obviously, Roger Ebert cared enough for Will so he was genuinely annoyed by the father and his wrestling with the truth, but Ebert must have been in a wrong day, because the point of the film is obviously to make us relate to Edward and accept our liberty to look at our lives with the narrative we chose. It's Burton's vision as it's Edward's, there are times though where Burton gets carried away by his usual tropes, the colorful suburban small town like in "Edward Scissorhands", the many encounters on which the hero's journey depends, a gentle giant, a circus ringmaster, Siamese twins, a witch, all played by endearing actors like Danny De Vito, Steve Buscemi,and Helena Bonham Carter, but there is something that remains oddly consistent: these lies have a purpose, they represent the way a man looks at his life, he manipulate the facts because he knows these facts will die with him, while stories will contribute to his own myth.

That's the key, that's the purpose of that ending where Will literally says "the hell with it", swallows his pride and 'take' his father to a last farewell ride. The emotionals raised at that moment has something that borrows from Spielberg's movies but it works because it finds the right touch, the son doesn't reinvent a story or make up an adventure from the scratch, he just takes his father to a last trip where he meets and says goodbye to all the people who populated his life and turns into that 'big fish" he always mentioned in that ring story. This is not the son 'understanding' his father, Edward will always be a mystery, but it's the son loving his father enough to at least be part of the last thing that defined him, and maybe understanding him a little.

As a son, and also as a father, I could strongly emotionally relate to the film, because like I always says, sometimes, it's not about love and respect but… understanding. So, on the surface, "Big Fish" is a colorful and visually entertaining picaresque journey of a man who found his destiny the oddest way, who told stories about his life and made it his reason to be, but beneath the surface, it's a poignant father-and-son story where the outcome is two persons finally coming to terms.

The film doesn't overplay the emotions and the visual delights and there's a simplicity in the story you want to fully embrace as if the right attitude was from the wives played by Jessica Lange and Cotillard, let the old fool have his dreams, and be fool enough to enjoy them. Isn't that what Cinema, or life, or everything about, suspension of disbelief.

Safety Last... But Not Least..., 21 June 2017

It's only near my mid-twenties that my interest in movies grew and boy, was I busy! It cost me many valuable social assets but that's another story, it was my existential choice to have an immersion into a whole century of artistic creations, which kind of oblige you to get to the basics first. So in the case of silent movies, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the must- see, at the expenses of the third icon: Harold Lloyd.

I never really dedicated much thought or curiosity to Lloyd, I knew his reputation, his looks, the titles he was most celebrated for, and as if it was enough for my cultural knowledge, I knew his most iconic shot, the one where he…, well, you know it. To think that one of my favorite movies is "Back to the Future" and it didn't even encourage me to give the film a shot. I saw that "part" with the clock on Youtube and that was enough. When I finished the film yesterday, I felt guilty, how could I ever miss such a gem of a film? I felt less guilty when I read Roger Ebert's review, he saw it for the first time in the early 2000's, almost twice my age, and he's a movie lover. So, there's a real shadow of mystery about "Safety Last!", a classic of the Golden Age, yet relatively unknown.

But let's get this straight: it is a Masterpiece. The film displays a comical instinct that, no matter what Ebert said, is on the same level than Keaton or Chaplin, especially when it comes to physical comedy. The silent era was a time of performers, they didn't rely on CGI and stuntmen were mostly use as advisers, it was Chaplin on this rope, with the monkeys, in "The Circus", Keaton playing with trunk on the cow catcher in "The General" and it was Lloyd dangling and climbing the facade of the building. The film leaves no mystery about his physical abilities, we see him getting on a train on march, jumping from a car, falling repeatedly, the stunt achieved by Lloyd have nothing to envy from his peers, he masters slapstick as well as Chaplin and Keaton.

Yet Ebert commented that that the two legends would always have a universal resonance while Lloyd wasn't a natural, he had to work. Well, he did and it worked. He turned his anonymous and bland looking face as an asset, he was an every-man, too boyish to be a leading figure, too bland to be funny without trying. That was the point, he had to try, he had to work, after many attempts, he finally found his 'toothbrush mustache', glasses and a straw hat. He created an instantly likable character, or if not likable, one whom the audience could project empathy and positive feelings on. He would be named 'The Boy' or 'Harold Lloyd'. In "Safety Last!" he's a man from a small town who goes to the city and works as a salesclerk in De Vore Department Store.

Not the most colorful job, he's no gold miner, no tramp, no train driver but even within the limited range of this situation, Lloyd finds a way to combine between slapstick and physical feats, just to avoid another reprimand from his self-important floor-walker and he has ten minutes to get to his place and clock in. Then the film provides a fantastic race against time that works like a foretaste to the climactic building climbing. The power of Lloyd is to make a film where every plot point is either an excuse for a gag or a stunt, sometimes both. It's like a situation comedy with a great timing based on misunderstanding and lies. He's not in a bad situation but he pretends he has some high rank, and naturally, she comes by to check and the whole second act consists on pretending to be the boss and ditching the encounters that might betray his act.

It all leads up the climax, that climbing of the 12-store-building, I often wondered what pushed this man to be in that situation, always assuming that he actually got off from a window. Not only he climbed the whole building store by store but each store offers a specific obstacle, he's showered by peanuts attracting pigeons, get a mouse in his pants, catching a rope that is not even tied and so on and so forth, it's an exhaustive experience, one we're forced to see but can't because we don't have the control and he doesn't even seem to have the control himself. Even when he manages to get on the top, he gets a weather vane hits him in the head and he starts moving like Goofy in "Clock Cleaners", I wouldn't be surprised if the film served like an inspiration, it is the pioneer of all these gravity-defying stunts actually.

For the trivia, "Safety Last!" was the only comedy to be listed in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Thrills, and it wasn't even listed in the Top 100 comedies, as shocking as it is (the list included many debatable comedies) it's like the chief emotion of the film is thrills and it is a credit to Harold Lloyd to have made a film capable to grab genuine laughs and where you would grave someone's arm, it is fun and agonizing in the same time. Still, the thrills involved in the film are only the tip of an iceberg. "Safety Last!" is fun before being a heart-pounding experience, and that's saying a lot. Buster Keaton's "General" didn't make in the Thrills but in the Laughs list, and that's how "Safety Last!" works, like a "General" but on the vertical side and with one of the most iconic images of the silent era.

That the AFI would overlook the comedy, that Ebert didn't see it until the 2000's, that I only discovered yesterday are just total mysteries.

The Immortalization of Jesse James by the Tragically Naive Robert Ford..., 21 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There's always a temptation to get over-analytical with the revisionist Western sub-genre. These moody movies, like "Shane", "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" or "Unforgiven", paint a portrait of the Old West at the twilight of its existence. Whether from Natives and homesteaders who, realize the march of progress is a roller-coaster ignoring the value of individual lives or outlaws and marshals discovering that they belong to a dying breed of men, the Old West shrunk like a Balzac pebble-leather, and with it, the frontier spirit.

The "end of an era" is the most prevalent element of modern Western and Andrew Dominik's "Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford", a film served by impeccable acting and hypnotic cinematography by Roger Deakins. There's a an obvious kinship between this title and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", we care less for the death, which awaits us all, than the way fate lures the primarily concerned to the deadly encounter. And the Jesse James we see, is played by a self-conscious but oddly poignant Brad Pitt, like a living ghost, a man floating above the dark shadow of fame and a magnetic aura. Ask anyone today about Jesse James, words 'outlaws', bank robberies will come to mind but also that nickname that earned his ticket to posterity: Robin Hood.

Yes, this is the Old West, quoting "Liberty Valance", "when legend becomes fact, print the legend". At the aftermath of the Civil War, people could find excuses to criminals, and Jesse James was always seen as a man faithful to the Confederate flag and who robbed Yankees banks to repair injustices. This is certainly a shortcut from reality, he certainly killed more innocent men than Robert Ford, but James is a legend nonetheless. You can tell it from the morbid attraction his death gathered, the quasi-mystification of his life or any item he ever approached. You can just tell it by the number of movies or books made about him, while Robert Ford, will always be associated to the word 'Coward', the Judas, the backstabber. But no one would want such a reputation, and certainly not Ford who only wanted to join the gang, along with his brothers and has his share of James' fame.

Robert Ford is certainly one of the most fascinating cinematic characters of the last two decades; he was certainly overlooked because 2007 saw the more iconic and larger-than-life Anton Chigurh from "No Country for Old Men". But Ford embodies this puzzling correlation between death and admiration; one that caused John Lennon to be killed by a fan. Ford is a man who knows the times of Old West legends is coming to an end and wants to make a name out of his, believing he's "destined for great things". But this is a man who's not the tenth James is, he's awkward, effeminate, full of shy mannerisms that immediately betray a sneaky side of his personality. One minute with Frank James (Sam Shepard) and the old man draws his gun, telling him to get out because he "gives him the willies". But it seems like his brother Jesse is more tolerant.

Indeed, Jesse James gives Bob a chance and starts a weird relationship whose culmination is the titular assassination. Bardem won the Oscar for "No Country" but he played a villain, albeit not one-dimensional. Casey Affleck (who got many awards nods, including the Oscar) plays something that is lower than the concept of the villain but more spectacular in terms of acting, he's the wimp, the well-meaning but ultimately weak man whose personal hubris conducts him to kill people who actually appreciated him, he's Jerry Lundegaard in "Fargo" or Fredo Corleone and it takes some super acting to play these awkward and highly contemptible people. Affleck even adds a dimension of troll-faced, double-crossing youth that makes him even more dangerous.

The fact that at the end, we still feel sorry for him says a lot about the beauty of the film. We understand that he meant "well", he wanted to be a new Pat Garrett, yet he didn't understand his world. He didn't foresee that reenacting 800 times the assassination would only make him an even more detestable public figure while he could have left the killing a mystery. There was no witness besides his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) Ford could have claimed it was self-defense, people would have suspected him, he might even have been killed anyway, but how could he ever believe that he could earn a heroic reputation by explicitly killing someone in the back and taking pride from it, at that.

Ford became a living ghost in suspended sentence, waiting to be killed; his name would forever be associated with James, but not the way he intended. The film, while not forgiving the action of Ford, presents him like a tragic figure, victim of unfortunate illusions. And I have a feeling that he was also victim of James, the film insists on showing James as a man of fading health, growing paranoia and irrational behavior, being chased by all the Marshalls of the country would drive anyone insane. Many times, James take someone for "a ride" and we understand it's the euphemism mobsters use for "take care", the plot isn't always clear but it efficiently highlights the mindsets that inhabits the two main characters, the cast does justice to the film, Jeremy Renner and Rockwell especially, but it's all between Pitt and Affleck.

And I had the feeling Pitt chose the suicidal angle, he who always ride behind a man, lowered his guard with Ford, gave him a gun, taunted him, threatened his brother as if he was really asking for his death, it's like a hypnotic macabre dance lead by James who knew the last step before immortality was a legendary murder. Ford served him that on a silver platter.

One could even ask who really 'assassinated' the other?

The Bounty (1984)
The overdue rehabilitation of "Captain Bligh"..., 18 June 2017

Roger Donaldson's "Bounty" opens with the most sensational news: legendary rivals Captain William Blight and Master's Mate Fletcher Christian knew each other very well, in fact, they were close friends and it was Bligh's personal insistence to have Fletcher aboard the Bounty for their commercial mission to Tahiti. This is the third most famous retelling of the iconic mutiny, and right from the start, the tone is set.

And the film shakes up all the preconceived notions we inherited from the two predecessors, regarding the personalities of both Christian and Bligh, assuming (rightfully) that we're familiar with them. And like no viewing of "The Bounty" will get away without inspiring many déjà vu reactions, no review of "The Bounty" can ignore the 1935 Best Picture winner and the 1962 Best Picture nominee.

The first one featured Charles Laughton as a tyrannical master in command and Clark Gable a romantic figure and the second had Trevor Howard as a more three-dimensional but no less cruel Captain while Marlon Brando played a more enigmatic Christian, with the weirdest manners. The two films were far from being historically accurate but put together, they covered the principal aspects of the Bounty journey. Even the 1935 film with the most villainous Bligh, allowed the viewers to appreciate his heroic exploit of leading the 18 loyalists to the Island of Timor, stranding for almost two months over the Ocean with provisions for one week. And the 1962 Christian wasn't the dashing flamboyant hero portrayed by Gable. The 1984 goes even further in the depiction of Bligh as a rather misunderstood but well-meaning chief and Christian as a man who might be his own enemy.

It all comes down to Bligh being the lead of the story, played by a young-looking Anthony Hopkins, telling the story in flashback while being interrogated by a court composed of Edward Fox and Laurence Olivier. There are a few reaction shots on Hopkins where I suspected it was his genuine admiration for his mentor, and the sadness to see him weakened by age and sickness. The idea of Bligh being the lead contributes to the most essential mission Donaldson and screenwriter Robert Bolt assigned themselves, terminating mystification of the infamous mutiny.

The script, based on Richard Hough's book, is reliant on facts rather than artistic licenses. It's a case of cinematic maturity where no emotions are overplayed, with no comical reliefs, no outbursts of anger and no romantic speeches. The film is served by a real British dream-cast including Daniel Day-Lewis and Liam Neeson but the second pillar is of course, the then-rising star Mel Gibson. He doesn't speak a lot in the film, which draws an aura of constant interrogations we know nothing about them, except that they seem to have found an answer in Tahiti.

Gibson's Christian (what a prophetic role) is a man in total opposition with Bligh, despite their friendship. During their first exchange, he maliciously comments on the breadfruit mission as simple grocery job, Bligh didn't pick out the sarcasm; he saw the accomplishment beneath the work, being the successor of Cook, making a trip around the world. Bligh is a man of duty yet with dreams of prestige and he intends everybody to share his enthusiasm and passion, Christian is a man of passion who found in Tahiti's idle and simple life, the roots of his personal vision of happiness.

Their antagonism finally sparkles during the mutiny; Christian can't stand the reasonable obsession of his Master, his capability to repress his feelings. Mel Gibson's acting during that pivotal moment looks almost like an internal mutiny within the mutiny. Although Gibson is as handsome and passionate as Gable and Brando; "The Bounty" efficiently deconstructs his image, while recognizing the naval genius of Bligh. There wasn't much controversy in this Bligh, but as I pointed out in the previous films' reviews, the mutiny was justifiable without the tyranny, after all, Bligh had his loyal men and the mutiny wasn't the most unanimous operation. "Bounty" adopts the theory that the sailors were so used to the idle lifestyle of Tahiti that they couldn't accept another trip, especially since Bligh wanted to round the Cape Horn again, a nightmare for ships. The mutiny was bound to happen. This is the angle Donaldson chose.

And as right as he was, as subtle and realistic and accurate as "The Bounty" was, it flopped at the box-office. Despite its critical acclaim, the score from Vangelis was ignored, and the film didn't get any nominations. The film doesn't even have the same reputation than the 1935 and 1962, which seems to highlight the limits of an excess in realism. Is it possible that the story was too famous people didn't want to see another 'Bounty' mutiny, is it possible that people wanted a colorful villain and not a character study.

Something was obviously missing that didn't allow the film to take off. But speaking for myself, I enjoyed it a lot, it is a terrific complement to the other two, and a necessary one to have a more global and objective vision of the facts. Sure, some parts are reminiscent of the previous films, like the Cape Horn storm or the arrival in Tahiti, but the performance of Hopkins could carry the film even if it lasted for four hours, and the part with the longboat alone could have made a terrific story.

I said the film assumed that we saw the first two, this is why it could have worked better had it focused on the parts that weren't well covered by them, if it dealt with the Pitcairn expedition like it did with the trip to Timor, or the portrayal of Tahitians (more subtle than their depiction as all-smiling garland-carrying natives). Maybe "The Bounty" had more to show than it actually did, but at least, it gave Bligh the break he deserved since half a century.

Charles Laughton steals the show..., 16 June 2017

To put it simply, Frank Lloyd's "Mutiny on the Bounty" has the word 'classic' stamped in every inch of celluloid. In 1935, it was the kind of escapist entertainment no viewer would refuse, no critic would dare to minimize, it set the tones of swash buckling adventures, by MGM and other studios… but a few of them to raise above. You would indeed expect a film from 1935 to have aged a little, it aged even by the standards of 1962 when Lewis Milestone directed the remake, but the two films haven't aged the same and there are many aspects where 1935 Best Picture winner is actually superior.

But before unveiling the strength and flaws of the first movie made about one of the most famous mutinies in history (if not the most), let's just examine what makes the story so cinematically appealing. Beyond the usual archetypes of the costume dramas and adventurous overseas journeys, with their share of brutish seamen, romantic heroes and insular paradises whose female natives welcome visitors with garland of flowers and tempting hips, there's –on the field of storytelling' a clear and captivating antagonism. There are basically two images instantly associated with the Bounty: Tahiti and its Christopher-Columbus like mission involving a mysterious breadfruit and the rivalry between Captain Bligh and… "Mister Christian!" (shouted with Laughton's fiery voice).

One who had a mild interest in the story knows that it's not black-and-white, Bligh was an authoritarian, by the book, ruler who never accepted his orders to be discussed, and Christian was an idealistic young officer who didn't approve Bligh's overuse of flogging as means of punishment. But who in 1935 asked for complexity and cared to discuss the flogging (a myth according to history), those were the glorious days where the casting had to includes a comic relief played by Herbert Mundin, and a wise drunkard played by Dudlee Dinges, from their very introduction, you know there won't be much room for subtlety. There will have to be reasons to justify these big and angry close-ups on the sailors, to see Christian boiling from inside and making the mutiny not just inevitable, but believable… and acceptable.

The 1935 film then takes an angle that couldn't have been less ambiguous: Bligh is the villain (he was the nineteenth entry in the American Film Institute's Top 50) and Christian is the romantic hero. Charles Laughton is obviously having fun adding an extra-sinister dimension to his Bligh, with these bushy eyebrows and sneaky look, he can only appear accidentally sympathetic when Gable, more dashing and handsome than ever, gets too perfect for our cynical modern taste. This is one of the paradoxes of the movie, it insists so much on making Bligh evil that it actually does a disservice to everyone else, heroes included.

It all comes down to Bligh being a sadistic monster, flogging a dead man or keelhauling one to his death and showing not a bit or sympathy toward any of his subordinates. Meanwhile, Christian and Bryam (Franchet Tone) are the noble carriers of the flag of justice, they're young (actually, Bligh wasn't that old), they're handsome, and since they're right from the start, they don't provide the same kind of genuine excitement when they're on screen. Worse, they inherited from the most cringe-worthy romantic interludes ever, with girls who've been probably cast for their ability to maintain a dazed enamored smile for more than five minutes… not to mention the Chief whose phony accent doesn't fool anyone.

The Tahitian parts makes the mutiny believable, after having lived five months in paradise (the Hays Code prevents any mention of… fooling around) the men have to undergo an even more angry and severe Bligh. But the writers again try too hard, Bligh, instead of maintaining his men in good spirit, cut their ration of water (because the plants needed more), he accuses Christian of stealing and many other provocation. The mutiny could just had been a case of sailors who wanted to get back to their island because the taste of idleness was just too good to endure Bligh more months. Bligh had to be made a bag guy in a way that felt too forced for believability, but then, just when I thought the film was slipping, something happened… a little detail was explored, one that even the 1962 version overlooked.

When you look at the real story of the Bounty, there's this magnificent subplot about Bligh leading 18 men on an overcrowded ship (seven meters long) to the island of Timor (3600 miles away), an exploit even by today's standards. That episode says a lot about Bligh's determination, leadership and sailing abilities. Laughton is given his one redeeming moment, as the man who beats the sea itself. It is a credit to the writers to have allowed this to be shown. And when the story cuts to Fletcher and Bryam and their mundane little Tahitian life, the excitement is gone again, and Gable never seems to be in danger anyway, we're somewhat glad for him, but retrospectively, we never pinpoint a moment where his life was in any danger. At least, Blight had that moment.

So, when the film makes a villain out of him again in the final trial, I was perplex, sure it looked like a good ending, with all the message about how to manage people, but anyone who'd read the story of the Bounty know whatever happened to the mutineers after that, proved him right. It doesn't make Bligh right of course but it did call for other more subtle portrayals. 1935 was only the start, and quite a good one, with all the deliberate flaws and accidental bits of genius.

On a side note, it's also the film that convinced the Academy to add the Best Supporting Actor category; the one Franchet Tone's nomination belonged to. There can't be a movie with three leading actors, although technically, they were.

Brando as a so-so Christian but a real-life Bligh did a great disservice to a potential masterpiece..., 16 June 2017

27 years after its glorious predecessor, a new "Mutiny of the Bounty" movie was to be directed by the same MGM studio, one of the most expensive movies of its time if you consider the budget it took to build a size-by-size replica of the iconic ship (and even a smaller one for some particular shots), to shoot the film in Tahiti, in the very spot where the ship set ashore less than two centuries earlier, and to cast Marlon Brando as the romantic Fletcher Christian. To think that it was his casting that undermined the film's release and reception, makes "Mutiny of the Bounty" an authentic cases of failure that shouldn't have happened.

This is a film that benefited from the long experience of its director Lewis Milestone, who made the groundbreaking "All Quiet on the Western Front", it benefited from Trevor Howard who, as Captain Bligh, though older than his character, managed to make him tough and rough but far from the cartoon-version Charles Laughton played in 1935. The film also had the Technicolor visuals, the extras who looked like real seamen, the flogging where you could feel the red stains on the backbones, the Tahitian extras, everything exuded a hint of authenticity, immediately ruined whenever Brando started talking. I'm a fan of Brando, "The Godfather" is my all-time favorite movie and "Bounty" was my first Brando movie but God, I never realized how an actor could be unfit for a role, vocally and visually, until I saw this again, as an adult.

The problem comes from the start when we're introduced to his Christian, he's dressed like a dandy, coming with two women, and never wiping a snobbish smile out of his face. This debonair and seductive attitude worked perfectly in his later film "The Ugly American" but in "Mutiny on the Bounty", it was the most puzzling choice because it made Christian the least likely man to care for Bligh's tyrannical tantrums. So, it has less to do with Brando's acting talent than the characterization, something just rings false or doesn't allow a transition to the obligatory antagonism to be believable. It is very unfortunate because for the most part of the film, the performances of the other actors, especially Richard Harris, do justice to the story.

The film isn't less iconic for all that, like a good wine; it aged fairly well has this classical appeal that doesn't rely all on Brando's performance. Even as the plot advances, Brando seems more at ease in Christian's shoes and one can see he's not acting at all when Tarita has this luscious, magnificent hip dance to seduce him. While the Tahiti part was the weakest point of the 1935 film, in 1962, at a time where audiences were mature enough to enjoy some nudity and sexual allusions, there was no need to cover the fact that the seamen had more than enjoyed their little trip, giving more attenuating circumstances to their mutiny, another pivotal plot point that felt forced in the first film, where Bligh was portrayed as a one-dimensional villain for the most part.

After the mutiny, the two movies diverge dramatically. In the first, we have to admire Bligh's feat that consisted on taking 18 men to the Island of Timor 3600 miles away, Bligh defeated the odds and accomplished a naval exploit, to earn the admiration of any sailor, and that elevated Laughton above his bad guy status. Unfortunately, Bligh remains clean-shaven the whole film, and an ill-thought ellipse shows him directly stating his case in front of a court and being given a sermon he didn't have in real life. Bligh deserved a bit better. But I guess the point was to show the aftermath of the mutiny, in a different light than the romantic tone of the first film. This one has a darker ending for Christian and foresees the tragic fate of the mutineers. A prologue and epilogue were shot to make it more explicit but didn't end up in the actual footage.

Not the wisest choice because the film wasn't too long so it couldn't afford fifteen minutes more (the film is everything but a bore) and knowing that the lack of leadership lead these men to their death (only letting their descendants to live a peaceful life in Pitcairn Islands) gives a credit to the theories stated by Bligh about men needing rules and rulers. And I think any good "Bounty" story should be able to give the credit Bligh deserves, Bligh who seems far from the villainous and cruel depiction he's always associated of, but not far enough. The film still seems entrapped in some mission to make a hero out of Fletcher Christian, which wasn't too difficult for Gable (although he never really risked his neck in the film) but it was too much asking for Brando.

A quick look on the trivia page would have the most afflicting effect, everyone complained about Brando's behavior, the director who didn't even shoot the last scenes, Richard Harris who admired Brando but then wanted to talk to a log rather in his final confrontation, everyone complained about Brando's diva behavior, only equaled by Elizabeth Taylor's Prima Donna caprices in "Cleopatra". "Mutiny on the Bounty" was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and was one of the highest-grossing movies of the year, but it was a commercial failure that marked the beginning of the end for the studio system, the end of Milestone's career and the fading of Brando's stardom, until his come-back in "The Godfather". Quite an irony for a movie that is still enjoyable in its own right.

This is one of these school-cases when a bad casting ruins a film, as if Brando was the real-life Bligh on the set. After watching the film, I'm not surprised that a third version of the story needed to be made, twenty years later. Would they get it right this time?

Snatch (2000)
Reservoir Shaggy-Dogs..., 14 June 2017

"Snatch.", the tale of a stolen diamond, unlicensed boxing games, a promoter with the most peculiar hobby consisting on feeding his pigs with his enemies or debtors and Irish travelers with caravans and accents as impenetrable as the plot that tries to tie all these elements together. Oh, did I forget there's also a little dog that can swallow everything, from a squeaking toy to… a most valuable object. Well, I think this dog is the living metaphor of whatever Guy Ritchie expect from us, viewers: to swallow anything, as long as it is funny. Well, the film is funny actually, with a few outbursts of sheer comedic genius, but it's not as easily digestible as Ritchie's 1998 hit: "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels".

Guy Ritchie has been accused of exercising in style with his second film, but he could also give the Hitchcock answer about style being only another name for self-plagiarism. And he wouldn't be totally wrong because "Snatch." can be looked as a plagiarism in tone and story structure of his 1998 hit film, same assortment of characters with colorful nicknames, same intertwined plots, same use of frenetic editing, slow, fast or stop motions, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones and Tom Ford reprising different roles and a screenplay loaded of one-liners, quirks and wisecracks, though not as memorable as the first. Anyway, accusing Ritchie of the whole "style over substance" shtick isn't just pointless, it's unfair in the way he didn't attend to do anything substantial, his "Snatch." Is as much a joke as "Lock Stock".

But he can't get away with this argument either, not totally. I saw the movie again and found myself amused most of the time, but never really riveted to the point that I would miss nothing from the film. It's like the style of Ritchie didn't allow the movie to bloom by itself, everything was more an excuse for a few throwaway gags and the character were the foils of a deliriously intricate plot. A comedy where the focus is the story can afford slower moments, in the case of Ritchie's moves, it depends on who's on the screen and on that level, there are three characters steal the show.

Vinnie Jones, as Bullet Tooth Tony, provides a monologue that almost equals Dirty Harry's description of a Magnum, and with the same intimidating effect, Tom Ford as the nasty-looking bespectacled Brick Top is quite convincing as someone to make you curse your mother for giving you birth if you ever owed his money and Brad Pitt overplays his mumbling accent as if he was conscious that the whole thing didn't even need to be clear, a stunt that reminded me of Benicio Del Toro in "The Usual Suspects". That his 'Mickey' would make an accent worst than the cockney slang they used is a great running gag by itself, that with his extraordinary punching skills. Not to mention that Brad Pitt looked great, and you could tell, he still had the 'Fight Club' look.

Benicio Del Toro is another asset in the film, making a hilarious entrance as a pseudo Rabbi with an interesting lecture about the Virgin Mary… wait a minute, black-clad men walking together talking about 'Virgin'? A feeling of déjà-vu deepens. Anyway, Del Toro was great as Frank Four Fingers but wasted too soon. I guess he had to work for the movie that would earn him the Oscar the same year, the more serious "Traffic". The film has so many great and inventive characters, Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina) or Boris the Blade that not all of them have a real shining moment. Even Statham who has such amazing lines as "Turkish" in his first scenes becomes the passive observer he was in "Lock". Characters seem like the rather interchangeable elements of a plot too sophisticated for its own good. Even the build-up with unlicensed boxing games doesn't lead to a really satisfying resolution.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the film for the most part of it, but thinking about it again, I'm wondering if it's not the sort of experience you can have as well by watching the best parts on Youtube. Ritchie rearranges all the moments like many clips of a parody series, and while it worked in "Lock, Stock" because it had a common thread, a major story-line, even "Reservoir Dogs" had a plot. In "Snatch." Everyone is important enough for the story but not enough so we care, it's funny and entertaining, but the film lacks structure. It is possible that Ritchie wanted to replicate his formula, with an all-American cast, and that was enough a novelty but maybe the detractors wished it was less than a replica, and more a Desert. Point. Eagle. Type of film.

Some kind of a bloody joke..., 14 June 2017

"Shotguns? What, like guns that fire shot?" "Oh, you must be the brain of the operation!" "What d'you do when you're not buying stereos, Nick? Finance revolutions?

"Sorry, didn't know your father." "Never mind son, you just might meet him if you carry on like that." And I could go on and on, mentioning an epiphora-driven monologue involving the act of killing a Greek whose stupidity might be the one saving grace or some snarky remark about Liberia's deficit in a skyrocket. It all comes down to one observation, if there is one deficit Guy Ritchie's "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" doesn't suffer from, is in one-liners. If anything, this is a film that made me aware, in my late teen years, of something called… a screenplay. This is the work of a talented screenwriter, there's no doubt about that.

Now, how about the director's perspective? And how about my appreciation, now that I'm twice the age I was when I first saw it? Well, the film still got it, as far as my enjoyment is concerned, but there are a few buts (and I'm not talking of marijuana cigarette butts or the lovely one belonging to that stripper's who caught the attention of Barry the Baptist, before assigning two Northern slobs some theft job involving the two titular barrels).

So, "but", I was saying.

I don't know if "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" is more about revealing the talent of a British director making his spectacular and stylish debut, or if it more consolidates the status of an American director as the most defining and influential director of his generation, quite a stunt for someone in his mid-30's. While it is obvious that Ritchie has a great way with words and his screenplay features one of the highest ratio of one-liners per minute from any film, it was still Tarantino who exposed that new vision of the underground world, one that would never be afraid to be offensive and raunchy if laughs were the pay-off.

It was easier to embrace that form of entertainment once it was done, so let's give QT the credit he deserves and get back to Ritchie. Indeed, it would be unfair to associate his 1998 hit film only to the influence of Tarantino, you can actually spot many influences that cover a wide range of cinematic genre and directors, you have a nod to Sergio Leone's "For a Few Dollars More", Zorba, you have smart-ass lines like the kind Groucho Marx would deliver, and in fact, the whole movie that seems like a kaleidoscope of all the archetypes nourished from years of movies, poker-games, drug trafficking, caper story, shaggy dog stories and other mix-ups, except that Ritchie used to direct ads' clips.

This might be the one part where he diverges from Tarantino, one started from scratch, mostly through imitating other directors, Ritchie had his own style. And there are instances where you can tell the film is directed like a video clip, or an ad.

"Lock, Stock" is like a big, boisterous, joke whose only purpose is to entertain, and I respect that, because entertainment is Guy's strongest suit. He doesn't even need a main protagonist, the leading quartet, Eddie, Tom, Soap and Bacon, whose most notable presence is Jason Statham and to a lesser extent Tom Flemyng (but to play fair with the cast, let's mention Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher), these guys are all down-on-their-luck outcasts, with one toe in the criminal world, and another in traffics, so benign it would never raise the attention of Scotland Yard. These guys are so 'inoffensive' really that they're not even affected by the bloody chain of events they caused.

And the whole story relies on the four protagonists' luck when it comes to their mission about getting the money to pay for a debt Harry Hatchet (PH Moriarty), or avoiding to get their fingers cut off by Barry the Baptist (Lenny McLean), or cross the path of Big Chris, convincingly played by former soccer player Vinnie Jones. It is very ironic that the main concerned one don't ever realize what has happened, and no less ironic that Jason Statham, the ultimate tough guy isn't given enough occasion to be the celebrated bad-ass he is. The film is like a private joke between Ritchie and the audience, because what matters is what we see, who cares about the rest. We don't even see the blood, which is a nice touch that keeps this film in a sort of jolly friendly mood.

Ritchie knows we're familiar with all these archetypes and what he does is providing a little twist, never wasting a moment for a wisecrack and a smart-ass line, it's almost a signature in his films. And it works, because he's like Tarantino, he belongs to the generation of directors influenced by other directors but who demonstrate how much of fans they are by adding a touch of modernity, and this modernity is made of close-ups, slow-mo, shootouts, every trope of the action genre. You can call it "exercise in style", the term isn't to be used negatively, it's got style, it's fun, energetic and crazy. And it's got a terrific casting, too, but it's mostly for Lenny McLean who died shortly after the film and Vinnie Jones that the film works,, honorable mention too for Van Blackwood who with Nick the Greek, form a nice duo.

This is a film that shows a new face for British movies, one that comes right after "Trainspotting", "The Full Monty", a popular British type of movies that completes the work of Tarantino. It's a product of its era that encapsulates the level of creativity reached by directors who didn't have much budget, really one of the gems of the 90's.

Hot Shots! (1991)
Not as good as I remembered..., 14 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Maybe the passing of time had an effect on me but I'm not sure I would praise "Hot Shots!" like my 16-year old counterpart did when he first saw it. This is not the first time my enthusiasm fades over the years, I had the same reaction with "Spaceballs" recently… but I still enjoyed "Top Secret!" and "The Naked Gun". So, I feel quite fair and if I list the ten reasons why I didn't enjoy "Hot Shots!".

1- Charlie Sheen can't carry a whole movie, let alone a comedy, there is just something blank and 'soulless' (I stole that line from Homer Simpson) in this actor's eyes that having a whole film depending on it isn't the biggest favor you're doing it. A Leslie Nielsen, he's not, but even when compared to Val Kilmer, Todd Hayes or Bill Pullman, he fails to equal them as the straight-guy-but-not-too-much-so-he-can-be-funny. He even managed to ruin the "Nine Weeks and Half" moment. To his defense, he's not helped by the rest of the cast that looks as bored as he is, except for Lloyd Bridges.

2- And they even managed to "overuse" Lloyd Bridges and his war wounds jokes.

3- Now that I think about it, Cary Elwes might have been an interesting Topper Harley, he proved his ability for comedy in "The Princess Bride".

4- The film has the same problem than "Spaceballs" actually, it explores a type of material that is already a matter of not to be taken seriously, "Top Gun" was already an unintentionally funny movie so trying to provoke intentional laughs with elements that make fun of things that are funny without trying is like ordering sushi just because you need rice. The purpose of a parody movie is to work on unpredictability, to provide a twist on the usual tropes, that's why "Naked Gun" was good, it didn't target a specific movie, it was about a genre. But "Hot Shots!" is so busy parodying all the "Top Gun" and US. Navy movies it was unchained to a limiting premise.

5- It is badly edited. And I don't care if a parody, it's still a movie, and some shots were rather cheap looking. The part where Valeria Golino makes a few acrobatic moves before landing on the horse shows such an obvious cut. Why should that be intentional? It's funnier if it feels like she did that stunt.

Halfway through this review, I feel the need to mention that some parts were still hilarious, like the "Dances With Wolves" helium moment, the running-gag involving the Chihuahua, and the whole set-up before the obligatory death of one of the partners. In fact, the whole "Deadmeat" part has that energy and spice it lacked through the film. The "Only You" part was cute but nothing more. Now, to the list.

6- The plot is unclear and unfocused. I know that a plot shouldn't matter in this specific brand of humor but only in the case where we're so carried away by the laughs that the plot is pointless. "Hot Shots!" is structured around the trauma of Topper, some secret mission in Iraq, and another scheme lead by the Kevin Dunn's character, which is rather under-cooked.

7- Too many slow moments and too many jokes falling flat, by that I mean that they mostly feel like smirk worthy filler. The jokes treating jet planes like cars were already retreads of some hilarious gags from "Airplane!", a soldier sounding the bugle and being instantly trampled (ha-ha), the female pilot telling Topper he's a great guy, "so you are" (how, original) and "the drink is on the house" followed by masses of people invading the place, coming out of nowhere. Tex Avery did a better job by making everyone drink on the roof. Rather warm humor for a film called "Hot Shots!".

8- The other ZAZ film of the same year, the sequel of "The Naked Gun" was much funnier so they still got it after all.

9- In the 90's, parody wasn't exactly the it thing and movies like "Wayne's World" have proved that it takes more than mocking a previously viewed material to garner people's laughs, so, yes, there is something old-fashioned in "Hot Shots!", something that was fresh in the 80's but stopped to be at the 90's, it's just slightly better than the Leslie Nielsen flops of the late 90's, but it was announcing that disastrous trend.

10- Finally, the most embarrassing moment, the most cringe-worthy, is the portrayal of Arabs. Yeah, you wouldn't care because you're part of the 'winning team', but in today's context, this has aged badly and dangerously. I don't mean Arabs being the bad guys, Germans aren't exactly boy scouts in "Die Hard", but they're marginalized group enough not to be both mocked and demonized. Having these pilots named "Hummus", "Baklava" and speaking gibberish like Couscous, Chich Kebab and having the guts to mix it with "Allah Akbar" made me wonder if the ZAZ weren't a bit anti-Arabs after all. I don't know, just thinking of the "Naked Gun" opening scene deepened that certitude.

Laughs are supposed to be cathartic, if the film mocks the patriotic undertones of some Navy movies, it mocks the 'bad guys' with so much more contempt and offensiveness that you start taking it seriously after all. I know Saddam was the bad guy, I know the film was probably released at the midst of the Gulf War, and the "dream became reality" a few years after, look at what's became of Iraq now that the Public Enemy n°1 is gone.

I want a parody or a comedy to make me chill, not to make me realize how one-sided and twisted the world is. The film ends with a song I love: "Dream Love", well, I have a dream when that never-ending cycle with Arabs as Hollywood or media bad guys will come to an end.

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