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Should've been less "Pulp Fiction" and more "Man Bites Dog" ..., 16 April 2014

A long dolly shot in a central hallway, loud footsteps follow a suspenseful music while the subjective camera gets closer to a targeted door. Like a first knock-knock joke, we can see from the peephole, two men, a big one, and a short, younger one stand and a big smile from the big guy announces the sarcastic tone of "Hors Service", a warning that what comes after shall not be taken too seriously.

Our visitors pass as Jehovah witnesses although a quick glance would make you wonder if they really have the 'working face'. The bigger one, Marchand, played by Dieudonné, talks with these illuminated eyes, "Jehovah is coming", big deal, the man politely asks them to get the hell out before he releases his dog, naturally, while he plays the big shot, he doesn't have time to think about the danger. Marchand asks his rookie, ironically named 'M'sieur!' ("Sir") to get some papers, a tool to distract your target ("anyone would take anything you give him") and bang! Bang! The mutt is silenced, and it's time now to bark about business, where's the diskette? "God they came for the diskette", the guy understands he's in a (clearing throat) uncomfortable situation.

"It's in the diskette box!", which sounds logical, as Marchand points out, after all, where else would you hide a diskette? Not that it really matters what's in the damn diskette, they could have as well asked about a box, a notebook or a CD, but for obvious reasons, they weren't looking for a briefcase… yeah, you see where I'm coming from. Be patient, I'm getting to it. Anyway, the delight from that scene is to watch Dieudonné's fantastic performance as he portrays a veteran killer who explains the ropes to the newcomer making his bones in his first 'deadly' mission but don't take it as a spoiler, a lot of people die in the film.

Marchand is as confident and cynical as a fan of the underground-gangster movie genre would love, he's intimidating without trying too hard, much more he's competent in his job and succeeds to make it look like an ordinary 9 to 5 occupation. Well, time to cut off the suspense, anyone with the required level of cinematic knowledge would guess from which film the director Jean-Paul Lillenfeld took his inspiration, but which aspiring film-maker didn't in the late 90's and early 2000's. "Hors Service" is perhaps the most blatant case of Frenchisation of Tarantino's landmark "Pulp Fiction", tone and style, and the beginning was doomed to suffer from the inevitable comparison.

The point is that it doesn't affect much the quality of the film, which is quite uneven, as I said for other movies, you know it's not a good thing when one of the best scenes comes right in the beginning. I must concede though that in 70% of the time, it's pure writing gold, the first scene is well-written, many interactions between Marchand's colleagues are hilarious, especially when they argue about the most incongruous stuff such as pastry, a TV series or a lousy Tamagoshi. The characterization is well-done and this is a credit to the wonderful performances of François Berland as Francis' whipping dog of Francis is the leader, played like a suave and distinguished James Bond villain by Lambert Wilson.

The film had all the ingredients, and had probably a higher motivation than being a Tarantino ersatz. I guess the plot is the problem, despite all the black comedy stuff, it's a bit timid when you compare it to another masterpiece of the same genre: "Man Bites Dog", which also featured men entering at people's houses to kill them, but Jean-Paul Lillenfeld (to name him) let the connection of "Pulp Fiction" too obvious for a plot that asked for a darkness on the same vein than "Dog". It starts when Marchand's wife tells him that she knows the truth about his job, all right, he admits he's not a shoes' salesman (priceless gag, by the way) she gets hysterical, but he 'retorts' to one slap too many by knocking her out.

Bad luck, she can't wake up, double bad luck, she was –after all these years of expectancy- pregnant, and last but not least whenever he becomes violent, she has a reaction that threatens her health, which leads to the conclusion that he must retire (hence the title), which means that he knows too many secrets, that his 'friends' will come at him and he must get rid of his colleagues, but not with his own means, his redemption echoes Jules' in "Pulp Fiction" but it comes too early, Marchand becomes a good guy too quickly, while we wanted to see him more in action, well I wanted it at least … and the woman he's finally spared was so dumb looking I wondered if he wasn't tempted to kill her.

The plot is thin despite some good dialogs and a few great gags, which, along with the actors' performances, save the film. Another flaw is the overuse of 'techno' music that are totally unnecessary, and even distracting at times while a rather bucolic theme and more restrained directing could have created a more interesting contrast. But "HS" is a fan's film, and a first feature film, as an aspiring film-maker myself, I understand this tendency we have to emulate our idols, but sometimes, a movie should try to exist on its own and to provide something more memorable. All the critics compared the film to "Pulp Fiction", a pity because despite the first scene, the film gets more and more independent, style and tone again.

And naturally, I can't conclude the review without regretting all the controversy that lead Dieudonné to be be blacklisted by Cinema's establishment, his acting talent has never been equaled by an humorist, and it surely is a great loss for French cinema … but maybe French cinema didn't deserve him, after all.

Love, as blind and untimely, as death ..., 16 April 2014

"Heart and Souls" doesn't lie about its content: it has a heart, full of the sweetest and deepest forms of love, and it's about souls, four to be precise. Indeed, labeling this sparkling quartet from the 50's as ghosts would've been wrong. And except during some transitional moments where they have that ghostly 'quality', during the rest of the film, they're always seen with the hero, played by Robert Downey Jr.

Maybe I'm going too fast, but I know anyone reading this review has already seen this film, and know what the plot is about. Four ill-fated persons who, in 1959, died in a bus accident at the same moment a boy was born, which made them entwined to him for an indefinite period of time. Charles Grodin is Harrison, a wannabe-singer whose stage fright caused him to leave the audition before even uttering a word. Alfre Woodward is Penny, single mother and night worker. Tom Sizemore is Milo, a two-bit thief failing to take stamp-collections, with high sentimental value, back from his contractor. Finally, Kyra Sedgwick is Julia, a pretty waitress who let the love of her life whose incapability to make up her mind caused her proposing lover to leave the restaurant.

Visibly, they all took the same bus at the wrong moment, Harrison would have missed the bus had he tried to sing and Julia would have probably gone with her soon-to-be husband if she said yes while trying to get back to him caused her demise. As for Milo, the last thing he heard was "you stink" from the young collection's own. Penny only got loving hugs from her kids … which is only fair, since she's the only one who would have probably died anyway. But there's something particularly efficient yet simple in Ron Underwood's movie, it's the way these characters are carefully and subtly exposed, granted the subplots aren't revolutionary, at least when the accident happens, we know about their history, who they are, and their death is even sadder because it comes before their lives would come full circle.

But that's what death is, it's as blind and untimely as love. But this is not a film to make you just cry, in one of these Capraesque strikes of fate, they are not sucked up to the sky, like the driver (David Paymer) whose naughty eyes rhymed with collective demise, instead, the four 'souls' join the newborn Thomas, born in a car nearby and this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One must wonder how come they don't think about their former lives, but we meet them again when Thomas is still a baby, so they had time to resign to their fates, and at least, they had a cute little boy as company. Except that it doesn't turn well for the boy, he looks like an autistic kid with four imaginary friends, going at the races for Milo (why would a ghost need money anyway) or dancing in the toilet with his friends.

Yes, that part of the film asks a few disturbing questions. Wouldn't they adults be aware that this attitude would cause the kid's trouble? And to make it worse, I'm not sure they took the right approach anyway when they left him. You know, you remember movies for a particular scene, well, imagine if Dorothy's friends let her alone in the forest, how traumatic it would've been. And the four souls leave the poor boy alone, forever… I understand it was to protect him, but they could have handled it more tactfully, I imagine how hard it would've been for poor Thomas to lose the friends who've always been there for years and years. This is quite a heart-wrenching scene, difficult to watch, but as Milo said "life is tough" … thankfully, it cuts immediately to a young sun-glasses wearing Thomas, played by Robert Downey Jr.

The contrast is extraordinary, we understand the boy has grown more cynical and disillusioned and the 'ghost' episode has probably something to do with him.

Yet the four friends never left Thomas, followed him everywhere, they still act the same, and I wonder where were they when Thomas discovered sex, whether manual or mutual … well, I don't want to know. The film is meant like a fairy-tale and such considerations are needless, otherwise, why wouldn't they be a real criminal among the four, even Milo is more of 'Disney' bad bot. Later they learn they all have an unfinished job, and have to make up for their past mistakes. But it's too late when they're finally explained why they were kept on Earth. Anyway, the bus driver, who's got one hell of a debt toward them, give them one day to finish their business. No they have one day to convince Thomas to help them, talk about short time … this is where the story picks up, and Downey Jr. blooms on the screen.

He proves to have a real talent of mimicry when the ghosts take possession of is body, which will help them to accomplish their deeds. Whether mimicking the macho, the singer, the seductive girl and the mother who won't take any attitude, Downey is priceless and elevates the film to a comedic level that makes us forget its sadness. The whole film is an emotional switch between laughs and tears, it's one 'you'll laugh, you'll cry' moments but handled so tactfully, without any over ambitions that when the last soul leaves the world, with a sympathetic twist at the end, you know you've spent a nice moment and all you want is to be with those you love and tell them you love them. It's as sympathetic as the sight of five people playing "Walk like a Man" on the street.

It isn't "Ghost" but it humbly manages to find its own feel-good tone, one criticism though is that the film should've be called "Hearts and Souls"

Better as a historical document than a film ..., 16 April 2014

Besides victory and its subsequent prestige, one of the many privileges the winners get is the participation to the process of History writing. Naturally, it doesn't mean that this writing would be made of lies, but sometimes, we can lie by omission … there must be a reason why the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagazaki doesn't get the same emotional coverage than the Holocaust, or talking the bombing of Dresde or Cologne or any German town, seems indecent. Naturally, out of all the three Axis countries, Germany will pay the war's biggest price and carry forever the seal of infamy.

And this is why, even today, it's still embarrassing or discomforting to talk about the suffering of the German people. They started the war, after all, so in a way, they had it coming, and who'd cry on people who were so blinded they let a man like Hitler take the power. Of course, it takes to know a minimum about history to understand that there are fifty shades of gray in these black and white images, and that a poor German grandmother still has less blood in her hands than the pilot of the Enola Gay. But that's the essence of war, it is written by winners, and this is why, "Germany: Year Zero" is not a film, it's a historical document.

Its historical significance lies on the simple fact that the film is shot in 1947, when Germany was still inhabited by people who lived the War, where kids were still young enough to remember the Soviets coming to Berlin, where Hitler's voice still resonated in people's mind. Germany was slowly recovering from the pleas of World War II, the Nazi's officers were all hanged, some nostalgic kept a low profile, no doubt that Germany was at her lowest level, and an Italian director, Roberto Rosselini decided to show that historical sequence for posterity, as a part of his Post-War trilogy. I don't know if Italy being an Ally to Germany inspired this sympathy, but I can only applaud the gutsy aspect of the project.

"Germany: Year Zero" focuses on a little boy, named Edmund, and in the purest Neo-realist tradition, we're invited to follow a kid's journey within the ruins of a devastated Berlin, trying to find ways to nourish his impoverished family. And as we follow him, we realize that the greatest heals are the moral ones, those that can't be sealed like that, women tempted to prostitute themselves, impotent men condemned to be a burden for their family, young kids forced to steal, to smuggle food, young girls to exchange a few touching and kissing for cigarettes, an ex-soldier hiding not to be enrolled with the police and so-on and so forth … yet the most painful character's arc is for the little Edmund. As usual for Neo-Realism, kids represent the innocent present corrupted by the corrupting effects of the past on the future.

Edmund looks like one of these Hitlerian youth pictures, he's 13 but sounds younger, he's obviously a good kid, who hasn't been brainwashed by Nazi propaganda, but his ineptitude to read between the adult lines and to understand the lies and the cynicism will lead him to devastating decisions. And this is the story, Rosselini tells us, not Germany, but a part of Germany's soul lost by the War, whose effects are still significant even if the swastika is history. The film shows us another facet of war, it isn't over when it's over, its effects and damages last, and we can almost talk about a sacrificed generation. Those who fought died, those who lived will suffer, and when the baby-boomers will grow old, they'll understand why the elder say "a good war, that would teach you".

And after watching "Germany: Year Zero", I was glad I didn't have to go through that nightmare to understand the value of life. But I confess I didn't need the story for that, seeing the characters surrounding Edmund was enough. This is why, I'm asking myself if we, movie lovers, feel forced to love a film just for the subject it tackles. I will never go as far as saying that it is a bad movie, I must say the story of Edmund didn't leave me quite an impression, I mean, I felt sorrier for German people than Edmund. And I almost feel guilty for that, I'm like for once that a filmmaker decides to focus on a post-war Germany " It's not that I wanted to love the film, I thought I would love it, I loved "Bicycle Thieves" and much more "Sciuscia" but "Germany: Year Zero" left me cold.

I know the film is supposed to show a child lose his innocence, being a victim of desolation and the destruction of all the values that brandished the German glad higher than any European culture, but I couldn't find any difference between Edmund from the beginning and Edmund from the ending. The film is supposed to be dark, I give you that, but how about showing a truly enthusiastic kid in the beginning, eager to make money from black market, and then palpable reactions from all the hardship he endured, in other words: the kid wasn't a good actor or lacked some direction from Rosselini to make his character's arc believable.

"But neo-realism often employs amateurs actors", well, the main protagonist in "Bicycle Thieves" was an amateur, how about the performance of the child who played his son, or the other child in "Sciuscia". Yes, this is coming from someone who love Italian neo-realistic period and its influence on the 50's New Wave, this artistic wave is responsible for Fellini's greatest work. but these are movies about characters, it's all about hooking your heart on another one, no matter how flawed he or she is. But here, it's like Rosselini took for granted that because we're watching a child, it will win our sympathy.

Max Von Sydow as the 'Exorcised' ..., 2 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Hour of the Wolf" refers to that particular moment between night and day where sleep is at its deepest, where most dreams -consequently nightmares- gets the realest feeling, where most people die and are born, where we're at the most fragile and vulnerable state. In other words, it is a fascinating accumulation of superlatives with such creepy undertones, it would've been impossible for an explorer of the human condition like Ingmar Bergman not to tackle it.

And to illustrate the eeriness of the titular notion, Bergman translates into a mysterious pathology that took possession of a tortured artist's soul; a painter named Johan Borg and played by Max Von Sydow. The film is based on the fictional notes taken before his death (or disappearance?) and revealed in front of the camera by his widow (?), Alma, played by Liv Ullman. The two actors star again in a Bergmanian film in the same year than "Shame", Bergman's anti-war pamphlet but this is one more obscure and puzzling film, even by Bergman's standards.

In fact, the film made me realize that despite the heavy psychological material carried by most Bergman movies, they're pretty much straight-forward about their subject and at the end, it's always a part of our human condition that is revealed to us, mirrored by our relationship with time, with God, with the other. It's like each Bergman's movie plays like a piece of puzzle that would constitute a magnificent and intelligent study of the human soul. But "The Hour of the Wolf" is one of these pieces of the puzzle you don't know where to put.

This is not to separate the from Bergman's other works, it's his first and –I guess- only take on supernatural and surrealistic material, and the result is aesthetically nightmarish and conveys the horror inhabiting the Johan's soul, but Bergman, as inaccessible as he is, always found a way to guide us to his characters, even at the price of a second viewing. I wanted to understand what was going into Johan's mind, was that sickness? Hallucinations? In a way, Alma mirrors these very feelings and like her, we want to know more about him.

Some shadows of answers come when she sneaks into his diary, the reading episodes provide the first hints: one creepy dream involving a kid trying to kill him and an idyll with a girl named Vogler and played by Ingrid Thullin. Shot in high contrast and with a pretty furious editing, the kid's killing and drowning is one of the most disturbing sequences I've ever seen, my guess is that it supposed to evoke the repression of some childhood episodes, and maybe the child Johan kills is himself, the clue comes from his revelation of a childhood trauma later to Alma.

The Vogler episode is echoed during a dinner where the couple meets a group of rich and eccentric slobs to the limits of perversity bourgeois (lead by Erland Josephson). They all seem to know about Max' affair. They're obnoxious, uneducated, aggressive, one of the lady literally jumps at Johans, Josephson's wife implies that they try to take him from his wife, they're the closest players to the antagonists, and leave us a sentiment of total discomfort, like these creepy nightmares where we don't know where we are but can't wait to get the hell out of it.

I guess "The Hour of the Wolf" encapsulates this trapped feeling and impossibility to escape from a situation without getting through it, it's probably these repressed feelings that come back to the surface to better torture us, maybe it's a surrealistic definition of guilt, guilt from one man's weakness. Which might explain that Johan decided to isolate himself from the world in the remote house leaving a peaceful and dull life with Alma, while he's lived quite a torturous and much more cinematically appealing life?

And maybe the third act is the price he finally paid by not being totally sincere with his wife. It's made of a whole long sequence where they search Max in the forest, while he's in the castle and must play some twisted and pervert games, nudity, make-up, crows, all the most unsettling archetypes of nightmares are used … and at the end, nothing but absence, absence of Max, of explanations … "The Hour of the Wolf" leaves many interrogations, and so does the film. Right now, I'm still having this 'what the hell did I see' expression I had when it ended.

I certainly wouldn't be a fan of Bergman if I had seen this first, but because I'm a fan, I try to see the film with more magnanimous eyes. I can accept the absence of definite answers and the way Bergman drowns his work into his own creativity, my take is that Bergman invites us to embrace these moments where we're directly haunted by our own demons, where we must face the true facet of our personality, indeed when the nightmare gets its realest feeling, perhaps the closest moment in life when it looks like a nightmare.

"The Hour of the Wolf" is certainly the closest Bergman's film to a nightmare and I wonder if the deliberate noises he made at the beginning of the film was made to reassure us that we were only watching a film, as to insists that no matter how creepy this stuff is, it's still the product of one's imagination. I guess I prefer Bergman when he approaches our reality, but even the way we handle our reality is conditioned by our subconscious, and all the feelings we try to repress. Maybe this is "The Hour of the Wolf", this moment where for some reason; we have good reasons to act irrational.

But I certainly wouldn't recommend it as a first Bergman's film.

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Basic Trash transcended by the film-making Instict ..., 2 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Basically, "Basic Instinct" didn't have a plot, but it had a purpose and it sure knew how to sell it.

The way I see it, on the surface, "Basic Instinct" is like an elegant and sophisticated lady, you know with high heels, a large hat and a cigarette-holder à la Audrey Hepburn, but at the end, you realize that she's nothing but a whore, it's not even about sex, it's about money. Yet for some reason, you can't resist her charm and you're ready to pay the big price. We're part of the same hypocrisy but when our senses are aroused, it's hard to say 'no'.

This is why I believe that the greatest trick "Basic Instinct" ever pulled was to rise above its content, which can objectively be described as basic trash, and make people believe it had a plot, something easily disguised under the soft and silky drapes of a half-glamorous half-Hitchcockian directing, that's the film-making instinct, its one-salvation merit.

Paul Verhooven is not a director renowned for his subtlety, he knows why most people will buy the ticket, and why no less will inevitably buy or rent the VHS, but after all, if you're going to make trash, why not do it with some style? Speaking from my own experience, back in the 90's, I remember "Basic Instinct" was the cinematic incarnation of the forbidden fruit. I was about 15 or 16 when I lamentably avoided eye contact with the VHS vendor, but obviously she knew I hadn't the profile-type of the movie geek. I saw the film waiting for the infamous leg-crossing interrogatory, then for the first sex scene between Michael Douglas and the fittingly named Jeanne Tripplehorn and then my virginal senses culminated with the climactic sex scene… needless to say that I couldn't care less about the plot; I cared for the purpose and its visually educational value, so to speak.

And I guess my own experience works as a perfect defense against the allegiances of manipulative writing- manipulative here doesn't refer to the kind of plots that leads us to believe something before getting us with a 'aha' revelation, but rather the plot that doesn't ruin or elevate the film, no matter what happens - At the end, it's not about Catherine Tramell being the ice-pick killer or not … it's just about a cop, finally succumbing to his most basic impulses, and selling his soul to the devil. It's his presumption of a definite killer's innocence that seals his status as a passive character, but his weakness was the only possible driver for the sex scene. If plot there is, it only serves the purpose.

The plot serves the purpose, not the opposite, indeed, but are you really surprised? What would you expect from a cop who accidentally killed innocent people, who lives alone, who's not bad-looking and who realizes he's the subject of one of the most beautiful women's fascination? -well, because besides being sexy, Sharon Stone is extraordinarily stunning and Verhooven's camera knows how to value it - the investigation, the horrific crime, the whole suspense, it all leads up to one thing : sex, sex and sex, and from the film's perspective: money, money and money. And for us: pleasure, pleasure and pleasure. That's the symbiotic triptych that makes the film works.

Of course, this is not to diminish the cinematic merit of the film. It's easy to see in "Basic Instinct" some elements borrowed from the film-noir genre with Tramell as a modernization of the femme-fatale archetype. On that level, we're literally hooked to Stone's sex-appeal and during the interrogation scene, we can tell that the policemen in the room looks at her like we do, a piece of unreachable woman, a living fantasy; she's rich, she's beautiful, sexy, she has no boundaries when it comes to sex, she loves having new experiences, so many qualities that make her being a potential killer : a chance many of us would take, let alone, a flawed and loose cannon like Douglas' character.

So, as we follow the mystery, the evolution, wondering if she or her lesbian lover or any woman who idolized us in the past committed the crime, we realize that these considerations hardly matter, because at the end, the 'hero' slept with her before the investigation was over. The plot reminds of "Sea of Love" but there are reasons why "Basic Instinct" stood out for posterity (besides the leg-crossing), its Sharon Stone and the way this cloud of false ambiguity never ceases to surround her. But as if it was victim on its own take, it's so ambiguous it never wants to take the chances to reveal us, who done it. Is it a flaw or strength? Again, does the pay-off make the film any less enjoyable?

After 22 years, the film isn't as crude as today's productions. If I was a teen now, I wouldn't probably need to rent the DVD, with the Internet and the globalization of pornography, the standards of fantasies have been raised to infinitesimal summits … and for some reason, it deprives the material from the 'trashy' core that repulsed the critics. We look at it like a movie about a cop being alienated by his own lust, and making the line between crimes, sex and moral thinner and thinner. It's all about these 'basic' instincts, and that look in Sharon Stone's eyes on the iconic poster.

Well, on a basic level, the film works, the directing is smooth and confident, and maintain an atmosphere of eeriness and mystery thanks to Jerry Goldsmith's score, one of the most defining of the 90's, and it launched Stone's career, making her the top-off-the-head star when it comes to define sexiness. So, just like a film of the same year, "The Bodyguard", it's not a great film, but if it managed to enter Pop-Culture providing new defining images of Cinema, well, it certainly achieved something.

Shame (1968)
All is fair in love and war ..., 24 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

War is the ultimate defeat of human civilization, no matter which side you belong to. Sure, some ideologies are harder to embrace than others, some sides harder to root for yet the merit of a good war movie on the field of intelligence is to challenge the obvious thoughts and ask disturbing questions: is the 'good side' morally superior when it comes on the battlefield's level? Is 'wrong' one less worthy of our sympathy?

A war movie is all about challenging some conveniently preconceived notions and on that level, Ingmar Bergman's "Shame", released in 1968 at the pinnacle of the Vietnam War, takes war them to the unusual frame of banal marital routine in order to show the psychological collateral damages of war, on ordinary people. Jan and Eva live in a farmhouse, but as the story goes, we learn they are former musicians, which means they're literate enough to afford sensitivity and respect towards civilization. They probably exiled themselves to an island, driven by the 'Voltarian' will to 'cultivate their garden'; to do what any civilized person would do during a war, getting the hell out of it.

But even though you don't want to come at war, war might come at you. And fates strike the couple when airplanes invade the island, providing a surprising amount of action and violence for a Bergman's film. But this change of pace is crucial to highlight the coming of a time where there's none left for introspection and thinking, when even the most intellectual people have to deal with the principle of reality, with its ugly blindness and heart-breaking neutrality. Well, as a Bergman movie, "Shame" is still a powerful character study, focusing on the evolution of a man and a woman.

Jan, the husband, is detached, he doesn't care about shaving or repairing the telephone since there's not much news to hear, which explain how clueless they are about the war. He's more of a follower and it's extraordinary how a man with the stature of Max Von Sydow is capable to shrink his extraordinary physical stature to play a rather weak character. Liv is more lively, so to speak, she's the no-nonsense woman who waits for the war to be over, before having children. She's the more practical and strong-willed of the couple while Jan is more prone to headaches and states close to a nervous breakdown, he's got to be the one who'll push the couple in its downfall.

We then expect the breaking point, when will it occur during this series of ill-fated events? Jan and Eva are threatened by the liberators, before being arrested by the patriots, and it doesn't matter if I mixed them up. They're accused of treason, put to jail, of course the war is as fictional as one in a secular democracy like Sweden can be but the point is to put the two sides on the same level, and show that maybe the best way not to be a victim of one is not to take side with the other. But neutrality isn't an option although Jan and Eva, out of fear and desperation, undergo the events rather than participate in.

The film features many archetypal moments of war films, mass exodus, fire squads, arrest, torture, propaganda, and instruments of pressure, but I had the feeling these were used by Bergman to set the film while the focus was Jan and Eva's characters arcs. The catalysis came from the third character; a Colonel named Jacobi and played by a restrained and unrecognizable Gunnar Björnstrand. For saving them for deportation, Eva offers her body, and get money in exchange. When she's back, she finds her husband sobbing, and doesn't have one ounce of sympathy. This is perhaps Jan's lowest point, before the ultimate change.

Later, Jacobi is arrested by the enemy and can only buy his freedom but Jan pretends he doesn't have the money (he found on Eva's bed earlier), signing Jacobi's death warrant; in fact, it's Jan himself who executes his rival, reaching his breaking point and definitely leaning the balance of power in his direction. Love disappeared but like only a master of emotions like Bergman could have demonstrated, one of war's defining characteristics is irony. In peace, the couple didn't live happily and despite the genuine love, something in the way Eva addressed Jan showed a bit of contempt, after Jan's 180 degree turn, they fight, they admit their hatred but they stick together as if love became a negligible entity.

The film offers a fascinating character study on the devastating effects war have on civilians' minds, a mix of maturity and degeneration, something that was echoed in the famous shot from "Persona" where Alma, Liv Ullman, an actress who resigned to silence, kept staring to the famous image of the burning monk, how could she live in a world that allowed such barbarity to happen. "Shame" offers a continuation to that questioning by reminding us that we're animals before human and our survival instinct will command our realest reactions. It's only when threatened by boiling water that Ullman spoke in "Persona", it's only when threatened by war, that Jan and Eva acted according to the core of their nature.

So, whether you're a fan of Bergman or war movies, this is a film that will disconcert you first, then grab your heart and hook it to the condition of Jan and Eva, who can be anyone of us. And in the light of today's events, where wars became common practice, we ought to wonder how we'd react when confronted to such ugly realities, when sometimes; there isn't time to think about life, because one of the basic aspects of life is to maintain it and for that, you've got to make the best out of things. How will our shaken principles stand … probably somewhere that'll lead to the film's title.

He said the first name, they didn't say their last word ..., 24 March 2014

What "Le Prénom" ("The First Name") accomplished was a miracle: it restored my faith on French comedy.

Indeed, just when I thought that they were forever condemned to rely their success on simplistic and childish plots compensated with star-studded cast, or some more or less abuse of that parodist humor mostly inspired from TV. Alexandre de La Patellière's film reminds us that even in our cynical Internet days, it was possible to make people laugh with delightful dialogues and realistic human generation, with the perfect cocktail of gentleness and cynicism, something I didn't think was possible since "Le Diner de Cons".

And it's true that "Le Prénom" is really the descendant of Francis Veber's masterpiece and not just on its excellent sophistication that never patronizes the spectator. On the form too, there are similarities worth to be noticed: both movies are based on popular plays, "The Birdcage" was another example of successful adaptation from stage to the big screen. The movie perfectly combines a respect of the unity of time, place and plot, with a delightful premise: a friendly dinner in upper-class Parisian house that turns sour when one of the guest revealed the name he decided to give to his future son, shattering instantly the harmony and friendship between a memorable gallery of characters.

Vincent (Patrick Bruel in a very interesting and nuanced performance) is Vincent, the brother of Babou (Elizabeth) played by the late Valerie Benguigi, a modest teacher married to a literature professor, Pierre, played by Charles Berling. Joining them is a meek, effeminate and non-confrontational musician, Claude, played by Guillaume de Tonquédec and Anna (Judith El Zein) as Vincent's pregnant wife, carrying in her womb the roots of the discord. Five characters, that's enough to set-up one of the funniest comedies of the last years. Both Guillaume de Tonquédec and Valérie Ben Guigui won the César for Best Supporting role, and the only bit of sadness conveyed by the film is Benguigui's untimely passing, at the age of 47.

(Indeed, It's impossible not to think of that sad loss for French Cinéma while watching "Le Prénom" and I'm glad she won the César, as a tribute to an immense talent that will be sadly missed. She left Cinema with a poignant and funny performance that will be remembered in the years to come) Now how about that first-name that will ignite the fire of discord and misunderstanding? Although it's very tempting but I won't give it away, out of respect for the screenplay and because one of the first delights is to play that game with Vincent, when he challenges to guess the name he picked for his son. It's not an unknown name, which makes the exercise even more suspenseful and once you know it, you understand why it was so polemical. I wondered for months what was that was mysterious name and how could it provoke a clash, I'm glad I didn't have a clue till the day I saw the film. And yes, they couldn't have come up with a worse name.

But don't worry, the film isn't centered only on the names' subject, it's just a starter to what will turn into something as chaotic as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" where all the guests will have to say what they truly think and get rid of the whole social hypocrisy. And this is one of the aspects that make "Le Prénom" such a great comedy, it's a clever social commentary on the behavior of French elite, and the way their interactions, their speech mannerism or body language betray their political beliefs and their true feelings about so-called friends.

It's a reminder of the way sometimes, conflicts can have a sane effect by luring us to reveal the most sincere part of ourselves, and what more eloquent than the way we name people we love to speak about us. I, myself, am tired with people in my country, who gave their children name that sound foreign because they know that today, having an Arabic name can be a handicap, for me these people are either accomplice of the system, acknowledging the very hate their people inspire, and be part of it, driven by a form of unconscious cowardice. I could relate to a story like that, and I'm sure I can get excitable when it comes to such subjects.

So, behind the funny surface, "Le Prénom" is an extremely intelligent movie and deep in the way it tackles social interactions, much more when they touch family and friendship. There'll always be someone who'll be taken for what he is not and a simple sentence, one too much, can work like a wake-up call. And just when you think, you pointed your finger on someone's flaw, you realize you're not beyond criticism either, and this is the main lesson of "Le Prénom", it's about understanding each other, and respecting both people's choices and opinions, without being too wrapped up in one's egos.

And at the end, the battle of egos turn into a recognition of each one's plea, and what starts like a comedy end like a great lesson about humility. Yet the film doesn't conclude on a serious note, and the ending is the perfect punch line to it. When it ended, I found every bit of the film most satisfying, tasting like a good wine that thankfully never went too sour. And as I said, as an aspiring screenwriter, I wish I could come up with a film half that good. Of course, I could throw some one-liners here and there, but taken out of their context, they wouldn't have the same effect, much more; they might give clues about that infamous name that started all.

So, please, just watch it, if only to discover what is that mysterious name … but be a good movie fans, good sports, and don't cheat.

City Hall (1996)
A thrilling political 'whodunit' ruined by a pointless ending and an unnecessary close-to-romantic subplot ..., 18 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ever since Frank Capra and "The Godfather" movies, Cinema had shattered faith on American politicians and I guess, reality finished the job. And given the requirements of the political thriller genre, dissociating the word 'politician' from the epithet 'crooked' became unconceivable and Harold Becker's "City Hall" is no exception: the script co-written by three giants: Bo Goldman, Nicholas Pileggi and Paul Schradder, depicts politicians as puppets with money as the strings held by criminals.

The games had its rules and one of them was to never harm, let alone, kill, innocent people. In "Scarface", Tony Montana owed his demise to this principle and Eliott Ness couldn't overlook the explosion that killed a poor little girl in "The Untouchables". "City Hall" opens with an off-duty cop and an in-probation criminal linked to the mob meeting on a rainy day and shooting at each other. Nothing we're not familiar with, but then there's a stray bullet that takes the film to an unexpected direction, killing a 6-year little boy going to school with his father.

When a bullet kills a child, the community can't close their eyes. We know the bullet hasn't finished its trajectory and many other heads will follow. The film is basically about the aftermath of the triple-murder, a thrilling investigation and its political domino-effect. What makes it even more riveting relies on the character who desperately tries to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle: Kevin Calhoun, John Cusack in his 'boyish look' days, as the deputy of an ambitious and charismatic lawyer named John Pappas, played by a Pacino at the top of his game (sometimes over it). Calhoun asks a friend about the killer's probation and what follows is a great piece of dialog. David Paymer's character looks confused. "Isn't the document kosher enough? No, it's too kosher." We get the message.

In other words, the Judge let a gangster free while he deserved to be sentenced for jail for more than 10 years. And the 'signal' alert starts ringing when Calhoun discovers that the judge happens to be a friend of John Pappas. Calhoun tries to protect his mentor, little he knows that Pappas will also revealed to be the mastermind of the whole operation. Mastermind is a too much; in fact, this is a benign case of political corruption. Mobster Zappati wants to spare his nephew a 15-year sentence, he orders his friend, a Brooklyn mayor, named Anselmo, played by a great Danny Aiello to 'persuafe the judge' and the judge is good friend with John Pappas, which loops the loop. Meanwhile, Anselmo orders to hide 40 000 dollars in the cop's home to imply that he wasn't that clean. Really small potatoes, we've seen worse.

But all of these actions are aggravated by the dramatic turn it took, when a lamb was sacrificed at the altar of political corruption. But more dramatic, even tragic, is the unforgivable turn the film takes as it deliberately screws up the mechanism it confidently built up. It all starts with Bridget Fonda's character as the lawyer representing the cop's widow and struggling to clear her husband's name, so she can have a full pension … well, if it wasn't meant to be a sort of 'romantic' subplot, why a beautiful blonde for that? And this is where the film starts to lose its beat, because there's nothing she brought up that Calhoun couldn't have discovered alone. The whole ride to 'buffalo' was just the set-up to a cringe-worthy ending that didn't even made sense in the first place.

Basically, Fonda is the film's first mistake, and the poster could have done without her. There was so many great moments, a reunion between Anselmo and his business partners, his last conversation with Zapatti which had the same powerful undertones as the unforgettable meeting between Tom Hagen and Frankie Pentangeli in "The Godfather Part II". The film even has the intelligence to spare us some random action scenes, it's all in the mystery surrounding the opening crime, it's one hell of a political whodunit, meaning, who committed the first mistake? And the only character for the film is Calhoun, whose arc will change from idealism to an awareness of the limitation of the political world. If one thing, the film had to conclude on a sad and melancholic note.

Instead, we have that upbeat tone at the end, where he campaigns for some candidature I didn't even care about and an exchange of a few wisecracks with Bridget Fonda. That 'bullet killing a child' was the plot device that belonged to "City Hall" and no other film could have used it instead. Imagine the conversation, you know "City Hall"? "City what"? The film where a kid gets killed during a shoot-out and Pacino makes a speech during his funeral. Yeah, I remember that movie, so … how about it? Well, it could have been much better." Unfortunately, the film is so thought-provoking and subversive that some other parts don't live up to the rest of the film, the ending, Bridget Fonda, and the fact that we're left confused about the future of John Pappas.

It's incredible that a screenplay written by the authors of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'", "Scent of a Woman", "Goodfellas", "Casino", "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" couldn't come up with a more explosive script. A disappointing collective work, for a film with a very promising concept, a stellar cast, but an worth of an ordinary TV movie. That 'bullet killing a child' deserved more. When you have such an original opening, you can't afford such a cheap and ordinary ending, especially that doesn't even ring true, in other words, this was a man's film.

Indeed, it could have been to political thrillers what "Heat" was to the gangster genre, it could have been even longer, what a waste of performances, especially Aiello who was astonishing.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
To the stars of the reel who (re)invented the wheel ..., 18 March 2014

Finally, after six weeks, my endurance finally triumphed over the 900 minutes of Mark Cousin's "Story of Film: an Odyssey", a series of 15 one-hour documentaries starting with the same close-ups that set the documentary's tone of unpredictability to those who expected Scorsese or Tarantino to lead the show: Stanley Donen, Lars Von Trier, Amitab Bachchan, Kyōko Kagawa, Jane Campion and Sharmila Tagore. Not familiar with them? Wait, you've seen nothing yet.

First and immediate impression: it was an extraordinary trip, yet the ending was a bit of a letdown. I didn't expect the sight of people walking in circle, hand-in-hand, in some African town, to close such an epic tour, a tour-de-force as far as documentary is concerned but again, with this constant and sometimes infuriating tendency to surprise you. In fact, the last shot of Cousin's documentary is revealing of both his work's strength and flaw: it guides your eyes toward new horizons, where film-making was expressed to its fullest by artists who took the absence of means as a mean by itself and contributed to mark their country in International Cinema's map; on the other hand, it's a slap in the face of all the movie-buffs giving the most obscure movies the publicity that posterity didn't grant them.

For instance, there had to be a reason why "The Great Train Robbery" was the first film remembered for having used editing as a significant part of the narrative, yet Cousins pays tribute to an unknown movie about firemen. Watching his doc made me feel like the most confused movie fan ever why some indisputable classics got the same treatment than some obscure Russian, Brazilian or Scandinavian movies. Hitchcock borrowed his use of suspenseful sequences and some low angle shots from Danish and German cinema while "Citizen Kane"'s use of backgrounds was inspired by Ozu. No star of the reel invented the wheel, cinema was only the result of a series of innovations, and Cousins' speaks like the advocate of all the pioneers whose creations were shadowed by the cinematic light of glory they generated a posteriori.

But then, as if he was exhilarated by his own subversion, Cousins goes as far as suggesting that "Casablanca" isn't a classic film, but a romantic of some sort... his statement is so bold it flirts with indecent blasphemy, the one that'd convince many viewers to stop watching (that, and from what I've read, an annoying voice-over but I saw it dubbed in French, so it wasn't an issue for me) Sure, the man is entitled to his own bias against mainstream or Hollywood cinema but I tend to agree with the angry crowd that some of his statements were particularly upsetting. Then, I looked at the documentary with more magnanimous eyes, and if in the worst case, it made me raise my eyebrows, in the best, I discovered some little gems I felt the urge to watch as soon as the documentary ended. That 'best case' is the odyssey's reason to be.

And the highlight of this incredible journey was undoubtedly the part about European radical directors in the late 70's and early 80's. It was an insightful introspection into the use of the camera as a social weapon. Generally speaking, the middle section of the film, from the 50's to the early 80's is the best part before the film loses its beat. Although I agree that the digital revolution canceled all the magic and the miracle of Cinema, I expected more flamboyance, something honoring the dream-like escapism it provided. And this comes from someone who's not too much into spectacular blockbuster, but I was probably one of the few to be upset because the film was on the same wavelength than I.

The 90's were the ultimate gasp of realistic cinema, with an interesting focus on Iranian Cinema, and a new Danish school of more austere and naturalistic film-making, borrowed from the heritage of Carl Theodore Dryer. As an aspiring film-maker, it comforted me (perversely, I confess) that I can make movies with basic tools and 'pretend' its Art. And in the 2000's the loop was looped, Cinema went back to its roots, understanding that its purpose is to show a form of reality that distorts the real without taking too much distance from it. It's also an extraordinary medium to extrapolate human's deepest fears and emotions, in fact, Cinema is a universe where human is in the center.

With that in mind, you forgive some liberties and analytical shortcuts. Some of my favorite directors were missing, Cassavetes (a quick glimpse on "Shadows" while the father of Indie cinema deserved more), Melville the one who didn't want to part of the New Wave and modernized the film-noir genre, John Huston, and Akira Kurosawa. I understand he's a fan of Ozu, but how can you neglect "Rashomon", the first film without a linear narrative and to use the unreliable narrator device. Did that annoying Christmas baulb metaphor make him lose precious minutes? But I guess out of 900 minutes, with a ratio of 1 learning from each, there are chances some ideas won't be 100% pleasing or even accurate, but remember what they say about education, it's what remains after you forgot everything.

Well, I'm not sure I'll remember everything from that 15-hour exhaustive documentary but there are many new movies I'm familiar with, new insights about the art of filmmaking, as the greatest art-form when it comes to express some emotions, on the use of the human body, a well-made close-up being worth a thousand images, it's about names that has sunk into oblivions but in their way took part the process that lead to the classics we adore now. It's a collective work where every piece of humanity, at any time, had a share of it..

And if only for that, I've got to hand it to Mark Cousins for having enriched my knowledge of Cinema.

Catwoman (2004)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
I expected nothing, yet I'm still disappointed ..., 13 March 2014

I just finished reviewing three Ingmar Bergman's movies and now I have to write about "Catwoman". Gee, I feel like stepping on an ant-hill after climbing Kilimandjaro. Now, where do I start, since the question is not whether the movie is good or bad, but how bad it is?

Well, there is this quote from the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle" that had me laughing to tears and I've got to hand it to the writers for coming with such a fine and brilliance piece of cleverness. After they finished celebrating his birthday, a cone-wearing Dewey is asked if he liked the party, his comment is implacable : "I expected nothing, yet I'm still ket down" Now this is how I feel about "Catwoman".

I won't throw more rotten tomatoes at "Catwoman" because I didn't expect much, to begin with. I registered on IMDb the same year as the film's release, I had all the time to know about its reputation, its flop at the box-office and unanimously disastrous reception, so there was nothing to heighten my expectations, except the slightest hope that the film would belong to the 'so bad, it's good' category, but still, there would have to be a good reason for me to watch it instead of a film that just happens to be 'genuinely good'. It took 10 years, but between two remote controls' clicks, I caught the movie right in the beginning, and I decided to give it a chance.

By chance, I meant the benefit of the doubt but it didn't last, Halle Berry portrayed a woman who for some no other reasons than plot requirements, became a cat and the opening scenes shows her in every possible cat's situation (almost), in case we forgot about the main plot premise. Why all the rush? You've got an A-actress like Halle Berry (well, that's what she used to be anyway), she had just won an Oscar, she could have put some three-dimensionality within her character then how about sitting on a lonely place and trying to give her more substance and not just turn the woman into a cat-like creature right in our faces.

I have a confession to make, I have never seen Christopher Nolan's 'Batman' movies, yeah, yeah, shame on me, "booo!", I know. But I'm going to something positive, from what I understood, his movies did well, because the scripts didn't rely on special effects, but on characters' development. This is not character study or some kind of intellectual stuff, but just a way to inject some humanity some material meant to enhance our empathetic process. Instead of that, the French director Pitoff, who lacks both talent and a first name focuses on an unpredictably bad and basic antagonism between Patience Philips (Catwoman's real identity) and big cosmetics corporation selling an eternal beauty-cream, whose only secondary effect is to burn the skin when they stop to use it.

And I thought the whole fiscal subplot in "Star Wats Episode I" was pointless, how about that? What kind of vileness is supposed to come out of such a plot? Or is it supposed to fit the casting of Sharon Stone as Catwoman's nemesis and Lambert Wilson who does nothing else than embarrassing himself. All these actors proved to be capable when they're given a good script, I don't know who wrote "Catwoman" but I'm an aspiring screenwriter, I'm not 100% sure about my talents, but that a script like that had a chance to make it sure gives me hopes.

And I'm also a drawer, and a sort of feet-fetishist, and as much as I love the toes sticking out Berry's boots, damn, even I knew it was aesthetically wrong, unless it proved the movie's real intention which was to appeal on the lowest levels. After all, Catwoman is too sexy a character not to have her sensual savagery been exploited, but then how about injecting some sensuality and make the film a bit more adult, instead of just some paws's traces in her friend's back. I don't remember the name of the actor, but I'm sure I'm doing him a favor by not trying to.

Catwoman's outfits were probably designed to inspire the lustiest appetites, but if it failed as a superhero film, it did as well as a soft porn spin-off, while in both ways, it could have been interesting. And all the attempts to make Halle more feline, meeooo... ouch! I wish I could find one thing to appreciate, but it's as if Pitoff deliberately sabotages his own film, by inserting some stupid random basketball scenes or some cringe-worthy CGI effects, and don't get me started on the whole Egyptian mythology, Alex Borstein and … did I mention the basket-ball scene?

Is making a good film that complicated? Sometimes, all you have to do is write one great scene with two characters sitting in front of each other, and it can provide something interesting. Nope, Pitoff wanted his "Catwoman" so badly … it ended among the movies considered the worst of all time. As an aspiring filmmaker, a film like "Catwoman" is the kind of nightmare that makes me wonder if I shouldn't also shorten my name just in case.

A wasted use of talents because of a lack of direction, too much CGI, a lack of script, too much hackneyed situation, a career-ruiner move, definitely. Do actors read the script, I don't know. Proof is that script is the movie's spine. As I started this review with, I just watched three Ingmar Bergman movies recently and I have no doubts that even someone like Pitoff can recreate the same shots, so technically speaking, he's got it. Just learn to use some close-up, some good script, and even the crappiest thing can redeem itself.

Why am I talking about Bergman anyway? Well, sometimes it's the plain that give its emphasis to the mountain.

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