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They scare... but do we care?
9 December 2017
The first "Monsters Inc." had an exciting premise both on a visual and story level, it created a parallel universe with monsters of various forms, designs, sizes and bodies: Mike Wazowsky (Billy Crystal) looked like an alien, James Sullivan (John Goodman) was a conventional grizzly-looking monster and then there were animal-like creatures like Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi). The most 'fun' aspect of these monsters was less their differences than their similarities with us humans. So we had to see it to believe they were monsters and then came the whole plot centers on the Monsters, Inc., the door system and the encounter with a little girl named Boo. You know the story.

The plot was simple although not devoid of a few contrivances here and there, but the charm lied in the simple things, in the sweet relationship between Sulley and Boo, something that felt like an early version of "Masha and the Bear" and the friendship between Sulley and Mike, served by great vocal performances from Goodman and Crystal. The ending where they realized they could obtain the same energy power by making kids laugh instead of screaming was a nice resolution that only left as a cliffhanger the slight possibility or visiting Boo again, but that's not the approach the sequel took. "Monster University" as its title indicates is a prequel to all the aforementioned events and answering to the questions that kept our mouth salivating for 16 years: how did the two monsters get their jobs? How did they become friends?

There's a bit of sarcasm in my introduction but it's not mean to diminish the merit of the film, which can be summed up as great entertainment with a wonderful gallery of colorful and colored characters once again, driven by a plot so rich it's a real credit to the intellectual dedication of the screenwriters. This is perhaps its greatest blessing… and its greatest curse. At first, I was just thrilled to see little Mike being too funny-looking and enthusiastic for his own good, we all know Disney movies have always been about believing in your dreams, but when our little green Cyclopes says "I want to be a scarer", not only we don't take him seriously but we know he won't succeed, because … we saw the first film. So we know it's not exactly the destination that will matter but the journey. I liked the journey but I didn't expect it to be so… technical?

So we follow Mike as a first-year student in the university, discovering his roommate Randall Boggs, following the scare program, having his first course in the amphitheater and undergoing the mockeries of more credible monsters and the popularity of Sullivan who belongs to a prestigious family of scarers, not to mention the no-nonsense authority of Dean Handscrabble, voiced by Helen Mirren. I could relate to Mike and the film is perhaps the first animated feature to realistically portray the universe of universities. It also had its share of action and it carries that "underdog"' team aspect with the Oozma Kappa misfits and Mike being perfect in theory but not scary enough while Sulley relying on his looks like the hare on his fast legs. Still, I was surprised by the attention given to the contest, the graduation, being expelled or admitted…. I liked the film but I wonder whether the script shouldn't have taken a much simpler and less convoluted path.

The plot is well-written but a tad over-written, even if we accept that this is a universe that is exactly like ours (though it doesn't play with the same rules), it's just too grounded on a bureaucratic and institutional reality, too real for its own good. And it just takes for granted that because it's monsters, we'll get more excited by its series of twists and revelations. There are some great moments but they're lost in a double-character's arc that doesn't inspire much escapism or dream-like animation, something that really wows you at the end, it's fun, it's a nice buddy movie but maybe we got too blasé when it comes to animated pictures and it takes some really inventive material to blow you away. Grade 7, I guess it passes the test but it's one of these Pixar movies I wouldn't want to see again and again.
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Great story, great casting but "great" problem in the execution...
9 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
And I should have put 'execution' between two crosses, but it might have given away the film's ending (and problem) despite the spoiler warning. Anyway, I start my review.

For some reason, it took me till my 35th year to discover "The Great Escape". That's the catch with classics; they're so iconic you never really "discover" them. From that Simpsons' episode parodying the great escape with Maggie's glorious quest for the hidden pacifier, driven by Elmer Bernstein's score (and a cool nod to the "cooler" scene), I knew "The Great Escape". Of course, I can also mention the parodies of Steve McQueen's climactic motorcycle jump over the barbed wires and the stellar cast so typical of these testosterone-laden action flicks of the 60's, "Guns of Navarone", "The Dirty Dozen" and of course, John Sturges' previous classic "The Magnificent Seven".

I thought I knew everything about the film and needless to say that I heightened my expectation so high they really crashed into the realization that I've been misinformed all along. I love a movie that surprises me but I didn't expect that film to end that way. To put it simply: well, no one really escaped and those who did ended up being executed in the most cold-blooded and anti-climactic way. Now that was one downer ending that I didn't see coming, but it makes sense since the film insisted so much that it was based on a true story, only names were changed (the leader Burshell became Bartlett, played by an excellent Richard Attenborough) and some characters were composite of real-life personalities. Also no Americans took part to the escape but the producers wanted to include Steve McQueen and give him a substantial role. This is where the film gets more problematic.

As long as I was convinced that it would culminate with the spectacular jump, it was all worth the dated elements. Every member of the organization had a cool-nickname, James Garner the Scrounger, Donald Pleasance the Forger, Charles Bronson the Tunnel King, James Coburn the Manufacturer and McQueen has the coolest of all, The Cooler King, every guy is bad-ass in a way or another, every element of the escape is handled with the kind of meticulous precision the film can only get away with it on its "true story" premise, and there's that upbeat music from Bernstein. There's never a moment where you film the Germans in their usual mercilessness, the life in the camp seems pretty idle and we accept the notion of a POW having to escape as a duty in order to disorient the enemy and create as much confusion as possible. But there's never a moment where you feel that lives are at stakes, on an individual level maybe, but no in a crime-of-war "fashion".

As long as I expected a great escape, I enjoyed every bit of the film. But then something happened: Steve McQueen crashed on the barbed-wire fences and surrendered. If McQueen, the Cooler King didn't make it, then there was nothing really great about that escape. But the final nail on the coffin of my disappointment was the execution. I had followed Bartlett and McCallum all through the film and while their finale exchange before they hear the machine gun getting armed is poignant and beautifully done, the film had lost me. The bonus features went on great lengths about the real operation: what a tragic ending, what a waste of lives. I love the unease of the camp officer when announcing that everyone was dead, and when James Donald is told that fifty prisoners were shot while escaping and there was no wounded, it was easy to connect the dots.

In a way, this was a story that needed to be told, it is powerful and it does pay a tribute to these tragic heroes, the fifty who underestimated the cruelty of the enemy, but the way the escape is all set-up makes the ending feel like belonging to another movie. All the gags, the funny moments had lost their charm and worse, I felt that Steve McQueen wasn't fit for the film, which is perhaps the worst thing you can say about it. I don't mean I wish he wasn't in the film but it's obvious (and it's proved in the trivia) that McQueen wanted to have a role as big as in "Magnificent Seven" and this time he had no Yul Brynner to rival with, no need to touch his hat or enhance his presence, his presence enhanced the film… but not for the best. McQueen is as cool as an ice cube on a glass of potato vodka. But this film called for a 'Papillon' performance, when it ends with the same cooler moment, and the theme started playing, I didn't feel any reason to smile or be happy.

This aspect is also represented by the Forger's arc, Donald Pleasance plays the man who goes blind and thanks to the Scrounger's help, he manages to slip through the net until Garner decides to fly a plane in a scene that seems like gratuitous action spice and leading to his killing anyway. Of course, the weak, bald, blind guy didn't fit and Garner goes back to the camp without a scratch. McQueen goes back, learns about the deaths and then goes play ball in his cooler. The film is the weirdest cocktail of emotions, being too cinematic for its tragic material.

I enjoyed every bit of it at first, it sure has the thrills, the cast, the music, but the ending called for a more serious treatment. I guess I was mislead, but even the story is about people who were mislead by some misconception and ending executed. I still can't give the film a six given how iconic it is, so I give it a 7 but not magnificent one.
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Kundun (1997)
Too much distance from the audience, not enough toward its subject...
6 December 2017
For all its spiritual density and visual richness, "Kundun" is a rather straightforward biopic chronicling the coming-of-age of the fourteenth emanation of Buddha, also-known-as the Dalai Lama. It starts with the discovery of a young little boy who passed all the tests and left no doubt about his 'identity' to his departure to Lhassa, followed by years of initiation and finally, the confrontation with the Chinese Imperial Force, that made him witness the horrors perpetrated against his people and his fruitless attempts to awaken the world about Tibet's condition, leading to his exile.

There's nothing the film shows that can't be covered by a good documentary but one would expect from cinema to tackle its main subject with more curious and investigative eyes, especially when the director happens to be Martin Scorsese. Now, that's the core of the riddle, Scorsese's movies have always centered on characters who tried to relieve themselves from a cultural or life-related burden and couldn't accomplish such a feat in a peaceful way, his movies always culminated with a bloodbath or an outburst of violence highlighting the statement made in his seminal movie "Mean Streets": "You don't make up for your sins at church, you do it on the streets".

There seems to be a connection between a Scorsesian character and sins to some degree, even his Jesus Christ wasn't an angel immune to temptation but was about to change the face of the world for worse by embracing the very parcel of humanity that allowed him to reach people, talk about a double edged sword and a haunting character study. As a fervent catholic and a former aspiring priest, Scorsese knew one thing or two about Jesus and could handle him on a personal level. But the Dalai Lama is a such an untouchable figure or so remote to Scorsese's world that he can never really get "personal" with him. "Kundun" has a lot of things going but not the 'Scorsese' touch.

So I spent the whole film being touched by that little child trying to fit in the saintly shoes too big for him, by his homesickness, enjoying the devotion of the monks, the immersion into the closed world of Tibetan temples but the film never manages to transcend itself, to use spiritual vocabulary. It has been praised for being at least more accurate and serious than "Seven Years in Tibet". I still have to re-watch Annaud's movie but I don't think this is the right angle to judge the film. "Kundun" should be compared to a similar Asian epic biopic, which is Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Emperor" and on that level, "Kundun" fails by contrast, even in the costume and visual richness' department.

Bertolucci's Best picture winner was a masterpiece in the way it portrayed the emperor as a fallible human being, victim of a contradicting condition, he started his life believing he was above anyone else and the end, being just a cog in China's society. The transition between the two states and how it overlapped China's History is a school-case of how to make a riveting biopic, it didn't even rely on linear narrative. Maybe the subject was different as he wasn't deified, but then I guess the Dalai Lama is too sacred to make a good biopic. Or maybe Scorsese wasn't the right director.

By that I mean Scorsese respected Buddhism so much that he told the story as if he believed the Lama was Buddha's reincarnation. I don't mind a movie embracing the religion it deals with but then it keeps the character so remote from the audience, so enigmatic that we have no other choice than suspending our own disbelief and accept it as a reality. Fair enough, but there's never a real bridge allowing us to reach him, moments of doubts or self-introspection. Even in the crucial and entertaining exchange with Mao with that infamous "Religion is poison", the Lama doesn't react, he lowers his eyes, and we're just trying to interpret his body language.

"Kundun" is a movie that constantly seems in awe of its own material, and while there are many elements to praise and the film was certainly paved with the best intentions, I think it might have did a disservice to the cause it embraced by deifying the Lama a tad too much, it focused on the religion before making it a human cause. Here is a man who represents a civilization that has rejected non-violence for centuries and is confronted to the indifference of the world and violence from an overwhelming opponent, on the scale of history; he was the ultimate "underdog". Now, what if the Lama felt some a violent impulse for rebellion as a reaction from this injustice, in the name of love?

Maybe there would have been some artistic licenses that's what the film lacked at one point or another: a daring move. In the end, it's too purist and pure for its own good and prevent the narrative from a powerful internal or emotional conflict that could have been pure Scorsesian. In the end, we've got a movie only good enough to earn Oscar nods for Cinematography and Production Design. In the end, we have what seems like an oddity in the Master's body of work, a movie where there's not much to criticize but not much to love so much you'd love to give it a second watch. Finally, the name of Scorsese is its greatest blessing, publicity-speaking.

I think the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan cause deserved better, but sometimes you have to deflate a few figures and de-sanctify them to reach people, there's a time for gazing, praying and "looking" and there's a time for something more gripping … especially on the screen. A wasted opportunity.
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George will never make Harry feel down, Harry will never make George feel "Down"...
5 December 2017
"The Eight Day" is really one of a kind! It doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to teach us about life's simple beauty and beautiful simplicity but there's something in the way it's done that is just too weirdly daring to ignore. Sure the film sins sometimes by sentimentality, but there's more to enjoy in that atypical and powerful journey from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael.

It starts with a young man named George (Pascal Duquenne), he has Down syndrome and the film opens with a voice-over narration that leaves no doubt about it. It's a succession of little poetic vignettes, echoing the chapters from the genesis… no religion here, each day is about some beautiful bit of randomness created by God, and I had no problem accepting that George was the eight day's creation. The film even confronts the offensive slur "Mongoloid" to its own origin and we see, from George's vision, the Mongols as a civilization of horsemen and conquerors, nothing to belittle.

And George, as his own destiny's conqueror, decides one day to go looking for his mom. He lives in an institution where he's got friends, even a love interest who dances ballet and people who treat him nicely, but he still puts on his 'Sunday dress', takes his luggage and leaves. It's easy to get over-analytical and talk about existential impulses but this is a film where I think the right angle of discussion is never "Why?" but "Why not?" The Down syndrome is integral to that approach, not to mention its emotional impact.

Indeed, here's a disease where we expect a certain pattern of behavior, many of them to be 'embarrassing', but we're not in George's mind and we can never really tell whether it's a manifestation of the syndrome or his colorful personality. So we start to look at his behavior under a different scope as the handicap is never played as a 'gimmick'. George knows his "difference", and each effort he makes to fit in the world inevitably crashes into its reality. There's a heartbreaking moment involving a waitress, where we feel his devastation without blaming her reaction.

That's the power of "The Eighth Day", it transcends the limits of the handicap but never at the expenses of common sense by sugarcoating it. And it accomplishes this feat by showing that there's something in the core of that syndrome that can inspire people: goodness, attention, simplicity… and a little bit of madness. It's tricky to make such a point without being condescending or patronizing, but this is where George's co-lead, plays his part. We have to see another man who can benefit from George's presence.

This man is Harry, perfectly sane, mentally and physically. Played by Daniel Auteuil, Harry's a motivational speaker for young executives to be, working for some corporate nightmare named Future Bank, all in gray walls and black ties and suits. When we first see Harry, he's caught in the same weekly routine, regurgitating every day the same rhapsody: how to smile, to be convincing, self-confident. Everyone's drinking his words but we don't two reasons: a/ this 90's speeches have become a cliché by now and b/ it's so repetitive we suspect Harry doesn't even believe his own crap.

In a way, Harry is also entrapped in a series of patterns that deprive his life from a substantial meaning. In reality, he's divorced, he can't see his children and it's very fitting that he meets George at a moment where he was teasing death. The man was at the verge of a breakdown and it's George who tries to help him looking at the bright (or at least simple) side of life. This sounds like the premise of "Rain Man" with Tom Cruise being replaced by a mix of Michael Douglas' "Gordon Gekko" and D-Fens but George is no Raymond Babbit, his intelligence is different.

I can say it's from the heart but it wouldn't be true because George suffers a lot on that level. The tragedy of George is that he's never got not even a parcel of love back while he's got so much to give, the only member of his family who can take care of him, dismisses him because she feels she has the right to live her life. That was a scene of raw intensity and honesty because once again, we can't blame the rejection, and it's pivotal moment that cements the friendship between George and Harry.

"The Eight Day" becomes a poignant and funny buddy road movie where you can feel the bond growing between the two men. A young man with visions of Latin French singer Luis Mariano popping out of nowhere and a corporate victim with no visions whatsoever. How can that friendship be possible? As viewers, we're confronted to that question as well. There's a moment where George goes all berserk in a shoe store, I guess I would have bought whatever he needed so he can shut up, but boy, would have I loved to experience one minute of silence lying silently on the grass. Sometimes, the film does take you places.

Of course, there's another side of the coin the story cleverly dodges. Anyone going through Harry's phase would immediately lose his job. Sure, you got all the time to admire a ladybug, still, that won't but I don't think it will make you much a happy person in the long term. We should all go a little mad sometimes, but brief madness would be more befitting. Maybe the film goes deliberately over-the-top with its own material (some situations are unbelievable and unrealistic, some "normal" characters act in a very weird way) to warn that after all, this is all just a fable.

But this fable has some heart, truth and greatness about it and the chemistry between pals Pascal Duquenne and Daniel Auteuil, both winners of the Cannes Festival's Prize, really make the film!
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Oops! They did it again…
2 December 2017
Kevin is lost again, this time not in the house, but in the airport. It's a progress… but seriously, what were the odds? Not too low when you consider the premise of a sequel making loads of money and capitalizing on the first opus' popularity.

But box-office considerations put aside, what's to think about the film? I guess it all comes down to one thing: someone who loves "Home Alone" will appreciate the sequel (subtitled "Lost in New York") because it didn't take too much distance from the original format. And someone who disliked the first opus will probably hate this one even more. The other possibility is to appreciate the first for its nostalgic value and while not denying that the second is a 90's comedy classic (as a continuation of the first), it's possible to have a few reservations.

"Lost in New York" reminds me of another sequel: "Gremlins 2", the same premise in the Big Apple setting, with little Gizmo as the same heartwarming leitmotif as Christmas in "Home Alone". But "Gremlins 2" was also notable for its change of tone and pace, compared with the original, too many goofy Gremlins and zany jokes made the film closer to a parody than a direct continuation. I believe "Home Alone 2" did the same, it really is over-the-top and goofier than the first (which says a lot) but it also displays an overdose of schmaltz and sappiness and in a weird and sneaky way, it does create some bizarre balance in the end.

The problem of "Home Alone 2" is that the film is really capable of mocking its own material in a edgy way, but these brilliant moments get drowned in an ocean of syrupy sentimentality and cartoon-like violence. When after losing their black sheep of a kid again, the parents go to the Police, they almost break into laughter when they say "at least we didn't lose one luggage", it's funny in a hilarious Simpson-like way because it's like they concede how awful their parenting is and it's so tragic it's actually risible. That was a hilarious moment. But there aren't many unfortunately as John Hughes, who wrote the script, was busier trying to recycle the original plot.

That would have been fine of course, especially the premise of a kid like Kevin, again brilliantly played by Macaulay Culkin, to spend some vacation in the most prestigious hotel in New York (and meet future President Trump). And when the staff is composed of Tim Curry, Dana Ivey (and even Rob Schneider) you know it's going to be fun. But there's a fine line between funny and ludicrous that the film crosses too many times even within the screwball universe it got us used to. I have a hard time believing that Curry would mistake an inflatable clown for a man. It's not a matter of contrivance but awkwardness, when the "old movie" shtick works again and the man on TV mentions "Cliff" and there's a staff member named the same, that's a contrivance that pays off.

Another moment of brilliance was the confrontation between the parents and the staff, "What kind of idiots do you have working here?" "The finest in New York City!" replies Dana Ivey with a triumphant smile in Curry and Schneider's faces, not realizing the joke is on them and when the confrontations ends with a slap on his face, you can almost taste the tear in Curry's eyes. When a writer is capable of such subtly funny moments, you regret that the film followed the same formula as the first and push it to most extreme levels. The best parts are all in the first part of the film, after that, it just goes too far for its own good.

I love a Good Christmas story but talk about overplaying it. All right, Kevin has a poignant conversation with a toy store owner who happens to have the same growl than James Stewart, it was so sappy I thought it would be revealed at the end that this guy was Santa Klaus. I understand the toy shop was pivotal to set up the final act and the moment with the kid is in the hospital important to establish that Kevin was mischievous but with a golden heart. Now, did we need that Bird Lady? Brenda Ficker plays "Shovel Man" counterpart very well but that exchange about the meaning of heart and all was quite overwritten. I couldn't believe Kevin would say that after what he said to his mother, and before what he did to Harry and Marvin.

Speaking of them, yes, they're the bad guys all right, we get it. But they undergo so much pain that I found the confrontation very hard to watch. In the first film, the house tricks lasted less than twenty minutes, it's almost twice longer in the sequel and they get the full treatment: bricks thrown from a hundred feet high, ropes soaked with kerosene, electrocution, and always that annoying sliding before falling on their back. Whoever told Hughes that seeing a man falling on his back was funny, it's cringe-worthy at best and no matter how bad they are, it really plays like a disproportionate retribution.

I know I'm reading too much, but there's another fine line between getting their comeuppance and being victim of a sadistic little brat that the film doesn't cross, it flies over it. Marvin screaming with the spider on his face was funny, seeing him scream in a Hitchcok's "Birds" remake was quite painful to watch.

"Home Alone 2" is fun and entertaining but the last part recycles the original's bits by overplaying their effect, sometimes I felt the sentimentality was like the bricks thrown at our face and the violence toward Harry and Marv made me feel more sorry for her than any bird lady or hospital kid.
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Uncle Buck (1989)
John Candy has always been "Uncle Buck" for me...
2 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
And "Uncle Buck" used to be one of my favorite as a kid although I only saw it two times, but it left some nice memories. So, I thought after reading Ebert's review, and listening to his negative comments (approved by Siskel), I would look at the film with more perplex eyes, but no, I think there's a lot to like and well, the stuff to dislike has aged better than many seemingly irreproachable movies.

Still, having watched it again, after 25 years, I think there's a sort of darkness and sadness about the whole material that I failed to notice as a kid. I realize it deals with leaving your hometown, which I can relate to, or difficult relationships, which I also can relate to. I realized that there's a real dead-end as far as communication goes between the mother and her girl, and it's not like there's any breach where you can get some air. Jean Louisa Kelly really creates some tension in what should have been your quiet little suburban house life.

But again, I didn't notice that, as a kid. Maybe because the main character is played by the lovable John Candy and it's just impossible to see anything dark behind that big, huggable, teddy-bear of a man. I feel like reducing the actor to a specific range of characters he used to play but to put it simply, that's what made any of his movies enjoyable on the simple basis of his presence, he really illuminated the screen.

He had already graced the screen in John Hughes' classic "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" but after being Del Griffith, I think Candy needed a character as rough and rugged and somewhat twisted as Buck, to explore a much darker side albeit not on an ethical level. Sure, he's the 'lovable uncle' and outsider of the family but he could speak for himself, use some subtle threats and even engage in a battle of wits and wills with the troubled niece.

In fact the film is driven by two opposite dynamics, funny and touching interactions with the two good kids played by Macaulay Culkin (in his pre-Home Alone) and Gaby Hoffman and the more serious rivalry between with Kelly, played the bitter adolescent. One thing about Culkin, he's really a scene-stealer and I'm pretty sure the film convinced the producers to hire him for "Home Alone". But there's just something about Culkin as a secondary character, like in the movie "My Girl". He's present enough to make himself memorable (I just loved that rapid-fire exchange of random questions) and not too much to be a sort of 'gimmick'. There wasn't much interactions with Gaby Hoffman's character though and she was barely noticeable.

Retrospectively, I think the bitterness of Tia while being a plot driver was overplayed, not overacted but sometimes, she was so angry and bitter, she was like Daria, you know the animated perpetual malcontent. I couldn't really accept her defiance toward Buck because she felt the same toward everything, there wasn't something to make him the target of her insults. So yes, the film is a comedy but it does have some mean-spiritedness about it. The way the arc of their relationship closes is also problematic because it only depended on Buck being right about the kid she hanged out with, but there was nothing in his behavior that indicated he could be a potential rapist.

So there's a sort of hidden truth that Buck is the 'right man' because unlike Tia's father, he doesn't live in the comfortable suburban life but he's a street-smart guy who knows the rope and is capable to be a good father figure. Ultimately Buck is another facet of Del Griffith with more assurance and more fitting with the reality of the world. But his personality does indicate a change in Hughes' tone. After that, the iconic 80's director went on writing the "Home Alone" series which feels more like a cartoon version of the heart-warming youth stories he made.

Maybe he's less interested in Tia's existential troubles than the idea that an adult knows life better and she should trust him, in fact, even the romantic subplot with Amy Madigan's character says that Buck should value the adult in him before trying to be the "big kid". "Uncle Buck" marks a real departure from Hughes' usual messages, kind of an end of an era for the ending decade.

The film is enjoyable while not being in the Top 10 comedies of the 80's. And it's also the last, or one of the last memorable shining performances of John Candy who could never really prove his magnitude as an actor, but showed in "Uncle Buck" that he truly had the potential to be something else. I'll cherish this film as the first that made me familiar with his face until I would say in a good dozen of movies in the early 90's. I still remember that the day my father told me he died he said "Uncle Buck" died. That says it all.
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An Appetizerforo the Real Meal: the 8-Day 1962 "Truffaut/Hitchcock" interview...
30 November 2017
The title plays like a clever nod to "Frost/Nixon" but in this case, the interviewee's name is put first, a matter of respect that even Truffaut would have acknowledged. Look at the poster, Truffaut is like a disciple totally enthralled by the humorously pedantic look the Master is deigning to give him. In reality they were just having fun together, having earned a few minutes of relaxation after having provided so many hours of valuable insights not only on Hitchcock's movies but on his vision of film-making, and if anyone was entitled to say what film-making was about, no doubt it was the director with the iconic shadowy silhouette.

Indeed, even when he wasn't making great movies, Alfred Hitchcock was still the greatest director to have ever graced the screen. He reconciled two generally conflicting approaches: the artistic and the technical, he could indulge to symbolism, to hyperbolic visuals, to innovative dilatation or accelerations of time, to juxtaposition of shots or the use of specific leitmotiv but he never, never improvised: every frame, every moment was sketched, planned and studied with a meticulous attention to small (and pervert) details and a unique sense of anticipation. You can see this pattern even in that distinctively slow voice he had, as if he had to think before, set up his mind, before announcing a subject. And yet he could sound witty and funny on the spot. Hitchcock was a man of paradoxes, but he was himself a paradox, an artist, a technician and a natural.

That's the genius of Hitchcock. And that's how he became the true Master of Suspense; he had to get in control of every single element: the timing, the use of particular objects or plot device (his McGuffin darlings) as props, of even his characters as the props of his own creativity. His infamous "treat actors like cattle" takes its full meaning once you hear him talk about the attention for characterization and his fascination for human paradoxes: having a totally innocent man being mistaken from a dangerous criminal, a lovable family uncle being a serial killer or a sophisticated blonde have a volcanic libido in privacy. Hitchcock was like a Master Puppeteer, he didn't belong to the Elia Kazan or method acting of school, he pulled the strings himself and it's only fitting that his trademark theme was Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette". Basically, many of his movies can be looked at as a macabre march (or chase) of a puppet-like character.

But we were his puppets as well. Hitchcock could toy with our emotions like no other director, making it an instant signature, probably what made him recognized by 'Cahiers du Cinéma' as an auteur director. When then critic François Truffaut, along with New Wave icons to be (Chabrol, Brialy and Godard), started to re-evaluated the history of cinema, they defined the auteur as a director whose unique vision and sense of narrative and style shaped most of the movie. The idea wasn't to dismiss any movie from a non auteur but to say that even the lesser movie from an auteur will be more interesting than the other director's main work. In the documentary, Scorsese mentions that the art of directing is so reliant on contributions: from the actors, the editors, the writers, the musicians that you can't just make the director the sole 'maker' of the film… what would "Psycho" be without Bernard Herrmann or Anthony Perkins.

Still, Hitchcock can get away with it. Even his lesser movies, with casting choices he ended up regretting, had a Hitchcockian quality. It started in the 30's, became widely known in the 40's and then culminated in the 50's. In 1962, he had just finished "Psycho" and was working on his "Birds" when Truffaut was only starting with three movies that met with international acclaim. Truffaut was like a critic, a journalist, a fan and a fellow director and on these four levels, he seemed to know more about Hitchcock than Hitchcock himself. From the interview, he released a book that became a Bible for cinema, a frame-by-frame study of Hitchcock's most creative film sequences on which David Fincher said to have been a huge influence on his future work. Say what you want about Truffaut's movies but he shared at least with Hitchcock the passion for the art and the craft, the two really meant business.

Now, there are many juicy facts to gather from the documentary, and they're punctuated by some neat interventions from directors such as Scorsese, Fincher or Anderson. But the biggest favor the documentary does is to encourage you to listen to the interview between Truffaut and Hitchcock and that's just an offer no film-maker can refuse. Hitchcock goes through every major film he made and provides his own insights, even criticism toward movies we generally praise. Hitchcock was a practical man believing a movie that didn't met the public has faulted in a way or another, and listening to him criticizing even Joan Fontaine in "Suspicion" is one of these 'a-ha' moments you're begging for. A director praising Hitchcock, what's new? Hitchcock criticizing his work, now, that's even better. The documentary isn't just about retrospective analysis, it also allows us to understand the elements that made Hitchcock such an iconic director.

It's Truffaut who said that Hitchcock never made movies that belonged to a time, he never followed trends and fashion, his movies belonged to himself and that way, end up being eternally modern. Hitchcock was obviously flattered by the compliment (coming in the first interview if I remember correctly) and could see that Truffaut wasn't an ordinary. You could feel the bond growing between the two men and the friendship would go on till Hitchcock's death. The interview is the real thing, this documentary is just an appetizer.
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"Mulholland Dr." at the crossroad between fantasy and reality, illusion and disillusion, conventional cinema... and David Lynch!
29 November 2017
Last night I had the strangest dream… no, I didn't sail away to China but let's just say that dream was far more exciting than the day that started when I woke up.

Hitchcock said cinema was "life without the dull bits". In a way, dreams play like an "internal cinema", they're emotional, haunting, 'entertaining' to some degree and naturally, they're mysterious. And their mysteries are of the toughest sort because they can only provide clues, not explanations, hints, not signals, and sometimes we just wake up and we don't even have time to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle. If there ever is a puzzle, which is even more puzzling!

If films played like dreams, movie theaters would serve aspirin tablets instead of popcorn, we live in a time where what most viewers seeks is an experience with a meaning, a point, a plot or enough visual hyperbolas to hook our eyes onto. Cinema has become so ambitious on a technical level yet so simple intellectually, only challenging you when it handles timely or socially relevant themes. It does immerse you into a new world, it does ask some suspension of disbelief but let's face it, a very few directors have ever touched the 'essence' of dreams. David Lynch did and he did it magnificently in "Mulholland Dr.", certainly his masterpiece.

The film isn't a mystery: it is, quoting Lisa Simpson, herself quoting Churchill: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". There is a narrative in the sense that it's Lynch telling us a story but no matter how hard you try to focus on the 'plot', there comes a moment where you realize it isn't just about what you think you're seeing, but the unseen these things you're watching are hinting at, it's another level of comprehension. It's not even asking for comprehension but a genuine desire to embrace the film's mood and it's so lavishly done that any movie lover would enjoy this film. It starts by trying to separate between the real, the dream and the subconscious until you discover how symbiotically they all interact on a cinematic level.

In other words, this is surrealism at its finest.

For the sake of the review, I'll mention that it's about two women, a voluptuous and enigmatic brunette (Laura Harring), and a young idealistic blonde starlet (Naomi Watts). Their identities vary less misleading you than warning you over taking the "mystery" too literally. For a mystery to be valid, it has to exist within a coherent and seemingly constant universe. If I had to compare the film with another classic, it would be "The Wizard of Oz". Lynch made many more explicit references in "Wild at Heart" but in "Mulholland Dr.", it works even better on a subtler level, characters exist within two worlds, the reality and the dream, and like in "Oz", the way they act in reality affect their 'status' within the dream.

Whose dream are we talking about? I don't feel like spoiling the experience at that point. But let's say Lynch has a unique aesthetic approach through his subtle hints, don't take their weirdness as artistic licenses, they all have a reason to exist even in a state of non-existence. And like a real guide into a dark corridor of strange visions, Lynch provides unforgettable transitions, so stylish anyone would take them as "all flash and no substance", stuff with lampshades, phones, voices, déjà-vu situations, characters who seem totally disconnected with the story, but once you reassemble the pieces, you realize that within that strangeness, something is making sense. There is a puzzle, after all. Lynch is the Wizard of Oz, but unlike the original, you should pay attention to the man behind the (red) curtain. And it goes even deeper than that.

The duplicity of characters evokes a universal reality and "Mulholland Dr" deserves more credit for that: it shows that we don't exist on our own, on a sole layer, we are what we are, also what we wish we could be and sometimes, jealousy or envy can drive us into re-evaluating our past or reenacting it or visualizing again with a "best case" scenario. There are two worlds intertwining, one to see through rose-tainted glasses, illusion, and a darker one, disillusion. This 'explains' the genre-bending approach: it plays like a romantic thriller, soap-opera, slapstick or horror. But Lynch doesn't treat them like genres but steps in a mind's journey, from the heights of idealization to the abysses of deception. And in-between, you've got the subconscious, and I can't think of another director that gave that abstraction a visual reality. Maybe Buñuel.

Lynch is more divisive, and I don't think I enjoyed his previous movies with the same passion but "Mulholland Dr." comforted me that it's not his weirdness or wildness that disturbed me but how the effects played in the whole picture. "Mulholland Dr." had such a hypnotic beauty that I didn't mind the 'obscure' moments, I was just drawn to it, and In watched it three times in a row… and I feel like I only got the tip of the iceberg, like for "Blue Velvet", you don't get "Mulholland Dr.", you get it. Unfairly overlooked by the Oscars, Naomi Watts magnificently embodied two states of minds, one about the 'illusion' of Hollywood and one about the disillusion. Yes, the film has also a saying about Hollywood, the dream and what's behind.

The film only received one Oscar nod, but so deserved, because this is one of the rare instances where the directing tells the story, and although the word has been hackneyed, one can see in Lynch, love him or hate him, a true auteur in the imagery, the text, the subtext and the spirit. And "Mulholland Dr." is a crossover between "Memento", "An Andalu Dog" and "Sunset Blvd.", a surrealistic masterpiece, a Lynchian masterpiece.

Now, I've said enough, from now on, it's … Silencio!
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Home Alone (1990)
The first Christmas classic of the 90's!
28 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I know this is a "triple F" and "triple C": feel-good fun family and classic Christmas comedy… so you'll forgive me to be a triple ass and introduce this review with a downer opening. Here it goes.

We're in 2017, John Candy is comedy legend (sadly of the dead sort) since the mid-90's, John Hughes died in the same untimely fashion eight years ago, followed by Robert "Old Man Marley" Blossoms two years later and John Heard, the father with such a lovable face, has died this summer. Sorry to go on this eulogy but even Roger Ebert and Gene SIskel who gave two thumbs down to the movie because of its implausible narrative and sadistic treatment of the villains, are also gone. This is just to show how this 1990 classic is already surrounded by an aura of nostalgic sadness.

Of course, Chris Columbus, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are alive and much alive but look at Macaulay Culkin, another sad example of the devastating effects of child stardom, although he's probably richer than I but he didn't exactly follow the 'Natalie Portman' path, not even the Anna Chlumsky one. Whenever I see him on the screen, I can't help but think of how this cute little face has turned to, but there are so many sad things about the lives that contributed to the movie that it almost plays like a sort of shelter for laughs, a time capsule for December 1990 or the whole early 90's, where we can comfortably enjoy Christmas in the lovable and cozy McCallister house and forget about the real stuff, the time of a movie. It's funny that there's so much escapism in such an enclosed movie.

Besides, watching "Home Alone" again in 2017 allows us to appreciate a time where even a good old-fashioned comedy could hit the box-office jackpot and be the highest grossing movie. No superheroes, no Transformers, no magical superpowers, the (r)evolution was on march, sure, but it didn't take much at that time to draw audience to the theaters, what counted was a simple concept and an appealing main character. The concept here is simply terrific: what would happen if a boy was left alone in his home? and during Christmas holidays at that, and when the kid is played by such an adorable and talented kid as Macaulay Culkin, half the work is done. There's also an interesting implication, every kid would love to be alone in such a big home (granted he's got enough to eat or buy food) but how about when it happens at the very time where you count on the presence of adults… even for selfish reasons.

I concede that John Hughes didn't really try to make an existential plot out of the concept, and picked the easy way, which was a confrontation between the boys and bad guys… but what bad guys! As Hitchcock said, a film is as good as the villain and Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern form a very interesting variation of 'Laurel and Hardy', 'George and Lenny', 'George and Junior' or 'Pinky and the Brain', the interaction between the two burglars while not reinventing the wheel, is the perfect foil to little Kevin's quick wits, agility and ability to come up with the most ingenuous devices in order to 'defend his home'. I think it's safe to consider that the film was already a winner once they got the concept, the kid and the villain. The rest was just a sort of icing on the cake, what kind of booby traps to install in the house, how to make it 'impossible' for the parents to reach their kid or for him to get help, and of course the 'spirit'… otherwise it wouldn't be a Christmas movie.

So of course, it's going to be implausible, with such a title as "Home Alone", you either have a comedy or a horror/thriller and if the movie had to be 'realistic', it wouldn't have taken more than three hours (movie time) to get Kevin out of the house and arrest the burglars. But we wouldn't have a movie either, we wouldn't have the 'Playboy' scene, the after-shave moment inspiring the iconic recreation of the 'Edvard Munch' painting with Kevin's trademark scream, whose only match was Marvin's shrill arachnophobia reaction. The film is a Christmas classic because it has filled that over-the-top category, if you want a movie that recreates the fun of Christmas in a realistic way, you have the no-less iconic "A Chriostmas Story", but the concept of "Home Alone" could only work with that level of slapstick. And Culkin's performance is so good it even conveys a sort of edgy attitude, he's not your typical kid either, but he's still convincing enough as a kid.

It's not just a matter of suspension of disbelief, but of "let it go" for the sake of innocent fun, of course, watching this right now reveals some baffling contrivances we couldn't spot where the film came out, yes, we know the supposedly shovel murderer isn't a bad guy, we know Kevin relies a lot on the assistance of luck and perfect timing, we know it will all come down to the powerful family reunion and Catherine O'Hara provides the emotional arc of the film. Yes, it's true Marv and Harry aren't so bad they really deserve all the hurtful stuff that happen to them, and Kevin's scream can get annoying at times, but the film is closer to a live-action cartoon than a realistic comedy.

And there is no way for "Home Alone" not to make it in any Top 10 of classic Xmas movies, but maybe I'm biased because it was totally the kind of movies we used to watch countless times as kids to the point I always identified Tchaikovski's "Nutcracker" music as the 'Home Alone' theme.
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Moana (I) (2016)
Let the girls be Moana... and the boys be moaning...
27 November 2017
And Now For Something Completely… Identical… "Moana" is a dazzling-looking story… but to put it simply, it's not very interesting. The film is so obedient to all the recent trends that have defined Disney's movies that you can't find one little parcel of originality, it's basically "The Little Mermaid" story retold in "Lilo and Stitch" setting with a "Pocahontas"-like character who's the same age than "Brave" and driven by a "Frozen" narrative. Oahu… Deja-Vu… and when a Hawaiian story leaves you cold, you know there's a problem.

To give her deserved credit, Moana is a charming, adorable and strong-minded young preteen girl who has a lot to appeal to, but she's just too typical to strike as a fully developed Disney protagonist even when you try to ignore the trend. Once again, she's royalty, she happens to be the daughter's chief and her dream is to go sailing and discover the other side of the world. Yes, for some reasons later revealed but without being too satisfying, the entire village is stuck on the little island planting coconuts, eating coconuts and singing about how much they love coconuts. No problem, I love coconuts too. But I prefer fish.

Some back-story is provided through another ominous legend about a mysterious heart being stolen from the local Goddess allowing a semi-god named Maui to create the human race, the animation was cool and didn't really cut-and-paste something from Disney movies but it still reminded me of "Kung Fu Panda"… sorry, nothing new again. But even by accepting magic as an obligatory narrative trope in animated movies, I was wondering why is it that most girl-power movies must rely so much on the supernatural.

Think about it, whether for Elsa, Moana or even Rey from "Star Wars", there's always an element of magic that undermines the idea of a girl or a woman singlehandedly triumphing over the obstacles or despite her weaknesses. Minimizing the help of people or even animal sidekicks, these new trendy heroines most often rely on the assistance of magic, which doesn't really highlight their efforts or their merits. In "Moana", the interference of magical waves or reincarnations or any superpowers from Maui are so numerous that the film loses its capability to thrill you, when you get used to these magic ex machina moment, you stop considering any danger a real threat, and that's a threat for enjoyment.

Now, I know the film is another instance of a movie teaching children, but especially girls, that they have to find themselves and have the courage to challenge unfair rules. Fair enough, but how can someone who's the "chosen one" ever find herself? Basically, she'll have to find what she was chosen for. By trying to play on every possible safe side, the film never finds its places and ends up delivering more messages than Western Union. And these messages don't necessarily speak the truest statements about life, if you're going to convince children that everything is possible if you put your mind to it, you can't teach them that "trying" is the most important thing. How about a Disney movie where 'failure' can be an option? At least, they can try that with a male character if they're afraid of some backlash.

To be fair about the movie, I enjoyed the visuals, but we know it's the common denominator of most Disney movies, even "Finding Dory" looked great, but the plot was rather thin. What's "Moana" got to offer? Sure, I loved the immersion into Hawaiian culture and traditions. It's true Moana succeeds in giving us a Hawaiian flavor from the start but for the most part, the film is an adventure above the sea which isn't the most original setting, and apart from the traditional songs (nothing new since "The Lion King") and the colorful look, we could have a movie set inside the island, giving much latitude to the Hawaiian tradition, instead of the usual "native" narrative defined in terms of unfair tradition, relationship with Mother Nature and a young daughter who wants to challenge. To be honest, this has become a bit too predictable and the film can only follow the same series of patterns. It becomes all a matter of "posture".

Dwayne the Rock Johnson and Auli'l Caravalho provide the voices of the heroic pair, and as much as I loved their work, especially some singing moments, I was wondering why the 'Marketing' was so insistent on their background? So Dwayne, a native Samoan dubs the voice of Maui, and Caravalho is a true native. But was Disney afraid of being accused of vocal white-washing? Did Johnson have a Hawaiian accent? And would have accent been accepted or criticized for being too stereotypical? I don't know but I guess it's just to prevent some criticism, and they were certainly right. The film didn't even escape from controversy when they launched the 'Moana' costume. But I guess it shows that no matter how critical we are toward the film, it reacts properly to the mood of its era.

Now, I'm looking forward to discovering "Coco". Finally a movie about a boy! Sorry, but since Disney is supposed to awaken an inner child, mine happens to be a boy and maybe this girl-power stuff is making the boy inside me feel more insecure or jealous. So I don't mind a girl power movie once in a while but in that case, I wish Disney could… let it go!
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