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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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Which of these French movies' scores would you say is the most classic?
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Which of these scores from the '70s would you say is the most iconic?
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* Oscar nominee Oscar winner (AFI) AFI's Top 25 Scores
In memory of the legendary "poster master", which of his iconic artworks is the coolest-looking?
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A chapter of history has definitely been turned with the passing of Jerry Maren, last surviving Munchkin since 2014, the year The Wizard of Oz (1939) celebrated its 75th anniversary, along with another masterpiece from a whiz of a director Victor Fleming.
Indeed, the iconic classic is probably after Gone with the Wind (1939) one of the most quotable movies of legendary 1939, if not all cinema's history.
So, remembering through Jerry Marren, the Munchkins and the legacy of one of the all-time greatest classics, which of these quotes from the film is your favorite?
After voting, if you wish to discuss, just follow the blue click link
Which of these movie scores of the '80s would you say is the most iconic?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
* Oscar nominee Oscar winner (AFI) AFI's Top 25 Scores
The Getaway (1972)
Some things only the 70's, Bloody Sam and the King of Cool can 'get away' with...
I know Sam Peckinpah's "Getaway" is likely to generate calls for boycott or censorship because of the infamous scene where Steve McQueen slaps Ali McGraw not once but several times, even looking for hitting her face with a closed fist, but when you're aware of some backstories, you know the scene works.
I was astonished by how severe in a disappointingly shallow way the film was initially reviewed despite its commercial success (second after "The Godfather"). Roger Ebert, who loved "The Wild Bunch" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue", seemed only concerned by the contrivances in the 'heist' and 'shootout' parts. Yet there's more in the film than robbing a bank, escaping with the sound of screeching sound tires and explosive shotguns, there's more than the usual standards of action movies, what the film got was sexual tension, so palpable you could cut through it. "Doc" McCoy is a convict trying to get parole in the midst of a boring and alienating daily routine, improvising scale models in his cell, playing chess or working at a driving license plates' factory. The machinery, pondered by Quincy Jones' jazzy score, gets quickly on our nerves, working as a perfect metaphor of some deep psychological turmoil. Or is it sentimental?
While many criminals or antiheroes seem more telegenic as loners or women's men, Doc has a wife, not a girlfriend. This is a true relationship but one that wouldn't survive for too long if McCoy stays in jail. Heasks Carol to to tell Benyon (a Texan big shot with a nasty looking crew played by Ben Johnson) he would accept any offer. In an amusing ellipse, a sexily dressed Carol joins Benyon off-screen and the scene cuts to Doc's release, whatever happened in-between works like a ticking bomb, we know it.
The park scene is one of these quiet poetic moments not so rare with not-so-tough Peckinpah (like the picnic in "Alfredo Garcia"). As McCoy watches people sunbathing, swimming, and snuggling, he imagines he and Carol doing the same. Is he mirroring Sam's own perception of a talent wasted for violence? The way imaginary visions overlap with reality shows a real psychological struggle after four years of repressed emotionality... and sensuality, only McQueen could still look cool with a block, only Sam could be sentimental in a macho flick.
After the bucolic interlude, we get some awkward conversations, a few confidences and the ice seems broken the following morning when Doc is cooking breakfast. If you think the robbery or the chase will be the next main story, you'll be surprised, the other focus is also a romance albeit more "conventional" by Peckinpah standards.
Doc is assigned two partners for a robbery, a disposable one played by a youngish Bo Hopkins and one of the meanest looking mugs of the seventies, Al Lettieri who was born to play the "baddest guy", as good a match for Brando and Pacino in "The Godfather" as a nemesis for McQueen. His character Rudy is wounded after trying to double-cross Doc who was quicker at the draw... he finds a meek and recluse veterinarian named Harold, and in his slutty blonde wife Fran (Sally Struthers) an unexpected object of sensual attraction.
In a scene that wasn't played for subtlety, she sensually caresses his gun, telling him he doesn't need to point it at her... not that gun away. The parallels between the couples how and I loved how the beta one had a growing chemistry while at the same moment, Doc is slapping the hell out of Carol after he finds out how he got the ticket for freedom. She makes things worse when she almost loses the loot in the train station after being conned by another "Godfather" alumni. Unlike Richard, she wasn't so "bright" within the circumstances, but she had an attitude.
Sam makes us think, a woman like Fran gave her body for nothing, Carol sold her own for her husband's freedom and he's got the nerve to accuse her. Now is he bitter because his wife is a slut or because he couldn't get clean again by soiling the woman he loved the most?
The two relationships reach pivotal moments. Harold, the cuckold husband after one humiliation too many, hangs himself much to Fran and Rudy's indifference. Later, Doc and Carol finally reestablish their relationship. They decide to move forward and leave the past behind or where it belongs, in the most adequate place, a garbage dump. So we have a "good couple / bad couple" situation, but both on the wrong side from the law and the closest thing to a moral scope is marriage.
The climactic shootout is another instance where the maverick director proved his mastery of the action but after "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs", there's not much new stuff to praise, though I enjoyed the cameo of Dub Taylor, that hilarious punch Struthers got for not keeping her mouth shut. As sad as it was, I guess Rudy's death was the perfect revenge of Karma for what Fran did to her husband. Karma-wise, it's also appropriate that the last helping hand comes from an old-fashioned cowboy played by Slim Pickens (another great cameo) who rants about the lack of morality and marital commitment while describing his wife as a pillar in his life, he gets a great retribution.
But I wasn't glad that the good couple could get away it with the money, but because they did it together, but maybe Ali McGraw should have learned a lesson from the film. She treated producers Robert Evans like Fran with Harold, she couldn't resist McQueen who revealed himself to be quite a "Rudy" with her.... and her career was derailed like Fran's life.
That fact of life made the sexual tension believable because the actors didn't play it, but it's crazy how truth can be stranger than fiction, bitchier too.
It's not about making people happy, but uniting them in happiness...
FIFA World Cup just started providing its share of thrills, joys, and deceptions. While I was watching the Moroccan team yesterday, my right foot was uncontrollably trembling, my heart pounding at the national anthem and everyone was glued to the screen with the kind of frozen expression that that only Sports can draw on faces.
And tough memories resurfaced, twenty years ago, we had scored three goals against Scotland in one of "these games"; I was tying my shoes, everyone was getting ready to celebrate our qualification to the quarter finals in the street... but Brazil that had previously beat us with three goals against none, the World Champion and team of Ronaldo (bald Ronaldo, not Cristiano) lost against Norway in what should have been an open-and-shut case. A penalty kick at the last minute destroyed all hopes. My brother cried and I took off my shoes.
Twenty years later, history, cruelly again, decided to repeat itself, at the last minute, in the worst possible way, one of our players scored against the team, earning Iran the precious victory and filling our hearts with bitterness. See, one can also understand the power of Sport from defeat, sport unites and brings back positive energy for a brief but exhilarating period. It also creates extraordinary bonds between people who had nothing in common except quivering for the same colors. Sports mark a truce, awakening feelings whose negative counterparts are nourished by war and political conflicts the rest of the time.
Sport is essential to one country; it is essential to the world.
And as I watched Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" one day before the kick off, I felt like I could read in the mind of Nelson Mandela, played in all nuance and depth by Morgan Freeman. What an ironically fitting name for an African leader who was quite the opposite of a "free man" for ten thousand days of his life.
Indeed, some iconic artists achieved greatness and died in 27 years, for Mandela, it was the time spent in jail that allowed him to free his mind from hatred and resentment, to achieve his personal greatness through humility, forgiveness and humanity. The film starts at his release as he's cheerfully welcomed by black people while the whites expect the worst. "End Apartheid" was the slogan that the majority of today's population wouldn't remember, not even South Africans... but the miracle happened and Mandela, Madiba as he's respectfully and affectionately called, almost rhymed with Messiah.
"Can he run a country?" asks a militant newspaper, Mandela's bodyguard sees a hate campaign but Madiba lucidly says "it's a legitimate question", he's already approaching his role as a unifier not a divider. Coming to office, he invites the skeptical whites to stay unless they think there are irreconcilable differences, what he does is giving them a choice, a freedom, a gift only a man of his experience could value. He also hires white bodyguards and their interactions with the previous team plays like a great microcosm of the reconciliation built up throughout the film, with the power of Sports. Because "Invictus" isn't a biography film as much as it's a Sports film.
Mandela has great scopes of achievements... and failures as well, his prestige was a double-edged sword that can earn him hostility from the Afrikaners and when facing unemployment, poverty, and criminality, sports could be perceived as the least of the priorities. The genius of Mandela is to take sport damn seriously, he watches a rugby game and discovers that the Blacks support any team against the Springboks, he's booed by supporters who proudly brandish the old flag and concedes it's a constitutional right. But when he learns that the ANC is going to replace the team with a new name, new colors and hymn, he asks everyone to reconsider the vote, taking time to explain why they're wrong.
Mandela wasn't just that all-smiling icon; like Gandhi, he was a natural-born leader. Warned by his secretary about the risk of losing his power, he reminds her that a true leader should be guided by his principles, not fears, he knows reconciliation is impossible without the Springboks. As much as the Whites must forget, the Blacks must forgive. It's not political but human calculation (one of the film's great quotes). Mandela then meets the team captain François Pinaar (Matt Damon) and the two men realize they speak the same language, François always wanted victory but after his pivotal encounter, he understands that the country, hosting the 1995 World Cup, needs the victory, sports don't just make people happy; it unites them in happiness. It was twice a miracle because because South Africa had to play against the iconic All-Blacks whose haka could scare enough to guarantee a victory.
"Invictus" isn't just an underdog movie, it chronicles every single effort that made a miracle possible, because the miracle-maker was a miracle by himself. Visiting his cell, François realizes that he could touches two facing walls by simply spreading his arms. Anyone can survive 27 years of jailing, but can any soul? Mandela was the Captain of his soul as he was master of his fate and overcame his demons. François spreads the good word to the team, and like an apostle to a saint (but the film doesn't over-sanctify them) meetings are arranged with young Black kids from the poorer areas. And for once, they forget about soccer and learn about rugby not just from Chester, the only Black player.
The team also they learn the hymn "Schosholoza", that haunting melody that reminded me of that magical World Cup in Africa in 2014. The team had to win, and they won, the rest was history. Mandela understood the magic of Sports and used it as a political tool but a human miracle.
Maybe Morocco should watch this film before their next game against Portgual... after all, it ain't over until the referee blows his whistle.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
The country saw the flag, Eastwood shows us the men...
In his review of "Letters from Iwo Jima", Roger Ebert recalled the line from "Patton"'s iconic monologue, you don't win a war by dying for your country but by making "the other poor dumb bastard die for his country", maybe that's why the Americans won the war after all, they fought to death. Japanese, while honorably, fought to their death, too.
And "Flags of Our Fathers", first opus of Clint Eastwood's "Iwo Jima" duology also reminded me of a quote from the same monologue: "an army is a team - it lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap." And as far as exemplifying the team spirit within the army, the famous picture of the flag-raising over Mount Suribashi is quite an eloquent illustration.
It is indeed one of the most iconic, parodied and probably misundestood pictures of all time, taken at face value and wrongly translated as the epitome of victory while the battle, one of the toughest and deadliest of WW2, was still going on and half of the soldiers in the picture would eventually die. Interestingly, we never see their faces and for a few of them their bodies, but that's what makes it such a great symbol of anonymous heroism carried by a group, not individuals.
In other words, it shouldn't have mattered who raised the flag, and I guess it didn't, what mattered is that it was the American flag and that sight was enough to awaken the Americans from lassitude and convince them to buy bonds. So the American government couldn't rely on a simple photograph, and needed the three survivors to play the game as ambassadors from that moment that stopped belonging to them, but to history, transiting though with politics.
Clint Eastwood's adaptations of James Bradley's novel, takes us, in a fascinating introspection into the various perceptions of heroism depending on the perspectives. Even in Eastwood movies I disliked like "Unforgiven" and "American Sniper", I respected morally ambiguous characters for some values they carried and that I could relate to. Here I expected a new "Saving Private Ryan", but Spielberg is "only" the producer, Eastwood isn't the preacher type (not always anyway) and the flag isn't the end, but the beginning.
And for the survivors, the beginning of an odd journey. Harlon Block (Benjamin Walker) and Sergeant Michael Strank (Barry Pepper) were all dead and as soon as the survivors were identified, they're taken for a long ride across America to encourage cheerful crowds to buy war bonds. The film unveil many aspects of their lives and how it affected their reactions. The father of the novel's author, Pharmacist "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) is good-hearted and altruistic, he comforted his dying comrades and takes his new assignment as a way to comfort the spirits of people. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) sort of enjoys his new fame and the attention it brings (so does his girlfriend) but insists that he was just lucky, as they all say, the real heroes didn't come back.
The most tragic character and the soul of the film is Ira Hayes (Adam Beach in a performance that should have earned him a few nods), his experience doesn't differ from the rest of the soldiers except that he's of Native background, an outcast status that pushed him to keep a low profile which was perfect for the army body. Being propelled in the main front, not to fight but to pose as a clean-cut hero could only make things worse to him, especially when he's still victim of racist paternalism or plain segregation. Hayes' tragedy is that he's not concerned by politics but politics were concerned by him.
The film is punctuated with many war flashbacks that show the incredible gap between the atrocities in the island and the whole backstage show, the most infamous episode is Ralph "Iggy" Ignatowky (Jamie Bell) whose death is only alluded but a glimpse on a Wikipedia page will tell you that some soldiers' blood drop more significantly than other on the sand of Iwo Jima. Violence reached such a paroxysm that there was no possible way for the soldiers to recover unless they decided to keep quiet about it, about the details anyway. And yet the three survivors had to talk, talk and talk.
They were even forced to replicate the deed over a mountain made of carton during a big exhibition in a stadium with the typical American fireworks, cheerleaders and all that jazz their supervisor prepared. The pseudo-flag-raising intercut with scenes of extreme violence, showing the deaths of the other soldiers, create a difficult mood whiplash but it's crucial in the understanding of another sad aspect about war, you must pretend.. These guys must act as heroes because the war needed them to be heroes, even the picture while speaking a thousand words, didn't say that it was the second flag raising, causing one of the soldiers to be misidentified, although his mother could, even from behind.
The film reveals many secrets about the iconic shot, a lucky one from a photographical perspective and it also reminded me of Jean Gabin's speech in "The President", addressing a parliament member parliament too young to have fought in WW1, he said "you talk about millions but as a guy in the trenches, I can only remember a dozen of deaths, scope differs whether you're in or out the front", indeed.
For the politician, it's about the big picture. For soldiers, it's just about kill and not to be killed, and protecting or saving your buddies. The tragedy is more intimate and it follows the 'privileged' ones for the rest of their lives... that's heroic enough to me. And the picture reminded of this adage: when a man points to the moon, the fool sees his finger. The government looked at for the American flag, but Eastwood is pointing to the guys who raised it.
Blame it on the ending...
"Suspicion" marks the first of four memorable collaborations between Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant, and the second and final one with Joan Fontaine in a performance that earned her the Oscar for Best Actress, the only acting Oscar in a Hitchcock film. And it's quite deserved as Fontaine's facial expressions never fall in melodramatic caricature and powerfully capture the psychological premise of the title.
And what a premise! How can a woman live with a husband who might be a killer, who might kill her? The film is an immersion into one character's fearful psyche, an arm-wrestling battle between doubt and love translated to the screen into bits of genius genius... until the ending causes the whole edifice patiently built up to collapse in the most infuriatingly anti-climactic way.
But the film wasn't flawless to begin with. If "Rebecca" could quickly set the tone with the haunting shadows of Manderley, the dreamy voice-over and stay relatively faithful to its Gothic spirit, the first act of "Suspicion" feels more rushed out as if it was impatient to get to the point by using the most artificial tricks to make Grant and Fontaine's character fall in love.
It started well with a conversation in the dark revealing that we're in a tunnel, hence in a train. Cary Grant is Johnnie Aysgarth, a smooth-talking playboy travelling in first class without money, and whose rude manners and obnoxiousness with the ticket inspector shouldn't please the type of woman his travelling companion is. Now everyone describes Lina as dowdy but there's no way a face as delicate and beautiful as Fontaine's could earn her the nickname of 'monkey face', even from Cary Grant, and even with the glasses, I couldn't buy it.
Fontaine does a great job at looking shy or reserved like in "Rebecca", but "Suspicion" insists so much on her dullness it undermines its credibility. Olivia de Havilland was as beautiful as her sister but her Oscar-winning performance in "The Heiress" was the perfect embodiment of the shy spinster that falls in love with the first opportunistic wolf-in-sheep-disguise. In "Suspicion", we only take it at face value when Lina overhears a conversation between her parents (Cedric Hardwicke and May Whitty) about her desperate case and then literally throws herself in Johnnie's arms. End of first act.
There's something interesting in Lina's character though in the way she only seems to exist for Johnnie, in a good mood, the "Blue Danube" is played like a leitmotif, a reference to the magical waltz that sealed their union much to her parents' reluctance. She's literally diluted herself in that love as a gratitude that's quite true to life. Indeed, there's always one person in a couple that drags the other, one making more concessions, one more forgiving, no matter which side you take, the romantic balance will be either positive or negative, never neutral.
Truffaut lauded the film for its consistency, the fact that it stayed focused on Lina's mind and the evolution of her husband's perception and yes, the film's quite good at it. At first, Johnnie strikes as a little boy, whose reliance on Lina's money is so casually admitted that there couldn't be any greed or malice behind it. Then he turns out to be a greedy opportunist, selling two valuable chairs Lina's father gave as a honeymoon gift. As the film progresses, his persona gets more intriguing. For each suspicious action, there's an element that lowers the guard. One of his friends Beaky (Nigel Bruce) has a slip of tongue, revealing a few lies of his buddy, but he minimizes it with humor. Johnnie is a compulsive liar in the best case.
But Johnnie's behavior can also reveal darker sides like the effective moment when he abruptly tells Lina not to interfere with his business and later, when he asks a famous writer many questions about the undetectable poisons. This is one of my favorite trademarks from Hitchcock, the casual discussion about the perfect crime, which you know will always pay off and Grant's acting is delightfully ambivalent. Then the 'suspicion' culminates with the classic 'glass of milk' moment, where he climbs up the stair with a white glowing figure emerging from the dark. A simple practical effect (a light bulb in a glass of milk) and Hitchcock plunged us into Lina's mind, will she drink it or not? At that point, "Suspicion" had the makings of a great film, because Grant played his part perfectly, he could be what he was suspected to be... or not.
Then came the ending.
While Hitchcock wanted Johnnie to be the killer, and Lina to drink the glass of milk after incriminating him with a posthumous letter he would send to his mother-in-law, he was vetoed by the studios... because Cary Grant could never be cast as a murderer. It's for reasons like this that I cherish actors like Bogart, Cagney or Brando who could fit in any roles. I'm pretty sure Grant wouldn't have minded being a bad guy, he resented Hitchcock for having favored Fontaine all through the film and not getting an Academy nod, but if his role was closer to Charles Boyer in "Gaslight", things might have been different. He should have blamed it on studio politics rather than Hitchcock, the harm is done.
And the problem with Hitchcock movies is that they always benefit from a second viewing... as long as they ask for a second viewing, once you finish "Suspicion", everything is so perfectly wrapped up that you don't feel the urge to watch it again. Hitchcock knew it was only his second movie and had to make compromises, his pragmatism would pay off later as he would benefit from more creative freedom, once his reputation firmly established in Hollywood.
Still, all it needed to be a masterpiece was just one final shot on a smiling Grant, an enigmatic grin just to conclude on ambiguous note, that would have fit a film with such a title.
Is family a dream-killer or quite the opposite?
As the father of a little girl, I shouldn't mind that the world of animation became a platform designed to preach "girl power"... but channeling my inner child, I was waiting for one Disney movie to be about a boy... it's silly I know, but maturity isn't kids' strongest suit.
So I had an instant liking on "Coco"... and the boy inside cheered, little did I know that the adult outside would weep. Damn great films, just when you think you've seen them all, there comes a little gem of imagination that catches you off guard and grab you by the heart and plunge you in a universe that look magnificent on screen yet the magnificence is nothing compared to the inner beauty of the story.
"Coco" starts with your "typical" Disney family, but you've got to love how atypical they are from Disney standards, yet typical in an archetypical way. The Riveras, four generations of proud shoemakers and perhaps the only Mexican people to have banished music from their life... because the previous matriarch of the family was abandoned by her husband to pursue his career as a singer (the backstory-sequence is colorfully rendered in the beginning). The singer died, Music became a taboo and a golden rule was to never mention his name, ever. His last connection with the world of the living is Mama Coco, the great-grandmother of Miguel.
Miguel is also your "typical" rebellious kid, his dream is to become a musician, he loves music and his idol is the great Ernesto de la Cruz, a crooner-idol who died too soon in a freak accident. "Seize your moment" is the legend's motto, a hymn to every dreamer who wants to be a doer. And even if the phrasing conveys some opportunistic undertones, we want to embrace it, because well, isn't that the most valuable lesson to teach kids? (especially when you have every member of a family leagued against a child, wasting his talent).
But this isn't exactly what the writers of "Coco" had in mind... sure, the Riveiras strike as quite annoying dream-killers, sure, music is important but it's less an end than a mean, a mean to reconcile the present with the past, to resurrect memories that have been buried in a ground of misunderstanding and bitterness. The magic of "Coco" is to translate matters of life, family and death into fantasy elements and dazzling visuals, just like "Inside Out" did with life and family period.
"Don't forget me, I'll always be there" says a dying character while pointing his index on his beloved one's heart, it's a common cliché but it's the only relief one could take with him to the 'long road". And "Coco" turns it into a simple but heartbreaking song, "Remember me" and it says a lot about our deepest needs in lif... whether you believe in it or not, after watching "Coco", you just want to believe in an afterlife that allows to live as long as you're being remembered... aren't we all in the same boat after all?
Maybe not. Maybe fame is the ultimate the antidote against oblivion. Maybe that's why many people dream of posterity... yet "Coco" doesn't say that posterity doesn't matter, it just says that it doesn't matter the way you think it does. And it simply gives a meaning to the idea of being part of a family in case some of us have forgotten. We don't choose our families, but they're part of our DNA, it's there from the start and no matter how far we go, we can never forget where we started especially when we want to move forward. Remember Mufasa's words to Simba about forgetting himself.
Miguel sees his future in music, and his journey takes him to the Land of the Dead, where dead people are much alive, hanging on the memories of their families and their celebration during the 'Day of the Dead', the only occasion for them to visit the real world in a night where their pictures are surrounded with personal items, candles and flower petals. Ever since Disney's seminal "Dance of Skeletons", there seems to be a mix of fascination and revulsion with the world of the dead Disney. But it's only fitting that a universe that killed so many characters could provide us a light of hope and allow the dead to show up once in a while like in "The Lion King".
Maybe it's a clever way to tell kids that death isn't final, the real death one when we're forgotten, maybe the reasons humans live long enough to see their grandchildren grow is to being remembered for a much longer time. The adventure in the world of the Dead with Hector, all the dead Riveras and de la Cruz is an adventure like only Disney animators at the top of their game can provide, but the film reminded me of many other life-changing classics that made me think.
"It's a Wonderful Life" made me wish more people could forgive themselves for so-called failures, "Back to the Future" warned me that a simple choice can lead to failure and there was no coming back. "Coco" filled my mind with similar thoughts, so many people die without coming to terms, living apart while they have so much to share and so many grandchildren don't realize what a blessing having grandparents still alive because we're blinded by ego or by dreams.
This is how the film spoke to me, we all wish to accomplish big things but sometimes, instead of seizing the moments, we make the "wise" choice... in a world that cherishes dreamers, starting with Disney... so we spend our life blaming ourselves for these choices. "Coco" made me feel like Dorothy ended up saying "There's no place like home", the film moved me and made me feel a little better with my choices... and that was something I didn't see co-coming.
Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935)
Intelligent, mature, subversive parody of justice and hilarious parody period...
"Silly Symphony". I groaned whenever the cardboard popped up instead of the face of Donald, Goofy or Pluto.
As an adult, I can see how the series -starting with the unbearably mawkish "Flowers and Trees" but culminating with the heart-pounding masterpiece "The Old Mill"- allowed Walt Disney to sweep many Oscars and make his bones before the groundbreaking "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Still, even as a child, I was never drawn into the whole lyrical imagery driven by cutesy songs I didn't even understand, so I used to tape over these darn cartoons whenever they were caught on my VHS.
Two exceptions though: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and its catchy 'Rats, Rats, Rats' and the classic of all the classics, the gripping and captivating "Who Killed Cock Robin?", and while I'm writing these lines, I have the ominous melody playing in my head and that simple but riveting interrogation mark on screen. I was eight when I first saw it, and after "Hello" and "Goodbye", one of the first sentences I learned in English was "Who killed... ?" closely followed by "I don't know".
This is a case of love at first sight that the passing of years never soiled, I loved it as a kid, I love it even more as an adult. It's a combination of factors... but first, there's the story, built up like a real mystery thriller. Whistling a sweet and hypnotic melody, Robin calls his beloved Jenny Wren out of her balcony, she makes her entrance with these words "Oh Robin, you're fascinating me!" and says it like she means it. Verbal lyrics might have overplayed the sentimentality, but Robin's repetitions of "Ba-ba-boo" and "Ba-ba-bee" indicates the smart angle taken by the animators, it's a romance sure, but smartly coated with dark comedy.
Speaking of the dark, the mysterious shadow of an bow-wielding bird is slowly approaching until the serenade is literally cut short by the arrow, hitting him right in the heart. Robin looks overwhelmed with love before a long fall. As he hits the ground, three agonizing "Ba-boo" come off his beak then three faces come out the saloon, if you pay attention, they'll be the three suspects. What we've got after is your archetypal crime's aftermath except that it's set is an anthropomorphic universe occupied by birds, so the Police are coming, followed by an ambulance.
Robin is nonchalantly put on a stretcher (you can't tell from the carriers' expression how routinely it is) and cops move away the bystanders but take the three suspects out of the bar. "I done nothing" repeats one of them, then the Cop, with an unmistakable Irish accent tells him to keep that for the judge, he hits him several times in the head and a remarkable ellipse cuts from the stick to a courtroom gravel hammer. Naturally, the Judge is an owl he sounds like James Earl Jones. "Who killed Cock Robin?" he gravely asks. The Jury plays like a Greek chorus and repeats all the lyrics with the smoothness of a Barbershop quartet.
In two minutes, the tone is set, it's dark, subversive and yet funny. The film was made in 1935, where I believe three of the finest Disney cartoons were made: "The Band Concert", "Pluto's Judgment Day" and this one. Interestingly, the one with "Pluto" also featured an unfair atmospheric trial. Was it the context of the Stalin purges or a pure coincidence? What I know is that it's a unique case of Disney showing a form of justice as zealous as incompetent, when a poor black bird is getting hit because "I don't know" and "I saw nothing" are no acceptable answers and where a big shot is only sitting on the accused' nest because he "looks guilty", according to the parrot-prosecutor.
The portrayal of the Black bird can be deemed as politically incorrect but is he not a victim after all and aren't the representatives of the legal system getting a worse deal? Think of the scene where Jenny Wren comes in and after a melodious and suave call for justice, the Judge who's not the least insensitive to her charm, decides to hang them all, and as the jury jollily chants in my favorite moment, "we don't know who's guilty so we're gonna hang them all". If it wasn't so hilarious, it would be tragic, no wonder, an arrow hits the judge's hat while he's dancing and someone says "stop!". It was time to stop!
And then comes the last outrage, the killer was Cupid, and Robin wasn't dead, he just fell in love and Cupid seems to be pretty gay about the whole thing (pun intended). It takes one "Kiss me, tall, dark and handsome" so Robin can slowly resurrect, the umbrella covers his face and Jenny raises her head with the kind of moan that makes you wonder where Robin's beak is, and the jury can only duplicate the sound while waving their hats to make some air, the heat is just too much. "Who Killed Cock Robin" has a set-up, an investigation, a twist and a resolution with quite daring sexual innuendo. That's why as an adult, I naturally learned to appreciate even more.
And it wasn't until I became a movie buff, that I realized Cock Robin was Bing Crosby, Jenny Wren was Mae West, the cuckoo a mix of Harpo and Groucho Marx and the whole cartoon a powerful reflection of its time the film, depicting a world of crime with drinking, smoking, killing, brutal arrests, arbitrary justice and sex. To those who believe that Walt Disney is just about political correctness, they should watch this film and reevaluate their preconceived opinions.
And ever since I was eight, this has been a favorite of mine, a treasure I'll always cherish, I'm almost three decades older and I still tell my Dad if he remembers "Whooooo killed Cock Robin?". You bet he does!
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Unburying the Pain...
At the "Letters from Iwo Jima" press conference, young newcomers as well as established stars like Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya admitted that many aspects of the war were unknown to them. Some wounds were so great they had to be "buried" so the opening where soldiers' letters are taken from the dust by archaeologists works as a powerful metaphor of Clint Eastwood's cinematic accomplishment.
There are not many movies that show WWII from the perspective of Japan, not even from Japanese who still deem some memories as taboo. The country that brought us Kurosawa and Ozu didn't have its "Das Boot" or "Downfall" but interestingly, it's the world of animation that handled the painful theme of war with movies like "Barefoot Gen" and "Grave of the Fireflies" as if the brutality of war could never be painted in realistic traits and had to be channeled through the lyrical or hyperbolical artistry and philosophy of animation.
So it took an American director to make a realistic movie about Japanese soldiers, not as the "enemy" or the invisible force but as the flag-brandishing protagonists, with ambivalent courage and forgivable flaws. On that level, the film is masterpiece of nuance and intelligence, showing Japanese soldiers in a light we seldom see, not this over-patriotic nation submitted to the "Bushido" code, but people who question their own mortality and the meaning of duty under extreme situation. It is ironic that some characters' seemingly weaknesses are actually their most beautiful strength.
Yet watching it again, I wondered whether Clint Eastwood was a humanitarian or a pretender. There's no doubt he's a whiz of filmmaker and love how much restraint and depth he injects in stories where even talented directors can get overly sanctimonious. This was obviously one trap he couldn't fall in with this film, adapted by a Japanese-American woman of second or third generation from letters written by soldiers, it couldn't be a glorification of any sort, it's more of a moral confrontation to war from within and the way it interrogates the meaningless of all this mess, like French writer Celine describing the nobility of so-called cowardice in "Journey at the End of the Night."
I don't think Eastwood promotes cowardice, I didn't see his last movie dealing with French train attack, but I saw "American Sniper" and as much as I understand how a character like Chris Kyle inspired a patriot like Eastwood, I was wondering why the film didn't have a companion piece like "Letters from Iwo Jima" for "Flags of Our Fathers", a film to show the Iraqi war from the Arab viewpoint. Or am I being naïve? Eastwood is old enough to remember WWII and has probably grown up at the peak of American hostility toward Japan, but the ink of history pages has dried quicker than the blood on the Iwo Jima island and perhaps the wound of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still bleeding, but at least the two countries are in peace now, and there is an obviously mutual attraction. So maybe in 2050, we'll have an American director making a movie about Iraqi, or maybe am I being too naïve again?
September 11 is as infamous, if not more, than Pearl Harbor. It's not used as frequently, but I still remember how the word "Kamikaze" was mentioned by journalists referring to these suicide attacks, and "Iwo Jima" made me wonder whether the notion could be applied for both situations. The film clearly shows soldiers who are determined to die for the country, and commit suicide when they fail to accomplish their mission. There are not "kamikaze" attacks per se, but they highlight the same attachment to "martyrdom for a good cause".
But if even a modern audience can admit that defending your country's territory is good enough a cause, it will never accept terrorism as a legitimate form of fighting because it kills civilians, unless you deal with a filmmaker like Gillo Pontecorvo with his "Battle of Algiers". But speaking of civilians, how about the two nuclear bombs? One can say that America got away with it, because the technological hecatombs did stop Japan and ended the war, once and for all. The film doesn't mention them, but indirectly reveals how much of an atypical fighter Japan was, at its own expenses.
Japan would have never admitted that this was a lost battle, yet Yamamoto knew after Pearl Harbor that they had awakened a "sleeping giant". Some soldiers deemed as weak or submissive only wish not to die for nothing, which can be even worse than death itself, paraphrasing Patton, "the best way to win a war is to make the other bastard die for his country". A terrorist wants death, a real soldier wants to live. There was a scene in the film that showed the cruelty of war, two Japanese soldiers surrender and while they contemplate their life at peacetime, they're shot dead by their American guards.
I thought first it was cold-blooded murder, how about the Geneva conventions? But later, the Japanese squad comes and finds them dead, would have they killed the guards? We had just seen an American being bayoned to death and all we know is that the guards' intuition was right and they just didn't take a chance. Did they just want to kill the enemy or were they fearing their death, maybe this is the whole balance of war: conservative and killing instinct. And the way they sometimes overlap show the real hellish nature of war, when fighting or surrendering don't necessarily pay off.
The film shows the emotional predicaments Japanese went through, as soldiers, as men who had children, wives and mothers and I guess at the end it all comes down to what can be considered the film's arc quote and fittingly coming from a mother "whatever you think is right, will be right". Not that it solves the equation and that might explains why some memories were kept buried for years...
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
When British fair-play meets Foreign foul play...
Imagine you're in a train, falling asleep and waking up to find out that your travelling companion has suddenly disappeared and none of the other passengers seems to recall his existence. Many times we're doubting our own certitudes, but what if we're sneakily lured into that doubt? How strong peer pressure can get to make us embrace a truth we hold for untrue?
Hitchcock made many movies centering on conspiracies but they were all of political nature and we could identify both the villains and the implications of their lies. So do we in "The Lady Vanishes" but when even people who're obviously not part of the conspiracy have selfish reasons to deny the heroine's certitudes, you know you're dealing with cinematic treats only Chief Hitchcock can serve. Basically, he anticipates the plot-basis of "Gaslight" while transcending the classic "I swear it was here" cinematic trope.
But "The Lady Vanishes" is also a pivotal moment in his career, it was its success, both critical (still considered one of his best) and commercial (at that time the most successful British film ever) that prompted Darryl O. Selznick to bring Hitchcock to the United States, firmly (and rightfully) believing that the director had a future in Hollywood. The rest is history, and the lighthearted but heavy-loaded train thriller was until the 70's Hitchcock' final British film.
But did he know it?
While it's very likely that he contemplated Hollywood conquest in 1938, he had barely conquered his countrymen. "Secret Agent" was forgettable, "Sabotage" was excellent but the story lived for the sake of its heart-pounding climax (that forged the director's reputation as a master of suspense) and "Young and Innocent" didn't have that level of sophisticated craftsmanship Hitchcock used to bring on-screen. These films were good, but inserted in a timeline starting with "39" and ending with "Vanishes", they could hardly be called high spots.
But that makes the enthusiastic reception of the latter even more genuine and rewarding. Before quality, Hitchcock's prolificacy (one, sometimes two movies a year) was probably his best asset as he could never take a success for granted nor let a failure undermine his confidence. So, in 1938, he was finally given the right project, one with everything that could please the master starting with likable protagonists with motives of their own like in an Agatha Christie novel. Indeed, all these characters have their establishing moments in a first act that can work as a school case of exposition (and comedy).
The film starts in a hotel in the kind of typical unnamed country that could have inspired Wes Anderson for his "Grand Budapest Hotel". An avalanche has blocked the railroad and customers are welcomed to stay for the night. The gallery of tourists is rather colorful, there are two British men, Caldicott and Charters, obviously obsessed with a cricket game they shall not miss by any chance, and are forced to share the servant's room, for some reason, their sharing the same bed was so incongruous for a 30s film it was hilarious.
There's a group of three young socialites in a last tour over Europe, before their friend Iris (Margaret Lockwood) goes to London and marries some pre-arranged husband in London, there's Gilbert (a well-cast Flynn-like Michael Redgrave), a handsome expert in musicology who "plays musical chairs with elephants" at night, an anxious married man with his mistress and the lovable Mae Whitty as Mrs. Froy. She plays a retiring nurse going home to London and apparently eager to listen to a sweet ballad delivered in a serenade. So many things happen and so many are played for laughs that the potential plot devices or McGuffins might get overlooked, but they exist; you can bet on that.
I think one of the mark of the great directors is that they make movies you want to watch twice, Hitchcock is even greater because he makes movies you've got to watch twice, not because they're complicated but because the delight is enhanced by the second viewing. There's a moment where the train whistles so loud a name must be written in the window, that detail will play a pivotal moment later. But then you'll notice Hitchcock's wicked sense of humor when it comes to the notions of appearing and vanishing. Hitchcock toys with our emotions in a rather claustrophobic and nightmarish situation where everything's against someone, yet sometimes, it's so desperate you've got to laugh.
And Hitchcock seems to be in his territory when it comes to trains, like running metaphors of a plot heading to a destination, with villains likely to derail it or stop it. It also means that no one can leave it, so when you think about it, even the title has the right verb, creating a mystery within the mystery. It's not your "typical" detached thriller, Hitchcock even adds more density to his trademarks. Iris is a likable protagonist because she's not driven by a selfish motive, it's not about proving her innocence but rescuing a helpless person, actually, even villains are not deprived of human feelings.
Speaking of villains, there's something interesting in the plot construction. When the revelation comes, the third act turns into a heart-pounding battle between fellow British men, all grouped in the restaurant at the time of tea, and foreigners. As a product of their time, Hitchcock movies from the 30s dealt with espionage and counter-espionage with worldwide war as a threat, but never has a historical value been so blatant and prophetic when one of the characters decided to wave a white flag, the Munich context and Churchill's quote about "dishonor and war" couldn't have had been a better illustration.
"The Lady Vanishes" isn't just a wonderfully constructed thriller with fun screwball undertones, it's also a marker of talent and of time, and the best possible way for Hitchcock to end HIS time in Britain... but certainly not in the movies.
Young and Innocent (1937)
Saved by the belt...
"Young and Innocent" is a fine departure taken by Alfred Hitchcock after a streak of four movies centering on espionage. I must say I had my share of moles, unnamed hostile countries, Scotland Yard investigation, secret agents and all that's about killing, kidnapping and sabotage... and I was glad to watch a Hitchcock film that for once would deal with ordinary people... caught in 'extraordinary' situations. Of course with Hitchcock, watching a film is one thing, but it takes a second viewing to fully appreciate what's there to be appreciated.
The film starts with a marital argument, actually a post-divorce one, the husband (George Curzon) is devoured by anger and jealousy and accuses her wife, a well-known actress, of flirting and cheating ever since she became a star, neglecting the man who gave her a leg up. Once again, the camerawork indicates that we're dealing with a master: at the first viewing, I was only listening to the dialogue and boy, I could tell the two were angry, those slaps the husband (sorry, ex-husband) got at the end looked like she meant business. But I was so busy listening that I didn't pay attention to his getting close to the camera just so we could see him nervously twitching his eyes. Later, when he gets outside in the terrace, you see him twitching his eye again, I didn't catch it either.
This detail doesn't change much of the experience. When the corpse of the actress is found ashore by Robert (Derrick De Marney), we know, since this is a Hitchcock film, that he's going to take the blame instead of the ex-husband. But it's only when the nervous tic is mentioned that we realize we were dealing with the typical villain with a strong handicap, we also had to see him as a nervous chain-smoker, otherwise, the hint about his behavior would have been too contrived and the clue that lead to him (the matchbox in the pocket) too improbable. Basically, in one opening scene, Hitchcock reveals all we've got to know about the villain, but we see him so early that we're likely to forget about his face, and even that detail does pay off at the end.
What we don't forget about him though is that unlike the title "Young and Innocent", he's clearly old and guilty. So when the ill-fated young man runs to bring help, he's spotted by two girls who discover the corpse and scream of terror (love how their scream is 'covered' by the seagulls), we realize that Hitchcock hadn't abandoned all his darlings. His last films featured bad men mistaken for good persons, here we have a honest boy everything accuses, the cause of death is revealed to be strangulation with a trench coat's belt, Robert remembers having his stolen many days ago. A simple belt becomes an accusing piece of evidence just like the brooch in "Frenzy", actually, there's something delightful in Hitchcock's fetishism with small objects of items of clothing that can become dangerous weapons, stockings, rope, ties and belts. The talent of Hitchcock consists of materializing 'screenplay devices' so that viewers can better focus on them, the innocence depends on a belt, the identification of the villain on twitches or a matchbox. There's always a small object or a detail that drives the story.
Many examples in this film, after being grilled by the police, Robert faints and then the daughter of the Police Commissioner Erica (Nova Pilbeam) applies her rescuing talents. This is less for the sake of a love at first sight, later the same helping instinct that will make her find to the villain. An incompetent lawyer won't be of any help but not if the hero can take his glasses and slip through the net. Money is important too, in a trivial dinner with her brothers, the geeky one mentions that without money, the fugitive won't go far because of hunger, it's simple but true. At that moment, we recall that he gave all he got to his lawyer and to a pumping attendant, lawyer and we can basically read the same thinking process in Erica's eyes.
There's an economy of details but never ineffective because Hitchcock manages to wrap everything and tell a solid story in eighty minutes. The quest to the trench coat has stops by a birthday party where all the nervous excitement depends on their attempts to avoid the treacherous questions of a nosy aunt (Mary Clare) and yet she'll get suspicious enough to get Erica's father (played by sympathetic actor Percy Marmont) on their trail. The second step is the finding of Old Will, a gentle hobo (Edward Rigbu) who's got the trench coat without the belt, all he's got is two clues about the bad guy. Which all leads to an unforgettable climax where the hero is surprisingly absent but that's typical Hitchcock, the plot matters more than the protagonists, especially when the antagonists are more interesting.
The film is known for its long crane shot where the camera pans progressively through a hotel ballroom to focus on a drummer. We don't recognize him immediately but we see his twitches. At that point, there's something delightfully thrilling in the way the situation seems hopeless, the Police came to arrest Erica and there's no way Old Will can recognize the man, he's too far away and he's in blackface. But once again, with no words, Hitchcock proves that he can transcend the material of a poor story and puts is in the villain's perspective, someone who committed murder and sees cops coming and circling the place can't feel at ease, no contrivance right here, it makes sense.
So many screenwriters are struggling to find the most plausible way to make the big reveal, Hitchcock is just trusting his directing and storytelling methods, it's precisely because the beginning says everything that the ending wraps up the film perfectly. It's not Hitchcock's most known work but it does work!
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Men Are from Seattle. Women Are from Baltimore.
"Sleepless in Seattle", sleeper hit of 1993, was written and directed by the late Norah Ephron, Best Original Screenplay nominee for this film and for "When Harry Met Sally..." and director of 1998's "You've Got M@il". The three movies, all starring Meg Ryan, and Tom Hanks for the last two, form an unofficial trilogy that explores an idea romances only tend to overfly: "what does it mean to be meant for each other?".
And each film had an interesting angle. "When Harry Met Sally..." was about the evolution of relationships, a man and a woman who couldn't really stand each other until they realize that it was more about "understanding". Maturity, coupled with a few failures, highlighted their convergences so they became friends. It all came down to one question "is friendship an end or a step?". "You've Got M@il" updated the story for the AOL and Internet age, it was about two person who were in "Harry vs. Sally" mode for the most part but discovered they had far more in common when they were two computer screens apart.
In these two movies, there was a key element: the two protagonists knew each other, so in both cases, you couldn't possibly fall in love with a total stranger. But isn't that notion of stranger or acquaintance overrated? Surely, the rom-com witty sociologist couldn't leave the fairy tale alone and ignore the possibility of two people falling in love without knowing each other, or without sharing more than two minutes of screen-time. I think this is a reason enough to love the film, if it doesn't reinvent the wheel and has it share of forgivable contrivances, let's give the credit to Ephron to have made a romance whose concept is beautifully rendered in the poster where the two protagonists stare at each other while obviously being many time zones apart.
"Sleepless in Seattle" has a shamelessly romantic premise but it knows how to insert it into the realities of life. The first minutes are sad and emotional and shows a man devastated by the loss of his wife and wisely telling his young boy Jonah (Ross Malinger) that it's no use asking why these things happen (or was it a voice-over?). The man is Sam Baldwin and he's played by Tom Hanks in one of his last long curly-haired "comedic" roles. After the film, he'd cut them short for "Philadelphia" and the rest of the decade and become Hollywood's darling. I just miss pre-millennial comedic Hanks although comedic isn't necessary indicative of his role. So Sam understand that staying in Chicago is a no-option as it will constantly remind him of his wife so he moves to Seattle, and the opening credits start.
Meanwhile we meet Annie, an optimistic woman engaged with Walter, the nicest man ever but who seems to suffer from every kind of allergy, the man is played by Bill Pullman, and I'm glad that for the most ungrateful role as the disposable fiancé, they picked someone who could have been believable in Hanks' shoes. Ryan is just adorable as the idealistic girl floating on a cloud until a fateful night where she listens to a radio programed named "Sleepless in Seattle" and where Jonah talks about his father's difficulties to mourn his mother, later Sam takes the phone and opens his hearts to millions of listeners, especially female, creating the first and unique cinematic collective case of "love at first hearing".
Annie doesn't exactly love Sam but she just can't resist contemplating the possibility that he might be the one, there's something just too formal with Walter and she's scared at the prospect of spending her whole life with "what if" questions. Sometimes, love doesn't come from the person than the idea of this person and how it would hold up. I guess the most interesting part from the film is that Sam wasn't stuck in his "lonely widower" position and decided to take the reins of his life and date women, and even more surprisingly, there was some genuine chemistry with Victoria (Barbara Garrick) but it seems like her hyena-like laughing was the equivalent of David's allergy, the obligatory mood killer.
I'm not sure I liked the way Jonah behaved, too precociously at times to be believable but those where the 90's. And you've got to appreciate the way the film allows these contrivances to happen but without undermining our own feelings about Sam and Annie being meant for each other. There's a moment where Annie is shown peeling an apple in one long spiral and later, the pay-off comes when Sam tells Jonah that it's details like this that made his mother was unique to him. The film also takes the right distance from its concept own by allowing Sam and Annie to "meet" at two separate instances. Naturally, the romance does an excellent job at creating the perfect missed opportunities, we know the game, we've been there, and it's part of the deal.
And at that point of the review, my only regret is that I didn't see "An Affair to Remember", I would have loved to juxtapose the two movies. But I love how the film is used as a running gag showing that there are a few irremediable differences between men and women (something that wouldn't pass today given the current gender ramifications, characters would ask "what's a man?", "what's a woman?") and I love how the film is used as leitmotif, just as other impossible love stories like "Casablanca" in "When Harry Met Sally..;" and "Pride and Prejudice" in "You've Got M@il".
And it's interesting you know because Ephron separates between love as-in-the-movies and love as-in-her-movies, but at the end, they just work the same, maybe the underlying message is "yes, real life can work like in the movies".
Hitchcock back in shape after the disappointing "Secret Agent"...
Indeed, "Secret Agent" was a disappointment to me and for many reasons. Gielgud wasn't bad, but he wasn't Robert Donat and his flat performance might explain why he and Hitchcock never collaborated again. His companion played by an over-the-top Peter Lorre was too goofy even in his sinister moments to sustain the gravitas of the plot, when there was any. In fact, the thriller went in too many directions, indecisive about its status as straight thriller, character study or fun escapism.
But "Sabotage" puts the cards in the table right away. The film, loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad's novel, takes place in London at a time where America was stricken by the Great Depression and Europe witnessing the rise of fascism and totalitarian regimes, Britain was still a colonial empire and geopolitically, an oasis of relative stability and democracy so that the only potential threat in peacetime was espionage and sabotage. What's a sabotage?
Well, the film's opening with the dictionary page inspired me three reactions. First, I was wondering whether that creative license didn't inspire Quentin Tarantino for "Pulp Fiction". Secondly, I thought it was a splendid idea to give a technical definition of what seemed an obvious term, like an iconoclastic 'tell-and-show' move from Hitchcock. And finally, I couldn't help but think how the definition matched today's terrorism. Indeed, one couldn't call the climactic sequence "sabotage".
But one can certainly call it one of the most intense and suspenseful ten minutes from any film. My memory might fail me but I remember that scene from a documentary about Scorsese's main inspirations. Never mind where I got it, but I had that mysterious image of a boy carrying a parcel with a bomb for years and years. Speaking of Scorsese, he referred to the dream sequence of "Vertigo" as a mini-film within the film, one can say the same thing about the climax of "Sabotage".
Hitchcock's quote about the difference between 'surprise' and 'suspense' is well known by movie lovers. Two men having a conversation and a bomb underneath the table explodes will provide fifteen seconds of surprise but if we know that the bomb will explode at 1 o'clock, their conversation becomes more fascinating and we're literally hung to what happens on the screen, we just want them to get out, then suspense provides fifteen minutes of suspense.
Watching this scene created a feeling of uneasiness, for the set-up first. I couldn't believe the cruelty of the villain who risks the life of his wife's little brother (Desmond Tester) for a job he's been assigned to. Oscar Homolka, as the sinister cinema owner Verloc, doesn't look like the murderer type, he expresses at some point his reluctance to cause loss of life. He's basically a goon, a luggage-carrier, not muscle, only a man capable to put sand in London electricity grid to provoke a massive blackout, but when you think about it, such men are capable to be driven to extreme actions when they're trapped.
It's generally a comedic device when an inoffensive person is used to for a dangerous delivery so he wouldn't raise any suspicion, but in "Sabotage" the idea comes when Verloc discovers that Scotland Yard has an eye on him and the Detective played by John Loder is having a "talk" with his wife. Verloc is like a cornered rat and can only fight back by resorting to the most desperate measure, asking a child to literally carry death to Piccadily Circus.
Hitchcock is no sadistic but he knows our heart is hooked with little Stevie, so he punctuates his path with many events that delays his mission such as a procession or a street vendor using him for painful and humiliating demonstrations. Hitchcock enhances our empathy while providing lighthearted moments that might mislead us about Stevie's fate. Surely after all these annoyances, he'll manage to put the parcel under the cloak room and come back safely. But then the frenetic editing goes, he's still got the parcel and we're a few seconds from 1.45.
Could Hitchcock use another victim than a child? No because empathy could only work if he knew one of the victims, much more an innocent one and on that level, I wonder if the bombing sequence in "Battle of Algiers" wasn't inspired by the film. Secondly, the main protagonist, played by Silvia Sidney, needed a motive to kill her husband. Indeed, for a movie that deals with British threats from within, Hitchcock takes one step forward and give it a domestic dimension.
Realizing that her husband is responsible for the death of her brother, she stabs him with a knife. The trickiest part is that he's done such a great job maintaining a 'honest citizen' façade, that she's basically a murderer at that point. The film ends with a turn of events that get rid of the two villains and of any evidence incriminating her, two birds with the same stone, as foreshadowed by Verloc. However, right before the "cleansing" explosion, a distraught Mrs. Verloc said her husband was dead. But the explosion came so instantly that the detective wondered later whether it came before or after.
A matter of half-a-second wrapped up the plot and provided some comedic relief to end a rather dark movie. I criticized the ending of "Secret Agent" but "Sabotage" ended with the note that proved that Hitchcock was back in shape with a first-rate thriller. The light-hearted "39 Steps" opened with 'Music Hall' letters lighting up, "Sabotage" with a big light-bulb and London's plunged into blackout, maybe announcing his darker masterpieces.
My only complaint comes from the fan of Disney's "Who Killed Cock Robin?", where I wished the audience didn't overplay the laughs at the film's start, the funnier parts would come later, but at least when the arrow hits the bird, Sylvia Sydney had the right reaction, the cartoon could be dark indeed, like the film.
But it had to be dark, leaving the kid alive would have been cinematic sabotage.
Secret Agent (1936)
Well, even Hitchcock's "failures" are interesting...
Failure might not be the right word to describe "Secret Agent" but it would be a lie to say that the film stands among his best work, especially when you consider the masterpiece he's made one year before.
Maybe Hitchcock peaked too soon with "The 39 Steps" and still needed to polish his style but the film contained all the ingredients of escapism and entertainment while "Secret Agent" can only count on a competent cast, Hitchcock's confident directing but rather forgettable material as far as the plot goes.
The film is an adaption of a Sommerset Maugham's spy-themed novel with World War I as the backdrop but unlike its predecessor (and to some degree "The Man Who Knew Too Much") the film goes in too many directions for its own good, it tries to be a serious character study with a romantic subplot yet it was obviously conceived as a lighthearted spy thriller. At the end, we get many mood whiplashes between scenes meant to be serious and highlighting the hazardous job of 'secret agents' and moments you couldn't take seriously even as comedy.
There are many thrilling parts of course, some of them are purely Hitchcockian but they actually work better than their set-ups. Hitchcock just forgets to warm up his audience like a coach would do to his players before a game. Or maybe did I feel that way because the main character Brodie aka Richard Ashenden, played by John Gielgud, left me cold?
Gielgud plays a British soldier and novelist who finds out the news about his death, then learns from a man named "R" that he's assigned to find and kill a German spy trying to stir disorder in the Middle-East. The least that can be said is that he's not ecstatic about the mission, the only good news is that there is a "Mrs. Ashenden" assigned to help him, Elsa Carrington played by "39" star Madeleine Carroll.
But Gielgud plays such a "colorful" fellow that he needed an extravagant foil, so he's seconded by the "Hairless Mexican" aka the "General" an elfin version of Gomez Addams with frizzy hair, not a general nor a Mexican, but for all I know, Peter Lorre could pass as red-haired Viking if it guaranteed genuine moments of nervous scares. Put together, his diminutive size and his instinct for killing make him quite uncomfortable to watch, reminding us how the actor of "M" was born to play sinister villains whose sad eyes could still inspire sympathy. Now, maybe Lorre meant well and needed to make up for Gielgud's wooden acting but sometimes he tries too hard and you might as well imagine Ralph Fiennes impersonating a constipated Christopher Plummer while pairing with Joe Pesci playing Leo-Getz while channeling Tommy De Vito. For once, the Hitchcockian sense of humor humor and the suspense that keeps you on the edge mix like oil and water. At the end, the most Hitchcockian of all characters is Robert Young, who plays the flirtatious and hammy Marvin, Brodie's "rival".
So, this is an oddball but sympathetic "menage a trois" with a fourth wheel assigned to a mission on which rely the lives of millions of British men. A military man, a woman who became an agent "for kicks" and a little buffoon with an Harpo-like obsession. While we follow the unlikely trio throughout the mission, many moments stand out: the first murder where the lasting sound of an organ never stops, creating an ominous atmosphere in the church, only to reveal that the organist was dead all along head on the keyboard and the clue from that murder... leading to another murder, far more dramatic.
The killing of the presumed spy intercut with the howling of his dachshund was pretty powerful and indicated an interesting shift of tone. But what could have been a pivotal moment of the film was handled in such a casual way I couldn't take it seriously anymore. Just when I accepted that they were too soft for the job, I couldn't believe they wouldn't literally breakdown at the thought of killing an innocent man. The General's reaction made sense at least, Brodie seemed as distraught as if had spilled broken his grandmother's china and Elsa thought it was the moment to open her heart to Brodie. Was I the only one who cared for Mr. Caypor?
The rest of the film is good without being transcending, the chocolate factory scene with the covered noise is one of these Hitchcockian treats served in delicious packages and with a nice wrap, though it has a feeling of deja tasted. And the climactic sequence indicates Hitchcock's early predilection for memorable climactic settings or the clever uses of trains, if the film was one tenth the intensity of its last ten minutes, it might have been "one of these Hitchcock films".
Maybe it's because Young and Lorre steal the show while Gielgud and Carroll gets over-carried by the romance. Young is the suave and not so dumb villain and Lorre is just a tad too psychopathic but of course the two die at the end and one of them in the dumbest possible way, I guess it had to end with the triumphing couple... although Elsa did nothing to make the mission help, and came close to ruining the whole plot. But all ends well that goes well, the British side is shown victorious and "R." gets a telegram where the Brodie and Elsa announce that they quit.
And now there's a mistake Hitchcock would never have done in his prime, the director loved abrupt endings that wrapped things up. And the telegram said everything we needed to know so we didn't need that last close up on their happy faces, it looked corny and incongruous and Gielgud is not Stewart or Grant when it comes to display happiness.
I guess "Secret Agent" was a forgotten Hitchcock because it's a forgettable Hitchcock movie or just a forgettable film, period.
The 39 Steps (1935)
The first step in Hitchcock's ascension to greatness...
M-U-S-I-C-H-A-L-L. Letters light up, one after another... Hitchcock is literally spelling out the word for us like a ringmaster who wants to get his audience's attention. Or the God of filmmaker who after years of experimentation could finally say "let there be light".
So light appeared. And a jingle started. And another ringmaster presented to a warmed up audience "Mr. Memory": a man whose brain memorize information like data in a computer. You've got to admire the sarcastic (and quite realistic) way his talent is welcomed by the unimpressed crowd, many quips and witty questions highlight the talent of the screenwriters more than Memory's intellectual power... but it also foreshadows one of the film's fundamental theme: serious people not being taken seriously.
As a matter of fact, all the fundamentals of a Hitchcock classic inhabit "The 39 Steps". What else can you say you about the tale of a gentleman caught mistaken for a murderer and forced to escape from the Police in order to prove his innocence and prevent some security secrets from being stolen by a spy organization and meanwhile handcuffed to a blonde woman. The film might be the adaptation of an early century novel from John Buchan, but Hitchcock made it HIS baby.
More than any director, he knew that filmmaking wasn't an innocent art and had to draw its audience by tickling the most shameful instincts, his first film opened with 'respectable' smoking-clad men lustfully drooling over sexy dancers, that said all. And the plot here is set when a mysterious but pretty woman invites herself to a man's apartment, she does act suspiciously but is there a single man fool enough not to let a beautiful woman (or any kind of women actually) in his house?
Hitchcock was an expert when it came to gray areas, he identified a thin line between the movie experience and voyeurism, but his greatest invention was the "mistaken identity". When he wanted to cast Ivor Novello as a bad guy for "The Lodger", the studios refused in order to protect his matinee idol image. And then he resourcefully made him a good man mistaken for a villain, one of his most popular trademarks. Before Hitchcock, cops and killers were belonging to separate worlds, Hitch conceived characters deprived of that element of obviousness, even villains could start as good guys.
And there were good villains all right in his previous movies, Peter Lorre was simply superb in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" but does anyone remember Leslie Banks? Hitchcock knew audience wasn't interested in "boring hero" prototypes and by casting Robert Donat as Hannay, suave wisecracking but determined gentleman, he invented the type of protagonist Cary Grant would be a delight to watch play. Donat's handsomeness isn't just eye-candy, it makes sense in the first scene (an ugly man would have been more suspicious if he was approached by Lucy Mannheim) and creates a wonderful misunderstanding in the prayer scene with Peggy Ashcroft.
That scene alone shows how Hitchcock can do so much with economical efforts, the grouchy peasant (John Laurie) is reciting a prayer and Hannay looks at a newspaper front-page saying he's wanted by the Police. The wife notices it and looks at him scared, he tries to reassures her and the husband take their stares as flirtation. Not only Hitchcock is a master of silent verbalism but he also allows supporting characters irrelevant to the plot shine and give us glimpses of their lives little. The same goes with the couple of innkeepers. The plot matters but it doesn't matter at the expense of details.
And that's the Hitchcock mark, he's perhaps the first director to have audience think "that's typical Hitchcock" (like the wonderful moment where a corpse is discovered) and it's precisely because he created that bond with the audience that he could get away with a few implausible things, for the sake of thrills and fun, like a Tintin adventure. Hitch was a pragmatic director who knew his priorities. Still, the contrivance from the novel that he fixed was the one that made Hannay jump in the lion's den, in the film it wasn't a coincidence and done in a simple and effective (and wickedly funny) way.
Escapism is the key to understand Hitchcock, who had a unique flair for the ways to arouse audience. One of his most notable inventions here is the use of the McGuffin: the plot device that drives the story while being irrelevant, we never know the object but we know the stakes and that's enough. And so much for plausibility, Hitchcock employs the McGuffin all along without being enslaved to it. His attention is in the mix of tricks, thrills and fun, not to mention the naughty stuff. So if the plot allows him to create new archetypes such as the villain with a notable physical trait (or lack of), there was also the character wonderfully played by Madeleine Carroll, the seminal icy sophisticated blonde.
Hitch was a man of paradox and loved women who played it cool, who resisted, yet who were full of sensuality. Carroll is handcuffed with Donat at some point and they must pretend to be a couple, in one of the most memorable scenes, she must take her stocking off while her partner's hand is almost touching her knees. There was no Code Hays in Britain but look how Hitch pretends the focus is on the way the stockings will be taken off without the man's hand touching the leg, while most viewers will rather watch her beautiful legs. It's pure sexual tension in delightful 30's fashion, not to mention the fun parallel between marriage and imprisonment.
In fact, what makes "The 39 Steps" so fresh is how Hitch never ceases to surprise you step by step, and just when you think it will all lead to some spectacular climax on the top of the 39th one, you realize that all along you were climbing on the Penrose Stairs.
Man on Wire (2008)
For the better (and sometimes, the worse), nothing is impossible...
I know this sounds corny, the kind of stuff borrowed from any underdog story, but having recently watched "Rudy" might have disabled my cynicism and I dare anyone not to believe that anything is indeed possible once you set your mind to it, after watching James Marsh' Oscar-winning "Man on Wire".
This is one of the most thrilling, captivating and inspiring documentaries you'll ever see. The film consists of archive footage, a few recreated scenes and many interviews but within its simplicity, it speaks a thousand words about the power of human determination, of Philippe Petit, a man with a crazy passion, but a passion nonetheless, a crazy dream, but a dream nonetheless... and his struggle to make it possible in a short span of time. The man walked on a wire between the two World Trade Center towers. And even he at some point thought it was impossible while it was just difficult. As the proverb says, triumph without perils brings no glory.
So he did it, and he didn't just walk, according to the NYPD sergeant who was waiting for him to get on the ground, he danced, laid on the wire and walked for 45 minutes before coming to his senses. We guess from the start that the walking will be kept for the climax, it's all in the way the film portrays the whole operation and even if it's mostly told by narration, it functions like a great caper film. All the archetypes are reunited: the leader, the timing, the more-or-less reliable sidekicks and last-minute newcomers, the brain of the operation (Jean-Louis Blondeau), the foreign sidekick (Mark, the Australian), the romantic interest (Annie Allix), and even an inside man working in the Towers.
It's one of these cases where truth is stranger, sometimes even more contrived, than fiction, some pass as deliverymen, others as office workers, they get false badges, they stay hidden hours under tarps surrounded by guards whose incompetence would have been unbelievable in a real movie. There's a moment where Petit circles around a pillar on the opposite side of a guard and even runs into him, had the cop just turned his back and it was over. Even when they met at the two towers, a falling cable adds to the suspense and force them to postpone the operation till the morning when they're all exhausted but the elevator seems to work, when it's now or never.
And still, there's more to appreciate about the film before the walking, starting with this dedication to what they call the 'Coup' and whose roots begin with childhood. Petit, when he was 'petit', loved to climb things and walk on ropes, he had that 'daredevil' thing in mind and became a unicycle rider, a street-juggler and a wire-walker. He made his bones in Notre Dame de Paris then Sidney Harbour Bridge but the real epiphany came at a dentist office when a magazine cover announced the upcoming inauguration of the Twin Towers, the highest edifices in the world. It became an evidence; one he could materialize with a simple drawing. Two vertical rectangles and a line and you have a dream, draw a stick figure on it, and you have your Man on Wire.
And what a man indeed. Fittingly name Petit, Phillipe is an elfin, voluble and funny raconteur, once you hear him, you understand how his friend and girlfriend were easily drawn to his charisma. We need people who think that nothing is impossible because we need to believe that this world has more to offer than reality and routine, that's why we love magic, to raise beyond the banality of our world. On August 7th, 1974, people raised their heads to see a man offering them that gift. And it was a gift as during his journey, Petit took the time to kneel on the wire and wave at the photographer like a salute to those who can grab the beauty of his gesture. Ironically, many pictures were taken because, for all the meticulous planning, they forgot to turn the cameras on.
The rest is history and of course, while watching the film, it's impossible not to keep in mind that decades after, people would raise their head to see planes crashing into the towers. September 11 is like a ghost haunting a rather cheerful and inspirational documentary, perhaps the evil side of the same message, nothing is indeed impossible even for the worst. I guess like many others, I was misled by the opening credits that show the childhood pictures of Petit paralleled with the building of the Towers, and I thought the conclusion would evoke the tragic event. But like many others, retrospectively, I'm glad it wasn't mentioned. The film makes us mourn the Towers already without spoiling its joyful mood.
And what remains is a remarkable lesson about life. Even tightrope walking is a great metaphor of life, the first step you take, the nerve to do it and then just follow your heart and go, you can stop, you can have a rest, but you don't look back...still, you can look down. Petit does look down because he knows it's a view of a lifetime, and actually looking down helped him to overcome his fear. When he saw how cold, windy and dangerous the altitude was, he needed to understate the heights it by riding over the top of the towers in a helicopter.
The trick worked but I don't think even that could have stopped Petit, he knew it was impossible and that's why he did it. Why he did it? He has no explanation, like Forrest Gump, he felt like doing it. And that's the best message of the film, it's not much what we want to do, but the determination to do it that inspires people. I don't know if I admire Petit for his stunt more than his nerve, but I know that whatever I don't achieve, I'll blame it on myself. Nothing is impossible indeed.
The Prestige (2006)
"The Prestige" starts well but cheats with its own premise...
There are many kinds of magic: wizardry à la 'Harry Potter', illusions or hallucinations, or entertaining shows: mediums, rabbits in top-hats, women sawed in half, bag-content guessing, magic cards etc.
Speaking of cards, Christopher Nolan's "Prestige", made between two 'Batman' movies, lays its cards at the first voice-over monologue where we immediately recognize Michael Caine's smooth voice. It's about the third kind of magic and provides the three structural rules of an act: it starts with the Pledge: you show something normal then the Turn, you make it do something extraordinary... but there's an element of expectation and the higher your reputation goes, the more sophisticated the public. In fact, there's got to be something unpredictable, so it all comes down to the Prestige, the trick no one sees coming and will earn magicians applauses and guess what? prestige.
Then, the least you can expect from the film is to follow these three rules even in the loosest possible way if it means wowing you with a spectacular surprise. And given that it's a Nolan film about the deadly art of illusion, much more opening with the killing of a magician, the imprisonment of his rival whom everything accuses, your twist-radar is set from the start, so not any twist will do. Whatever the prestige will be, if it's not venturing in the realm of feasibility, something will have been missed. We're dealing with magic after all, not fantasy, not sci-fi. I insist on the sci-fi element because the film opens with some electrical contraption that shakes its credibility from the start until a reassuring trap door shows and we can let a sight of relief go.
French called electricity a Fairy so it all makes sense that magicians would use it as a device for generating illusion, just like rivals Edison and Tesla were perceived as wizards. After all, it's also established that magic is about what you see and what you don't and the use of lights and darkness is integral to the act. Still, I didn't like that machine. It felt incongruous and weird in a period drama and I was afraid Nolan would end up inserting some Batman-like device. And when he said in the "making of" video that he wanted to portray magic according to his personal vision of film-making, I thought "no kidding?", I'm pretty sure everyone got the parallel, especially when magical acts use special effects worthy of a Spielberg film.
So Nolan gets a little carried away at the end while the first two acts of the movie had really gotten me involved, I mean the escalating rivalry between the two magicians Alfred Bowden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and their attempts to destroy one's act or find one's secret. What Nolan got right is that the rivalry mostly works as a foil to plunge us in the world of magic and know all the tricks. After all, that's the greatest thrill about magic, seeing how it works. For instance, the way a magician puts a dove in a cage and then flattens it to magically making the dove reappear under a handkerchief always made me scratch my head... but in this Dickensian universal and where there's no pity for little children, why should there for innocent animals?
The trigger of the rivalry also helps to understand how one of the most famous magic tricks, the "escape from the tank water" that made Houdini's reputation, is indirectly explained. Working as false audience members, Bowden and Angier are assigned to tie the magician's pretty assistant (Piper Perabo), one of them makes the kind of knot that doesn't leave any chance for the poor girl, who happens to be the other's wife. We gather that from then, it's personal. Another pivotal moment occurs when one conceives his masterpiece, an act that consists on getting in a door and coming out of another. He calls it "The Transported Man", for us, it looks like teleportation and it justifies why the rival is devoured by jealousy, although Caine's character can only see one explanation: there must be a double. At that point of the review, it's impossible to go further without spoiling the film. It's engaging enough to make you forget there's a twist but it's not spoiling the film to say that there's a twist, since it's the essence of magic. You've got to wow the audience with a surprise at the end. With the seemingly death of a character right at the start of the film, the battle to know everyone's tricks and the existence of a double, anyone could reassemble the pieces of the puzzle. But you know Nolan has more than a trick in his sleeve and that's both a blessing and a curse. Granted anticipations are to be toyed a little to be emotionally rewarded, all he had to do was working on the narrative structure to make what we know first a more effective reveal or a shock.
Instead of that, Nolan relied on a far fetched revelation combined with an implementation that destroyed the whole atmosphere built throughout the film. From the start, we follow magicians who are dedicated to their passion, which is good, but the escalation toward sadism and some ends-justifying-the-means means made their whole approach to their art debatable, leaving no room for sympathy. In this cruel battle of wits, women are reduced to disposable pawns (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannsen would get more dimensional roles in a certain Woody Allen's movie).
The first two acts, we can call them 'pledges' and 'turns' are great but then the film goes downhill. One thing for sure, I hated that Tesla Machine, and no offense to David Bowie, but Tesla was quite a handsome fellow whom I doubt spoke with such a heavy British accent. Nolan wanted his film-making to echo magic, but he let the reverse thing operate.
A Shot in the Dark (1964)
The man who knew so little that he didn't know so much...
A woman comes out of jail, everything around is gray except for a colorful assortment of balloons a salesman is holding. Sure it's not meant to fool us... then why are we laughing when the salesman finally reveals his face and it is Inspector Clouseau working undercover? Clouseau doesn't have time to follow his target that a cop asks him if he's got a license, if you pay close attention, half a second, Clouseau seems to try to get off the ground... with the balloons? The next shot shows that he didn't, he's hauled off in a police van with the balloons floating outside, a sight gag... for the road!
That's the secret of "A Shot in the Dark", it is funny on three levels: unpredictability, predictability and one within another. In a movie where a detective trained his Chinese servant to attack him at the least expected moment, anything can basically happen at anytime. When he tries to get a grab on a spinning globe or impress his assistant about his sense of deduction or impress with his pool skills, we're always one step ahead of him and anticipate the disaster. But it's all in the reaction of Clouseau, the seminal bumbling detective, the high profile inspector who's the right man for the right situation, but it all depends from which perspective you're speaking. If you really believe his incompetence serves the villains, you have another thing coming. There's no logic in Clouseau, the only logic is : make'em laugh.
One year prior to the film, Blake Edwards made Peter Sellers a star with his most iconic role and introduced the world to perhaps the last icon of the Golden Age of Animation, and his signature music signed by Henry Mancini. I said in my review of "The Pink Panther" that the film ended with the perfect note. Clouseau stealing David Niven's thunder was the perfect indicator of the real driving force of the movie (the panther's cameo was the cherry on the cake). And I expected Clouseau to be a major player in the sequel. "A Shot in the Dark" doesn't disappoint on that level, the only thing missing is the Pink Panther in the credits, but the film wasn't meant as a follow-up to the original and Sellers is strong enough to carry it alone.
Still, the film starts with a nice tribute to the trope forever associated with Mancini's jazzy signature. It opens with a wonderful choreography of nighttime sneakiness, people tiptoeing all over a residence, getting from one room to another, a lovers-and-mistresses ballet that goes for almost five minutes, in a long uninterrupted and beautifully directed shot. There's no Panther's theme but Shirley Bassey's "Dreams of Paris" song, haunting like a James Bond's theme. a melody so hypnotic that we would almost miss what happens. I had to replay the intro and keep concentrating on who was who and who did what. Retrospectively, it doesn't really matter if you miss what happens so the joke was on me.
I initially thought there would be a plot, but that's Blake Edwards' talent, when confusion is deliberate, even zaniness can glides beneath the surface of class and elegance. So the opening ends with a gunshot. Watching the film, I was reminded of that Tex Avery's "Who Killed Who" episode where a detective pushed a button to call the suspect and the usual suspects immediately popped up: mean-looking maid, butler and chauffeur. Here, the chauffeur has gone the way of the dodo, but the gardener, the maid, the plumber, the rich man, his wife, are all reunited like in an Agatha Christie story. Everything seems to accuse Maria, the maid, who was found holding a smoking gun, she has no alibi, but she catches the eye and heart of Inspector Clouseau.
Does he suspect her or does he try not to suspect her? As he says "I suspect everyone and no one" which kind of sums up the way he handles the whole investigation. Who am I kidding? The only word to sum up the investigations stands in four words: "gags", the film is a series of hilarious moments, running (and driving) gags that explore the best of Sellers' comedic talent, and the feeblest of them manages to extract chuckles and smiles. "A Shot in the Dark" isn't exactly a parody in the 'Monty Python' or "Naked Gun' meaning but the humor is no less effective, it's like a whole piece of art crafted in order to generate laugh or never leave a dull moment, even Elke Sommer creates a fun pairing with Sellers, even George Sanders manages to maintain his 'heavy' composure in a lighthearted film.
Once you get that it's all for the jokes that it's played, you just enjoy the film for what it is. But Blake Edwards is a sneaky fellow you know, it might take time before you really grab how hungry for your laughs the film is and you might follow it as if it was indeed a straight investigation. That's ignoring the escalation toward madness from Clouseau's Chief (Herbert Lom) and to put it simply, an ending you wouldn't see coming. I can't spoil it but the last five minutes alone justifies why the film ended as the sole representative of the "Pink Panther" series in AFI's Top 100 Comedies. That Edwards and Sellers didn't get along is baffling, both have been raised by silent comedy and their directing and acting skills really peaked with that one.
Sellers reminds of Louis de Funès, the kind of actor who'd never let a detail miss, in a scene where he asks two sidekicks to wink as a signal, he'd notice that one of them winks better than the other and the whole scene turns into an winking routine. Sellers has many routines like this in "A Shot in the Dark", but it sure never gets routinely.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
"If I could remove Mickey Rooney, I would be thrilled with the movie"
The statement concluded the DVD commentary of Richard Shepherd, co-producer with Martin Jurow of 1961 classic "Breakfast at Tiffany's", Audrey Hepburn's signature role as the "woman who get 50$ to go to the powder room" or to put it à la "Friends": the one with the black Givenchy dress and the cigarette holder.
That Mickey Rooney is still mentioned at the end of the commentary says how much a burden he is for the film's legacy. Shepherd' feelings echo those of thousands of viewers, including myself, who just love the film and consider Rooney's 'yellow face' performance as Mr. Yunioshi a disgraceful stain that needlessly soiled a classic romantic comedy.
And I've seen romantic comedies, whether in the big Applesauce or any other town in the world, the direction is always the same: guy-gets-girl. But I was misguided about the film. A Youtube thumbnail showed Miss Hepburn crying alone in the backseat of a car and I thought it was the film's ending scene... when in fact, just in time, Holly realized she was renouncing true love (stud George Peppard) for some gold-digging dreams... and worse, she had just abandoned her cat. That was a satisfying climatic reunion, if only because she could find the Cat. And I've seen rain kisses too, but that one satisfied me like a few did, I wanted it, Holly Golightly was such a lively and sparkling personality she could miss everything but a happy ending.
A happy ending for a great film with great acting (even the cat was good) but again, Mickey Rooney's gesticulation, buck teeth and speech pattern that made him closer to Donald Duck that any Japanese person who ever existed. He's got such a small part they could just have put a real Asian man or just Rooney playing an ordinary guy.
This is going to be a riddle for the ages. How can a film so effective in its depiction of upper and sleazier New York City, of parties where people get drunk and wild, and I mean wild, where Martin Balsam takes a woman twice his size for a bathtub kiss, where George Peppard is the 'kept man' (euphemism for gigolo) to a Patricia Neal pulling a Tallulah Bankhead, where Miss Audrey Hepburn, of all the actresses, plays a prostitute (although it's never explicited), how can such a bold and mature film allowed this abomination to happen?
Of course, the film sugarcoated the original material from Truman Capote's novel, Holly isn't bisexual anymore and Paul is infatuated with her like the obligatory romantic leading man and is painted in more virile traits (at Peppard's request for some scenes) while his book counterpart was a gay gigolo. The prostitution is very much toned down and reduced to quests for compensated marriage. Still, even by the 60's standards, the film was ahead of its time while Rooney's cringe-worthy performance was also worthy of the worst WWII propaganda.
You had four minutes of a beautiful opening scene with Hepburn eating croissants while contemplating Tiffany's jewelry at the morning, the streets was empty, Mancini's music mesmerizing, and then Rooney spoiled everything... a real party pooper not just in the context of the film. But I guess I should look at the half-full croissants' bag, to Blake Edwards' directing and George Axelrod's adaptation (he would also write the screenplay of "The Manchurian Candidate") that even the controversy couldn't tarnish its reputation. So let's get back to the film.
It's slice of Holly Golightly's life, the name fits like her black dress, she just goes lightly about everything, she might be a prostitute if you go by the book but she has a way to handle her professional as well as her social life that you can't really tell, as Balsam would say "she's a phoney, but a real phoney". When she hangs out with men, she doesn't enjoy it but appreciates the lifestyle these relationships promise, she less likes money than the comfort it provides. Like Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman", she wants the Charming Prince, the fairy tale.
Indeed, Holly embodies the dreams of many Cinderellas who understood there's nothing glamorous about being poor. Since the book is written by Capote, I guess he also created a gigolo for a gender balance showing that we deal with a business: where there's supply, there's demand. Maybe it's one of the truths of life that women want to be beautiful to marry a rich man and men want to be rich to marry a beautiful woman.
Wealth and beauty are two elements that can mix well, but if you spoil the dosage you either fall into decadence or loneliness. Maybe that's why the studios originally wanted Marilyn Monroe but she was advised to take more dramatic roles and rightfully so because her last film was the unforgettable "The Misfits". This allowed Audrey Hepburn to add this dimension of eternally childish naivety and gamin-like frivolity in a character who's supposed to be an escort girl. And she's so communicative that anyone hesitates before contradicting her.
There's a moment where Buddy Ebsen makes his entrance as Holly's Southern husband and I expected him to be an antagonist yet he remained understanding all along. In fact, it is Holly who keeps on alienating herself from the world, and I could relate to the way she longs for freedom by escaping from the responsibilities of life, yet ironically building her own gilded cage. Maybe we're never as free as when we free from our own misconceptions. Freedom can be a trap. Many romantic comedies rely on adultery, treasons or plot twists but this one only needs a three-dimensional living paradox in the person of Holly Golightly, playful and fragile, delicate and strong-minded. And there couldn't be a more beautiful song than that hypnotic "Moon River" to translate into words that strange mood of her. A close to perfect film... if it wasn't just for (as Holly would say) the big casting faux pas.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The "Phantom" Menace...
Silent dramas such as "The Birth of a Nation" or "Nosferatu" are all now in public domain, different versions, different soundtracks or color tones but if you want to commit to them, Internet is your friend. However, these movies also ask for a commitment of mind because in the absence of laughs, you can only hang on romance, thrills and atmosphere. Rupert Julian's adaptation of Gaston Leroux' classic "Phantom of the Opera" provides the obligatory trinity and I listed them in order of effectiveness.
But while the inclination of romantic silent actors to overact the melodramatic bits can undermine a film's credibility, the acting in "Phantom of the Opera" is pretty decent, although the performance of Lon Chaney turns all the other players into forgettable pawns. But even Chaney gets less interesting in the final act where he's turned into a one-dimensional public enemy instead of the tragic villain we sympathized with. I guess it all comes down to the 'atmosphere' being silent movies' strongest suit, just as it did for "Nosferatu", anticipations are more thrilling than reveals... except for the one reveal.
The merit of Lon Chaney, known as the man of a thousand faces (two were enough here) is to act in a way that serves the eerie and ominous ambiance of the Opera. As long as he wears the mask, he's this mysterious "admirer", always sitting at Box five and... well, a whole other 'Persona' in the Greek meaning of the word, which is "mask". And the object of the admiration is Christine (Mary Philbin) a breathtakingly beautiful aspiring singer. The mysterious admirer will see that only Christine would sing the Marguerite part in the representation of "Faust" and a series of written threats and curses prevent Prima Donna Carlotta from singing. We don't literally see the Phantom, but does he need 'acting' when his actions say enough?
The first act is remarkable in the way all the main players are kept in the dark. The film starts with the notary deal where the new Opera owners learn about the existence of a Phantom... and a mysterious masked stranger. Naturally, it takes time for everyone to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle but we're ready to embrace the atmosphere and forgive some deficit of subtlety. The reputation of the Phantom precedes him, he's mostly a rumor, but what a rumor, see how he's described by one who saw him: "eyes like holes", "grinning skull", "leprous parchment", "no nose"... Poe wouldn't have been more eloquent and you'll see that it was no misleading advertising.
While the Phantom is 'under study', Christine is an understudy and her boyfriend Raoul, an understudy of her heart as she wouldn't let any man interfere with her career. Except in the right way. The admirer, whoever he is and however he manages, allows Christine to get on stage, to sing, since he pledges his eternal love for her and her music, he clearly has an edge over Raoul and his mask doesn't frighten nor impress her. Interestingly, Christine represents our point of view, that masked stranger is fascinating because he embodies two contradictions: power and influence and feelings and devotion, he's both a master and a servant, somewhat good, somewhat evil.
It's like the mask has neutralized the persona of the man rather than enhanced it. When Christine says "You're the Phantom!", it doesn't even sound dull, but pointless. Yes, he's the phantom, because that's what man's hatred turned him into and Christine will be safe for as long as she doesn't discover the ugliness. Of course, in an almost Biblical move, Christine's curiosity got the best of her, she hesitates before pulling off the mask while the Phantom, whose name is revealed to be Erik, is solemnly savoring the beauty of the moment, playing the organ with the best company, then she puts off the mask and it's not the face in itself than the horror expression in Chaney's face. Well, it's both.
The scene was said to have made people faint and I can believe it, because I dare not imagine how a close-up on Chaney's skull-like face would have felt in the big screen. The camera gets closer as if it was obeying his own injunction: "Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!" I related to this quote, perhaps more than the unmasking, this is a man whose ugliness have made a natural outcast out of him and the only parcel of peace and happiness he could afford had just been destroyed by the very person who inspired. And for what? Curiosity... to see how much of a freak he was, such a small price to prevent him from the only passion he could "earn" and condemn his soul to eternal damnation.
Just think of today's virtual relationships, everyone wears a mask, it's named a screen, but sooner or later we'll be confronted to the reality of our look and catalyze the feelings or destroy it. The unmasking is a pivotal moment in the film, as it turns the Monster into an antagonist while asking us to root for Christine. But I couldn't, I hated the way she toyed with his feelings; as soon as she realizes her admirer's hideousness she jumps in the arms of Raoul, and she doesn't do it once but twice, driving Erik into the point of no return. Since the Phantom was victim of his ugliness, I don't think we needed to have any knowledge of some criminal background, if his face drove his vileness, that was enough, wasn't it?
I was thrilled by the third act in the cellars of the Opera and with the mob for all the effects and suspense but Erik had to be a tragic villain, not a Nosferatu. And I guess that's how modern audiences will perceive it, as a universal monster... and a Universal monster who paved the way to Dracula, Frankenstein and so many unforgettable horror icons.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Did he have to sink so low... before he rises?
Well, I just wished he could rise a little higher above my expectations.
This is certainly not a bad movie, far from it, it's effective in the way it wraps us all the elements of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" and heads them into a satisfactory conclusion. But if you discount the ending, the film was a real downer... with every character carrying the most contradictory motives, even Bruce Wayne who lived recluse after Batman's disgrace had to drown his soul in a contemplative ennui that irritates Alfred... and ordinary viewers do not have Alfred's patience.
I got back to my reviews of the first two first films, and both had one thing in common: they were positively thrilling, something that hooked your mind and filled your heart with an enthusiastic je-ne-sais-quoi. "Batman Begins" started 'slowly' as it didn't show much of the archetypal Batman until his reveal, but boy, what a great moment! I cheered when Batman made his entrance and later came full circle with his demons. Then the Joker deconstructed the edifice of pompousness built by the "good guys" and with such style and gusto he almost made his "point" and confronted both Batman and Harvey Dent to painful ironies (delightful for him). Dent lost his idealism but not Wayne.
Now "The Dark Knight Rises" was necessary because Batman needed a rehabilitation. Or did he? After all, Gotham City lived in peace and since 'innocent is too strong a word to use against' Gotham people, it was quite an achievement. If the price was Honest Gordon praising the man who threatened his own child and Batman's exile, why would Wayne care? After all, vigilante wasn't a vocation but a necessity, to serve justice and fight criminals, if crime stopped, so should his melancholy. Yet Wayne is clearly affected, health problems and loss of cartilage forced him to walk with a cane, but we suspect the pain is underneath rather on the body. I think that romantic grieving angle could have been more interesting than the predictable urban mayhem that strikes Gotham in every "Gotham" episode.
Indeed, I wish Nolan was less ambitious on the field of special effects and cared a little more for Bruce Wayne like he did in the first films, wishful thinking. Wayne is the same all right and there's nothing two-dimensional in Christian Bale's portrayal, the problem is simply arithmetic. In the first film, we had Wayne, in the second Wayne/Dent/Joker, here, we have to concentrate on so many supporting players that I wondered if the film wasn't intended for the hardcore fans who'll watch it over and over again. I'm afraid that a first viewing isn't enough to get the film, it was for the previous ones.
Where to start? You have Catwoman who swings between the role of a protagonist and then antagonist with the agility of a cat jumping between clotheslines. Anne Hathaway is actually terrific but exudes so many sensual "femme fatale" vibes that she creates an unfortunate sense of redundancy with Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate. Wayne has a way with women but Nolan should have thought about making them a little more different, sometimes it goes as simply as making one blonde and another dark-haired. Both women are secretive, talk in enigmatic insinuation and existential innuendo, there's always an element of seduction you can't put your finger on but after a while, you start to envy Alfred's celibacy.
Now, Nolan isn't exactly the ideal director when you yearn for clarity but I take again the first "Batman" films, both had complex plots but not complicated... and they had great villains. Another problem is with the Alpha-villain in this film, Bane has a spectacular action-establishing moment that leaves no doubt that he's the match for Batman... as he seems as tortured a soul and in pain than his nemesis. But then again, I was really scratching my head to figure out what Bane's real motives were, he speaks like some revolutionary leader who believe the ends justify the means but his vision of chaos seem rather pointless... except if it was to get his kicks, that would have been good enough for me, does every character need to be tormented about something?
The Joker loved chaos and disorder because they could reveal deeper truths about our own ambivalences, and whatever he did, he did it with style. Tom Hardy is great as Bane, and intimidating as well, as hell, but he's just like a rollercoaster of muscle with a Darth-Vader face and a Scottish accent, whenever he appeared on the film, I just felt uneasy. I know his presence would mean pain, punches, killing, intimidations, which is good for a villain, but the film was way too dark and gloomy that I was begging for a little relief. I think what I get from the "Batman" series is that the villains have fun being bad, pleasing oneself being the most selfish motive, Bane didn't have fun at all... and he was the main villain, so that didn't leave much fun to the story.
So let's recapitulate, we have similar female characters with uncertain motives (some revealed near the end), Wayne in his usual "who am I?" quest, a villain who doesn't enjoy what he does but feels it's necessary, a commissioner who can't get over his lies and his separation, in this ocean of gloom, only Joseph Gordon Levitt as a Batman admirer seems to carry the last hope of idealism... not that it brings much to the film.
Paraphrasing Alfred, I wouldn't say that Nolan failed his fans (not according to IMDb ratings) but one of the reasons I avoided these films is because he always struck me as a director who like his characters sorry, sad, angry, and way too serious, I was glad I was wrong with the first two films, I was for that third opus, maybe he should have pulled a Joker and ask himself indeed "why so serious?".
Size does matter... if we're speaking of the heart!
There was a man who once said "I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing". His name was Victor Hugo.
Yes, even the great Hugo was a wannabe. We all want to be something, someone we idolize, a part of a dream we treasure. Yes, it all starts with a dream and I know it's a cliché, and it's been so trendy to invite everyone to believe in their dreams, that you wonder whether the real deal wouldn't be to set your mind up for realistic anticipations of the future and just try to live a "nice" and "happy" life. If only it could be that easy.
I guess I had the wrong idea about "Rudy", I thought it was going to be one of these 'feel-good' underdog stories, like a "Rocky" of the 90's (even the titles sound the same). I also thought it was going to overplay the height issue as a serious handicap to play football (well American football is not the football as we call it here... the one that allows pint-sized Leo Messi to be the best player in the world). So yes, I thought it was going to be an inspirational movie about a guy who -you know- believed in himself and achieved his dreams. Well, it was... but it was more than that. It doesn't take an underdog to make a good story, it still takes a good story and an endearing character.
And "Rudy", from "Hoosiers" director David Anspaugh, doesn't just meet with your expectations, it challenges them in a very subtle and intelligent way, one that can be summed up in one sentence: "Dreams are what make our lives tolerable". I can't tell who said that and when, but the line was immediately printed in my mind. Yet the film isn't about dreaming. It isn't even about fulfilling your dreams, it's about the will, the decision, the spirit, the energy and ultimately, the journey. The dream in itself is crazy but is handled in a realistic way (the film is based on Rudy Ruettiger's true story) it's not about a small guy who wants to be the star of Notre Dame football team, but who wants to play at least one game. And personally, I prefer dreams that start with "I wish if I could only one time" rather than "I want to be this or that".
"Rocky" wasn't about becoming the heavyweight champion but about going the distance, and in "Rudy" Sean Astin gives an extraordinary performance, as Oscar worthy of a nomination as was Sly in 1977, like Rocky, he's not just an underdog in the game, but in his own family or circle of friends where his dreams are swept off by the brush of reality, except for one true friend who believes in him (like others will do). After finishing college, Rudy almost renounces and joins his Dad (Ned Beatty) and brothers in the steel mill, until a tragic event "derails" his path of life for good. No need to spoil it.
Paraphrasing Hugo, Rudy wants to be a "Fighting Irish at least once or nothing" and the whole film is a harrowing odyssey where we follow each step that gets him closer to his dream: getting the sponsors, having good grades in prep school, joining Notre Dame, then the practice team... but said like this, it doesn't do justice to how exhilarating it is, when Rudy's happy, we share his joy when he's disappointed, we share his bitterness and when he cries, we shed a few tears. In fact, there's something communicative about Rudy's energy, just see how slowly the magic operates and some start to believe he's got the heart of a true fighter, if not the body. Look at how the players get progressively impressed by his fearless energy.
Yet it's still about the journey, the realization, sometimes you dream of reaching the top of the mountain, and maybe you can't make it. But instead of staring at the unreachable summit, the film invites you to look down and contemplate the beautiful landscape and see what you've done. Of course, some climbers fall and there's a poignant scene where Ned Beatty tells his son the story of his grandfather who lost everything because he chased a stupid dream. And over the course of his journey, even Rudy himself thought of quitting... and it made me think.
Then I realized that the moment where Rudy was in the game, the film could have stopped right there. I didn't care if he'd win or get an ankle broken, he had just made it. And the film could have even ended right after what I think was the best 'pep talk' ever, one from Fortune the groundskeeper (Charles S. Dutton), his speech wasn't about "getting hit and keeping moving" but about valuing the hits and the movement. I guess what the film tries to say is that there's a thin line between dreaming and chasing a dream. Dreaming is nothing if you don't start to chase the dream.
Because when there's something that eats you deep inside, you know you just got to chase it. Because for a dream-chaser (I didn't say dreamer) there's nothing worse than stopping. When you stop, you settle down, you feel safe and secure... for a while. You start noticing other dream-chasers and you pity them because you know most of them won't make it. And it's true. But that also means a minority will make it. And when you'll see people achieving YOUR dreams, you're going to hate and pity yourself, and Rudy's brother for most of the film is consumed by envy and self-pity.
Lennon said "Life is what happens while you're making plans", maybe the real delight of life is the stuff that happens in order to make your plans go true, even a tiny bit true. On that level, Rudy was quite a delightful film... and to use an overused expression, they don't make like them anymore.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Medieval Superman, fighting for truth, justice and the Lion-hearted way...
Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's "Adventures of Robin Hood" is a swashbuckler all right, but it's a little more than that: the film is a time capsule of Hollywood's Golden Age (tainted with emerald brilliance). Even if you didn't see, you certainly saw countless movies that owe something to it, starting with the score from Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the European composer who intuitively knew that a score should be composed of various and light motifs, indicating a different shift of tones, romantic, ominous, thrilling, but with a main musical theme to overarch the whole thing, Korngold was the James Horner of his time.
Since the score is the first notable quality, it was a necessary preamble, now, what's the second thing you notice? Exactly. When you think of masterpieces in color, your mind prompts you to 1939 with "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz", movies that are impossible to imagine in monochrome. Maybe you would also think of Disney's milestone "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" of 1937, but don't overlook the year between them. The glorious Technicolor picture, with a unique and defining pastel-like saturation, came from Warner Bros, of all the studios, the one that built its reputation for black-and-white gangster pictures. But the studios had a trick in their sleeve, a dashing new leading man for a dashing hero, no time for baddies!
And Robin Hood is perhaps the most enduring of all heroes, an outlaw who rebels against a tyrant and leads a guerrilla like a Medieval "Che". There's something so timeless about his crusade, "stealing from the rich to give to the poor" is a rather revolutionary notion, and the film insists in showing the oppression inflicted by despotic and despicable Prince John (Claude Rains as cunning as his Captain Renault but without the warmth), they allow Maid Marian (OIivia de Havilland) to reconsider her opinion about the King and Robin, but it also helps us to free our hearts from any mercy when the villains are shot. This is no "rebel without a cause", like Zorro or Superman, Robin fights for truth and justice and the just way, not the Norman or Saxon way.
And just like these superheroes, Robin Hood has the outfit: the bow and arrows, and the hat that put 'conic' in iconic. Sure, legends, ancient writings suggest various versions of Robin Hood (even Lionheart's reputation seemed to be closer to Scar than Mufasa) but still, the 1938 version features the definite green-clad Robin Hood, king of the bucolic scenery of Sherwood Forest and leader of the Merrie Men. So many good things depend on this representation: gentle giant Little John (Alan Hale), comic relief Much (Herbert Mundin), Friar Tuck, Prince John, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone as the perfect nemesis) and buffoonish Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper). I grew up with the Disney version but this film made me feel at home, it had everything, even the archery tournament, which I thought was a Disney invention.
And Errol Flynn even managed to surpass the fox, I was surprised by how good he was. When he confronts Prince John, there's something defiant in his eyes, in his razor-sharp wit that almost equals John's evil suaveness. And his eyes aren't just there to deliver stares, look at him watching the door being closed and anticipating his escape, , this is not your grandstanding hero making all solemn poses, he's a man of action, conventional maybe, but aren't getting all too cynical about things? I'm the first New Hollywood fan, and I love my character edgy, cynical, antiheroic, I love my story to be a multilayered bag of contradictions, of delightful and dark ironies... but sometimes, I'm wondering if we're not giving too much credit to villains?
Maybe heroes are tougher to play because the actor has to make them look interesting, Robin Hood isn't just about archery and fights, he's got charm, wit, charisma, even nobility and Errol Flynn knew how to convey these virtues because you could tell he took his role seriously yet had fun playing it, unlike comatose Kevin Costner in "Prince of Thieves" or Russel Crowe as 'Maximus in tights'. A good thing James Cagney declined the role for only an actor of Flynn's stature could play Robin Hood with such gusto, like Douglas Fairbanks a decade before. The Warner producers noticed his energetic and flamboyant performance as "Captain Blood" and knew he had the right stuff, the hero we immediately idolize, the man's man. And the woman's man as well.
Olivia de Havilland's youthful beauty is so adorable and breathtaking she's the perfect match for Robin, an Alpha woman for an Alpha male, she's as brave as he's fearless, as noble in blood as she's in spirit and even she has a funny lady-in-waiting in Bess, played by the irresistible and fidgety Una O'Connor (her flirting with Much was cute beyond words). Robin's journey couldn't do without the romance and the beautiful balcony pledge of love, but once again, the film challenges your expectations and instead of ending with a conventional ride into the sunset, it ends with a funny line and an abrupt ending that respects the spirit of the hero and doesn't overplay the romantic tone.
Now, I started by saying that it's more than a swashbuckler, but let's keep in mind that it's one after all, and the ultimate one. The swordfights (especially the climax) are wonderfully executed. While most action movies today mix messy fights where people get shot for real fights, looking at the stunts involving the arrows, the way Flynn ride the top atop the castle, you can tell they're not perfect but that's because they're real. For all it's old-fashioned look, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" still holds up today and is so generous in fun, thrills and colors that it's a school-case of classical film-making and entertainment, a game-changing milestone to content any movie lover.
The Pink Panther (1963)
Of having fun with affable crooks and faillible cops (try to say that quickly)...
At the end of "The Pink Panther", Inspector Jacques Clouseau, mistaken for the Phantom, is arrested and confronted to a a crowd of hysterical women throwing flowers and determined to chase the car that takes the greatest living Don Juan to jail, not to Clouseau's displeasure if you judge by Peter Seller's little smirk.
Now, notice at that very moment, the real Phantom, played by genuinely classy David Niven, the expression on his face says its all: a mixture of relief (he's been proven guilty despite his guilt) and yet a slight annoyance as he's been deprived from what could have been a glorious arrest. He's fading into anonymousness while the idiot is having the time of his life.
The ending of Blake Edwards' caper comedy classic "The Pink Panther", might be the series' real establishing moment. David Niven never felt he was the star of the film, which is quite an irony when he's supposed to be the leading star, but he's right and the film's ending is an epiphany. It worked even better because the car runs over the Pink panther (the real one, not the diamond) in perhaps one of the all-time best cameos.
So... say what you want about the film, like the titular diamond, it has its flaws, mostly due to the slow pacing or the redundancy of a few gags, but it ends with the perfect note: Sellers being the in-universe star and a final wink from what would be one of the most iconic animated characters and perhaps the last of the Golden Age of Animation. That's the film's double gift: Sellers' talent internationally recognized and the Pink Panther, make it three with the music.
Indeed, it says a lot when the only comedy's score to be listed in the American Film Institute's Top 25 Scores is the one Henry Mancini composed for "The Pink Panther", not just a score, but a trope. Of course I was aware of the music before I saw the film, it was the Pink Panther theme, but besides being instantly recognizable, it's how the music perfectly fits the tone. It became associated with the act of sneaking, of getting in some place, in the dark, at night, to steal, or to have a "private affair", but there's a something playful and funny in the music rather than stressful or dramatic, something that is meant to end with a hilarious punchline, you know that so-60s long saxophone sound.
And the film; whether to feature acts of benign robberies or bed-sneaking à la sauce vaudeville; is full of these moments. The score isn't just iconic, its jazzy and sophisticated mood is relevant and have a sort of overarching effect on the whole film. So reading myself, I just realized that I basically said the film had a great opening and a great ending, didn't I? Now how about the middle?
Well, there's a moment in the middle where nothing much happens yet it sums up what is so delightful about "The Pink Panther". Fran Jeffries sings a sensual and catchy mambo song and while our eyes are glued to her beautiful curves, I love how all the protagonists are relegated to background. They're all here: Niven, Claudia Cardinale, Capucine and Robert Wagner and of course Peter Sellers who's busy talking with his partner Tucker and is brought to the dance. It's fun, doesn't add much to the plot but it creates sort of cool and friendly jet-set atmosphere where even the crooks are affable and the straight ones fallible.
As a comedy, the film is fallible too but to its defense, it doesn't try to break the record of highest laughs-per-minute ratio. At one point, I was surprised to see how drawn I was into that growing romance between Niven and Cardinale who plays an Indian (!) princess, the interactions felt genuine and real and even in moments of weakness, Princess Dala was in total control of herself, and even in moments of control, Niven could seem destabilized. I'm not sure I was too fond of Robert Wagner who left me rather cold but I was stunned by Capucine who played the unfaithful wife of Clouseau, what an actress, she had almost stole Cardinale's thunder and that's a cardinal virtue!
Still, let's face it, the film's highlights are comedic. And the fun mostly involves Peter Sellers if we except the gorilla moment, the hilarious climactic chase in Rome and perhaps a few other scenes. Sellers is the reason to watch the film, as soon as he appears, tapping his fingers on the desk while the Marseillaise is played, you know something funny ought to happen. When he tries to keep a serious façade, spin the globes, and solemnly declares "We must find that woman!" just before your mind processes it, he's on the floor, after having failed to get a grab on it. The cherry on the cake is that we discover that the woman they're looking after is his own wife but god, that globe gag!
You know where you're drunk and try to maintain a façade of respectability, you slowly put your elbow on the table and then it slips, and you lose everybody, no one can take you seriously afterwards. This gag is one of the best comedic establishing moments, Clouseau wouldn't wear yet his iconic trench coat and his hat yet but you've got everything summed up about his character in that first scene, a bumbling idiot, much more oblivious to his wife's cheating but trying to keep it as cool and serious as possible.
And he was only supposed to be one part of a cast, a supporting player, a comic relief who knows? But with such levels of hilariousness, who wants to have a straight caper film. "The Pink Panther" can't fool us. It does have the right ingredients, maybe not the right dosage, but definitely, the right taste!
Add an "S" to a classic and you'll get another classic...
Ridley Scott had set the bar so high with his groundbreaking "Alien" that no one thought a sequel would be a good idea. Those were the times...
Why a sequel anyway? The first Alien was history, Ellen Ripley was the lone (human) survivor and getting back in that doomed rock wasn't the smartest move. Much more the film was a modern horror classic and any attempt to recreate the claustrophobia of the Nostromo would have induced more déja-vu than jump scares. Paraphrasing the original tag-line, a sequel would've been "'Jaws 2' in a spacecraft."
But Canadian director James Cameron wasn't a newcomer in the mid-80's. "Terminator" had thrilled the audiences with a simple concept: an indestructible machine set to kill a girl next door (literally), a nightmarish ride with no other option than fighting and the sweet Linda Hamilton turning into a match to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Basically, Cameron told a story with a familiar David vs. Goliath structure and character's arc, his 'Alien' was the Terminator and his 'Ripley' was Sarah Connor.
And I think I can recreate the whole brainstorming that shaped the sequel. I guess the first question echoed the purpose of the sequel: what is scarier than an alien? Two aliens or how about a colony, or how about a human colony invaded by the aliens who need human for incubation purposes. Then all you have to do is find a way to justify how the colonization of the « alien » planet took place without taking Ripley's warning into consideration. Then all you have to do is let her drift for as many years as it takes, even if it means losing her family, her daughter... and she might find a 'daughter' figure in her mission. Of course, they'll need Ripley who's the only human being to have encountered the Alien, but since she's the only one to know how dangerous they are, how about spicing it up with a corporate bastard who'd love to bring an Alien to Earth... do we need a treacherous android again ?
See, the most complex stories can originate from a simple question which happens to be the right one. At the end, we have the plot that became a staple of the action genre, a group of hardened soldiers of various experiences and levels of bravery assigned to a supposedly routine mission (a 'bug hunt') with only two people who know the real stakes, Ripley obviously, and Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) as the slimy executive who managed to make himself more detestable than any Alien. It's a smart demarcation from the original where the secondary villain wasn't human (by the way, I wonder if it's a coincidence that 'Burke' is the sound of disgust in French).
The casting also includes Michael Biehn the unsung hero of "Terminator", the late Bill Paxton as the easily-freaking-out one, William Hope as the inexperienced Lieutenant, Lance Herrikssen as Bishop the android and scene-stealing Jennette Goldstein as Vasquez, the real female badass. There's also Boggs from "Shawshank", a cigar-chomping sergeant who goes too soon, a few forgettable faces and Carrie Henn as little Newt. Her military salute to a panic-stricken Paxton is one of these moments that make the film more than a formula picture. If it's full of establishing moments and typical wisecracks in the beginning, once the the chips are done, three-dimensional personalities are unveiled. And there's a reason why I insisted on Vasquez' being the badass one.
Again, Sigourney Weaver plays Ellen Ripley in the humblest and most pragmatic way, she's involved because she hates the Aliens, she knows what they're up to, and nuking them is the only option. She's not a military officer, no gun expert, yet because of the Marines' inexperience, two-faced Burke and her promise to never abandon Newt, she becomes the only one capable to defeat the Aliens, not because of fighting skills, but because she has a protective instinct, an intuition for the right moves... and sometimes, a lighter. Ripley is like a more experimented version of Sarah Connor, triumphing over her fears until the unforgettable Power loader moment and the 'Bitch' line.
The only match for Ripley was a bitch indeed and that was decades before strong women became a marketed trope. Here, the film culminates with the fight between two Mama Bears, when the Aliens are all defeated and there's still the Queen. So we had aliens in tunnels, we had the glowing dots, we had a face-hugger trapped in a room (and I could relate to it since I'm scared when I suspect a cockroach in a bathroom), we had flamethrowers and grenades and acid flushing all over faces, a race against the clock, but the ending fight is just the Chantilly on the cherry on the cake.
To be honest, I initially thought the last hour was so intense it was like an overdose of adrenalin, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Ebert sharing the same view. I saw it again, and I was amazed that this was made with no CGI, that the story was riveting and the characters appealing. I said "Alien" was a masterpiece of suspense while the sequel was a great action movie, in fact, "Aliens" might be the ultimate action movie and a masterpiece of suspense as well, earning seven Academy Awards, including a surprising nomination for Sigourney Weaver. Unlike the first two "Terminator" movies, the film didn't join "Alien" in the Thrills list, but Ripley was also named eighth heroine in AFI's Top 50, not bad for a sequel... but even 'sequel' is too feeble a word to describe how powerful "Aliens" is.
To think that all Cameron had to do was adding an "S" to get a classic makes it even more legendary.All it took was adding an "S"...
Body Snatchers (1993)
Just because my life sucks... doesn't mean you should suck the life out of me...
Science fiction taught us to be scared or at least highly suspicious over emotionless creatures (or creations), but what if they are family? What if their emotionlessness is also the promise of a life devoid of the tormenting effects of feelings? How would that premise, so scary back then, holds up today?
I don't think Jack Finney, author of the original novel could have predicted that at the dawn of the 20th century, his "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" would inspire three movie adaptations, and three damn good ones at that. I guess he foresaw that there was something universal and timeless about the story, which explains how it could regularly reinvent itself. Indeed, each film reflects the social mood of its era, each one borrowing a little something from the predecessor yet providing a novelty that fits its own context.
In 1956, Don Siegel entered "pod culture" with a story set in small Californian town. In Philip Kaufman's version of 1978, the town was San Francisco, the era made soullessness even less visible and the film was more generous in horror artistry and introduced the now iconic pod scream and signal. Intentionally or not, the first was an allegory of conservative conformism while the second a commentary of the failure of counterculture with modernity alienating people from each other and maybe the pointed finger as the brutal demonization of social outcasts
Now, we're in 1993, and the director is Abel Ferrara. It's been a while since I saw his movies but they always struck me with their nihilistic feel and the way violence could have an exorcising effect without being enjoyed in the proper term of the word. His characters are often prone to bitterness, devoured by their own demons and barely capable to show emotion. It's not a coincidence that one of his fetish actors was Christopher Walken, who's so intimidating you could never tell if you had to fear him or avoid him, a natural-born pod man. So there wasn't many joy in his films but a form of subtle introspection within doomed but not meaningless lives.
His 1992 "Bad Lieutenant" was a masterpiece and highlighted one of his greatest talents which is not to sell out for cheap and predictable genre tropes. One can say that his use of violence could make him a good candidate for a horror film, but even then, you can sense there's a Ferrara touch in the story, it is faithful to the novel in structure and story, but in spirit, it is different. And even by tackling the genre, Ferrara doesn't indulge in an exercise in style and, he sticks to his guns and dares to play it in a surprisingly low key way. His most inspired idea was to flip the genders and center the story on a young teenage girl played by Gabrielle Anwar, in fact, he tells a totally different story.
Marti is 16, she lives with her father (Terry Kinney), her step-mother (Meg Tilly) and little half-brother and strikes you as the typical angry teen who gets alone with nobody. This is an interesting departure from the first films where the shifts of personalities occurred within happy couples or families. We're in an interesting case of new marriage where members seem estranged one to another, quite an irony when the change is meant to be the pivotal point. So if the little boy feels the children in school all act bizarrely the same or that his "mother is dead", the dysfunctional thing will serve as a perfect alibi.
Ferrara tricks the card already by making the slights change more difficult to notice. Another example the the film is set in a military base, so the emotionless façade is in line with the soldiers' rigid conformity, as pointed out by Roger Ebert who gave the film four stars. I liked the film but within its short runtime, it doesn't try to play with our minds for too long, Ferrara knows that we all wait for the first pods to appear and on that level, he gets as graphic and visually generous as Kaufman, but in a rather sordid and disgusting way, the tendrils don't have this macabre but bizarre sensuality and the sight and sounds of "unfinished" bodies are pretty unsettling, not to mention those damn finger-pointing screams.
Kaufman's art was almost beautiful and give the film a sort of hypnotic beauty, "Body Snatchers" is gloomy from the start, there's no cheerful neighbors to welcome the family, the means of socialization are quite minimal: people drink and sleep all day and barely talk to each other. Even Marti makes only two friends, the general's daughter and a handsome soldier, the rest of the environment involvement military police under the commandment of the late R. Lee. Ermey, far less colorful than his legendary Hartman but even more intimidating. His confrontation and speech to a mentally cornered Forest Whitaker and is perhaps the most depressing "explanation moment" of the trilogy.
Even the Alabama military base is a sort of anachronistic sepia-toned town so typical of these "Great Depression" movies of the 70's. In the end, we don't know if the body snatching either is a predictable evolution or a deliverance. It's interesting that the only outburst of pure humanity are either suicide or intense hatred, not our most positive assets. Ebert said that the film reflected the "no future" depression of the 90's, the AIDS period, I think Ferrara took an interesting angle that fit the disillusioned spirit of his characters, driven yet undefeated. Indeed, just because one hates his life doesn't mean he should accept someone to suck the life out of him, that's the point.
As usual, the 'body snatchers' say something about what we are, but also what we don't want to be. Maybe as long as we'll be "afraid to sleep", the story will be relevant enough to inspire more remakes like the 2007 one.
The Omen (1976)
Well I'll be Damned...
Weird, I was overly intellectual in my reviews of "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Exorcist", raving about the way these two horror milestones built up their premise around universal aspects of fear: loneliness in the midst of a conspiracy and fear of the unknown, mostly due to the fact that the 'villains' were invisible. About Polanski's masterpiece I concluded that its secret was to know how to keep a secret and that "The Exorcist" was so eerie it was scary even before the scare happened.
Yet, given my adoration of New Hollywood, I never called a spade a spade and mentioned that these movies dealt with Satan, which was quite groundbreaking for its time. Religion has always prevailed in cinema's history as the Bible was a great provider of stories with as much thrills and hearts than any fictional best-seller or juicy screenplay... but religion has often served the epic genre and elevated glorious and uncorrupted figures without allowing Satan to rise above, with a few unlikely exceptions like Disney in "Fantasia". Maybe the devil is such a larger-than-life villain that the his existence is disturbing enough and there's no need to make a cinematic fuss about.
Still, the New Hollywood period started with violence and sex ceasing to be taboos, so the days of religion were counted as well. "Rosemary's Baby" was the first to deal with it and had the nerve to feature such lines as "Hail, Satan". Some sneaky thinkers will add that the year after, Polanski's wife was savagely assassinated by Charles Manson's followers, cutting through Hollywood's state of grace with the realization that the world of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll had its evil counterpart, just like the Holy Trinity with the Anti-Christ. But the show went on and "The Exorcist" became one of the seminal blockbuster movies with the devil as the star, and once again, many strange events undermined the making of the picture, if not the crews' lives.
It's just as if you couldn't make a movie about Satan without his eventual interference as if a giant had been awakened. But these movies barely showed the devil and were much about him as "The Godfather" was about Mafia, we saw, we understood, we perceived the malevolence but in an intimate way. Richard Donner's "The Omen" is intimate all right, as it's centered on a family: Mr. and Mrs. Thorn played by Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, but it also leaves no secret that we're dealing with the Anti-Christ. Writer David Seltzer knew the impact such a movie would have and decided to set the bar even higher than "Rosemary's Baby" yet with less supernatural extravaganza as the exorcist, and you've got it to hand it to the writing/directing, the dosage works.
Indeed, this a solemn and serious horror drama, whose poignancy is enhanced by the behavior of the two parents, a rich and wealthy ambassador who learned his son's death and adopted a motherless newborn child the same night, both things unbeknownst to his wife. The story then is a stressful and disturbing escalation toward the necessary realization that something is wrong with the kid Damien, played Harvey Stephens, perhaps the most intimidating and frightening child from any film. He's as ominous as Danny in "The Shining" (some scenes even seem to foreshadow Kubrick's film) and unlike Regan in "The Exorcist", with his cherubim-like face, there's always a reasonable doubt over his vileness. Does the film work, now? Yes, and no... and then, yes.
It works because all the signs leading to the final revelation are cleverly incorporated within the story, so that you have a fine alternation between shocks and interrogations, "what just happened?" and "what the hell is happening?". Many scenes became staples of horror movie and I must say some kept my eyes open wide and my mouth agape, it's one thing to wait for something bad to happen, and another to be shocked even after the anticipation... even that one we all know it was coming because of the premonition. So without spoiling any possible aspect, let's say that this is one hell of a hellish journey.
Now, I'm not saying there are instances the film doesn't work, there's just a short sequence that slightly undermines the credibility of the story. When new nanny Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) comes, you know there's something not very orthodox about her. Now I could accept trust at first sight, but her insistence not to take the child to church or to have a scary Rottweiler as a guard dog, should have alerted them. Or when the priest supposed to warn Peck starts quoting the Bible instead of just saying it played and straight. Many times, the film is in danger to fall in the 'idiot plot' trap but thankfully, it pulls itself together and get back on track when they finally become suspicious.
But after all, these movies are all about signs, even more disturbing because they can be attributed to coincidences or accidents. Exactly like the curses we've mentioned, was "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Exorcist" or "The Omen" for that matter cursed (some coincidences are pretty creepy)? This is the stuff that can happen but we wish to ignore for our own peace of mind. Peck is the ultimate decent man, a rich, educated and good parent who can't believe in things that don't make sense, until it hits him in the face, sometimes painfully, sometimes with the help of people from a nosy photographer played by David Warner to an exorcist played by Leo McKern.
The atmosphere is heavy loaded, the anticipations keep our hearts hooked, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar winning score a haunting to the ears, the jump scares always effective... and there's that thorn you definitely wouldn't want in your side, that damned "Damien!", with his angelic face, would you believe that Gregory Peck would have the guts to do it? that question is disturbing enough to encourage you to watch this film.