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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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Each are American screen legends. Each have graced the silver screen during the classic era, most significantly in the early 50's. Each were gratified a spot in the AFI's list of greatest screen-legends of American History. Each are named G---e Kelly.
Which of Grace or Gene Kelly do you think is the most iconic legend?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
So... where is your favorite movie romance set?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
After voting, you may discuss the list here
*rating higher than 7.0
After voting, you might discuss the list [link=]here[/link]
After voting, you might discuss the list here
So, which of these one-scene movie characters was, given the short amount of screen time AND the intensity of the performance, the most memorable?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
*some of them managed to sneak into one little scene (or two) but they hardly spoke in them and whether a scene or a 'sequence', they're all known for one moment of the film, little in time but big in the impact.
The Dark Knight (2008)
When the greatest figure is disfigured... and the mastermind is out of his...
I stupidly avoided "The Dark Knight" for ten years because it rose on the Top 250 at the expenses of my all-time favorite "The Godfather". A ridiculous fans ratings war resulted with "The Shawshank Redemption" as number one.
Another uproar was to start when Heath Ledger's testimonial film failed to garner a nomination for Best Picture, despite being one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, the snub of "WALL·E" didn't help either. So the Academy expanded the number of nominees to ten, an effort as laughable as laudable, since not many new movies of the caliber of "The Dark Knight" were made after.
That's to establish how pivotal the film was and how much I anticipated it. But I needed to re-watch the first Batman movies. And my ecstatic reaction after "Batman Begins" convinced me that I had another thing coming with "The Dark Knight".
Indeed, the film is not just a good sequel but so good it makes you totally forget about it being a sequel. It's a continuation in terms of the narrative but it accomplishes something that a few sequels actually do, not the first anyway: it deconstructs all the values Batman stands for. If his heroic quest brings up the worst possible psychopaths, what good can he be for "Gotham City"?
The film destroys whatever the previous film built up in a sort of constructive chaos, just when you thought that it would 'consolidate' Batman's heroic status, it does the exact opposite. Why? Well, the script has a saying about 'how things working according to a plan' can be as debatable and questionable than so-called chaotic turns of events, so our expectations are contradicted for their own good. And for our fun... if "fun" can be applied to the film. I think it can. But let's get back to the question of heroism.
The film dissects it as if it was some philosophical essay and the answers are provided of course by the two most memorable characters: the Joker (naturally) and Harvey Dent. It's fascinating how Bruce Wayne aka Batman becomes almost a peripheral character but the deeper we get in these two alternative arcs, the more it questions the existence of the iconic vigilante in Gotham City, and the more it does so, the more it justifies its status as one of the most fascinating and iconic comic-book character. It's one hell of a virtuous circle thanks to a remarkably written script and a magnificently executed action-movie.
Speaking of the awards, contrarily to its predecessor, it garnered many Oscar nominations and grabbed every possible award for Best Supporting Actor. There's no doubt that today, the Best Picture nomination would have been a lock, but I think the Writing deserved a nod as well, and even Aaron Eckhart is unfairly underrated as "Two Face", perhaps not as flashy and creepy as the Joker, but as tormented and complex as Wayne. And I love how Nolan doesn't keep on zeroing on Batman, he handles the supporting cast as importantly as the hero, because they might say more about him than he would himself.
The film, along with "Spider-Man II" and "Iron Man" were said to have revived the popularity of comic-book movies, but I don't know if they are as daring as "The Dark Knight" in their critical approach to the hero. It seems like today, whoever is in the poster must be admired, glorified, must stand for something immediately deemed as inspirational and empowering. "The Dark Knight" puts these so-called strength and power into an equation whose resolution is a triumph of intelligence-within-entertainment. Batman becomes a hero in the way he acknowledges that the general public isn't ready for his heroism and would benefit from a hero like Harvey Dent despite this latter having surrendered to the temptation of vileness.
But even this vileness isn't your typical "mua-haha" trope, although it features a lot of it. Like heroism, vileness relies on a state of a mind starting with feeling such as deceptions and resentments, we all have "scars" behind our smile so to speak. And the Joker isn't much a villain to be defined by what he does, unlike the 'hero', but evil by the way he enlightens us about the darkest abysses of our soul. See, some people can be funny by saying funny things or making points in a funny way. The Joker makes points in an evil way, and that's why he's so mesmerizing, and that's why Heath Ledger's performance is one of a kind.
Many things can be said about Ledger but I loved that line from the New York Daily New by Joe Neumaier: "It says something about the curious nature of film, that someone can be so alive onscreen, when we're all too aware that they've passed away, how we are mortal, and films are immortal." I guess this is why this film is immortal and why Ledger had left this world with a performance that enriched our lives, featuring a villain who drives not only the action or the (anti)heroes' arcs but becomes a philosophical force whose appeal rises above the movie.
Now, I ended the my previous comment about "Batman Begins" with an unlikely connection with the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, I'll say in the same fashion about "The Dark Knight" that it reminded me of that "Simpsons" episode "Lisa the Iconoclast" when she refused to reveal the truth about Jebediah Springfield saying that the myth has brought up the good in everyone, and that's what Batman and Harvey Dent indirectly stated, and what the extraordinary "bomb" sequence has illustrated (and God, what a plan!). It also reminded me of that sacrifice of Rocky Sullivan in "Angels With Dirty faces", one I wouldn't spoil here.
Destroying your legacy is perhaps the greatest mark of heroism, when great causes are worth fighting for them... and being fought. Seriously, what can you do when the greatest figure is disfigured and the mastermind out of his?
Wuthering Heights (1939)
A classic romance... not "gone with the wind" (literally)...
It's the spellbinding on-screen adaptation of a woman's only novel and one of the most iconic literature romances.
It's the tormented and tormenting tale of a doomed love inspiring one of the greatest movies of 1939.
And it stars one half of the Laurence Olivier - Vivien Leigh couple, but it is NOT "Gone with the Wind".
It was certainly in Hollywood cards that the atmospheric black-and-white "Wuthering Heights", as sweet as a strong espresso, would forever be overshadowed by the Technicolor orgy of autumnal bonfires and taffetas dresses from the Best Picture winner of the year.
Still, what a year!
1939 was Hollywood's finest hour, its majestic culmination over a world about to collapse under the rollercoaster of the Blitzkrieg before the game-changing "day of infamy". But war wasn't yet occupying the big studios' territories and only the winds of tempestuous romances could roar along with the MGM Lion. "Gone With the Wind" but also "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" formed the glorious triumvirate of 1939, all represented in the American Film Institute's Top 100 list of 2007.
Yet 10 years earlier, they were five with "Stagecoach" and William Wyler's classic. If I was to asked which one should have been kept, I would have probably sided with John Ford. This is not to lower the level of cinematic excellence reached in these "Wuthering Heights" but while the film is a masterpiece of Gothic romance thanks to its haunting cinematography and the intensity of Laurence Olivier's performance, love orbits the iconic couple in a way that causes so much histrionic pain and theatrical angerthat the childhood scenes felt more genuine.
Or was it a lack of chemistry between the two stars? Seeing Merle Oberon as the flighty and coquette Catherine, I was immediately reminded me of Vivien Leigh who was considered for the role. Olivier hated not to have his beloved wife as a co-star. But Leigh would grace the screen as Scarlett O'Hara and win the Oscar while Oberon wasn't even nominated, as if once again, the Gods and the odds were against the "Emily Brontë" team. I wouldn't dare to imagine Leigh in Oberon's part because I can't imagine another profile facing Gable in "Wind".
And "Wind" isn't an encouragement to story revisionism either because the film is virtually flawless and the characters' actions make sense even in their own twisted way. In "Heights", there's something fascinatingly confusing in the way everyone's his or her worst enemy. Obviously Catherine and Heatchliff love each other but Catherine wants Heathcliff to be rich and powerful, and he's got the right stuff but he's too authentic and stubborn to play along. And only when he plays the game and plays it damn too well that the dice are cast already.
This is a Gothic romance, not a romantic story, not even a tragedy for it's full of sordidness, sorrow and bitterness, even to the peripheral characters such as Hindley (Hugh Williams) who drowns in alcohol the sorrow of not being half the son his foster brother was then half the man he became, Isabella (Oscar-nominated Geraldine Fitzgerald), the naïve sister-in-law too enamored to see that she's Heatchliff's pawn while her brother Edgar (David Niven) is too much of a chess expert to be fooled, if only he could only see his blandness mirrored in Catherine's eyes.
What an irony from a film that features so many exchanges of looks and death glares that a few can really "see" and when they do, it's too late. One of the best moments occurs during a piano audition and from the way the four players of this tragicomedy stare at each other, we realize that we're in a hellish maze of human contradictions. The only constant and decent character is the sweet housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson). She narrates the story to the estranged visitor who represents our point of view, the film opens in a cold winter night but the reception the visitor got from Heatchliff made the outside feel as warm as Hawaii.
I guess that was the outcome of a romance where two lovers toyed with their feelings until they broke them. In the core, this is hot volcano romance yet the film leaves that point platonically ambiguous and depending on theatrical moments. What a missed opportunity, Olivier is like Lord Byron's portrait carved on a granite stone and whose death glare can undress the Devil himself, and Oberon so typically aristocratic but has her Indian-ness suddenly illuminating the screen during that moment when she ran after Heatcliff under the storm, such a cold British romance but so oddly exotic... if it wasn't for that Hays Code, handled with more audacity by Victor Flemming.
Just remember that naughty smile on Vivien Leigh's face after the infamous stairs scene, suggesting that Gable was quite the beast that night, not to mention the line that proved that posterity didn't give a damn about correction. "Wuthering Heights" was all in poses and attitudes beautifully executed but rather than elevating a romance, they emphasized the "tense" in "intense". Oddly or fittingly, it reminded me of my discovery of that book, in a "Who's the Boss" episode. Tony and Angela were reading it together and the atmosphere was so heated they had to switch to "The Cat in the Hat". Maybe that's the way Emily Brontë envisioned that passion.
Still, what an irony that like Margaret Mitchell, it was the only novel she wrote, but maybe it goes like novels as it goes with loves, there's only one great one, the others are just pale copies or inexistent. The love between Heathcliff and Cathy was so passionate it confined to these "you are what you love" madness and the romance couldn't go with death, couldn't have be ... gone with the wind, quite the contrary... the 'happy ending' might be too naïve although impacting.
Was Wyler too classic or was Brontë too ahead-of-her-time? That's a riddle for ages.
Batman Begins (2005)
If you're a fan of Batman, you'll love it, if you're not a fan, you'll become one after watching this film...
Four decades after the TV series, two after the first film, Batman wasn't exactly a beginner, so the title might sound a bit presumptuous in the context of 2005 if only because everyone thought the saga actually ended with that dreadful "Batman & Robin". But that was underestimating Christopher Nolan, he didn't just revive a cinematically dead saga but proved beyond a (dark) shadow of a doubt that it hadn't even begun.
But it needed to come so late and I knew I was right to watch the previous movies before Nolan's take, because it's only in that order that you realize how underexploited the potential of the DC icon was, as far as characterization goes. Indeed, it's not just in the way Nolan takes us to the origins of Batman (Christian Bale), to Bruce Wayne's childhood, his trauma with bats, the death of his parents and his initiation by Ducard (Liam Neeson), it's how it plays later in the 'revealing' scene.
Take the first Batman, a classic, no doubt about it: it starts with criminals who don't fool us about their status as baits for the heroic entrance. Keaton popping up and saying: "I'm Batman" probably had some members of the audience clapping and cheering but it doesn't hold up now, you know it's just the kind of trailer-filler scenes with no other pretension than introducing the hero. What happens is that, villains you don't care about are stopped by Batman who can take care of himself, so it's not that we don't but we can't root for him.
But boy, when the "I'm Batman" moment happens halfway through that film, after all that journey where he kept looking for himself, asking whether he's seeking revenge or justice, after all the wandering and wondering, all the tasks and duels and pains and stitches, all the brainstorming with Alfred (Michael Caine) about the right identity and with engineer Fox (Morgan Freeman) for the costumes and the "gadgets", when he finally comes up fully-dressed... we know it's not just a superhero in a fancy costume, what we've got is an achievement... and I was cheering inside. And not not just because of the hero. We saw Tom Wilkinson laying his cards in front of a mildly impressed Bruce Wayne, which makes the villain's come-uppance twice more enjoyable.
That scene alone is the reason why Nolan was right to make "Batman Begins". When it started, I was like "what the hell...?" I kept waiting for the Batman tropes, Gotham City, the logo, the Batmobile, Alfred... but then I realized that Superman had started the same way and when we could finally see the nerdy Kent opening his shirt with the "S" logo, we were finally rewarded for our patience. Nolan trusts our patience as well and is generous enough to make a few allusions to the Batman we know, like with the infamous parent's murder scene. And once again, even that scene is played at the right time, after many glimpses on Bruce's relationship with his father and his own fear, and see how it all comes full circle with that defining murder. I think it just comes down to one thing: give everything a meaning.
Why Batman? Why the bats? Why a black uniform? Why never killing anyone? Everything has an answer, a meaning, an origin. I love how Nolan tries to give some realism to Batman's origins, not to make the film realistic but plausible in the realm of superheroes movies... so real that Batman shouldn't even be considered a superhero. This is not just a good film, but a good story. Good in the classical sense, with the coming-of-age, the hero triumphing over his initial demons, then gaining enough strength to give a meaning to that first triumphant step and good in the writing.
For instance, notice how the word 'vigilante' is mentioned twice, by Ducard and later by the commissioner, Nolan was aware about the kind of labels that go with a character like Batman, and he doesn't deny them as much as he gives them a new weight, it's like "Yes, but there's more to it...". A vigilante always has style and an attitude that betrays an unconscious desire to 'show off' a little but in reality, Batman is perhaps the ultimate vigilante because he goes from a totally selfish desire to get his revenge to protecting a town that is corrupted to the core and all the style and the attitude are only meant to scare his opponents, to hide in the night, as a matter of fact, again, everything can be explained.
And this is nothing compared to the way the word "fear" is repeated, serving the film's motto that we're all meant to fall, but it's all about picking ourselves up. From another director, it could sound corny but not with Nolan, and certainly not with Caine playing a great Alfred. And this comes from someone who likes the other Alfred, too. The cast is another highlight of the film, honorable mention to Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy and even Katie Holmes who was shockingly nominated for a Razzie, granted she wasn't Oscar worthy but that was a low blow, even by Razzies' standards. Speaking of the Oscars, the film was so full of great visual effects and action sequences that I was surprised it only gathered one nomination for Cinematography, but quite a deserved one, the shots on Gotham City were breath-taking.
You know I've never been fan of DC or Marvel Comics, but I always loved the Disney Duck stories with Scrooge McDuck and Donald... and what Nolan did reminded me of Keno Don Rosa's "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck", he took an iconic character and provided a level of depth and a dimension that went beyond the format of the comic-book canon. I guess if there ever was a "Batman" hall of fame, Nolan would be in the Top 5 not far from the creators or Adam West.
The Heiress (1949)
Some people can't just afford happiness...
I said that for a movie about poverty but boy, does it also apply to Catherine Sloper, the fortuned yet unfortunate titular heroine of William Wyler's adaptation from the play of the same name, based on Henry James' novel "Washington Square". You thought Olivia de Havilland was too unbelievably sweet and unselfish in "Gone With the Wind", yet her unforgettable cousin Melanie is Scarlett O'Hara compared to Catherine. No wonder she won an Oscar for "The Heiress", if not the most iconic depiction of emotional vulnerability; one of the most satisfying movie characters' arcs... ever.
"The Heiress", as the title indicates, is far from being poor, she inherited an annuity of ten thousand dollars from her mother and will inherit thrice more from her father Austin (Ralph Richardson), a widowed doctor who doesn't just mourn his wife, but her lively and smart personality so severely lacking in his daughter. That's the tragedy of Catherine, she's valued by the fortune she's inherited and the social skills she didn't. Contrarily to her smart and charming mother, her practical and snarky father and her flighty Aunt Lavinia (Myriam Hopkins), Catherine is a plain Jane dull and crippled by an extreme shyness. From her father's perspective, she's the antithesis, and somewhat the 'assassin' of his beloved wife, for her aunt, she's an opportunity to play the matchmaker and enjoy romantic fun "by proxy".
Now, that Catherine's personality is the result of her father's bias and her aunt's misguided chaperoning or the opposite are beside the point, we empathize with Catherine because she is obviously a gentle soul, aware of her social handicaps and not even trying to be someone else, which is enough to earn our sympathy but with a limit. There's just too much pathos we can endure and especially seeing this poor creature being treated merely as a pawn and not trying to please herself for a change, is quite infuriating. But this is the mark of the great movies to heighten your anticipations and trust Wyler to satisfy them, he only insists on the flaws to better highlight the evolution. And at that point of the review, one must stop a little and praise once again another rich film from the so underrated William Wyler.
Once again, Wyler depicts a remarkable slice of the bourgeois life with not just the attention over historical details but human relationships. It's not just about taffetas dresses, top hats and candelabras but exactly like a Balzac could do with literature, or the Ivory-Merchant movies with Edwardian Britain, Wyler paints the traits and the mentalities of a period in such a daring and riveting fashion that the content feels actual and socially relevant even by today's standard. He does it with a rather simple story structure-wise because he knows the real deal lies in the complexities of the human mind, and heart for that matter, and what courtship, humor and revelations can hide in the subtext.
Indeed, Catherine is courted by a young handsome man named Morris Townsend. Olivia De Havilland isn't the voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun" while Clift is still the same intense and burning hunk and inevitably that raises our suspicion. Olivia de Havilland is perfect as the painfully awkward Catherine and watching her interactions with Morris, I could see her falling in love without the need of any dialogue, just notice how much confidence she gains from one dance to another. Subtlety runs in Wyler's movies. Notice also how the aunt and the father are enchanted at first by this unexpected romance but after a dinner with Morris, the aunt is delighted while the father suspects something. Morris spoke the same language to both but it was read differently. Same with us, it's about what we want to see.
And this is why the story is so powerful, it manages to keep a shadow of mystery about the characters' motives, which is vital to the excitement. Ralph Richardson is marvelous as the overbearing and protective father but whose words about Catherine might lead us to believe that he worries more about his legacy than his daughter. Clift also delivers a fine performance as the ambiguous sycophant. And in the middle of the conflict, there's the poor heart of Catherine, hostage of a man's presumed greed and a father's admitted suspicion. And it comes down to that central question, Morris can be greedy yet capable to provide Catherine the needed love and her father can be right while incapable to provide Catherine the love she needed, even respect. But no intelligent movie would have made any of these resolutions acceptable.
We know it, but the film's pivotal moment will be Catherine's realization. Her heart ends up broken and once again with Wyler, every certitude invites you to a second reading because, as devastating as this deception is, you know it might be salutary because mending the pieces of her broken heart will be a way to take her heart back and keep it for herself. Olivia De Havilland delivered quite a powerhouse performance reminding so many classic vulnerable characters such as Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence" or "Vivien Leigh" in "A Streetcar Named Desire" with one exception though is that her character gets tougher and tougher, and we can only enjoy her maturation at the end. And what an ending!
Indeed, I said it before and I say it again, "female empowering" didn't wait for the "new generations" to grace the silver screen, it has existed before and was done even better because it didn't need weapons or fighting skills to empower women. So you can take all the Lara Crofts, Kylo Rens or Wonder Women, they won't be as bad-ass as Havilland in the ending of "The Heiress", that pure moment of total awesomeness, she might not afford happiness, but at least, she has earned her self-respect... and ours in the process.
Listen to Bela. What Music He Makes...
What a great year to go to the movie! Indeed, everyone elevates 1939 as the golden year of Golden Age Hollywood but what a glorious start the film industry had with the talkies.
In 1931, you had the birth of two Warner Bros gangster icons Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson that people went to see, see? Silent movies resisted with a final masterpiece from Charlie Chaplin. French cinema saw the birth of Jean Renoir's talent and Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy brought the first French icon: Raimu, a man with an accent, but the greatest legacy would be owed to Universal and their "monster" creatures. I grew up drawing Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummies ignoring that they were all pretty much born the same year... not the myths, but their iconic perception.
1931 was a milestone on the field of horror movies, think about it, "Frankenstein" and the iconic "It's alive!" moment, the Fredric March version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", that earned the actor one of the first Oscar nomination for playing split personalities. And of course, there's Count Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi, the egomaniac Hungarian who earned Martin Landau an Oscar for his unforgettable performance in "Ed Wood". And, If the film doesn't really revolutionize the horror gothic genre because one should give F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" the credit he deserves, it was still a game-changer in the way It portrayed the iconic villain, I mentioned Robinson, Cagney, Raimu, guess what they all had in common? An accent. And it's all the more fitting that another iconic character would have one, too.
One digression about Murnau though, I read that Todd Browning was so distraught by the tragic untimely loss of the director that he didn't put all his heart in "Dracula" and left cinematographer Karl Freund lead the show. I don't know if it did really affect the movie but I noticed that as far as directing goes, the film has the right atmosphere but nothing new since "Nosferatu" and the best parts seem rather stagey, it isn't surprising since it was based from a play loosely based from Bram Stroker's "Dracula". That's just to say, as much as there's no ace card in the directing, there's no particular flaw either. I guess Browning's directing was more tangible in his 1932's classic "Freaks" but for "Dracula", the key is Bela Lugosi. His performance makes the film.
Indeed, it's almost the performance of Lugosi that provides all the eerie atmosphere the film needed, so was Nosferatu but in 1922, his 'presence' was enough, in 1931, the audience was thriving for a performance as well as a presence. And there's something in this Dracula that satisfies whatever needs the talkies created, the villain talks and the way he talks says something about the threats he incarnates. On that level, his speech mannerism is as crucial as Robison or Cagney's street smart slang, his accent and tendency to speak slowly, leaving a bit of suspense between crucial words, this Dracula is even more menacing than a monster because he can catch us off guard.
"For one who didn't live a single lifetime... you're a wise man. Van Helsing" "I never drink.... Wine. "
All the dots mark a long pause, and each pause is enriched by a rich palette of smiles and death glares. These are lines as classic as the "children of the night" but they belong to posterity because they're spoken in a context where suavity and vileness weren't as obvious as they are today. There is something suggested even in Lugosi's appearance, the way he stares, the way he walks, indicating an inner nobility and sophistication, notice how the well-spoken Renfield (Dwight Frye) becomes totally devoted to his master, as if he was drawn to him, to his aura. Even the murders look like a sort of emotional fusion, an erotic trance. We just believe such a power can exist because it works on a cinematic level, almost romantic.
It's also interesting that the film uses ordinary, if not uncharismatic, actors (except for Edward Von Sloan who also starred in "Frankenstein") to be the match to Dracula, no cockiness or arrogance, Dracula is dealt with as real people would do and it's a real departure from the usual theatricality, apart from Dwight Frye who tends to overact a little, almost undermining the film's seriousness. Still, there's a lot of talking and even in Dracula's absence you can feel his presence, even the anticlimactic defeat leaves you doubt about his fate because you can't believe a monster like this could let himself be defeated. We don't root for the villain in the sense that we wish him to survive but he's so grand, so noble and so cinematically appealing that we sort of "side with him".
Five decades before Hans Gruber, Lugosi invented the charismatic and sophisticated villain with an accent, and what an accent! The same year, Peter Lorre was another seminal "foreign" villain in "M" but his sordid gargoyle-like look and his crimes couldn't make him appealing, pathetic at best. I said in my review of "The Man Who Knew Too Much", the original, that Lorre was like a precursor of Gruber, but maybe he was inspired by Lugosi's performance in "Dracula".
Dracula has a sort of divine aura accentuating his scariness. This is a villain that means business and if the film doesn't scare much, there's the performance. I said that "Nosferatu" was a presence, but this Dracula is a performance... and a presence as well.
Arizona Dream (1993)
A Fish Called Kusturica...
"Arizona Dream" is a real UFO but the kind of UFO we want to be taken to whatever universe it would lead us to. That's pure cinematic escapism, in fact, pure cinema.
"Arizona Dream" is strange and that might be the only objective point for critics and praises to converge to. And I've got to speak for myself, the film is so hypnotic and enchanting that I can't imagine how it can ever be criticized, so this is a positive review, yes, because Hollywood is so dry on experiences like "Arizona Dream" that such movies deserve admiration.
What's the story about? It's a tale about fishes, or one fish actually, a fish and a young man named Axel (Johnny Depp) who has strange dreams involving Eskimos and again, fishes ... I could go on and on, but the point is that all the plots and subplots I will enumerate will sound disjointed while they're so connected to the whole reverie that there's a weird feeling of coherency. The film transports us from one state to another (any meaning of state) without finding us questioning the reason. It doesn't make sense yet it does in the sense that it absorbs all your senses, like a real dream would do actually.
And it doesn't come as a surprise that it's Emir Kusturica, perhaps the European heir of Fellini, who could translate a dream-like vision into a quite-easy-to-follow movie. Any other director would have added some black and white photography, some hallucinatory moments, some non-sequitur elements to better highlight the pointlessness of a plot. Kusturica's directing is not only confident about our attention but attentive about our degree of involvement. It knows when it needs to focus on something tangible and meaningful, and it knows when to throw all the conventions out and float above them, when to act and when to improvise. Even dreams can be codified, even reality needs to loosen up.
Again, what's the film about? Well, this is a film about relationships, some dramatic as the song says, it's about encounters that suddenly gives a total meaning to someone's life or seals the fates of others. Axel's uncle (Jerry Lewis) feels guilty for the loss of his nephew's parents and want him to work for him in his Cadillac-selling business, Elaine (Faye Dunaway) is a woman who dreams of flying, Paul (Vincent Gallo) wants to be an actor, Elaine's daughter Grace (Lily Taylor) a turtle. Realistic or crazy, we're all defined by a quest, a secret will. And these quests always find a root in the past or some dream, whether the past defines the dream or the dream shapes the future might paint the essence of the present.
I don't think it goes further than that, trying to find other meanings would mean entrapping this film in a rational box while there is more to enjoy besides depth. Like a Kusturica movie, this film has a lot of music going on, a lot of accordion, a lot of dancing and loving, of passion and pathos, even jealousy and envy are powerfully conveyed by the performance of the two peripheral characters played by Taylor and Gallo, while Depp and Dunaway can abandon themselves in an ocean of lust and fully enjoy their romance until they learn to deal with the consequences. How weird that you could feel the word "deep" in Depp and Faye Dunaway almost rhymes with "fly" and "runaway".
And as a leitmotif, we have this flying fish caught earlier by an Eskimo who belongs to either a dream or a reality, to say that it makes the connection between the opening scene and the rest of the film or the rest of the film with the ending scene is beside the point, if there's any, yet, there's a feeling of completeness, the idea that sometimes, we all have a vision of what we should do and what shall become of us. If the Eskimo metaphor is right, so maybe whatever the protagonists wish to happen to them after they die, will indeed happen... because maybe that's what Heaven is about.
Why would Uncle Leo be so sure he'd meet Axel's parent if he died? It doesn't really matter because at that moment, we've embraced the film's magic and we believe he does. Later, Axel says to Grace that he used to love her mother but then she became a cloud he could see through and realized he loved her. Axel is crazy in the way he sticks to his vision but so does everyone. In another scene meant for laughs, Paul impersonates Cary Grant in the famous plane scene of "North by Northwest", from our perspective, with the images of the original film, it's a masterstroke of impersonation, for the audience, his motionlessness is ridiculous. Does it matter again? No. Paul believes in his talent. And Kusturica opens our eyes about it.
And that might be the 'point' after all. The most remembered part from the film is the flying sequence and the unforgettable "Death Car" song from Iggy Pop and Goran Bergovic, the score contains many more haunting musical gems saying in musical language that heaven isn't in our visions, but in their fulfillments. That might be what film-making is about, it starts with a vision and the rest is just poetry in motion. Kusturica is aware than he's privileged for making such movies, which would be impossible today.
But he had this luck to come at Hollywood at the right time, the right moment, to have Johnny Depp before he became a supreme movie star, Faye Dunaway who was always "in" for ambitious projects ("Mommie Dearest" was a blessing in disguise as it allowed her to work in weird but fascinating movies like this or "Barfly") and Lewis, Gallo, Taylor complete the gallery of eccentric but appealing protagonists, I mentioned Fellini but there's something weirdly Hustonian in that bunch of dreaming misfits.
And something unique about Kusturica, as usual...
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Every movie lover will enjoy this masterpiece about masterminds... it's in the cards...
It's not the most memorable moment of "The Manchurian Candidate" but it is too delightfully and subversively goofy to be ignored: an inebriated Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), disguised as Abraham Lincoln, is dancing the limbo, George Washington would rap in a Simpsons' episode but that was three decades later, here we're in 1962 and the film's statement about politics isn't just ahead of its time but also plays like a stinging retort to all the patriotic, flag-brandishing and crowd-pleasing Capra messes that anaesthetized the masses.
To be fair, Capra also highlighted the corrupting effect of political ambition, but the Iselins would have convinced Mr. Smith to emigrate to Argentina. "The Manchurian Candidate" doesn't just satirize politics, it writes as words of Gospel that power in politics isn't a mean but an end, which means that the right and left distinction is rather sterile, the whole point is to reach power by denigrating the enemy and brainwashing the masses. Under the armor of apparent cynicism, the script, brilliantly written by George Axelrod, fabricates its own alibi. When you have a demagogue using the Red Scare to intimidate his adversaries and his mastermind wife implicated in a real communist conspiracy, say what you want but it's a fair trade.
On that political level only, the film is a triumph of writing, so ahead of its time it was deemed prophetic a day of November 1963. And that's something no one could ever foresee, not director George Frankenheimer, not the screenwriter George Axelrod, not Robert Condon who wrote the original novel and not Frank Sinatra who was rumored to have limited the diffusion of the film in respect to Kennedy's memory. It would be hard to imagine that the film inspired the assassination, but it did nourish the wildest theories about Lee Harvey Oswald being an agent of the Soviet, if not brainwashed like Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) in Manchuria, but being manipulated with extreme prejudice.
In our world where Internet became a beehive of conspiracy theorists, it's not difficult to grasp the appeal of a movie like "The Manchurian Candidate", it is not just modern by today's standards, but it's disconcertingly relevant. And yet; this a movie of many, many layers on brilliances and the political aspect isn't even the showiest one. In fact, I'm only going to quote the tag-line, "If you come in five minutes after this picture begins, you won't know what it's all about! When you've seen it all, you'll swear there's never been anything like it!". Indeed, I can think of a thousand movies like "The Manchurian Candidate", but none of them preceding it.
The statement about missing the five minutes is also true, in a subtler way. The first minutes aren't about the operation that get the whole platoon knocked out with the complicity of the interpret (Henry Silva), the point is to show that Raymond Shaw is the one who doesn't have fun and even in the next scene, warmth isn't his strongest suit as he doesn't display it either with his parents. Granted the poor man's McCarthy is only his stepfather (as he loves to mention) but she's his mother! Yet the perpetually malcontent is awarded the Medal of Honor, recommended by Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and is described by everyone as the "warmest, bravest, most charming man they ever met".
They all repeat the same expression and all have the same dream involving a mysterious demonstration session lead by Chinese people and showing the "bravest and warmest" man casually executing two soldiers. It's not much the killing that is disturbing than the fact that it involves the two who didn't make it. If Shaw did kill, he didn't let it exude from his attitude and with good reason, as he was not only programmed to kill, but to never remember that he did. Shaw couldn't pass as a guilty man because he would know it himself. The programming is brilliant and brilliantly displayed through a mix of dream sequences and solitaire games where the Queen of Diamonds play like action-buttons.
The directing and the visual symbolism is so straight-forward that we never perceive it as surrealism, the film maintains a very straight and legitimate aspect despite a few creative digressions that could have been borrowed from Hitchcock, which encompasses an atmosphere of suspicion where every moment of awkwardness can be rightfully or wrongfully suspected. When the interpret wants to be hired as Shaw's cook, our suspect-radar is engaged but when Sinatra meets Janet Leight on the train, the dialogue is so bizarre that we suspect something codified behind. We'll never know but we sure wouldn't have remembered the scene had they exchanged banalities.
In the end, there's also this constant feeling of an impending doom all through the film, anyone can be a spy, a mind-controller, an evil force, and this is where "The Manchurian Candidate" gets its ticket to cinematic posterity. Indeed, for all the malevolent forces it inhabits, forcing a man to commit murders, one of them being pretty hardcore for the time of the film, or the level of corruption that shows absolutely no regard for the dignity of human beings, for all the bad guys who populate it with their sinister smiling face, the bigger bad of all comes from one woman. As the evil and domineering Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin, not the woman behind the great man, but THE "great man" of the whole scheme, Angela Lansbury portrayed one of the most iconic villains of history, a woman who knows no bounds when it comes to satisfy her selfish impulses. She's so creepy that it's not just the way she hates that is disturbing, but the way she loves, too.
In a movie that goes so far in terms originality, we're not even shocked by Mrs. Iselin's behavior, we're just fascinated. And what I said could apply for the whole film.
Bon Appétit !
"Delicatessen" is surreal and eccentric like a Gilliam movie with Disney-like areas of tenderness.
It's over-the-top and flamboyant like a Fellini, hilarious and cartoonish like a Tex Avery cartoon, violent and disturbing like a Mario Bava flick, bleak, dystopian and mechanical like a Kubrick and all wrapped up in an atmosphere channeling the classics of directors Carné and Duvivier, pioneers of French poetic realism.
"Delicatessen" is a movie reconciling Meliès and Romero, Bugs Bunny and Hannibal Lecter, French old-school cinema and a new generation of creative gizmos born in the cradle of TV, advertising clips and cartoons and that defined the 90's like Tarantino did for Hollywood.
"Delicatessen", directorial debut of Marc Caro and "Amélie"'s director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is in terms of historical significance, the French equivalent of "Reservoir Dogs", a cult-classic that reshaped cinema with the sound of knives and Jean-Louis Dreyfus' maniac laugh.... and it's also a masterpiece of black comedy.
And for all the hyperbola I just wasted, let me say that the real genius of Jeunet and Caro is to have escaped from genre branding while reprising very familiar elements from French cinema and Hollywood, it's like a delicious stew of familiar ingredients with a unprecedented taste. Caro, a fan of animation and funfair, and Jeunet, a director of hip ad clips of the 80's/90's had made several creations before, including a futuristic short in 1981. They wanted to work together so they wrote "The City of Lost Children", deemed too expensive, they had to make their bones with a less ambitious and more intimate movie.
Living above a butcher's shop and hearing every morning the sound of knives being sharpened, Jeunet remembered his girlfriend telling him the butcher was killing the residents and they were next on the list. That was the genesis of "Delicatessen". And the opening sequence turned it into a cult-scene, which is saying a lot in a film where creative sequences are as numerous as worms over rotten meat. You see a nervous man with bugled eyes, trying to escape from the butcher Clapet (Dreyfus), Clapet isn't ugly, he has what they call a "gueule", now allow me a digression to explain the notion.
The French word "Gueule" usually refers to an animal's mouth, it's also used to define a mug, an ugly or intimidating one, nothing really pleasant to look at anyway. But in French Cinema, the word has become a 'term of endearment' describing a face exuding natural charisma whether for its rugged beauty, intimidating look or some unique oddity, just like Michel Simon or Fernandel. Jeunet loves these 'gueules' and his film features many priceless ones like Dreyfus, Rufus, Dominique Pinon and Ticky Holgado. The lighting does the rest, making an ugly face even uglier (Dreyfus) or more sympathetic (Pinon).
So we follow the mysterious man as he can't can't exactly avoid his horrific encounter with Clapet's knife but the way it's played is for laughs, a gag that could have been inspired by a Looney Tunes cartoon while establishing the atmosphere of terror caused by Clapet. The first seconds of "Delicatessen" epitomizes what the film is about, a weird mixture of thrills and humor so neatly concocted that you never know exactly if you should be scared or laugh. Even the moments of genuine sweetness, mostly between Clapet's daughter Julie (Marie Laure Dougnac) and Louison the newly hired handyman and former clown (Pinon) are played like straight romance but with a comedic touch.
Louison is the main character, he came to replace the former handyman. Ignoring his awaiting fate, he's nice with all the maniac inhabitants of the building: a man raising snails and frogs, a bourgeois couple with a suicidal woman, two men making moo toys, the Tapiocas, a poor family with two boys and a grandmother. They all live in an old building surrounded by some yellowish clouds, and where pipes can be improvised as communication medium, a device that was used in American thriller "Single White Female". I wonder if this worked as an inspiration but it certainly contributed to one of the film's most iconic scenes, a montage of various activities including Julie playing cello, Louison painting the ceiling, Mrs. Tapioca removing dust from the carpet and Clapet being 'paid in kind' by Mrs. Plusse (Karin Viard).
There's so much promiscuity that each of Clapet's pulses on the squeaking mattress make the others take up the rhythm and follow it, the climax is perhaps one of the funniest moments of French cinema. Jeunet, who's no marketing newcomer, knew that it would make the perfect trailer for the film and yes, it that doesn't encourage you to watch it, I don't know what does. And besides the laughs, the film shows one aspect of French culture "à l'ancienne" which is the use of props, pumps, pencils, knives, this is a film that pays a huge tribute to the system D and the resourcefulness in terms of "Do-it-yourself" transcended by the creative suicides of Aurore, using many Rupe Goldberg devices as hilariously inventive as they're inefficient.
Even the opening credits shows a sort of bric-à-brac, the kind of chaotic mess of objects that can lead to the best of creation, it shows the heritage of the two directors, heirs of George Meliès, a craftsman, the idea that cinema is all about tricks, about little ideas and details popping out with the magic of the camera, a sepia cinematography from Damien Khondji and a script that dares to go very far like a Gilliam movie, with the hilarious interventions of a mysterious sewers' group named the Troglodytes, but unlike Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro can be intoxicated by their extravaganza but not to the point of suffocation.
It's a feast to the eyes, a delight to the senses, a chaotic mess with outbursts of genius.... And where you start discovering a new fun detail after each viewing, like in the best comic-book. No holds barred, perfect editing and fun from beginning to end.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Marital love might be blind, divorce justice, not so much...
Weird, my two lowest rated Coen brothers' movies (with a 6 to be precise) are the overpraised "O' Brother Where Art Thou" and the disastrous "Hail, Caesar!" and what do they have in common?
Bingo, both movies feature the talented and charismatic George Clooney and both seem to waste his very talent in scripts that don't generally offer more than the usual quips and quirks but devoid of these subtle touches of genius that transcend the movie. All things come in three with "Intolerable Cruelty", a movie I still enjoyed but which I can't give more than 7. Seriously, why the alchemy never quite works between the Coen brothers and Clooney, as it does with Frances McDormand or even John Goodman?
I think the Coen brothers are masters when it comes to witty stories with a dark edge, told with enough distance to enhance the irony and enough dedication to draw us into the picture. As much as we can't take seriously the Dude's misadventures, we empathize with him because we do believe that the rug tied the room together and they had no right to pee on it! In "Fargo", we condemn Jerry's crazy scheme with all our heart and we laugh at Carl's constant bad luck, but we do feel the tragic waste of lives and are genuinely touched by Marge's poignant statement about a certain beautiful day.
That's the Coen brothers' magic, this balance between cynicism and sincerity. And when "Intolerable Cruelty" started, I received the expected shot of cynicism and it was delightfully Coenian. The film opens with a soap opera producer, Geoffrey Rush, coming back home and discovering a suspicious truck parked outside and his wife in a situation that leaves no doubt about her recent schedule. Now, the incident is mildly funny, it involves the obligatory exchanges of lines and gunshots but it's all in the way the whole case is distorted with the mouth of nuptial lawyer and redoubtable expert Miles Massey.
And it's not surprising that his establishing shot starts with his newly whitened teeth, Massey has such a dashing smile and white teeth that it seemed to have contaminated his words with the same aura, even the cheating wife (Stacey Travis) embraces his version of the facts. Later we see whatever happened to the poor husband and realize the extent of Massey's competence. Massey is a pro, he's so good he's bad, so good that he codified a contract, a 'pre-nuptial' agreement that is totally unbreakable, a fool-proof contract making divorce much more a no-option for the richer spouse as if he or she was a devout Catholic.
We never know the content of this agreement, but it doesn't matter, it's handled like a clever McGuffin, a piece of paper establishing that makes predatory marriage unfeasible, but the catch is this: it's made of paper, so it can be torn, generally out of love... both love and justice are blind, so pray God to have Massey on your side in both cases. That aspect of the story works like a funny running gag, it's just as if the reason to be of this contract is to be torn, as if it was made only to be contradicted. And when you dig deeper, you realize that this is the basis of most screwball comedies, it's about 'certitudes' and appearances waiting to be proven overrated or wrong, to meet their match.
And the match to Clooney's sex-appeal couldn't have come from a woman other than Marilyn, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Massey is a man so confident in his charm, so religiously rooted in the conviction that his baby darling is unbreakable, that he needed to be confronted to a serial divorcee with the beauty of Jones, she's a challenge to Massey's ideas and a challenge, period. She's so irresistibly attractive that it doesn't even play as plot contrivance when the two of them meet at a restaurant and discuss about love and marriage, and their two cynical views collide leaving us wondering which one of them will win the fight of ideas and the other will get love as a prize of consolation.
So there's something in "Intolerable Cruelty' that echoes the old Hollywood screwball comedies, with two roles tailor made for the most glamorous actor and actress of the early 2000's, the new Cary Grant and Ava Gardner. The film also had a share of scene-stealing supporting characters from Paul Adelstein as the easy crier assistant, Cedric the Entertainer as a private eye, Billy Bob Thornton as a rich Texan and perfect target for Marilyn, not to mention Irwin Keyes who's responsible for the film's single most hilarious moment, but despite all this great casting, the interplays between the two leads are so overused that we're left with a sort of a cinematic Catch 22.
I had the impression that the Coens are too in awe with their stars to let the story venture in other realms of unpredictability or if they're so blasé about the story that they don't really try to push it further. Something was lacking, a spice, a chemistry. Hard to tell. I enjoyed "Intolerable Cruelty" during the crucial moments where Clooney and Jones were interacting but for a movie showing us how far and wrong a marriage could go, there was nothing really out of the ordinary, nothing ingenuous or risqué, the whole thing is played like a little farce, a joke where everyone is on, except for the viewers. It's enjoyable... but never to the point that you wish to watch it again, And not being re-watchable is a mortal sin when it comes to the Coen brothers.
Don't take me wrong, I don't blame the film for being bad, but for not being as good as its story promises, for not swimming in more unsafe waters. In fact, if it was half what the Massey contract's reputation established, it could have been something.
Watch the original version, the new one should be titled "Encounters with the Aliens"...
There is a moment in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where a mysterious light is peeking behind Richard Dreyfus' car, its sudden and ominous presence isn't without reminding of Steven Spielberg's former hit "Jaws". And the way that scene alone is played showed how remarkably ingenuous young Spielberg was. This scene is perhaps the film's best moment because the device was previously used to accentuate a threat and is now recycled for a different impact.
This scene is also the film's most memorable moment because it encapsulates the film's title, we witness the "close encounter" between average Joe family man Roy Neary and a mysterious light. The remarkable thing about the title is that it doesn't use any sci-fi word, it's not an Alien, not an ET, not a Thing from another world, but a Third Kind. Didn't I just drop a few iconic titles? Have you noticed that so many sci-fi movies use inevitably an explicit genre indicator in the title? Now, how great is that title? Well, ask yourself, what if "Jaws" was called "Shark"?
Indeed, what we have here is a classic of science-fiction keeping the lowest possible profile for most of it. We never really see what provides the light, we never really see the aliens... what we're left with are lights, a mysterious ringing sound that became one of the most instantly recognizable tunes of cinema's history, a mysterious form a bunch of people tried to replicate and telekinetic powers. What do all these elements have in common? They're all from the perspective of humans, and this plays with the same level of thrills as the shark in "Jaws", we don't see the creature but its effect on people.
Think about it, when you go to a funeral? What makes you cry? The sight of the deceased one, or the sight of people crying? Fear scares, sadness saddens, and all the bizarre phenomena occurring after the titular close encounter create the same level of frustration and puzzlement. There's this unforgettable scene where Neary sculpts the Devil's Tower with the mashed potatoes and realizing that he's being carefully observed, breaks out of tears because more than his condition, there is the lack of understanding. Watch the reaction of his boy slowly turning from astonishment to genuine sadness.
Watch also how the ballet of lights and moving things starts as something amusing in Melinda Dillon's place until going out of control and the poor woman is forced to endure a nightmare that her son seems to enjoy. The third common thread is the investigation lead by Frenchman Lacombe, collecting all the piece of evidence about mysterious reappearances of WW2 planes and people in India chanting the iconic tune. Of all the actors, it had to be François Truffaut, he's actually quite convincing as Lacombe and works as another relatively unknown face in a movie that went for unglamorous casting (Teri Garr plays Dreyfus' wife).
What all these build-up scenes have in common is that they never indirectly reveal what it's all about, and that's why their impact is tremendous on the field of storytelling. I would go as far as saying that the film could have worked with an even shorter climax and longer set-up because this is a case of sci-fi movie rooted in a reality. The film was released in 1977, it's like the realistic and gripping Yin to "Star Wars" epic and operatic "Yang". While George Lucas's game-changing classic had paved the way to the blockbuster era, Spielberg's was still impregnated with the New Hollywood vibe, and that's why I loved it, and that's why I admire young Spielberg.
Unfortunately, it seems like old Spielberg is once again his worst enemy, and decided to touch a close-to-perfect film. I don't know why but the film I saw yesterday wasn't the one I remembered and I fail to see what good did the changes provide. The encounter lasts for so long, it's not an encounter anymore, I remember it consisting on Neary seeing a bright light and that was it. Here we get a car chase between little UFOs and police cars so where's the mystery? Not only does it make impossible to believe no one saw them, despite the blackout, but it makes all the more impossible to believe that only a few people di, how about the cops? No one had a camera for God's sake?
The initial encounter could pass as a furtive one, one a few people could witness and that would forever change their lives, but the new version was so spectacular and an orgy of special effects that it did something I didn't expect: suspend my disbelief, which is the antithesis of the film's spirit. The other problem is with the ending, the initial climax was the most emotional reward to one hour and half of sheer mystery, it was overwhelming, weirdly inspirational as if Spielberg was finally relieving us from these existential undertones and showed us that indeed we weren't alone in the Universe.
But wouldn't have been the lights enough? I do remember seeing aliens in the previous versions, and it was perhaps the small criticism I had, for me, the alien had to be kept hidden, in shadows, the close-up on the alien waving goodbye was so 'typical', so classic that it kind of undermined the sober approach the film initially took, but we know old Spielberg and sober make two, if the initial version was a reminiscence of "Jaws", this one is played like "Jurassic Park" where we're marveled by the UFO ever since the close encounter begins and nothing is left surprising.
Once again Spielberg shows that he has lost his touch when it comes to judging his work, with this new cut, he turned a close to perfect classic to a good, sometimes great, film, one that could have been titled "Encounters with the Aliens", it's like all the magic of the title has been lost.
Peeping Tom (1960)
Behold what catches your eyes... beware of what your eyes catch!
And that's the essence of cinema...
Basically, Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" is about a voyeur, but it doesn't just portray voyeurism as the mental illness of the main protagonist Mark Lewis, played by Carl Boehm, it also provides disturbing glimpses of his childhood where he was the object before becoming the subject. The film ventures in the realms of Freudian psychology and ends up being an extraordinary character study where the understanding of his Peeping Tom habits converge with the understanding of the essence of cinema. Film-making is all about the size of the scope, and whether you take the big or the small one, "Peeping Tom" never ceases to amaze.
Now, a camera is a window to a person, it provides us an access we all long for in reality whether from the keyhole or behind sunglasses. Once there 's something that is hidden from our eyes, the challenge is to catch it, and when hidden rhymes with forbidden, there's twice more excitement. To give you an example, I'm a foot fetishist, and when a beautiful woman is sitting in front of me, she takes my eyes down as a form of discretion, while I'm just adjusting my sight to the right spot. I don't feel guilty inasmuch as I believe that everyone's got a fetish or a reason to be peeping.
And cinema is simply about providing the perfect medium for a voyeurism that goes to the common denominator. Watching people in their intimate interactions puts us on a form of pedestal where for once, we forget about our reality, the one that enslaves us, to become the master eye, the Big Brother who watches. We can't change the story, that's the limit of our power, but we're powerful in the sense that we know nothing will ever happen to us, that's the edge we have, and that's the edge Mark Lewis has. That he's an aspiring filmmaker is no surprise, the filmmaker is also named the director, he's a God-like figure who catches his victim at the very instant of their death. But there's more.
Mark, named after the screenwriter Leo Marks, never gets rid of his camera, which not only reinforces its status as a weapon but as something of a phallic value, like the source of a predator's power, aroused by his prey's powerlessness. The film opens with a murder seen in POV but in the next scene, we understand the roots of Mark's fantasies. There's no exhibition because the exhibitor is flattered over being a fantasy, but the excitement of Mark is to do what he does against his subject's will. This is why, of all the crimes, the most disturbing is the one that starts with a shooting and gradually turns into murder.
This moment, starring an unforgettable Moira Shearer, is not only shocking but pivotal because it asserts the other form of perversity induced by the camera, it might show things we'd love to see, but it can also show the total opposite, murder, crime, violence. In reality we can close our eyes, turn our head, but that's the catch with cinema, it catches your eyes, but sometimes it makes your eye catch disturbing realities. "Peeping Tom" is a film of great artistic excellence but then it reaches heights of intelligence by submitting to our eyes the little voyeuristic games we love to play with ourselves and the trashy, sordid part of us. Never had another film toyed so masterfully with my emotions since "Man Bites Dog".
And "Peeping Tom" has often been compared with its counterpart of the same year "Psycho", and "Psycho" made me think of what Hitchcock said to Truffaut about his preference for blonde uptight Nordic girls; they were volcanoes inside, Hitch loved to play with paradoxes, with people being well-spoken and educated only to hide mountains of sexual contradictions. "Peeping Tom" does highlight this tendency of British society and this might be the reason the film was trashed by the critics, and trashed is an understatement... maybe it confronted uptight pompousness to its trashy subconscious. Hitch wouldn't screen "Psycho" to the press to avoid similar backlash and the rest is history.
And not the happiest one, Powell could never make movies again and if it wasn't for the film's revival driven by the New Hollywood generation, Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, "Peeping Tom" wouldn't have lived a renaissance, and we might have missed its subversive intelligence and the pinnacle of Michael Powell's artistry. Artistry isn't just a word, you couldn't direct a more difficult film, one that shows crimes from the killer's perspective, then from the way they're shot by the camera and finally, from our perspective. It's a three-dimensionality of perceptions, one layer more disturbing than another.
Mark was named after the screenwriter, and Powell played Mark's father in the footage, responsible for some of the most shocking conduct against a kid to be ever shown on a movie, that Powell's son played the son eliminates any doubt about the film's being a symbolization of the most pervert yet subversively brilliant aspect of film-making.
And with the help of two great performances from Carl Boehm, soft-spoken, shy, handsome and crazy, the delightful Anna Massey who embodies our curiosity and her mother, Maxine Audley our suspicion, the film swings back and forth between the delights of watching and the horrors, the joy and the shock, the fascinating character study and introspection into the roots of voyeurism and the heart-pounding pioneer of slasher films, driven by an unforgettable jazzy tempo.
Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" accomplishes something that has probably no equivalent in the history of cinema: it captures all in one film the two diametrically opposed applications of cinema or to be more technical, the eye of a camera. Indeed, it captures the soul of voyeurism by showing us that a camera can work as a double-edged sword... almost literally.
Bronenosets Potemkin (1925)
Images Speaking a Thousand Words, for a Million People...
Why is it that so many cinematic landmarks happen to be propaganda?
I guess there was a perfect timing with the birth of a new art / medium coinciding with a new century, allowing the early cinematic masterpieces to be studied in film-making schools while not losing any relevance in history classes.
If in its silent first steps, cinema was the latest 'hip' thing, a funny wonder from two French siblings or a mild bourgeois amusement, as technology advanced and authoritarian regimes were looking for the most effective ways to capture the spirit of the masses and then, cinema became a political weapon.
It's all about masses when you think about it, propaganda movies confront us to the real bargain of cinema; different people sitting altogether in the dark, anonymously and eyes converging toward the same images. We're individuals but we form an audience, a collectivity meant to react. The director shouts "Action!", for us, it's the reaction.
And this is not a hazard either if most propaganda movies worked during the Silent Era where it was all about the power of images, dialogs rather than faces. In "Battleship Potemkin", the most iconic image involves a woman with a broken eyeglass and bleeding eye, Bunuel had the eye sliced but the point is all the same for Eisenstein, the eye is more sensitive than the brain and Eisenstein definitely knew how to catch it.
His "Battleship Potemkin" chronicles the injustices underwent by the Potemkin crew, the resulting mutiny and martyrdom, then the solidarity displayed from the people of Odessa and the iconic confrontation with the Tsarist army during the iconic 'steps massacre' and finally another battle leading to the triumph of the Potemkin whose cause has been embraced by the other rebellious ships.
Constructed in different chapters, "Potemkin" bears some resemblance with the seminal "Birth of a Nation" but the technique of Griffith was far more elaborated in "Intolerance", a film he studied to get his inspiration. But while watching "Potemkin", I was fascinated by the way Eisenstein almost never uses narration in his cardboards, they all feature cries and dialogues but they never verbalize.
No need to, this is a film that trusts its material. If it was a Griffith' movie, we'd have a group of sailors coming to the office and complaining about the food. Eisenstein provides disgusting glimpses on the maggots crawling over the meat and close-up on an evil officer twirling his mustache while ordering for the borsch to be prepared (with the rotten meat). Close-ups are integral to the power of the film, because it's only when you grasp the feeling of one person that you can extrapolate it to the masses.
Eisenstein understood that we all have a Pavlov reaction, believing that what goes through one person, goes through the other. This is why you can see close-ups on clenching fists, anger sights or before the massacre, of people smiling and waving to amplify the shocking suddenness of the Russian army intervention.
This method also served Eisenstein for shooting of the climax, feeling that there was a lack of energy from the extras, he called one of them by his name, the others thought there was some sort of magic eye staring at them. In reality, Eisenstein picked a random name and had the right effect. That's exactly how the movie works, it finds the perfect balances between crowd shot and individual shots. That's the "Stakhanovite" move, and while the massacre feel like a giant wave of people flooding down the stairs, there are individuals we still remember.
Who can forget the woman who just witnessed the death of a child and carry him to the top, going at the exact opposite of the runners, that moment alone while giving a focus on that death enlightens all the other deaths. This isn't just stylish filmmaking, this is a humanity standing and questioning the use of violence. That's something that works out of context and that's the power of "Potemkin", whether the unforgettable baby carriage, the killed mother and the broken glasses eye, at the very moment where it happens, we don't think of the Tsar, we think of War.
So the argument that the massacre never happened doesn't hold up, Eisenstein wanted to shot the opposite of truth in the realm of plausibility, and that's why the sequence is powerful regardless of the context, it represents something that can happen anywhere and anytime, and for real. While seeing the woman carrying the child, I start thinking of the Vietnamese girl burnt by the Napalm and running scared and naked on the picture, I thought of that Palestinian boy who died in a shootout while his father was begging the soldiers to cease fire.
"Potemkin" uses a sort of universal language that transcend the barriers of time and countries, many propaganda movies couldn't work on a universal level because they're too specific. When Goebbels saw Eisenstein's masterpiece, he knew the Third Reich needed a similar movie and on that level, "The Triumph of the Will" also became a landmark on its own, but being a masterpiece of propaganda doesn't make it a masterpiece in its own right. "Potemkin" can get away with it because the film never let speeches undermine the message, it trusts the images and more than anything, it trusts the editing.
Eisenstein needed a movie to celebrate the revolution of 1905, he initially planned to make an epic project based on many historical chapters but weather convinced him (once again) to have a specific focus, one central piece: from the Potemkin, the spirit of the revolution would be magnified. See, it's all about imploding from within, one image that speaks a thousand words, for a million persons.
The steps massacre became a staple of filmmaking, countlessly replayed in movies for thrills or laughs, elevating it into one of the greatest movies ever, the merit goes to Eisenstein who was so creative and daring that he didn't just made a film about revolution, but he made a revolution!
"It's alive!" "It's alive!"
And just as if it embraced the liveliness of the moment, here's perhaps the most climactic non-climactic scene of cinema's history. The thunder resonates in the background, inside the ominous laboratory, an elaborate machinery and confusing electric devices infuse the secret ray of life into a seemingly lifeless body... until a hand starts raising slowly, it's slow, but it's alive, much alive.
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) says that he finally knows how it feels to be God, but I don't think the scene is subversive on a religious level as much as it is on the sexual pre-Code fashion. I said the scene is climactic because it truly plays like a climax. And what we saw before, the 'mad scientist' and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) collecting bodies and brain from corpses and medical schools, and the whole machinery, was just the preliminaries.
Interestingly, the pre-Monster part (the iconic creature only appears after thirty minutes) is intercut with scenes involving Henry's love interest Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) sharing her concerns with her bland (and obviously infatuated) friend Victor (John Boles). Even the grouchy Baron Frankenstein, the father (played by a scene-stealing Frederick Kerr) is lamenting about his son's disappearance, convinced that there is another woman. There is something too trivial and mundane for a 'horror' movie in these "where has he gone?" scenes if it wasn't for the way they establish some sort of cheating.
But look at Clive talking about his obsession to create life, his eyes burning with a gleam of defiance, at that point, he doesn't have a God complex. He is God (and aren't we all feeling the same when we're so good at it). When Elizabeth and Victor reach Henry's former tutor Dr. Waldman (Edward Von Sloan), the old man explains that his brilliant pupil took himself for God, wishing to resurrect life and create the perfect human body, that's the kind of cheating he perceived.
Finally, this dichotomy of sexual and religious cheating culminates with the birth of Frankenstein, and when Henry utters the immortal "It's alive!" he raises his head and seems to address God, provoking more fury if we judge by the thunder (a failed attempt to censor a controversial line) but look at how his eyes almost bulge as he's at the verge of fainting with an ecstatic look on his face while the men are trying to hold him tight. Colin Clive left that world too soon in 1937 but that was a scene for posterity, this is clearly an orgasm moment, the height of accomplishment, not contradicted but validated by the following scene where he's calmer and discuss his work while smoking.
And the film hadn't even reached its first half, we still had to read a second chapter of cinema's history and discover the face of Frankenstein not as Mary Shelley invented it but how a genius designer artist did, with the electrodes, and the asphalt shoes, leaving a new pop culture icon for posterity, after Dracula and the Mommy. As far back as I can remember, from "The Groovy Ghoolies" to an ugly mask that used to scare the hell out of me, that's how I pictured Frankenstein, years before seeing the film. Even better, I never imagined him as a bad monster, but always as a slow, dim-witted but well-meaning creature.
And it's so satisfying to see that the seminal movie never really contradicts this idea, as soon as Boris Karloff gets his first close-up, it's near impossible to believe that this creature is any bad, even if it didn't have the 'good brain'. "Frankenstein" was literally born from that orgasmic birth scene and it embodies the idea that men are born good and get corrupted with time. But the creature can only raise hands to the sky as a sign of divine gratitude. At the same moment, Fritz threatens it with the fire and both he and Henry mistakes the creature's panicked reaction for an attack.
The creature illustrates that conception about children going to heaven, it's a child who longs for heaven while condemned to the hell of men, incarnated by that twirling torch. Yet the film is interesting in the way it never turns the Creator into the villain while never making the Creature the villain, It's just as if it questioned our own attitude with religion or God: are we prone to vileness or is it because we do believe we've been created as God's images and we act as bad and unfairly as we think He does with us. Ironically, before regretting it, Henry was also trying to play God and got a good taste of his own medicine.
It was extraordinary that Mary Shelly wrote at the age of 19 this thought-provoking commentary about human hubris, and through a simple concept, a man creating a monster making us wonder if he wasn't a monster creating a man. I guess Frankenstein isn't much a man as he's a child, and it's no surprise that his first friendly encounter is with a child. And that the professor, for all the bad things he's done, got away with it after all, is a proof that he succeeded in his God-like role.
To conclude, James Whale's "Frankenstein" has the word "iconic" written in every single frame that it almost distracts a modern audience from fully appreciating its impact on the simple narrative aspect. Instead of listening to the opening disclaimer, I kept thinking of Marge Simpson introduction a "Treehouse of Horror" episode, but concerning the when Von Sloan said that it was a tale of life and death. I think in retrospect that the film goes deeper than that, there's a lot of sexual and religious undertones.
The film opens with a funeral and ends with a men raising his glass to the birth of a grandson, life and death? Yeah, but can they go never without religion and sex, I doubt it. "Frankenstein" might be dated at times for all its smoothly subversive take on life, resolutely modern and holds back pretty well after eight decades.
So 'Ebbing' Great!
Billboards... Ebbing... So many "B's" but a B-movie it sure ain't... far from it actually, this is high-level film-making, a movie meaning "B" for excellence, B as in Business!
And watching some shots of Frances McDormand driving across some random Missouri road and turning her head to her passenger made me feel I was watching an older -and grouchier- version of her most iconic character Marge Gunderson. That both performances earned her Oscars is no coincidence, she was born to be Marge and Mildred, Mildred Hayes to name her. The traits are more severe-looking, age did alter her woman-next-door charm but there's something in the eyes that left room to a certain gentleness, decency and sense of humor, no matter how twisted it is.
Sense of humor indeed... in a story involving police brutality, racism, and rape, the evil trinity wrapped up into another of these typical atypical Midwest crisis, something you wouldn't believe it was possible before watching Martin McDonagh's acclaimed "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri", the film that came so close to winning the triple crown of Best Pictures yesterday (but took home the right acting Oscars). Yet as horrific and seemingly cynical (seemingly underlined) it is, the film immediately drained from the wells of the Coen brother's masterpiece's memories. If not as close to perfect as "Fargo" is, it's as close to cinematic perfection as many recent movies confronted us to, there's just something immensely satisfying about "Billboards".
"Fargo" was crazy, wicked but remember how it ended, Marge was summoning the newly arrested criminal, telling him that there's more to life than money, and he was going to jail on what was a 'beautiful day', the masterpiece of dark humor ended with a light of hope and you could even sense remorse growing in the sociopath's eyes. Just when it became so trendy to have decent characters descending into madness and psychopathy and all the viewers secretly wishing they could loosen up a bit as far as their ethics go, here is a movie where characters start behaving like the bad guys we expect, only to discover that there was something good about them that only waited for the right opportunity to blossom. If that film didn't win the Best Picture Oscar, at least, it shows what "Crash" should have been to really deserve it.
"Fargo" and "Crash" weren't the only movie "Billboards" reminded me of, there was something in McDormand's wounded soul playing like a reminiscence of Kathy Bates' underrated performance as and in "Dolores Clairborne", a Stephen King's story that ventured into similar realms of traumas and vengeance by focusing on the tortured mind of an average woman. The parallel that can be drawn between the two performances (besides the fact that Bates should have been nominated) is the defining line of the film "Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman's got to hold on to." That line encompasses every single action of Mildred Hayes, never as an excuse but an explanation. When a mother has her daughter killed, abused and savagely burnt and the investigation leads to nowhere, she can only resort to the bitchiest side of her soul and yes, some wicked sense of humor... as the billboards would be referred to as a 'joke' by one of the main concerned people, and not in a condescending way.
So how about the infamous billboards? These three unused things of the 80's in a road nobody takes, and the opportunity to 'create a buzz', at a time where Internet, twitter, Facebook attracted every attention-whore of the world, here's one hell of a clever use of medium, anachronistic, inventive (screenplay-wise very clever but wouldn't you expect that from the writer director of "In Bruges") and the starter of a chain of events that will challenge and tease all your expectations. Because it's not much the set-up that "Billboards" establishes which is its main strength but how it plays with it, toying in the process with what we would expect after watching "Fargo", "Crash" or "August Osage County". The film opens with a hardened Midwest divorced mother, a worn-out but benevolent Chief of Police targeted by the billboards played by Woody Harrelson, a redneck deputy played by the great Sam Rockwell, so many characters' tropes in a nutshell that end up being totally deconstructed, for moments of laughs, shock and some heights of emotionality you never expect (not from 'these' characters anyway).
And it's all in the deconstruction that "Billboards" work, McDonagh has just a way to make the story advances so that once you think you spotted a contrivance or felt something was going in the predictable Aesopian-arc way that the film takes a detour into a twist you didn't see while maintaining its plausibility and revealing a higher esteem on humanity. This is a journey whose starting point is a horrific act of barbarity and ending up with 'bad' people realizing that deep inside there's more room for decency than they would believe... and people who realize that just because they defend a noble cause, aren't immune to punctual bits of vileness. Now, that's challenging. And later, the film takes another path that leaves the perfect cloud of uncertainty, but I'll stop here because this is one experience I don't want to spoil, just enjoy "Billboards", it is THAT good.
The film is served by great performances, besides Oscar-winning McDormand and Rockwell, there's also Peter Dinklage who has a great shining moment and there's the so underrated Woody Harrelson who always hit the right note between pathos and humor and the neutered tone of the man who starts to take things seriously, just like this movie does but not without a level of edgy self-awareness that makes the whole thing oddly entertaining no matter how dark it is. Really, one of a kind!
Searching for my wife's husband...
First of all, what a title!
If that doesn't make you chuckle or at least smile, maybe you're not a good candidate for this brand of humor... why would someone be looking for the husband of his wife anyway? Is this some kind of Moroccan joke? Almost, it's an Islamic joke, you didn't know Muslims had a sense of humor too? Well, this is a movie whose entire plot revolves around a man, married to three women, and by a crazy twist of events, ending up looking for the husband of her wife... and this is not even the film's point, but the punchline... after eighty minutes of a plot as mazy as Fez' labyrinthine streets.
The Hadj is a fat and jolly ferret-nosed jewel merchant who spends his time smiling to his customers, mostly women, with that little twinkle in his eyes that betrays naughtier intentions... and rarely gets unnoticed by his neighbor, competitor, and occasional adviser. But when the film opens, the Hadj is the master of the house with three devoted wives, treated with foremost respect and dignity... but that's on the surface. Directed by a man, Mohammed Abderrahmane Tazi, the film was written with a woman, Farida Belyazid, and while it never totally dismisses polygamy (which as you know is permitted under conditions in Islam), it doesn't blindly endorse it. Or let's just say, even guys would think twice before trying it after watching this comedy gem.
Indeed, the film finds quite a pleasant way to show the practical functioning of polygamy. In theory, a man is allowed to have no more than four women if he's capable to treat them equally. In reality, it is just impossible. The first and oldest wife, Lalla Hobbi (literally "Lady 'My Love') is the matriarch and the most respected figure, even by the two other concubines, she's played by veteran actress Amina Rachid. The second is Lalla Rabea (Naima Lamcharki) younger and unlike her predecessor, she could give boys to the Hadj, not that it earns her a special status, he often treats her like a laying hen who spoils her boys too much. And last but not least, there's Houda, in her 20's, played by lovable Mouna Fettou. The establishing shot of the film shows her drying clothes on the balcony while teasing one of the neighbors with her dashing smile.
She might be married but she values her charm and looks more for herself than her husband (who could be her father). Interestingly, the film doesn't start with the central figure but shows the backside, the house and how the three women seem to accept their situation as long as harmony prevails... not that there's not rivalry running but Karma is more concerned about the man, who's got a special treatment for each of his wife, the most revealing is his enjoyment of Houda dancing for him while dangling his feet like a child and having a sip of whiskey in the process.
"Hadj" is a term used for Mecca pilgrims, a religious word, we're in traditional Fez, but the man is eager to enjoy the privilege given by the charia without following the rules, that says a lot about his real involvement in the things of the 'Din'. Hadj isn't a bad guy, he's a clown victim of his own ego, which shows in the scene where he catches Houda flirting with a stranger and bursts out of hysterical anger, making a scene that channeled comedic legend Louis de Funès and became an instant classic in Moroccan cinema.
The repudiation scene is a masterstroke of comedy, a brilliantly directed moment working like a verbal tennis game where each of Houda and her soon-to-be ex-husband exchanges the hits, Rabea tries to calm Houda, but each word is like a blow leaving the poor man speechless and crying under Lalla Hobbi's chest while she mechanically taps his back. From that moment, the man will follow a descent into childish immaturity until becoming a local joke. And Bachir Skiredj' talent is no joke, a former clown and admirer of Chaplin whom he met and imitated, he had all the makings of a great comedian, his performance on a comical level is simply extraordinary, swinging between pathos and grotesque while the three women maintain their dignity.
Yet the film avoids the patronizing trap with women. And there's a slow and subdued subplot involving Houda discovering the 'modern world' with her childhood friend. It's a very interesting contrast with their initial scene where they were peeping over the men and commenting on their looks (just exactly as men would do in other scenes) and then being confronted to men who'd treat them like whores. Men would always be men (and there's a lot of progress to make in my country when it comes to this issue) but keeping under the disguise of tradition and convenience is the best way to conceal our deepest impulses.
That's what it is, it's all about impulses, why a man would want a second or a third or a fourth wife? And feel lonely anyway. Why would he repudiate one and regret it the day after? There are many lessons for the man to learn, one of them is that he had taken his wives for granted, realizing he lost his aura with them and that they wouldn't tolerate a third wife, except if it was Houda. And the only possible solution according to Islamic law was to have her married with someone else, then marry her again after repudiation... making the situation worse for his reputation, and even worse for his ego but so satisfying. Indeed, isn't Karma a bitch when a man who had three women at once had to end up sharing his favorite with a total stranger?
Under its vaudeville veil, the film is far more wiser and subtler than your average screwball comedy, it is served by an impeccable casting and takes us in an unforgettable immersion into Moroccan's traditional society with its medina, its merchants, bakers, butchers, tailors... and plotters. Speaking of plots, it's no wonder it was a huge success when it came out in Morocco in the end of 1993, along with the "Visitors" another comedy classic. Yet unlike "The Visitors", IMDb has no image and no review for "Searching For my Wife's Husband".
I guess if it takes one Moroccan user to do justice to this Moroccan screwball classic and provide both, I'm glad it had to be me.
Life is like a Dardennes brothers' movie, you never know what you're gonna get...
All Dardenne brothers' movies have a central character but all these characters don't necessarily have a character's arc. As my immersion into the sibling's unique but strangely flawless body of work progresses, I find these two storytelling devices equally fascinating, in the way they convey the real 'flavor' of life, living a day without knowing what the next one will be... a grimmer look on Forrest Gump's iconic 'box of chocolates' metaphot.
In movies like "The Promise" (their 1996 breakthrough), a young teenager is confronted to a moral dilemma after the tragic death of an illegal immigrant and chooses to help his widow and son instead of pursuing the same criminal path than his father, in "Two Days, One Night"; that earned Marion Cotillard an Oscar-nomination, the actress played a depressed factory worker confronting each workmate during a weekend to ask them to renounce an 1000 euros bonus to avoid her dismissal. These two movies consisted of long harrowing journeys where their protagonists managed to transcend their initial conditions, proving that even in a crisis-stricken society, there's still a glimmer of hope and reasons to have faith in humanity.
Other Dardennes' movies didn't share the same optimism, and both happen to be their Golden Palm winners. "Rosetta" featured a young girl determined to work and not to end like her depraved alcoholic mother that she would do anything to get a job, even the most unethical actions. But when she could work, she seemed to have lost the ability to be happy, as if she had already entrapped herself in an existential dead-end. In "The Child", we find Jeremy Renier, the kid in "The Promise", in his early twenties, as Bruno, the father of the titular child, along with Sonia (Deborah François) a girl in her late teens. Despite the title, the film is pretty much centered on the 'father', but the word father is to be kept between crosses. I was misled by the synopsis and the premise that 'Bruno would learn to become a father'... there is no journey in "The Child" despite some bits of remorse expressed by Bruno.
Still, the only identifiable pattern in his behavior is that he never thinks of the consequences and is so eager to make quick cash through begging or petty crimes that he never questions his ethics. Some people don't have scruples, some have, some don't even think about it. Are they dangerous? Potentially, yes. But they're a danger for themselves first because once you stop thinking of the consequences, your life can't have any purpose anymore. The irony is that Sonia, who's as immature and childish as Bruno, does have one and it happens to be her son. Although it's implied it was an accidental pregnancy, the couple is genuinely in love and love is actually an understatement, in two consecutive scenes, the Dardennes exposed the love on-going between the couple in a way that both captures their innocence and foreshadows the upcoming incident.
Indeed, this is intelligent filmmaking at best because it features the two sides of the coin, how innocence can be cute and corny only to raise an uglier and far more tragic head later. First, you see them playfully but recklessly teasing each other in the car and it's a miracle it doesn't end with an accident. Later, they play with food and end up embracing each other as if they were at the verge of making love once again without any care for their child... it's like we viewers are asked by the Dardennes to care for the kid because the parents obviously can't. But it's Bruno who crosses the line by doing the one thing not even the most experienced moviegoer could see coming: selling the child.
With an eerie attention to details and in their trademark documentary style, the Dardennes shoot the scene like a drug deal where a baby replaced the loot. But once again with the Dardennes, a scene never plays on its own, it's often a set-up to a more powerful moment. The pay-off comes when Bruno triumphantly shows a big bundle of euros to Sonia, announcing in the most matter-of-factly way that they sold their child. Sonia's reaction takes her back to a norm so severely lacking in the previous scenes, she faints and need immediate hospitalization. It's a dramatic moment but at least we know she is normal, and the fact that Bruno doesn't realize the gravity of his action that establishes his true character, one who has an uncommon lack of comprehension of the world, so wrapped up in immediacy that his soul lost itself in the process.
I compared the film with "Rosetta" but even she had a defining goal, she needed a job and that encompassed all her actions. Bruno spends the whole film needing money, and even when he manages to get the child back, he seems to be sliding in the same path, endangering the life of another child. For all his flaws, we're never put in a position to despise Bruno, we pity him but in the same way, we fail to admire him when he seems regretful or when he makes amends... the Dardennes never allow certitudes, as if we were allowed to trust our perceptions. At the end, when Bruno finally weeps, we might take it as redemption, but it can be despair. Who knows?
And "who knows?" is the question, "The Child" feels like a character study but there's an intellectual undertone behind that term, indicating a form of arc, an evolution, a coming-of-age. The Dardennes brothers could make such a film but I applaud the way they kept a shadow of doubt about the future of Bruno, by focusing so much on his actions that we're so close yet so far from his conscience, like Bruno who by getting so close to money let it get the worse from him...
To Rome with Love (2012)
From "To Rome With Love", to "To Woody, With Hate"...
Woody Allen has always been enamored with Europe and Europe has always repaid him well in return. Nothing extraordinary with Allen's European appeal since he's always been influenced by Bergman and Fellini, both emotional and intellectual school of film-making approaching the things of life, with Allen's humor to spice it all. In result; there has always been a love story between Woody and Europe. "To Rome With Love" only states what we've known already and on the scale of the many masterpieces that paid heartfelt tribute to Allen's European heritage, it's a minor offering.
Besides, "To Rome With Love" was released six years ago which on the scale of Hollywood history and the major upheavals following the Weinstein's scandal, are an eternity, the end of 2017 shook up Hollywood like no other year did and the tectonic resonance of the MeToo and TimeUp movement finally reached Woody Allen. Recently, many stars who starred in his movies expressed their regrets and validated their apologies with donations to the concerned organizations, Chalamet did it right after starring in the next Allen film. Colin Firth regretted working with Allen, so did Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who both starred in "To Rome With Love".
I was just complaining that Allen might have lost his touch after the dreadful "Café Society" but I'm afraid that it would be now the least of his concerns. The director who feared the Weinstein scandal would turn into a witch hunt seemed to have indirectly prophesized the very crumble of his legacy, at a time where media outrage is more vocal than court judgments. It seems that stars believed the best option is to believe the allegations against Allen, whether they're right or wrong is beside the point, career-wise, it's the right move. So, I'm not sure how we can exactly judge "To Rome With Love" with today's scope, the film seems like a relatively feeble attempt to resurrect the charm of his more glorious decades while not totally devoid of hilarious moments. I wish I could love the film more, but it seems so futile by now, like an exercise in Allenisms with actors trying to play the game while not totally in it... or am I influenced by their late statements?
Anyway, there is a moment where a retired opera director played by Allen discovers a man who can only sings perfectly under the shower, I don't know if it's intended to be a tribute to the classic Looney Tunes' cartoon "One Froggy Eveneing" but only in an Allen movie, you could have an opera scene where a man sings Pagliachi with an incongruous shower set on stage. It was so nonsensical and yet predictable that it could almost be strung with the most surrealist Allen's moments and enough to earn this film two extra points of rating. If only the other parts were as good.
One of them involve Jesse Eisenberg falling in love with a young student who seems to know exactly what to say to arouse him sexually, she's played by Ellen Page. Alec Baldwin is in every scene, like a not so imaginary friend, for the record, he's the only one who didn't backstab Allen yet. A second story involves a family misunderstanding between a man who must present his fiancée to his uptight family but must save face by pretending it's the luscious prostitute played by Penelope Cruz, meanwhile his fiancée lives another adventure involving a sexy burglar and has been actor. And the fourth is about an average clerk played by Roberto Benigni who suddenly becomes a celebrity without any reason.
And it's very telling when the part that obviously tries to "make a statement" about celebrity ends up being the least successful one. The film is never as funny as when it goes to the zaniest direction and never as boring as when it tries to say something. There are many questions raised in these short films, but only the lighthearted moments allow the film to elevate itself above its heavy contrivances. Rome is such a big presence that it doesn't take much to make a film about it, but Allen overplays the postcard homage for no reason at all, granted it was part of his European tour, but Allen have proven to be a heir to Fellini with his "Radio Days" and "Stardust Memories".
Indeed, there's always been something Italian without the need to go all "Mamma Mia" without it... no pun intended of course.
The Fratricidal collision between Idealism and Pragmatism...
"The Wind That Shakes the Barley", first of the two Golden Palm winners directed by Ken Loach, starts in the kind of cinematically traditional fashion that doesn't prepare you for how innovative it is on an intellectual basis. Yes, intellectual.
Young lads are playing hockey on a field so richly green you wouldn't believe it's anywhere outside the Emerald Isle. After the game, a heartfelt exchange of farewells between Damien O'Donovan and the O'Sullivan clan is interrupted by the fierce intervention of the infamous "Black and Tans". The troop came to remind that collective demonstrations are severely prohibited and that went for sports game too. What follows is no game at all.
Things escalate quickly when one of these young Irishmen, too angry or maybe too proud to measure up the danger decides not to cooperate at all. He says his name in Gaelic and keeps his eyes and chin up with a defiant smirk that earns him a 'permanent' beating. That martyrdom is still not enough to convince young promising doctor Damien O'Donovan (brilliantly played by Cillian Murphy) to swell the ranks of the fighters, among them his older brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) against the British colons.
We're all aware that in cinema's tradition it's not uncommon for the most valiant fighters to start as outsiders or even be labeled as cowards but Ken Loach doesn't use these narrative conventions at the expenses of realism. The episode that ends up triggering Damien's determination doesn't consist on another life-threatening situation yet it is far less than being anecdotic. On the train station, he sees the driver named Dan (Liam Cunnigham) being brutalized by British soldiers because he refused to transport them, nothing to do with Irish pride but union rights forbidding him to transport weapons.
This is interesting in the way it establishes the real motivations of Damien, he's not driven by romanticism but realism, and these nuances will play a gradually important role as the story progresses. Meanwhile, Ken Loach exposes the familiar elements such as the training of the troops, the first successful operations, the first sheds of blood with an attention to details that make each operation believable and heart-pounding in their unpredictable outcome. The performance of Murphy is crucial because we always identify with his outsider's status while his involvement gets deeper and his initial persona progressively diluted in the painful obligations.
There was a 1969 movie named "Army of Shadows" depicting with an eerie realism the existential corners a fight against occupation drove some ordinary men: executing a traitor with a towel, resigning to swallow a cyanide capsule or even worse, dying in total anonymity without any posthumous recognition whatsoever. But for all its grittiness, the movie didn't leave any doubt about the righteousness of the fight lead by French civilians for the enemy was the Nazi occupants, if it didn't make any death satisfying, we knew everyone did the 'right thing' even when it meant the worst.
Now, you have "The Wind That Shakes the Barley", a movie all in bright palettes of green, nothing to do with the gray shadowy streets of Melville's masterpiece, but if this film that starts like your typical exhilaration of the fight for freedom, there is slowly but surely, in a way that credits Ken Loach' respect for his viewers, a gradual existential questioning. In a scene that echoes the traitor's execution in 'Shadows', Damien must shoot the friend who denounced them. At this point, you can see that it's a part of himself he's killing with the poor frightened kid and that there's no return to normality after that.
Indeed, we've seen sickening scenes of torture before, we know how violent the British were, but the film still allows his main protagonist to hope that Ireland will be worth the fight, this is no "Braveheart"'. The execution is a poignant moment but what goes next is a triumph of writing and self-questioning. It consists on a long discussion about a verdict forcing a rich Irish man to pay a poor woman back because of high interest rates, this is the first judgment rendered by an independent Irish court but many fighters, including Damien's brother refuses to ostracize the richer ones as they're the most important fundraisers.
We can see the first breeches of discord within the group, some believe the fight needs money, some that the power must be given to the people. And what we've got here is a film that asks two questions: is the fight worth it after all, since it makes you kill your own people? Or will it be worth it since it will keep the same system just under a different flag. The question becomes crucial after the partition of Ireland and its dominion status maintained, causing a permanent shift between Loyalists and Nationalists and culminating when a man is forced to execute his own brother, remaking the very moment where Damien killed the traitor. Damien would recall the memory to point out that there's no possible bargain with him.
Damien's views seem politically motivated and Ken Loach was criticized for injecting his left-wing views within the story, but there's no doubt that there was starvation in Ireland and that a real ideological shift occurred within the fighters. And it says a lot about the misleading exhilaration of "fighting" when you believe in one enemy before you discover that it can be within your own nation, your own blood. There's a moment where the Loyalists mention that Britain needs to save face not to encourage other countries like India. At the end, I kept thinking of India and the sad aftermath of Gandhi's fight for the Independence when Muslims and Hindus started killing each other.
British criticized Ken Loach's self-loathing approach, in fact, he does justice to the two sides of the fights by confronting them to their historical responsibility. And anyone who believes this is an Anti-British understood nothing from the film or didn't even see it.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Behind every great lover, there's a city...
In "Vicky Christina Barcelona", Woody Allen reinvents the notion of schools of loves through the conflicting visions of two friends in their early 20's, visiting Barcelona for the first time.
Rebecca Hall is Vicky, the sensed and practical one, she's no less romantic than the average girl but she has loving rhyming with living, she takes love seriously and so her coming marriage with Doug (Chris Messina) a young junior manager who, if not the fire of senseless passion, doesn't lack the promising capability to be a good 'provider'.
Scarlett Johannsson is Christina, the passionate Ying to Vicky's wise Yan, she's an idealistic woman who envisions love as a sort of omelet that doesn't go without breaking eggs, there must have a good deal of suffering and hurting, proportionally to the heights of passions to be reached. She didn't find the true love, but she's still at an age where questions have the edge over answers. And it's interesting how their occupations reflect their personalities.
Vicky is a linguist who came to Barcelona to study Catalan identity, Christina is an aspiring director or photographer, an artist to make it short. The two girls have fundamentally opposed views on love, but they won't amount to much in Barcelona, the third side of a fascinating love triangle. After having romanticized the Big Apple and then deconstructed its romantic myth, coming totally full circle with his cherished hometown, Woody Allen embarked on a European trip in the early 2000's and the halt in Barcelona was certainly one of the most notable and inspired.
With three dozens of movies on the clock, Allen sure acquired a unique talent to make a city feel alive through the film, and with the Gaudi signature, the cathedrals and the restaurants open at midnight, we know it's a matter of time before any convictions is swept up by the romantic mood of city. Indeed, with a town like Barcelona in the backdrop, half a Casanova's work is done. And when Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio comes and proposes the girls a little trip to Oviedo, granted he embodies all the suave charm of the Spanish lover, but he's like endorsed by the hypnotic beauty of the city.
It's an old trick many womanizers apply, at a time where you had to cruise and be charming on the spot, not behind a screen, they generally went to the spot flourishing with tourists. Any lady-killer could stroll in Paris in Luxembourg Gardens during summer, a free visit to an English tourist enamored with the city would be the kind of proposals that'd rarely encounter a "no". But while Vicky can see behind the game and Christina just get in the flow, and before we know it, the 'no' became a 'yes'. Not sure the trick would work in America with all the sexual harassment talk but in 2008, everybody found it romantic ... so it's not just a matter of geographical context.
The trip doesn't follow exactly the trajectory we expect, or maybe it does, but just take a little detour, allowing the complicity to blossom between Juan Antonio, the tormented artist and Vicky. Juan Antonio had struck Chrsitina's attention because of some backstory about the conflicting relationship he had with his ex-wife, but the character he shows to Vicky is oddly matching her own approach to life and art, to the point that her attention toward her fiancée gradually slips.
The trouble with cities like Barcelona, cities with a soul, is that you can't tell to which extent they influence your perceptions. Does Vicky appreciate Juan's company because she's in the perfect context for that, holiday, summer, relaxation or is the attraction genuine? To complicate things a little, her fiancé comes, to celebrate a first wedding in Spain, while Juan gets back to Christina. Something very interesting happens then in the mind of Vicky, that doesn't need any fancy analysis, it's summed up in one exchange: Juan says she and her fiancé are made for each other, and in a typical Allenian move, she's offended.
Why is that serious relationships or ambitions that imply steady comforts are perceived as negative? To the film's defense, this is not what "Vicky Christina Barcelona" advocates, it does provide a nice glimpse on Spanish Bohemian life and I don't know anyone who wouldn't be tempted to live with a glass of wine everyday, painting and making love or living in a ménage a trois. In the very context of the film, it is appealing, but the antidote is clearly provided by the fourth and most memorable character of the film, Penelope Cruz as the ex-wife. Earning her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, this is not just a credit to her talent but to her weight in a rather lighthearted film.
Before her entrance, the film made an effort to portray Juan as an attractive man and men like Doug as boring and "knowing nothing about passion" and only leading to failing and hypocritical couples such as the one formed by Chris Dunn and Patricia Clarkson.. If the film doesn't strike for its subtle characterization (Allen generally excels in this game even for minor characters), at least it provides a character who's so passionate you just want to take the next plane not to New York, but to Alaska. As Maria Elena, Penelope Cruz plays a jealous, envious, suicidal, possessive, luscious woman, who takes art to a level of destruction and destruction to the level of art, to the point that what starts like a sensual adventure with three people finally prompts Christina to pull herself together and leave.
It is a credit to Allen for not having surrendered to a total triumph of passion over reason, the ending suggests that when it comes to love, nothing is really what it's all cracked up to be and sun is always sunnier in the other side of the Atlantic, especially under the sky of Barcelona.
Critique of Impure Reasons...
Michael Haneke "White Ribbon", Golden Palm winner of Cannes Festival in 2009, takes place in a small German village one year before World War I. The mention of the war sounds like the kind of elements that foreshadows some role the major conflict would play, but if it's any spoiler, I'll say that war has nothing to do with the story and if you expect the kind of movie to provide hints or signals, you'll be disappointed... first and mesmerized after. This is an extraordinary journey in an atmosphere of nauseating and sickening suspicion without any resolution whatsoever.
And the warning is necessary because if there's ever a genre to classify the film, it is Mystery. The word should even be used in the plural form as it features many incidents that punctuate the daily routine of the village, from a prank leading to a fall from horse, to a fire, from cabbage decapitation to child molestations, it is bizarre that all these deeds are strung together but that's because the movie brilliantly reflects the fullest range of human malevolence and that we never know who's committed each act is more disturbing than the acts themselves.
Haneke fears violence like the next decent man but he fears it so much, he feels the need to anticipate it, to expose its in frontal nudity to better conceal its reversely sacred status, he's not a glorifier of human violence but an iconoclast. Whereas Hollywood is often timid when it comes to display real-life violence, using over-the-top depictions to better make up for their falseness, Haneke dares to show a dead body being toileted or the bloody face of a child who's just been molested, with macabre details revealed. It is ugly but it does justice to the moral fight against violence to show 'the enemy'.
Violence isn't just physical, it is also verbal and sometimes with more devastating effects. There's a scene where a doctor confronts his nurse and what comes from his mouth is a flood of verbal bullying that would lure any fragile soul into suicidal candidacy. The man who speaks is the one who fell from the horse in the opening scene, when the animal's legs were stopped by an invisible cable tied between two trees. He's the first victim, but he' as capable as being pitilessly cruel as the monster who pranked him.
The film is shot in black and white, but this is not just an artistic license, the early century was old enough to be captured in monochrome, whether cold photographs or silent archives and recent enough not to be depicted in bright painterly colors, it was indeed a time in black and white. But that look precisely invites us to focus on greyish parts, the shadows, what lies behind the curtains of respectability or that dusts off the ashes of evil. Because this is what the white ribbon symbolizes, not the so-called purity but the pretension to achieve it.
The film circles around the lives of many villagers, from various ranks and backgrounds at a time where people were mostly defined by their jobs, a baron, a priest, a farmer, the doctor, the teacher, and every one of them tries to maintain a façade of dignity. In an intense scene, a priest delivers a long monologue to his elder children after they've come late home... this is a clear reflection of the kind of puritan mentalities that forged some artistic geniuses like Ingmar Bergman, the use of repression or symbols to conceal the demons. But Haneke is as explicit when it comes to show how laborious these rituals are as to demonstrate their uselessness.
This is a village where moral and social conveniences end up poisoning relationships, aa farmer's wife dies because of a work accident but the husband can't complain because he knows it's a lost cause, the baron is the employer and you can't cut the hand that feeds you. A young optimistic teacher tries to seduce the baron's nurse but fails to convince her father to marry him, the priest's son prays God for killing him because he did something wrong, what he did we never know. Still, enumerating all the episodes would be futile and meaningless compared to the main experience.
The real achievement is to create a journey where we can sense the presence of two forces, evil and guilt, but with cloud of uncertainty making impossible to associate them with the perpetrators, only the victims, and even then, there's a crucial point Haneke makes is that victimhood doesn't make you an innocent person. In the context of today, where there's a clear gap between victims and predators, you'd have serious troubles if you even dare to say that, but this is why German cinema is so cold and detached, it respects our intelligence enough not to take side, or flatter our moral conscience, it invites us to reconsider our certitudes.
"The White Ribbon" isn't an intellectual exercise, it's a film about people, men, women and children, caught in a sort of hellish spiral they don't know about. Trying to associate this pattern of violence with the rise of Nazism would be too tempting and reducing, because evil has no boundaries, we all carry it, we all have reasons to fear it as much as to commit it. What Haneke does is depicting violence to deprive it from any kind of taboo value, and by refusing to provide hints or answers, he makes both everyone guilty and everyone innocent, and you've got to figure out which option is the worst.
We all have our 'white ribbons' our limits, and in the absolute no one would over cause harm to anyone, but these things happen, and just because they are irrational doesn't make them immune to a form of rationality, this is the country of Kant that established that for each cause there's an effect and inversely, and one effect becoming a cause, and maybe that's the perpetual movement of history captured in this microcosm of humanity
Il gattopardo (1963)
Keeping His Paws in the Gilded Cage
"The Leopard", Golden Palm winner of 1963, might have the prestigious look and feel of a big-budget historical drama, confidently directed by veteran Luchino Visconti and sublimated by the melodies of Nino Rota... and yes, to some degree, it can be regarded as an Italian equivalent to "Gone With the Wind". But it's within the resignation not the determination of its main character that we find the soul of the film.
Indeed, for a story supposed to be about historical upheavals and political turmoil, "The Leopard" is remarkably static and stoic. This owes a lot to the performance of Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, he carries both the codified solemn authority of a man of his rank and the poignant vulnerability of a man at the nadir of his splendor, belonging to a chapter of Italy's history whose pages are soon to be turned. We're in 1860 when Garibaldi's troops are dethroning the then-ruling Bourbons in Sicily. Salina might be a leopard but an endangered species in that particular context.
Yet "The Leopard" isn't much a character study, the film is adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel of the same name, centering on the decay of the old aristocratic system. And without reading the book, I guess it carries the same resonance in Italy as Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind". I suspect the book starts with magnificent descriptions of all the lavish vegetation that graces the landscape, the natural sprays that float over the warm sky of Sicily, among them the breeze of modernity coming from the continent. And I suspect the film while not absolutely flawless does justice to the novel.
Yet what a bizarrely quiet journey, we're getting prepared to a downfall... that never occurs. The film is very much about the way Sicily was under the noble rulers before the Unification of Italy under the King but isn't much interested in the future. But it's easy to miss that we're witnessing one of the first glimpses of the Island's unique beauty before "The Godfather" would give the most vibrant homage. History and locations are constant markers of the film but trust our knowledge a little too much. "The Leopard" might be too difficult for most viewers and maybe a little introduction about the context wouldn't have hurt the film or at least, a few geographical notes.
And despite some very well-choreographed battle scenes, war always seems distant, as contemplated from the passive perspective of the Salinas who just idly move from one palace to another, the heirs enjoying the bucolic lifestyle while the patriarch can exchange a few quips with his priest (Mario Girotti) and a few heated political gossips with his hunting companion (Serge Reggiani). The dialogues go from minimalist to passionate, superficial to subtle, but to those who don't pay much attention to politics, the highlight of these conversations is in the body language, the way they indirectly establish that the Prince still inspires respect and a servile attitude (sometimes the corniest) proving that nothing had changed as far as he's concenred. The best thing about Lancaster is that he plays a man talking about losing his power while always being powerful.
So what we have is a film that works in two paces, it is history in motion and a cross-country travel yet strangely motionless, it's as puzzling and beautiful as one of these mechanically arranged ballroom waltzes. The Prince is one of these paradoxes the silver screen is enamored with, in one of his best scenes, he's asked by the priest to confess his sins but there are limits the Prince can't tolerate, like searing seven children from a woman without ever seeing her navel. The Prince is a man of life, love and passion and the fading of his aura just coincided with the Italy he knew, but having to endure his petite Devout catholic nagging and whining wife is one blow to his manhood he can't have.
But the story would have been quite austere if it wasn't for the additions of two more high-spirted characters: Tancredi, played by the distractingly handsome Alain Delon and Anjelica, the daughter of an opportunistic mayor, played by the exquisite Claudia Cardinale. Tancredi is an ambitious go-getter who fights for either army depending on his interest but with such charisma it reveals the level of ambition so severely lacking in the Prince's progeny. The parallel between the two men isn't just highlighted by their relationship but the way they instantly feel the same lust toward the same woman... a gilded cage is something "The Leopard" can consent to... but losing his paws?
Luchino Visconti was a descendant of this Sicilian nobility yet refused to play the titular part although everyone acknowledged his regal persona. Burt Lancaster was picked so the film could get the necessary banking from Hollywood and I thought he gave a presence to the film, he's charming, charismatic and can turn from intimidating to friendly in one simple grin, he's accessible like an old friend but sacred like an old relic we venerate out of habit. But he's also a pragmatic man who understands that all the prestige of the world can't do without money and even marriage can turn into financial bargain, the end justifying the means. Aren't we after all in the country that gave Machiavelli?
All these torments pinnacle in the iconic ballroom sequence, which is as long as the wedding opening in "The Godfather" and culminates with the same inter-generational dance, but what a moment! By having a final waltz with the beautiful Anjelica, we see a rebirth for the Prince, a rejuvenating shoot before finally surrendering to the march of time, more ruthless and permanent than any conquest or invasion... but still using a party as an opportunity to tie bonds and take decisions (like "The Godfather") not much have changed for Sicilian traditions... and if it's any consolation, the Leopard was right!
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Pivotal milestone but also Powerful and Poignant Drama
"Isn't there anything that touches you, that warms you? Every man has a dream, what do you dream about?"
That quote comes from my favorite moment of Stanley Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" the movie about the monkey trial ending with the atheist lawyer, played by Spencer Tracy, admitting off the record the power of faith. He wasn't against religion but the way religion could become an oppressive force while its quest for a spiritual meaning could generously provide the kind of harmony every man seeks.
That's the idea of "The Jazz Singer", a film about two men who have their own religion, a rabbi who believes in the word of God and his son Jacob (Al Jolson) who believes he can only sing his truth by entertaining people. What they all have in common besides belonging to a prestigious generation of Cantors is the same 'tear' in the voice, and this is the stuff you can't cheat with. Yet the father won't allow his son to disgrace the family by shouting or dancing to pagan rhythms, the mother is more understanding.
Religion becomes oppressive and pushes little Jackie to leave the house and fulfill his dream. The rest is history... and today, the movie is mostly famous for being the first talkie, and the talkies couldn't have a better start than something enlightening us about the power of a voice, of music, and how it translates your thoughts, your emotion, your demons so powerfully it can reach other souls. There's something in "The Jazz Singer" that fittingly touches the essence of the medium and we might have noticed it if we weren't so busy looking at it as a pioneer.
Indeed, I've been interested in movies ever since 1995 and the whole centenary celebration. In these Internet-less times, there wasn't a book I opened, a documentary I saw that didn't mention the iconic "Jazz Singer". You'd have asked me as a kid about the first talking picture, I would give you the title and the most iconic image, a singing black-faced man... and I thought that the movie was only consisting on a man singing, a short film whose novelty was enough to made a sensation.
Then I saw the first excerpts from "Goodfellas" with the "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" part, then being an AFI buff, I discovered the line "Wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet" the first unsung line of history. I noticed many cartoons of the Golden Age made a reference to the "Manny" song. And then, I saw the episode of "The Simpsons" revealing that Krusty the Clown was estranged with his father, a rabbi who disowned him after he became an entertainer. I know it's not a very interesting story but just to say that all these little pieces of the puzzle made me believe that "I saw everything yet".
But I didn't! What makes the film so great has actually nothing to do with its status. Of course, the music is integral to its power, but had this film been the second or third talking picture, it would have changed absolutely nothing to its greatness. Yes, it is outdated by many elements (actually there aren't many talking parts) but the film is as modern and relevant today as it was nine decades ago as a riveting portrayal of an inner conflict, a man who has a dream but a heart too.
Our Jazz singer must choose between whether the show must go on and the call of his race, from deep inside. There comes a point where he either misses his first show on Broadway or not sing during the Atonement ceremony because his father is too sick. At that moment, I was at the edge of my seat as if I was watching a thriller. I've said it once and I say it again, the greatest thrills come from these powerful conflicting dramas.
And when Jackie says "I must choose between losing my career or breaking my mother's heart", I couldn't handle the desperation, whatever ex-machina could have saved him, I was ready to accept it, Because Jackie wasn't just desperate, he was angry at his boss to ask him to abandon his parents or threaten him to lose his job. That climactic sequence was one of the most powerful I've experienced recently and the resolution was just perfect.
Ebert said about Astaire's blackface number in "Swing Time" that, according to the Cinebooks essay, it was "perhaps the only blackface number on film which doesn't make one squirm today", I know there was some controversy around Jolson's blackface, but when he sang Manny, I was literally hypnotized by the tears in his voice and could see beyond the race. Just like any non-Jewish person can relate to Jackie, I don't think the blackface is played as an insult or whatever derogatory, if anything, this is a film that more plays for the ears than the eyes, and for the spirit, more than the ears.
Speaking of religion, "The Jazz Singer" is also one of the first movies immersing us in a faith that is not Christian, a film that takes you in the intimacy of a culture. Hollywood was created by many immigrants who escaped from the pogroms in Eastern Europe, it's only fitting that one of the seminal Hollywood movies plays like a tribute to their faith, especially since religion is never preached but plays like an antagonist at first before reconciling with jazz through the idea that it's only a way to reach people, after all, if music wasn't so powerful, psalms wouldn't be sung and jazz wouldn't have religious songs.
So I conclude by saying that it's more than a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, it's a great movie on its own merits, I said about "The Mission" that it was the greatest movie about the three universal languages of the soul: faith, love and music, well, maybe I'd consider "The Jazz Singer" a close second.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Too "conventionally" modern for its own good...
The concept of "Seven Samurai" is so simple that it's hard to believe it took half a century for a director to come up with the mission-team trope. But that's why Akira Kurosawa was such a genius, he made the seminal action movie and it worked so well that it didn't take much for its Western remake to become a classic on its own merits.
The ingredients are simple and so is the structure: poor people oppressed by a corrupt and powerful man, the recruiting of the seven, the bonding with the villagers which is the meat of the story, then the climactic battle where four of the seven meet their demise. The success of the film depends on how each of these segments are handled and how the cast manages to transcend the material by making us relate to each player or enjoy their presence and interactions.
But it's not as easy as it sounds, the original was a three-hour epic with a clear three-act structure, not only we could identify each Samurai but each death resonated as a mini-tragedy. "The Magnificent Seven", less epic but as entertaining, managed to make at least five of them pretty endearing in a briefer lapse of time. Now, the problem with Antoine Fuqua's 2016 remake is that it's obviously admiring the original material and does the best to duplicate its magic, but it never seems to take its own characters seriously enough, not the magnificent, not the villagers, so why should we care? As expected, each of the seven embodies a particular trait, Denzel Washington is Sam Chisolm, the Ace, his establishing moment consists on the 'permanent' arrest of a wanted criminal and a few collateral damages. The scene works but it's so reminiscent of one of King Schultz' deeds in "Django Unchained" that it's instantly forgettable. Chris Pratt is the cool one, who enjoys a magic card trick or two and spends half his time delivering a wisecrack. Individually, they're good but together, they're no Brynner and McQueen.
Now, I waited for the taciturn one, the third Samurai/James Coburn type. He's a knife thrower played by Byung-Hun Lee, this is an interesting fellow that deserved a more ominous introduction, but as soon as we're finished admiring his skills, we discover that he's only the sidekick of a more legendary sharpshooter named Goodnight Robicheaux and played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays the third more three-dimensional member of the seven but I didn't like the way he stole Billy's thunder, relegated to one simple skill.
And depth would be a luxury for the other magnificent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw who's given a chance by Sam and spends the rest of the time exchanging a few racist quips with Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio is a religious tracker whose voice is the closest thing to comedy relief, and then there's Martin Sensmeier as an exiled Comanche warrior. They're all colorful and ethnically marked but that's not saying much, the Native is defined by his ability to throw arrows, the knife thrower throws knives the religious nutcase speaks to the Lord, the Mexican is... Mexican.
The only oneswho benefit from an extra pinch of depth are Hawke whose troubled actions seem to recall some PTSD shock from the Civil War and Pratt, and Washington. But if you're looking for counterparts to the magnificent seven, don't bother. I didn't expect one but I wish they could have improved the seventh one and made him as a scene stealer as Mifune, but the film didn't even manage to be better than "Young Guns", and I loved "Young Guns", the film had six protagonists and they were not as expendable as the so-called magnificent.
This version with Antoine Fuqua is obviously driven by good intentions and the fact that he decided to make a multi-ethnic cast could have given a special texture, but Fuqua also goes for the female heroine trend, and Haley Bennett (the toughest one from the village) is just so bad-ass she overshadows many of the seven. If Fuqua wanted something original, he could have made her the seventh one. It wouldn't have been the least realistic thing about the film, the introduction of the villain had almost killed any attempt to take it seriously.
They say a film is as good as its villain, on the basis of Bartholomew Bogue, the film should have been great. Peter Saargard revisits a form of old-fashioned mustached villain that is not uninteresting. That said, I can believe any form of evil exploitation, of throwing people off their land, but that a man would be shot in cold blood in front of witnesses, and a woman being axed from behind and the Marshall, no matter how corrupt he is, would do nothing about it, that's too much. If evil doesn't have standards, then the conception of heroism turns into something 'superhero' binary that doesn't really prompt us to root for anyone, since there's no intellectual challenge.
But Haley Bennett as the seventh one would've been a challenging twist, but there were more shots on her cleavage than any scenes involving the last three seven put together so I wondered whether her presence was meant to arouse the male audience or to inspire the female one. But the film leaves a little to care about, especially the villagers who're not given enough screen-time or interactions anyway. And since the timing between the entrance and the battle doesn't exceed forty minutes, we couldn't care less about the outcome. What lacked in the film is a transition between the introduction and the battle, the fact that many deaths left me cold was indicating of how the film was so reliant on the concept that it forgot to tell a genuinely powerful story, it's just about archetypes colliding into each other in a muck of cinematic conventions. It's fun and entertaining at moments, but the rest of the time, I was scratching my head with perplexity.
The greatest tragedy of poverty is when you can't even afford to be happy...
As usual with the Dardenne brothers, there's no time for fancy film-making or cinematic conventions. "Rosetta" opens with the titular 'heroine' walking in her white uniform in some unidentified workplace while the camera follows her, chases her would be most appropriate term as it seems struggling to keep her on frame, while we can hear the loudness of her firm steps indicating that she's either angry or determined. She's both actually.
She's angry to learn that she won't be working anymore, her probationary delay had just ended, angry because she thinks she's been denounced for coming too late by a co-worker (whom she confronts) and determined to keep her job and not let anyone throwing her away. She locks herself in a room but it's only a matter of time before security agents get her out. This is the beginning of "Rosetta", Golden Palm winner of 1999, a unanimous vote, and from the way the first scene plays, we suspect that this ending is only a new beginning.
The Dardennes brothers style of filmmaking is integral to the power of "Rosetta", it can look like pretentious art-house take-the-camera-and-shoot cinema verité but the content is so genuinely powerful that you can't accuse the form. "Rosetta" always walks one step ahead of the camera, we often see her from behind going from one direction to another, this is a young girl struck by poverty and unemployment, living in a trailer park and witnessing the downfall of her mother, prostituting herself for booze. She seems to go in many directions because she can't afford standing still and a job isn't a matter of life and death, but of self-esteem, her mother surrendered, she wouldn't.
But then I make the film sound like delivering an uplifting message about courage and determination, and it would be too misleading. The Dardennes are too aware of the harsh reality of unemployment and poverty to make anything remotely happy emerge from it, perhaps the greatest tragedy of being poor is that it leads to a point where you can't afford even happiness. And Rosetta, played by Emilie Dequenne (she won the Cannes Prize for her performance) rarely smiles, she's suspicious, tacit except when it comes to ask for a job, she's got the will, the determination but Dardennes' movies aren't filmed like melodramas but documentaries, which doesn't diminish their power in terms of pure storytelling.
The film takes off when she finds a job in little Belgian waffle stand, her boss (Olivier Gourmet) warns her about the precariousness of the job, but she learns well and fast. There she meets Riquet (Fabrizio Ringone) who seems genuinely interested in her. Still, if I didn't expect a romance, I didn't expect what would result from their encounter... and what happened was the perfect illustration of the inner ugliness of despair, when you've got nothing to lose and you can drive yourself to any corner. "Rosetta" is a melodrama in the sense that she can't be in love with something, except with the idea of having a job, a steady job and a normal life.
Before sleeping, she recites herself that she finally found a job, this is interesting because we suspect she would never go as far as trading her body, or becoming a criminal. Even the perspective of working illegally doesn't rejoice her, what she wants is to feel normal, like everybody, to be happy, but can she? The extreme where she's driven is perhaps more disturbing than any of these scenarios because it consists of betraying. That's the power of poverty, it can make people act like heroes, victims and sometimes villains. The Dardennes who paint with the brush of truth the uncompromising portrayal of poor people, make us question our own perceptions..
This is not about sentimentalism, this is not about left-wing pathos, Rosetta is pathetic to some aspects, but there's no effort to make her sympathetic, she's just incapable to be happy or give a proper meaning to her life because she's been alienated already, it became symptomatic of her life. The film closes at the moment where we reached that realization and maybe it stops abruptly because it can either take a good or a bad path, but the point is made in this harrowing journey in Belgium, resurrecting the Italian neo-realism. There's something bad Rosetta does in the film but it's as bad what the protagonist does at the end of "Bicycle Thief", we condone it but we understand it.
And I guess the Dardennes don't make film to provide emotional moments but just keep us close enough so we can understand why some people look gloomy, unhappy, suspicious and why they deserve our understanding and ironically enough our distrust. It's sad and cruel, but that's how it is. And again, the directing is part of the film's greatness, it takes us to very uncomfortable and closeted places like the inside of a trailer, a small bathroom, a waffle stands, we all feel like intruders, put in a place that are no cinematically pleasing, but that's the point, the camera goes where Rosetta goes, to places cinema usually ignores. The Dardennes don't care for the 'look', even if the long take isn't perfect, this isn't Hollywood, within this imperfection, we can sense tension, reality, urgency, despair, struggle and we have a glimpse of these emotions through the documentary style. Conventional filmmaking couldn't have worked for such a story, it had to be as minimalist as if it was embracing the same problems than its character.
That's typical of the Dardennes, just like in "The Promise", as if the way they told the story was as inspiring as the story itself or made the same point. Like Italian neo-Realism or like Hitchcock movies, the form sometimes defines the content.
La promesse (1996)
The Gradual and Powerful Awakening of Moral Conscience
In the mid-90's, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had an unpleasant collective experience encouraging them to trim the work force and be as minimal as efficient. You don't win audiences by just taking the camera and "shooting", but for all their innovative directing, storytelling is the siblings' strongest suit, and seldom had directors provided such rich palettes of humanity's struggles through globalized economical crisis as the Dardennes did.
Recently, President Trump dared to call some third-world countries with a "S" slur, I only wish him to live the same experience as the protagonist. His name is Igor, he's played by Jeremie Renier, he's only 15 but it's never too late to learn. With his long blonde hair and angelic next-door look, we wouldn't believe this mechanic apprentice is the kind of kid to put himself in trouble, so when he steals an old woman's wallet after checking her engine, we think there must be a "good reason". A girlfriend. A motorcycle to buy. Maybe drugs. But that's too conveniently 'normal' for his age. Igor is no ordinary teenager, we see him with his father Roger, played by the talented Olivier Gourmet, a mix between French Gérard Jugnot and American Paul Giamatti, an everyday man who found the worst possible way to make money. He drives a van occupied by undocumented immigrants, some African, some from Eastern Europe (EU had half less members at that time) and takes them to a shackled building where current residents complain about the rates and the stink. There are obviously some dysfunctions in the sewer lines but Roger, pampering and pimping them, promises to take care... if they help him to finish the construction. But they have to pay.
One of them doesn't have enough money, he's a gentle looking African man named Amidu and had just welcomed his wife Assita and their baby boy. Roger has a few standards, he doesn't throw them out but cuts the debts out of Amidu's "wages". This is such an ugly and sordid world that we immediately understand Igor's initial misdemeanor, he's not bad but simply trapped in a maturity too precocious not to be flawed. Igor didn't grow up to be cynical, he just embraces his job with a sense of filial obedience (and maybe love) for his father who, as a token of their complicity, lets him smoke, drive the car or hang out with him at bars. And the first act works on two levels, it's both a father-and-son relationship exposition and an undercover documentary about immigrants' treatment where the camera, right behind Roger or Igor seems to slide between narrow corridors where the doors hide unshaven and worn out men gambling, having sex for money or Assita, whose housewife's dignity doesn't deserve to be surrounded by such sordidness. It's an atmosphere of neo-realism channeling the image of the Turkish Prison from "Midnight Express". In a way, these people are like prisoners of a condition.
There's an incredible scene where Igor and Roger lure five immigrants into a café by making them believe they're going to sail to America, only for the cops to apprehend them while Igor hide in the lavatory. This is a powerful scene because it showcases something even worse than human trafficking but betrayal within that trafficking, and betrayal for symbolic purposes, so that the town's mayor can prove that he's handling the situation. So maybe Trump should be reminded that the "S" word he's referring to works in a system of pipes and ramifications that know no frontiers corruption-wise, horizontally and... vertically. Immigrants are like pawns of a system and so is Igor within his father's schemes, this is not a benign parallel because from the start, from the way Igor was peeping at the immigrants' rooms, you knew he didn't look at them like Roger did, not like a warden, but a cellmate, jailed behind the bars of a corrupt adulthood. He could enjoy karting with his friends, having a few moments of freedom on his motorcycle (the film's defining image), but his main occupation was so demanding that it cost him his apprenticeship. At some point, ignoring the warning of his boss, he leaves the garage when Roger calls him for emergency. And then death takes a halt in his life and his journey can begin.
To escape from work inspectors, Amidu falls from the scaffold and get mortally injured, Igor tries to prevent the hemorrhages but Roger lets him die and decides to bury him under the cement. The most shocking thing is that we're not even "surprised" by Roger's behavior. But there's a glimmer of hope, before Amidu dies, he makes Igor promise him to take care of his wife and his boy. A last exchange, but that suddenly puts Igor in a situation of conflicting interests with Roger, and Igor knows his father is wrong and will do anything to get rid of Assita when she starts talking about going to the Police.
In a poignant and courageous existential impulse, Igor doesn't just take care of Assita but saves her. It's not as easy as it sounds, he must gain her trust, escape from his father and perhaps the toughest thing which is to find the right moment to tell her about her husband. But if this journey started with a tragedy, we know it ends with a redemption, and goes through the gradual awakening of a conscience, of a boy who stopped being an actor. And Jeremie Renier is quite an actor, and I would say "a reactor". He starts as a boy who's seen so many things that he can't even differentiate between good and evil. But he knows for sure that lying to this woman and abusing her is wrong and he acts accordingly so.
As for the believability of a teenager and an African woman to slip through the net, let's say that the capability of the Dardennes pair to make such a powerful lesson of empathy with a minimalist budget and equipment is a credit to it.