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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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Which of these 1960s horror films is the scariest?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
So let's focus on movies released after 2000 and that fit the AFI's criteria in terms of thrills: regardless of genre, the total adrenaline-inducing impact of a film's artistry and craft must create an experience that engages our bodies as well as our minds, and legacy: films whose "thrills" have enlivened and enriched America's film heritage while continuing to inspire contemporary artists and audiences..
In the eventuality of a new AFI's Top 100 thrills, which of these memorable post-2000 heart-pounding movies would be your top choice for an inclusion (as high as possible)?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Indeed, one of the many delights of this game is in the way some blanks can be quite misleading, in an embarrassing way. This poll is about movie titles that would be too embarrassing to read if they missed some letters, or would inspire a rather unsuitable wrong guess.
Hoping this poll will get past the radar, which of these cases of movie titles with blank letters would be the most humorously cringe-worthy?
Af-er vo-ing, yo- may disc-ss -he lis- here
Which of these comedies released in 1998 is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these movies named after (or whose titles refer to) a boat or a ship is your personal favorite?
After voting, set a course for the poll board
That's the power of music, that's the power of many scores that transcended their film and became something that inhabit you, they all have one thing in common, a specific moment that sends shivers down your spine and inspire your heart a cocktail of exhilarating sensations. These are the scores that give you goosebumps.
Which of these powerful scores* has got the strongest effect on you?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
OSCAR WINNER Oscar nominee
*on an emotional level, another poll will be dedicated to adventurous, thrilling or heart-pounding scores à la John Williams or Bernard Herrmann
The Red Shoes (1948)
You don't do art for a living, you live for art...
"Why do you dance?" ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) impassibly asks Vicki Page (Moira Shearer), another of these Covent Garden dreamers who can't fool him.
But Miss Vicky plays in another league, she marks a pause and retorts "why do you want to live?", the man who was so stingy in smiles lets one slip, he's obviously amused by that question, it's a rhetorical one but he answers nonetheless, that's how thrown off he is: "I don't know, but I must" That's her answer too.
And that simple exchange encapsulates what Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's classic masterpiece "The Red Shoes" is about: Passion.
The film is one of the greatest, if not the all-time best movie about ballet, it's all fitting that the title contains the word "shoes", but its soul rests in the word "red" word, red like the fire that ignites three people caught in an odd triangle of love and dedication to art. Some do arts for a living, some live for art, what when these two visions collide? What when there's a choice to make? But I'm being hasty here, let's get back to the genesis ... or how a simple screenplay meant to be a vehicle for a Hollywood star became another bull's-eye from the Archers!
The screenplay is actually both an original and an adapted one, like many self-referential show-within-show movies, it is based on a pre-existing work and make backstage realities and fictional shows converge toward the sameconclusion. One can make an easy comparison with Darren Arronofksy's "Black Swan" and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" as the emotional skeleton. Working on an existing work is crucial because two original stories can strike as contrived coincidences while a work with an existence of its own allows a better suspension of disbelief.
And it's like Hans Christian Andersen's tale was begging for such a parallel story. The tale is about a woman who puts on some red shoes from a Demonic shoemaker and then can't stop dancing, what starts as an enchanting musical escapade with her boyfriend turns out into a nightmare, the girl dances until she wears nothing but rags and end up so exhausted she got her feet cut to stop the curse... the story is the perfect embodiment of the way passion can drive people to extremes... with a few Faustian undertones.
Powell and Pressburger made a lavish movie about people who are all deeply dedicated to their art and can't allow anything to interfere with it, it's just as if there was a sort of a pact with the devil in a movie that doesn't seem to have any villains. Lermontov is the closest to one but it's more a posture than a nature. Played with dignified severity by Walbrook, he's the kind of man who doesn't let any emotions interfere with work and his only outburst of genuine sympathy happen to be approvals of good work. And when he hires a young pianist as an assistant conductor, it's because he can recognize talent when he sees it.
Julian Craster (Marius Goring) doesn't have the flashiest role of the leading trio but his seemingly lack of physical appeal justifies that he would be the easiest to surrender to love while enhancing Lermontov's frustration that Vicki make a rival out of such a bland man. Lermontov' fortress of confidence is obviously shaken; he could have lost Vicki's heart for Art but not for Julian. We know from that point that tragedy is tiptoeing toward their people's lives. Lermontov himself was based on famous Ballet Russes founder who fired two dancers after they fell in love.
But as riveting as the story is, it doesn't tell one tenth about the film's greatness.
"The Red Shoes" is a dazzling looking film served with Technicolor magnificence, restored with the sheer passion of Martin Scorsese who holds it as one of his favorites, a movie where the hair of Moira Shearer can't inspire any better description than the one written in Powell's memoirs "an autumn bonfire", and where the score and the cinematography render all the grace and magic of the ballet and the tragedy of great art, summed up in that meaningful statement: "a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit."
While "Black Swan" was an introspection into the agony and spirit of a tormented soul with the same tragic perfection at the end, "Red Shoes" is a more extraverted hymn to the beauty of dance and the way the music can command the most graceful fantasies, and the film couldn't have conveyed that message had it not contaminated the crew, which means the director, art-designers, the camera operators, the writer and the choreographers.
"The Red Shoes" is renowned for a long ballet sequence when we can have a proper view on Moira Shearer's talent as a professional dancer. That Powell wanted a real dancer was the right approach, proving that he respected viewers, art and artists and that a debutante like Shearer or professional dancers such as Leonide Massine or Ludmilla Tchérina could be so natural is one of these miracles allowed by the Gods of the reel when you show them enough respect.
The dancers might have made a pact with the Devil, the Archers made one with Heaven. And as for the ballet in itself, it's a moment of pure heavenly magic that transcends the story and puts us viewers in the Vicki's state of mind, it's a surreal combination of stage artifices and camera magic, an extraordinary symbiosis between reality and dreams. It's also a masterstroke of directing featuring many daring special effects we would be wowing over if we weren't so drawn by the music and the art-direction (two deserved Oscar wins for the film).
Truffaut demanded that a film expressed "either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema". That's exactly what "The Red Shoes" are about: joy and agony disguised as sheer virtuosity.
The Navigator (1924)
A good silent comedy classic but a "lesser" Keaton...
It would be a lie to say that "The Navigator" didn't make me laugh, nor that I didn't enjoy it. I found it a very crafted romantic adventure based on an interesting premise, one that would be deemed original even by today's standards... only to be ultimately misused.
Indeed, having a man and a woman both born with silver spoons in their mouth, finding themselves alone in a big passenger ship drifting into the ocean is something that would have immediately been fueled with sexual tension and puerile arguments set on the course of an obligatory love scene. In fact, no modern movie would have showed the two protagonists coming from similar backgrounds, because today's screenplays workshops insist on the necessity of conflicts between protagonists.
Fair enough... but Buster Keaton belongs to an era where scripts were a luxury a few movies could afford and they didn't have 'conventions' to be embarrassed with. Keaton takes advantage from the temporary availability of an ex-passenger cargo ship set for scrap iron and turns it into a protagonist rather than the setting of a sweet and lovable tale, one of two aristocrats learning how to domesticate machinery. What wouldn't people do when driven to the most extreme situations? As usual with Keaton, the setting and the 'vehicles' matter more than the stories.
But as a story, the film is divided into three simple acts. First, there's a plot-setting "foreign spy" conspiracy so common in interwar movies: a group of politicians, learning that the "Navigator" was sold to their enemy decide to sabotage the ship and set her adrift during the night.
Meanwhile, there's Rollo Treadway, a rich heir so wealthy he needs a limousine to cross the road and go visit her neighbor Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire) and asks her for marriage... because he had nothing else to do. Before he gets an answer, he's already sent the butler to book two tickets to Honolulu. Is he overly confident or utterly stupid? There's something so nonchalant yet pleasant in that Rollo character, even the "No" he gets is met with stoicism, he decides to go anyway, as if he's not even used to deal with conflicting opinions. While turning his back to Betsy, he doesn't even realize she's not indifferent.
Then series of incidents involving piers' numbers and unfortunate encounters put the two lovers in a situation where they wake up in the morning and find themselves aboard the "Navigator". After a hilarious chase where they keep missing each other, they finally bump into each other and the second act can start.
The chase is one of Keaton's typical masterstrokes proving that he knows how to provide the right angle to get the full picture, there's something that could have been almost Averyan in that scene. He uses the large ship as a prop to his comical inspiration. Another sequence shows them struggling to make coffee or Rollo trying to open a can using a hatchet so big he destroys everything, the scene drags on a little but it makes the pay-off even more satisfying when we see them having built some practical expertise after a few weeks.
But one of the highlights of the movie is the night sequence with the picture of Donald Crisp, the director, swinging and looking from the window as if there was an intruder in the ship. It is funny how an image with a right expression and a movement creates the illusion of a presence by simply moving. It does say something about the magic of the camera... and convincingly.
The third act is perhaps the most memorable with the underwater scene and a funny sword fight with the perfect opponent, a swordfish, something worthy of a cartoon. And unfortunately, one can say the same about the following part, which is good but doesn't quite hold up in our days of political correctness, it involves the whole fight against "cannibals" portrayed by dark-skinned actors, it's not fair to judge the film by our values but to be fair, the cannibals sequence never really work on both a comical or action level because they are no professional actors and some action scenes look too staged for the film's own good... and just because it's a 20s film doesn't mean we should lower our standards.
But I guess the real issue with the film is that Keaton is a man of movement, in "Sherlock Jr." he spent almost ten minutes on a bike, in "The General, it was a train in motion but a large ship is hardly the epitome of visible movement, so it's a rather static setting that doesn't leave much to his talent, even the underwater scenes feels slow as if a diving suit wouldn't be his strongest. Too heavy to put on, so to speak; and maybe the ship was too big for Keaton's own inspiration.
Just think of Chaplin's "Immigrant" and how many situations he exploits from the sailing movement, I could picture a sap like Rollo dealing with seasickness, a situation with fishing, but maybe I should appreciate that the film didn't go for easy laughs and cared about telling a story instead of filling them with stunts. Still, we all expect stunts when it comes to Keaton, that's his trademark, isn't it? Maybe it's because "Sherlock Jr." didn't succeed and he was trying something less exuberant, and that the film was a commercial success proved his intuition right.
But while I liked that movie, it didn't impress me and with Buster Keaton, it's problematic. I know these reviews are all relative and why should I judge this film as a lesser 'Keaton' while it's a classic silent movie... I guess my eyes were hungry for thrills and acrobatic stunts like only Keaton could have pulled, and that hunger wasn't quite satisfied.
The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
Help me, I'm married!
Neil Simon has just passed away and *I* am going through a divorce. I was then twice in need of discovering Elaine May's "The Heartbreak Kid".
Indeed, as the 'divorced' one, I know quite a deal about 'heartbreak' and the film was the cathartic experience I needed. I laughed, I thought... I cringed a lot too, that's how the film was: funny, intelligent and yeah, kind of awkward at times.
It starts with a wedding ceremony between Lenny (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeanine Berlin, May's daughter). It's a Jewish ceremony that doesn't leave much doubt about Lila's background while Lenny could either be Jew or gentile. What matters is that he's more sophisticated than Lila, and reconsiders his choice when they're en route to their honeymoon. Though the first signal was his empty post-coital stare revealing that one of the reasons he married her was because she saved herself till marriage, and if he knew how lousy it would turn out to be, he might still be single.
The contrast between Lenny and Lila wouldn't have been as flagrant if it wasn't a matter of one-sided love, Lila's gradually annoying habits, her sexual insecurity, playful immaturity and gluttony would all look cute to anyone madly in love. Berlin -who was Oscar nominated for that role- plays with bravura and endearing pathos, a simple, albeit slightly stereotypical, Jewish girl her family threw at the first attractive aspirant. And Lenny realizes a bit late that he can have better when in Miami, he meets the young, wealthy; beautiful Kelly.
Getting the blue-eyed blonde is such an irrational but deeply rooted fantasy in the mind of Mediterranean or Semite guys that the point isn't to understand what Lenny found in Kelly, he just 'found' her. And Kelly is the kind of girl so used to flattery and favors she's hardly surprised by Lenny's courtship, she's not a trophy, she's the one who gets the man (look at the poster). Cybil Shepherd might not the best actress of her generation but she knows exactly how to play Kelly with a sort of impersonal tone that emphasizes her goddess-like quality... while Berlin is Fran Fine without the sexiness.
Now in a lesser movie, Lenny's continuous rendezvous with Kelly while Lila is oblivious to his whereabouts would have been handled like an old-age screwball comedy, but I just love how director Elaine May and writer Neil Simon inject a sharp social commentary and enrich the story with characters who embody our own skepticism. Lenny is obviously an unstoppable force who'd be comically boring if he didn't meet an unmovable object and this is where the best character in the film intervenes: Mr. Corcoran, Karen's rich and protective father, wonderfully played by Eddie Albert.
The father grows an instant and understandable dislike on Lenny, but he still loves his daughter enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, perfectly aware that the more he'd try to stop him, the more it'll get him closer to Kelly. The tension that grows between the two men culminates with one of the film's highlights, when Lenny lays his cards and makes a long and detailed speech about his feelings, I almost admired his nerve for telling he was married... the truth and only the truth indeed.
But while Grodin takes forever to make his 'point'; trying to keep some composure, Eddie Albert provides a master-class of silent acting that probably earned him his Oscar nomination. First, he's severe but fair, listening carefully. The mother smiles but look at her jaw slowly dropping as Lenny digs himself deeper and deeper, and at the word 'marriage' it's like an electric spasm caught the father, boiling from inside, waiting for that whole rhapsody to stop so he can give his answer. I've never felt so bad in a scene and yet so enthralled by acting and I had still had another coming with the infamous breakup and the way poor Lila kept missing the point.
The sad truth of marriage is that there's always a needier one, and when it comes to separation, he or she would never see the signs even if it they hit them in the face. Maybe it's not much love that blinds than the need to be loved, a contained feeling, internal, motherly. It's Lila's vision, certainly the Corcorans', but Lenny is a dream-chaser, a social climber going as far as moving on to Minnesota, stalking his girl, eating a dinner and complimenting vegetables for their sincerity in the most surreal way.
It's funny when he says "there's no deceit in the cauliflowers" but pathetic at the same time in the way he underestimates his future in-laws, thinking they could fall for such toadyism. At that point, with such an unlikable protagonist, I couldn't envision a satisfying ending but this is where the subtle and intelligent talent of May and Simon, like Reiner and Ephron later, worked. The worst thing that could ever happen to a man as determined as Lenny is to find someone who'd call his bluff... Mr. Corcoran won by allowing him the privilege of spending forty and fifty years in that heavenly place without "deceit in cauliflowers".
While regretting the jerk-typecast that followed this role, Grodin said many guys told him they could relate to him. I could personally. Many people are perpetually dissatisfied and realize too late the value of what they've lost, they basically spend the present time idealizing the future or nourishing their minds with past regrets. Either ways, they fail to embrace the present and that's the existential alienation the last shot on Grodin highlights, Lila's postponed victory.
It's interesting that many 1972 movies ended with that "what have I done?" or "now, what?" sense of isolation and life's dead-end, "The Godfather", "Cabaret", "The Candidate", "Sleuth" and "The Heartbreak Kid" is even more haunting for its Karmic bittersweet taste at the end.
The Heartbreak Kid (2007)
Beware of what you're catching!
I have always pictured Ben Stiller as the poor middle-aged schmuck who must go through all the available crappy situations before getting a break at the end... and a nice, beautiful girl. Not saying all his roles follow the 90% loser-10% winner pattern, but his most memorable certainly do. Interestingly that's how it all starts in the Farrelly brothers' remake "The Heartbreak Kid", Eddie is a guy in his early forties who just saw his ex-girlfriend walking down the aisle and question whether he can or will find the right one. You just want to hug him and comfort him, at the end, his princess will come.
That's good old Stiller and from the throwaway jokes directed at him during the wedding to the pseudo-encouragements from his sex-addict father (played by Ben's own father Jerry) and a friend who's such a henpecked husband he uses the "Wicked Witch" them as his wife's ringtone, you know it'll be a long road before Eddie finds any comfort in his life. Yet against all expectations, he meets that special someone in Lila (Malin Akerman), a young environmentalist researcher named like her 1972 counterpart. Everything goes fine until she announces that she's going to move to Rotterdam because it's part of her company's policy for unmarried employees. This prompts Eddie to take the big step.
Now, let's have a pause and get back to Elaine May's original film and remember that Charles Grodin played a nebbish self-centred boy instantly dissatisfied with his newly wed wife and chased another one who was everything she wasn't, breaking a marriage only five days after to follow a Viking-like goddess. His name was Lenny and he was such an unlikable protagonist that the film had to end on a bittersweet note, he just couldn't triumph. Besides, Grodin looked exactly like the kind of jerk to pull such tricks with his timid smile and embarrassed manners, he was that guy you wanted to punch on the face... if he wasn't so strangely attractive.
And un-likability and handsomeness aren't exactly the traits we'd most associate to Ben Stiller's so the Farrelly brothers take up a rather difficult challenge to make Ben Stiller portray the kind of selfish prick who could have been more fitting for actors like Jim Carrey or Owen Wilson (as a matter of fact, Grodin's facial expressions reminded me of Wilson a little bit). Still, they went for Stiller and as if they aware of the 'limitations' of the main character's appeal, they decided to go for a less subtle and a zanier tone, portraying Lila as an unbearable girl by objective standards, she's loud, annoying, has weird sexual fantasies and so dumb she believes she wouldn't get sunburns because the Ozone works differently in Mexico. Was she too over-the-top? Yes. Did it hurt the film? That's debatable.
Indeed, the only way to build some empathy toward Eddie is to see him enduring all these shenanigans with Lila. Of course, the realization that she's not exactly the girl of his dreams isn't treated in the introspective way or cultural clash the other film did (what did you expect from 2007?), the original was a social commentary about relationships within marriage and Lenny's faults were handled in a "What have I done" or "Now, what?" tone, that one explores various tonalities of "Oh, crap" that are usually perfect for Ben Stiller. It goes so far we don't have time to think about ethics.
At the end, there are enough crude jokes, many involving the vacation resort owner Uncle Tito (Carlos Mencia), a group of mariachi popping up at the worst possible time, funny misunderstandings, and awkward moments to get us to the ending with a good ratio of one joke at least every minute, and there's certainly one of the funniest scenes ever involving a freight train to go to the US border. Still, it's hard to empathize with Stiller no matter how hard the film overplays Lila's weirdness and Miranda, the "good one" Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) doesn't need much to touch us, but she's so good that we're somewhat satisfied when at some point of the film, Eddie still doesn't get here.
Which leaves us to the dead-end at the end, so to speak, a comedy like "The Heartbreak kid" can't end happily, but even with the Farrelly brothers, for all the film's zaniness, it couldn't also be a totally happy conclusion for Eddie. The ending is well-thought though but it could have done without the sex joke in the middle of the credits, the Farrely Brothers proved to be master of visual humor but maybe they forgot they were handling very fragile and sensitive material. If they treated the original material with more respect, something I think the other directing siblings (the Coens) did with "Lady Killers", the film could have been something on the level of "There's Something About Mary".
Still, it's a good and fun comedy of the 2000s far better than what the harsh critics imply.
Rick and Morty (2013)
May the Farce "buuurp" Be With You!
A dirty old scientist with a tendency to deliver one syllabus out of five with a raspy burp and who looks like a pale imitation (skin-wise) of Doc Emmet Brown literally grabs by the foot his fourteen years old cowardly and not-so-bright grandson named Morty to the craziest adventures outer space, on Earth, or somewhere in between.
Now if that couple doesn't ring a bell, I don't see what king of appeal you'll ever find in this show, but since you've registered to IMDb, my guess is that you know what "Rick and Morty" is deliberately ripping off, but don't get it wrong, it's not a cheap ersatz of "Back to the Future" combined with the graphic quality (or lack of) of all these post-Simpsons animated sitcoms. And don't get it wrong, beneath its "South Park"-like affront to good taste and plot continuity, "Rick and Morty" isn't your typical "no holds barred" over-the-top cartoon either, like the aforementioned show and other gems such as "Futurama".
I believe without any pompousness that there's more intelligence in one episode of the unlikely duo than in many wannabe legitimate sci-fi shows or movies. I'd go as far as saying that it is one of the most intelligent shows of the last ten years for both its timely relevance and the way it juggles with every possible scientific concept and pushes them all to the most hilarious extremes while maintaining some plausibility. In other words, this is the show that reconciled me with my geeky side, because it takes a geek to spot one and I'd rather believe that the Earth is as flat as calzone (with the olive oil next to it) than that neither of Dan Harmon or Justin Roiland (creators of the show) are geeks.
If anything, these guys are proving the world that nerds rule the world because nerds rule period, only maths and humor can create so much irrationality through pure logic and since maths is the alphabet that wrote the universe (taking a shortcut from Galileo's quote), it kind of inflates any geek's ego to be able to get every single joke from "Rick and Morty" and see other audiences laugh at it, it's like a personal triumph because as a proud geek, I love this show because I understand that the power of humor is to transcend any barriers, just like science, and this is why humor is so precious, it appeals to our intellect, to what makes us humans. Geeks have a sense of humor!
And as long as the show is funny, there's never enough sex or violence, as long as it doesn't venture in the realm of predictability, it's the kind of humor that trusts your intelligence and go as far as imagination can take you. Any plot can tend to the most infinite implications and just when you think you've seen everything; the film finds THE little twist. It even toyed with the parallel universes in a way that made me believe it could really happen, and after all, why not?
The best thing about the show, and there are many good things, is that it manages to reassembles pieces of déja vu plot and combine them with scientific concepts and making fresh material out of familiar tropes. How many times did we see a family leaving the house to the kids and then they make a party, but how about two parties, one with teenage friends the older sister want to impress and Rick's inter-galactical buddies, how about mixing these two populations and see where it leads to... how about a mystery guest with the hilarious name of Abradolf Linker, the most unlikely hybrid a twisted mind could conceive..
I could go on with that simple plot (the last of season 1) to highlight the writing's greatness but I could also mention the homage to "Inception", Morty experiencing parenthood, the way timeline is continuously screwed up leading to the unlikely scenario where the pair must bury their dead selves from another universe... or how about the portrayal of aliens and planets in other cartoons? "Rick and Morty" feels like a sort of Pandora Pox where any plot can basically unfold, where there's the humoristic resources are as infinite as the universe.
Of course, Rick's crude manners and burping shtick or Morty's anxiety can get redundant and not every episode is a masterpiece but the sum of all the hilarity each one provides is superior to anything I've seen from comedic shows. Plus, it's never so scientifically inaccurate that you want to disqualify it as a good sci-fi program, there's never a moment where it feels like a fantasy except when it contributes to a funnier bit. And sometimes, it also explores the warmth side and portray Morty's family with genuine realism.
From a father who's got too much prove and a mother works hard to conceal her hard feelings, you've got to wonder how Morty got so insecure, that he'd finally find more balance and advise to confront life with his cynical grandfather makes sense. I wonder too would whether trading all the family love for a burping alcoholic figure capable to take someone to the next galaxy like you go to Hector's Tacos' wouldn't be a better life deal. Morty sure learned one thing or two about life in these crazy adventures. And so did we.
I would conclude this review of "Rick and Morty" with that quote from Bogart "the problems of two people don't matter to a hill of a beans in this crazy world", well, Rick and Morty make them matter more than the universe, and we empathize with them because the world and the universe, and even life have never been as funny without them. I just hope the writers won't run out of ideas, I kind of like their approach to creation, take your times guys, and may the farce be with you! "Burp"!
Les yeux sans visage (1960)
Failing Face-Offs For Frights (From French Filmmaker Franju)...
The slasher movie sub-genre was born in 1960, with "Psycho", "Peeping Tom" and "Eyes Without a Face" but except for Hitchcock, Powell or Franju's chief claim of fame wasn't horror or thrillers so they injected their personal vision into stories usually handled by genre-directors, catching audiences and critics off-guard, causing controversy and getting their overdue praises after decades of probation.
Today, these two films are horror classics highlighting their own cultural background: "Psycho" has the everyday feel of an American B-movie and makes a monster out of a boy-next-door character, "Peeping Tom" challenges British puritanism and establishment by not squeezing one drop of blood yet manages to be extremely unnerving. "Eyes Without a Face" does the same as dispassionately as a French drama or documentary.
Dispassionate doesn't mean that there's no feelings involved, on the contrary, the film is about Dr. Génessier, a surgeon overwhelmed by guilt and eager to transplant a new face on his daughter Christiane, disfigured after the car accident he caused, for that, he needs... you get the point. This is a man of high intellect hiding beneath a facade of respectability a psychopathy that makes Mr. Hyde feels like Dr. Jekyll. It is a mad scientist figure but Pierre Brasseur plays it straight without any 'bua-ha-ha' moment.
And as if Franju was determined to embrace the horror genre, he subverts another cliché through the foreign assistant, the "Igor", Italian actress Alida Valli plays the role of the head-hunter, literally. The woman is even creepier than her boss because she uses her motherly charm to lure young women into the deadliest and most horrific trap. But once again, she does it out of gratitude and admiration to the man who fixed her face, if not love.
This is the most unsettling contradiction of emotions maybe explaining why the film switches between two different scores. The leitmotif music (composed by Maurice Jarre) is a sort of Carnival tune that gives an eerie tonality to the crime, by trivializing them. When the film gets "serious" and confronts us to the real horror, whether a glimpse on the daughter's disfigured face or the surgery, the score is different, it is silent.
Franju's documentary style gives a scary level of realism and a clinical tone embodying the cold detachment of a man who has no sympathy whatsoever for his victims, the only remains of feelings not devoted to Christiane are for his ego, like a Jekyllian or a Frankenstein figure, he realizes the implications of a successful transplant in terms of fame (the twisted side put aside) and regrets he could never take any glory from it.
This is the real horror in the film, more than any gory parts (and there are many). The film is about the way positive emotions can distort one's sense of morality. Brasseur is so confident and so charismatic that he's believable as man capable to fool everyone, even the Police, so it all makes sense that the only person who can see through him is the only one he doesn't try to fool, his own daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), the "soul" of the story.
Indeed, a good horror movie is often a character study allowing us to dig into the intriguing roots of vileness and it's interesting to see how gradually Freudian the three slasher classics are, in "Psycho", Bates' mother was absent but we had hints of their tormenting relationship, in "Peeping Tom", the father was absent too but explicit footage showed showed the devastating effects it has on the boy. Here, the father is much present and didn't just destroy his girl's face but her identity. Isn't what we often blame our parents for, preventing us from being ourselves?
And don't we blame ourselves for blaming them? The tragedy of Christiane is that she could accept her fate if it wasn't for her love to a man and the hope the promise of a new face nourishes in her heart, she's aware of her father's actions but is ready to accept them in the name of love... once again, love is ambivalent and disturbing in the way it confronts us to our own contradictions: what would we do out of love?
Christiane is the real mystery on which most of the suspense is hanging. She a victim all right but is she leaning toward good or evil? We can't tell as her mask that replicates her features looks creepy in its emotionless and neutral whiteness (inspiring Michael Meyers' mask in "Halloween") and let's remember that the Greek word for mask is 'persona'. More interestingly, the word "personne" means both "person" and "nobody" in French.
Assumed to be dead after her father "recognized" one of his victim's body, Christiane is legally nobody and with her white night-gown, she walks into the mansion with the grace of a fallen angel. Playing a character behind a mask is quite rough for an actor but Edith Scob uses her eyes and her body to emphasize ghostly nature, especially when she visits the dogs and the doves, all caged for her father's experiments, and she doesn't walk but glide through the corridors, like Belle in "La Belle et la Bête".
The cinematography is as haunting as Jean Cocteau's classic, and the whole atmosphere with its silences punctuated with dog barks, Carnival music and a few jump scares turns the whole thing into one helluva nightmarish ride. It's like the film wears an ominous mask and then removes it when we need an adrenalin shot. Not relying on overdoses of haemoglobin and jump scares to avoid censorship, here's a film that strikes for its realism it is in its depiction of normal people caught in a spiral of evil madness and a sort of poetry 'à la Française'.
And if not the best of the three iconic 1960 slasher films, it is certainly the most graphic, so for some weak stomachs, when the operation starts, just make yourself a "face without eyes".
A film that touches the essence of filmmaking like no other movie did in recent years...
This is one of these films you start taking notes and at the end, you have enough to write a whole thesis.
Think about it, filmmaking all comes down to three simple things: a good film should be an immersion, it should transport you into a world, you've (ideally) never seen before. Then it should make you believe while removing any hint of 'make believe' and artifices. Finally, a film is about having a story to tell, the minimum requirement.
Today's movies just toy with these elements. Any film dealing with the real world wouldn't have a hard time making you believe in its realness; any reboot or remake will exploit pre-known sensations. As for stories, they all evolve in the realm of predictability with stock characters and structures borrowed from screenwriting workshops. There's an interesting side to explore in today's filmmaking but it's quite marginal.
The merit of "Apocalypto" is to achieve cinematic perfection in the blockbuster's world, it's a film that restores your faith in Hollywood, even old-school Hollywood because the reconstitution of the Mayan pyramid is an achievement that could have been swept off by CGI, but Gibson and his talented crew did it the De Mille way, building a replica of a Mayan pyramid from the Golden Age (a historical license that contributed to one of the film's most spectacularly brutal sequences).
The dedication of Gibson and his crew members was such that there is no moment in the film where you don't believe you're watching the real Mayas, that Mesoamericans have seldom been the subjects of a mainstream movie might have contributed to the film's freshness but there's more to it: we've seen tribes in movies before but often from the perspective of 'civilized' men, even when the indigenes were the focus ("Little Big Man" or "The Emerald Forest") the white man wasn't far.
"Apocalypto" is exclusively about one civilization... at the twilight of its existence, destroying itself from within through slave trading, human sacrifices and deforestation. I end with the lesser one to show how far such a civilization went in terms of development and yet was still capable of atrocities. Those who accused the film of racism miss the point: through the portrayal of a civilization indulging to barbarity while being culturally advanced, it's not too far-fetched to guess which fear-mongers Gibson is indirectly targeting.
Fear is indeed a recurring theme in the film, starting with Mayan friends who witness the ravages inflicted to men before being their own victims. The hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is warned by his father never to let fear infect his heart for there's no way out after. This exchange exemplifies what I consider the Gibsonian hero, a man who confronts the ugly side of life armed with an unshakable faith that he's serving the right cause, a hero that refuses martyrdom because a martyr accepts death while he should challenge it.
The film starts like "Braveheart" with a playful and enjoyable tone (even a few jokes involving the village's "punching bag"), before the village is destroyed, children left alone, prisoners taken and Jaguar Paw's father killed like William Wallace's wife. The road to the Mayan city is paved with many obstacles, one of them allows one of the villains to show his brutal side while their chief, the merciless Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) shows that he's more than a bad-ass looking nemesis but also a natural born leader and a caring father-figure.
And then there's the city where without any dialogues, we get a glimpse on Mayan society. Even without knowing anything about the civilization, I could tell from the hair-styles, the make-ups and the scarifications, the upper classes from the lower. A bunch of women waving their fans and having weird mounted hair-dos left me with the impression that they were bourgeois. Still, the 'society' is more brutal judging by the way they ask their God to end the drought, going for it all 'Temple of Doom' way. Well, what do you expect from a Gibson movie?
The sacrifice marks a pivotal moment in Jaguar Paw's journey before the chase starts, a few steps away from the altar, he says he's not going to die, believing in a sort of mystical predestination, and a miracle makes it happen. When he's given a chance to escape from his enemies the chase that follows becomes the real test of his predestination, in a more Darwinian sense, confronting him to obstacles as animals, waterfalls, or moving sands as if even nature had something to say.
And one by one, the pursuers fall while an infectious fear fills their heart... the great thing about the chase besides the fact that without any CGI, it's more heart-pounding than any space battle, superhero fight or car chase put together, it's that it's not as one-directional as it looks, the villains are literally running after death and without spoiling the ending, the survivors end up facing a not too promising sight. While Paw runs toward life, incarnated by his pregnant wife, trapped in a hole with their first-born son.
"Apocalypto" is a chase between people running after their end whether you take it at an individual or eschatological level and a man who pursues life, whether his own or a whole culture's life, the choice he makes at the end is the right one and we know it.
For its use of an authentic language like for "Passion of the Christ", convincing make-up, locations, practical effects, even animatronics, emphasize the immersion. There's no movie done recently that matches the level of cinematic perfection as "Apocalypto" and this is why it was endorsed by many celebrities and not the least: Scorsese, Tarantino, Spike Lee... but where was the Academy?
While the film got three nominations, it didn't earn Gibson one for director... that's how politics can sadly cloud judgments because if disliking a person is one thing but anyone with a semblance of cinematic taste should adore
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Scenes of Marriage Laurel-and-Hardy style...
In an impressively austere fraternal lodge, serious-looking men with incongruous fez on their hands swear together to be present at the next convention in Chicago. That such a trivial thing deserved an oath is funny enough but that the hymn they sang included the humming of the "Streets of Cairo" tune was so hilarious that it put me on a good mood... and I had to replay the scene.
So the oath goes on in all solemnity... there's just something about the two members whose late arrival didn't go unnoticed a few minutes before. The fat man with the chubby fingers enthusiastically goes with the crowd while the sad-looking thin man hesitates a bit because he needs his wife's consent.
But what is a man who can't be a king in his own castle? That's Oliver Hardy coercing Stan Laurel to be a man like him (or just a man) until we realize later that Hardy might be a king in his castle but the 'chessboard' way. It's still the queen (Mrs. Hardy played by Mae Busch) who makes the moves... among them throwing any kind of dishes on his head if that's what it takes to remind him that they were supposed to go to the mountains... the same week as the convention.
Mrs. Laurel (Dorothy Christy) is a less hot-tempered individual but that's not saying much: from the way she handles a shotgun, we understand poor Stanley is lucky enough to be merely a pawn in his house. All that set the tone in a way that would content many feminists... or does it? Hardy must still find a way to slip through the marital net and take Stanley with him.
Watching the film in 2018 made me wonder how a husband can ever think of cheating or even lying today ... when he basically carries a rectangular "Big Brother" in his pocket. "Sons of the Desert" belongs to a time where the IPhone inventor's father was probably a toddler, so men could indulge to any of their personal fantasies without fearing a rolling pin hit from their gown-clad curler-haired missus. All they needed was an alibi... and a few allies to sustain it.
It's not as easy as it sounds and if the film concludes that "honesty is the best policy" (hilariously turned to "politics" by mumbling Stanley), let's just say it spares all kinds of troubles being honest. But when you are a sophisticated mastermind like Hardy, you might be willing to take the risk and build an alibi as durable as the pyramids. But with a friend like Laurel, you might as well make a house of cards near a ventilator.
And the film works on the expectations that whatever can go wrong to dig a breech in their fortress will go wrong, but it's all in the way it does. And "Sons of the Desert" is not only funny but remarkable in the way many gags still hold up today, honorable mentions to the 'discovery' moment in the theater (and the faces the two hammy acolytes make in front of the camera), to the final confrontation with Hardy's retort that "the excuse is too far-fetched not to be true" and his mea-culpa babyish faces once his perjury is revealed.
If anything; the film made me realize how funny Hardy is despite being the straight man. When he says "well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into" in a line that overarches all the adventures that delighted kids and adults for generations, there's the self-denial about his own responsibility. It's not the usual clown and straight man pairing but the humorously symbiosis of two conflicting attitudes, both too rational or sensitive for their own good, except that it's sensitivity that pays off at the end and provides the Aesopian conclusion.
Speaking of that line, if it wasn't for its inclusion in the AFI's Top 100 Movie Quotes or if "Sons of the Desert" wasn't the only representative of the iconic duo in the AFI Top comedies, the film wouldn't have picked my curiosity. Later, another AFI montage showed Laurel and Hardy in an adventure seemingly set in the desert and I was pretty sure the film would be one of these exotic escapades à la "Road to Morocco", especially with the fez. Little did I know that the film would be rather intimate, pioneering the style and ambiance of TV sitcoms.
And to conclude on the AFI, It's a wonder that Laurel and Hardy didn't make it in the Top stars like Chaplin, Keaton or the Marx Brothers... and I almost blame myself for waiting so long before watching their movies. I grew up reading their comics, I'll never forget a time of my childhood where they were aired every day and I always laughed at the sight of a panic-stricken Laurel crying and making these sad tizzy eyes. Now I realize how hilarious Hardy also is... in a subtler way.
The one thing that bugged me in the film though was the numerous cuts and abrupt editing sometimes within one scene, I thought it looked amateurish until I read on IMDb trivia that it was because Laurel was so funny they had to cut and reshoot the scenes. When even flaws speak for the film's greatness, what else can you say?
Maybe I would conclude with Danny Kaye's quote: ""They made us laugh, because in them we kind of saw ourselves, ridiculous, frustrated, up to our necks in trouble but nevertheless ourselves" Maybe that's the secret, Chaplin and Keaton played solitary men, Lloyd was romantic and nerdy and the Marx Brothers were too anarchical and nuts.
Laurel and Hardy reminded me the ways I tried to fool my wife by starting with a lie that would escalate to nowhere, and causing more troubles than sparing them. That's the essence of "Sons of the Deserts", and why for its old-fashioned charm, the film can be still enjoyed by modern audiences.
Crna macka, beli macor (1998)
Like a party in your heart and everyone's invited!
And here's to another cinematic jewel from the 'Emir' of Eastern European cinema: Mister Kusturica...
... or should I say 'Master' because if it wasn't for his deliberate marginality and peculiar uniqueness, Kusturica would be mentioned as 'one of the greatest' of his generation... but like other maverick visionaries such as Mel Gibson or Spike Lee, his genius is discredited by pompous intellectuals, who'd drink any Spielbergian soup instead of tasting one glass of Kusturica's nectars.
This is not just anecdotal: politics came close to shortcut his career. After the Golden Palm winning of "Underground", notorious French intellectuals criticized the movie for taking a pro-Serbian side in the conflict and the height of infamy is that one didn't even watch the movie, I won't pollute this review by giving names but Kusturica took offense and swore to never make movies again. His legacy would have been all the more respectable but what a waste if he hadn't retracted himself.
Wishing to make a music-related documentary about a band named Musika Akrobatica, his ceativy caught up with him so he decided to make the music a skeleton and add some flesh through the story. Personally, I feel like all his movies were made along the same pattern and "Cats" feels like a more screwball and homely version of "Underground". Saying it's a lesser film shouldn't even diminish its value, the same year, the Coen brothers came with "The Big Lebowski", which was the perfect oddity after their masterpiece "Fargo".
Every genius is entitled to loosen up sometimes.
1998 was also the year of other crime-related twisted comedies: "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and all these films took the lion-share of popularity while "Cat" should be standing on the same podium. The film is an eccentric romance, a gangster picture full of deceptions and double-crossings, and a musical that ventures in the realm of Kusturica's Fellinian penchant for lust and "joie de vivre". It might be inhabited by crooks, dirty, manipulative people but people with such a lust for life that we secretly envy even the ugliest or most miserable of them.
And what "Cat" also does with majestic brio is to embrace the Gypsy culture and the remains of a Yugoslavia destroyed after years of a brotherly conflict. "Underground" ended on that bleak and sad note of a country that existed no more yet was still living through the memories and the hopes of a generation that hasn't lost its spirit, that same party that concluded the film with a disclaimer saying "This story has no end..." Kusturica was optimistic after all.
And rightfully so as the phoenix to resurrect from the ashes was apparently nesting in a Roma camp, full of violin and trombone players, sixties' cars turned into carts, cards players, smugglers, beggars, matchmakers and even a woman who can get a nail off a plank with her bosom, all in music of course. People would find any excuse to have fun and enjoy life, corruption is never too far... but c'est la vie! That's life.
As for death, while the Yugoslavian conflict was one of the deadliest conflicts of European history, death here is handled as a mere inconvenience, even as a joke, that's how cathartic the film is beneath its 'comedic' surface. It also contains one of the most surreal gags I've ever seen, just pay close attention to the poster, a dead fat man is hanging on a barrier holding an umbrella and a bag full of money a frail Roma man is trying to get.
Maybe it's a metaphor for the film's morale: sometimes, money can be hanging on a thread just right your nose and you can't reach it, maybe it's a metaphor for love as something so close yet so far. Or maybe it's telling us that dead people can still be pain in the asses and as much burdens as the living... especially when later, a woman is forced to marry a guy she doesn't love and that he doesn't love because of a promise made to dead people.
Or maybe it's just a great sight gag. You can never tell with Kusturica, his movies are so rich on an intellectual and emotional level, that you're afraid to lose your grip on the fun by being too analytical, and when you're caught in the flow of people singing and dancing whether to gypsy standards or pop music (that "Where Do You Go" was so 1990's) you're like "did I miss something?".
Like a sweet acid trip, "Cat" is full of odd and weird imagery involving flying geese and a pig eating a car, it also works on many contrasts: the two cats, a giant man and a dwarf woman who can't find the true love, two old friends one rich and another poor and an unscrupulous bastard you end up loving anyway: Srdjan 'Zika' Todorovic who was Blaki's naïve son in "Underground" doesn't just steal money, he steals the show as Dadan the fun-loving and drug-snorting gangster.
Speaking of the cast, I was glad to see the good old grandmother from "Time of the Gypsies", playing the same role and not having aged a bit ten years after. Yes, there's always this family feeling with Kusturica and when the actor who played Marko in "Underground" made his cameo, I knew the cake got its cherry.
When he won his first prize, a critic said "the winner is nobody from nowhere", funny how from today's perspective, this sounds almost as a compliment. Kusturica has a way to turn any critic into a driving force, so maybe it's not such a bad thing that he was so vehemently attacked if it encouraged him to have fun in the most careless, shameless and still harmless way, especially since comedy is a familiar territory.
And unlike "Underground", this story had an end, and such a happy end it was written on the credits.
Tom Horn (1980)
The King of Cool's Tombstone...
"Tom Horn" is the 'true story' of a legendary figure whose unorthodox methods as a "stock detective" made him an embarrassment for the very cattlemen who hired him. Except for his protector and friend John Coble (Richard Farnsworth), all unscrupulous businessmen framed him for murder with the help of ambitious US Marshall Joe Belle (Billy Green Bush). The film concludes on the bleak note of Horn's hanging.
That's for the story.
Yet many 'better' stories could have been told about Tom Horn actually, the man was legend material yet never got a proper western to pay tribute to his legacy. Tracker, scout, interpreter, helping for the capture of Geronimo, all these life chapters could have made one hell of an epic yet they were compacted in a sober opening text as we see a lonesome "Horn" watching the sunset and drifting across the vast landscapes of Wyoming, last pieces of land that remain unaltered by civilization. Horn couldn't care less about the twentieth century.
It was quite a bold choice to dedicate the film to the anticlimactic demise of the Western legend, but who knew at that time that the destiny of Steve McQueen would follow an eerily similar path, ending brutally in 1980. What's left from this "Tom Horn" movie is the legacy of an actor, not a character, an actor whose talent matched his guts, and his ego. The King of Cool took every role he played seriously and while he never believed in method acting, the amount of researches and heart he put in his performance as Tom Horn was simply transcending.
Unfortunately, he wasn't a multitask expert and his directing left a lot to be desired, less from a lack of skills than a lack of a vision that could have been clarified if he wasn't in both sides of the camera. Maybe McQueen knew what he intended to project about Horn but he failed to communicate it. Visiting his gravesite, he pulled a Joan of Arc and heard Horn's voice asking for his story to be told. McQueen didn't care much for the 'living legend' but for the man who stuck to his old-fashioned ways and his Winchester 45-60. In the film, Horn isn't much a hero as a martyr of what remains from the 'frontier spirit'.
Whether McQueen saw all that in Horn or simply wanted to rehabilitate him (which is good enough a reason) is irrelevant, just like Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate" or Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", some movies are made in such frantic and chaotic contexts they can only be destined for the best or the worst, and some of them unfortunately get too personal for the business. It took McQueen three years to finalize the projects and get to the final script, 45 tapes worth of information about Horn were used to debate about the approach to the character, the initial angle being his friendship with Geronimo.
Long story short, three directors were assigned, two left, among them Don Siegel who just couldn't see through McQueen's vision, hesitating between a linear or flashback-narrative, the third director was fired. According to the DGA rules, McQueen couldn't direct the film so they assigned TV director: William 'Who?' Wiard who let McQueen make his film, with all its flaws and all its little moments of genuine greatness. "Tom Horn" might have been greater or more iconic had Siegel directed it but I believe the film came just at the wrong time for the Western genre... which ironically was the right time for McQueen.
1980 saw the agony of New Hollywood, while 10 years before, Peckinpah had thrilled then enchanted the world with "The Wild Bunch" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue", two revisionist films that showed the demise of the Old West sacrificed by men who had everything but the frontier spirit. He worked later with McQueen for "Junior Bonner" and "The Getaway", as if McQueen was the converging point between Western and street-smart coolness. "Tom Horn" drifts across so many conventions of the Western genre, it could have been from Bloody Sam himself (hell, even Slim Pickens is there). But in 1980, people didn't care anymore for their downbeat and melancholic movies, the Reagan years were in march.
But it was the perfect time for McQueen who was past his prime, after a disastrous marriage with Ali McGraw and a series of critical failures, at 48, wasn't the cool and dashing superstar but a thin and weather-beaten man. Thelegend was behind him and as if he was channeling Tom Horn's soul, maybe he didn't give a damn... and followed his vision. McQueen didn't know he was going to die which makes even tougher to accept that one of the final shots of McQueen shows him being roped, a sore sight even from someone who loves the film. Producers thought it was the move that annihilated its chances to be a box-office success. They were right actually; people weren't prepared to see McQueen's character die... but were they prepared for his death?
If it wasn't for that resigned tone at the end that cancels a few flaws (scenes with Linda Evans are unevenly successful), the film wouldn't have grown in the hearts of many lovers, including James Coburn who believed it was McQueen reaching maturity, getting loose with his macho persona and preparing the world to another level of greatness.
As if he was aware that a new era was going to unfold, McQueen wasn't as resigned to accept the cancer as Horn accepted the rope... the King of Cool fought the biggest fight and resorted to the most extreme methods until his death in Mexico.
McQueen died with this golden era of filmmaking as if he was one of its best incarnation... and "Tom Horn" while not perfect is perhaps the best epitaph he could have left... not to mention that Tom Horn was still cool as hell!
The Nutty Professor (1963)
Doctor Jerry and Mister Love...
The opening credits shows a series of experimentations with such a profusion of colored smokes and boiling liquids, I wondered if it was a nod to Tom and Jerry's famous "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse" (a fitting cartoon to parody theme-wise).
The aftermath has nothing to envy from cartoons either as we discover Professor Julius Kelp who, with his buck-teeth and a voice that makes Donald Duck sound like Luciano Pavarotti, strikes as the kind of comic relief characters that work with microscopic doses, like Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's".
We see him intimidated by the dean in a scene that probably inspired many pages of "The Naked Gun" scripts and his training in the gymnasium reminded me of a Benny Hill sketch that was better done. Now, don't get me wrong, if you ask me whether Jerry Lewis is funny, I'd say you might as well ask if the Earth is round... he's certainly one of the most gifted comedic actors who graced the screen. But while I have to accept the facts of science, the Earth kind of feels flat sometimes.
To be fair, the jokes didn't exactly age like a Chateau-Petrus. There's just something too cartoonish in Lewis' portrayal of Julius Kelp, and too irritably obnoxious in his counterpart Buddy Love. But I guess these caricatures are forgivable because they serve a cause nobler than laughs, which is to say something about self-acceptance and "being yourself" at the flashiest possible time. Indeed, for all its jazzy mood à la Blake Edwards, its Looney Tunes gags, its Technicolor extravaganza and its made-by-Edith costumes, the film is deeper than it seems.
A fan of the 1941 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Lewis wanted to explore the iconic duality with a comedic twist, by underplaying the monstrosity of the hormonal one while making the 'normal' monstrously outcast. It's even subversive in the sense that either Mister Hyde is an improvement or the nerd is the freak... or 'Frink', in homage to the mumbling professor he inspired.
Kelp might be even more cartoonish than his Simpsons alter-ego especially in contrast to Buddy Love who sounds like some Tinder username and acts like all wannabe-someone do in social networks. Nerds rule the world, but the world hates nerdy rulers. And Jerry Lewis designed two characters who seem to be polar opposites but they actually complete each other and converge toward the same universal need for existing the socially correct way.
Maybe this is why Lewis seems to be pushing the caricature to the extreme, to better highlight the contrast between Buddy and Kelp, misfits might not be as exaggeratedly clownish as the professor but maybe from society's perspective, they are. So, when you see Kelp mocked by his students and bullied by a big jerk (who happens to be a big guy), you look at the gags with more empathetic eyes.
Kelp wants to get stronger and more confident to impress the beautiful Stella Purdy played by Stella Stevens. It's simple in the Darwinist sense. The trick is that she likes him already, the hardest part is over, he's just too blinded by his low self-esteem to know, he's not bullied by society by the reflection of himself he gets from it. And while it's hackneyed today, not many movies before exposed the fact that one can't be properly loved if he doesn't love himself.
And Jerry's directing seems to convey that feeling, making the gags so artificial we all wait for Buddy Love to deliver us from that childishness. Maybe Lewis was tired of being the clown kids and adults love or was it a nod to his duo with Dean Martin, where Martin played the straight charming man? Martin was his buddy, after all, pun intended.
And Buddy is the antithesis of the clown, he's a swinger, an alpha male who talks the talk (smooth and tough), walk the walk and dances the dance. Maybe it wasn't Martin, or maybe it was Sinatra, but Buddy Love is the ultimate geek fantasy: the handsome, charismatic, popular one, in other words, the one who gets the girl, but he never gets her!
So there must be something that Lewis is trying to tell us.
In fact, even if it means going through every nightmarish face before finding the right formula and get rid of a persona, personas (masks in Greek) are only foils that fool their wearer. The film is fascinating in the way it makes you wonder where Lewis stands between these two incarnations of his persona, is it a mea culpa or a self-parody, is he accepting his status or kidding himself?
I guess the film chooses the right angle to it, by maintaining a colorful and childish tone from beginning to end as if it was embracing the lovability of the protagonist, but it also provides the most entertaining bits through Buddy dialogues-wise, music-wise and even gags-wise. There's time for childish grimaces and grossly made-up transformations and a time for jazz, swing and cool one-liners.
And there's a time where you must take back the reins of your life and be what you are, Kelp gains more confidence and ends up realizing that there's no use being someone else and no need finding any Oedipal excuses behind, we just are what we are and we better get used to it. Kelp was the better person he could be because he was Kelp, the question of loving yourself is actually rhetorical.
The remake with Eddie Murphy worked a tad better because he made his Klump a more lovable man whose obesity hid a gentle and sensitive soul, while surrounded by caricatures. Lewis is different in the way he makes us empathize with Kelp while making Buddy a more interesting character. It's just like Dr. Kelp is Lewis' Mr. Hyde, the over-the-top buffoon and outcast and Buddy Love the socially successful.
And giving how Lewis feels about both characters, I still wouldn't consider the ending as a total triumph for Kelp!
Magical Maestro (1952)
A Magical Maestro named Tex Avery, conducting one of his last masterpieces...
Who'd have thought that Spike, Droopy's mean-spirited nemesis, would become Poochini, the great opera singer?
Indeed, what a promotion from a one-dimensional villain-who-always-loses to the protagonist of one of the greatest Tex Avery cartoons. It's just as if the legendary animator finally understood the real personality of Spike, not a villain, just a misunderstood canine outweighed by misfortune and victim of creatures who make him look tenderly ridiculous. After having gone through Droopy's winning streaks, an annoying rooster and a sadistic gopher, he finally meets his match through a magician named Mysto (Daws Butler) and together, faux-conductor and real-victim, will contribute to one of the most iconic incarnations of Rossini's "Largo al Factotum" (who am I kidding? The "Figaro" song).
The story? Poochini's rehearsal is briefly interrupted by Misto who proposes an opening act to the show, his magic wand makes two rabbits pop up in front of an unimpressed Spike. I love how his face doesn't move an inch, only his eyes get slightly up when the second rabbit appears. After a drum-jingle dance, Mysto asks if he got the job? Cut to his epic kick out with the obligatory footprint on his bottom. A sad Mysto waves his wand and the rodents are back. Bingo, he and the conductor have one prop in common, all he's got to do is steal the poor guy's suit, hair and even his red nose, so when the music starts again, he can unleash the craziest and funniest tricks on poor Poochini. It starts rather moderately: one rabbit on Spike's hand, then the second, and after... well, in the rabbit world, one and one doesn't make generally two. A slightly higher level: while Spike goes on with an impressive determination, he becomes a ballerina, a rock-breaking prisoner, a football and tennis player, an Indian chief etc. Then it's time for the music to match the singer, ethnicity-wise, you name them : Chinese, Cowboy, child, two 'colorful' parodies of Carmen Miranda and Ink Spots where the hilarity of the pun redeems the 'blackface' gag... to conclude with the catchy rhythmic Hawaiian Hula dance (the rabbits are the best part of this "Hoo-hah" "hoo-hah" part).
This is a wonderfully constructed cartoon that hasn't aged a bit and It is hard to believe that it was made in 1952. It wasn't just Tex Avery who was past his prime, the whole world of animation was. In 1950, the success of Oscar-winning "Gerald McBoeing-Boeing", adapted from Dr. Seuss' book, and the budget restrictions due to the concurrence of television, popularized the minimalist style known as the UPA from the name of its pioneering studio... even Disney followed the trend. But Tex Avery's case was different as in 1952, not only the UPA style heavily influenced the design of many characters (just check the evolution of Droopy) but his inspiration was severely wearing down. His "...of tomorrow" series featured repetitive, so-so or mildly amusing gags, Droopy was trapped in the same competition-driven concepts with an underexploited Spike and the Wolf, Red and Screwy Squirrel belonged to the long-gone days of glory.
It was clearly the beginning of the end of an era for the iconic Texan... but he sure had a few tricks left in his sleeve, with memorable cartoons such as "The Cuckoo Clock", "Symphony in Slang", "Rock-a-Bye Bear" and perhaps his last masterpiece "Magical Maestro", Spike's finest hour and the culmination of Avery's talent for a six-minute non-stop series of visual laughs and politically incorrect humor served by a wonderful soundtrack. The word PC shouldn't even be mentioned since this is one of the few cartoons that mock every stereotype: rednecks, blacks, Chinese, Latinos, Hawaiians, everyone is equally mocked, if mocked is the right word... what is wrong with using the traits that define a culture in our subconscious? What's wrong if the Chinese sounds gibberish if we get the point that it's supposed to be Chinese?
Such a cartoon couldn't be made today, but its 'equal treatment' is a fool-proof alibi against racism. And when I bought the DVD box, many cartoons were edited (blackfaces in most cases), some were even radically removed but this one remained untouched. Why? Because condemning one part would reveal the hypocritical nature of political correctness when it tends to be selective by determining scales of offensiveness, it just doesn't make sense. Or maybe Warner Bros editors were so amused they had a change of heart... seriously, even profanation has its limits.
Speaking for myself, I'm glad it was left intact, it's been a favorite of mine ever since I saw it in the first VHS that made me discover Tex Avery's cartoons when I was 4, "Magical Maestro" was the last one and for the anecdote, it ended with the first Hawaiian dance, the "Hoo-ah" (VHS used to do this) so I never got to see the ending until five years later... and boy did I miss a lot! A great Karmic ending for Mysto who gets a taste of his own medicine and gratifies us with another Hawaiian choreography before the curtain can finally close (collapse would be a proper term). I used to know that cartoon by heart, so much that even when I listen to the song from different sources, I have "Mama Yo Quero" or "Oh My Darling" pop up in the middle.
To conclude, this is such a masterpiece of animation that I wonder how the short didn't make it in the Top 50 Greatest Cartoons, but there had to be some consecration and "Magical Maestro" is the only Tex Avery cartoon in the National Registry, that says a lot about its legacy. And what says even more is that in all this raving about the music, I didn't even talk about the funniest and most memorable gag, a simple "plucking" that had nothing to do with the plot but spoke a thousand words about Avery's fourth-wall-breaking genius!
Bravo, Maestro! Bravissimo!
The Karate Kid (1984)
Sensei Miyagi and the Daniel-San kid... or how to find the proper balance in a life full of struggles and challenges?
A sweet romance and a mentor/disciple friendship wrapped up in an inspirational sports movie directed by John Avildsen, does that ring a bell?... a final bell?
The comparisons are as inevitable as if it was a "Rocky"'s spin-off. Yet "The Karate Kid" deserves to be judged on its own merit. More than a "Rocky" in high-school, the film is a heart-warming, confidence-building, coming-of-age story, with as many stressful as relaxing moments... as if it was trying to find its own balance between Hollywood escapism and human depth.
Now I feel compelled to say as many good things about "The Karate Kid"... as two consecutive viewings would allow me to, but whatever I say will hardly have the emotional juice of someone who let it grow through the years. I can just drop the many things to appreciate: the struggles of Daniel LaRusso and the comfort he found in the peaceful house and words of Mr. Miyagi, both talking of life, love, bonsais and "Banzai!" letting their friendship grow ... until it's Karate talking, then training, then fighting time.
I regret that my memories were deprived from a story that could have fixed my preconceived perceptions of martial arts flicks. My cousin, a Karate player who had his room's walled with Bruce Lee and JCVD posters (I mention him in my "Blood Sport"'s review) showed me every possible 'karate' film: "Blood Sport", "Kick Boxer", even "Karate Tiger", Van Damme's debut as a villain... an obvious rip-off of "The Karate Kid" but I didn't know that. Yes, we didn't see the one that started them all. I only saw the third film actually and thought it was so formulaic and predictable I didn't care much for the original.
Just a simple glimpse at the poster should have convinced of how wrong I was. There's no bad-ass threatening pose, the real focus is between these two misfits, the Newark kid who just moved to California with his single mother and the old Japanese janitor who has a knowing and saying about everything yet keeps humble about it. And in the middle you have the iconic sight of LaRusso's poses in the crane position.
The beach in the poster is like a metaphor for all the clichés that ruined the legacy of martial arts movies and over which the film proudly stands: bad villains without motives, cheesy pop-songs filled montages, revenge stories and a mentor working as a kick-ass version of Confucius. The film never falls into these clichés but not without struggle. I still have a hard time accepting the way Daniel was ditched by his new friends, it's not like he chickened out against Johnny...
Speaking of chickening out, I was wondering if I had watched the film at that time, would I have abandoned Karate (out of fear of taking hits)? Yes, I feared pain and this fear caused me bigger pain in the long term, if there's one thing life has taught me is that you pay weakness the biggest price and maybe such a film would have taught me not to fear fight... and not to enjoy it either, that's how important Karate and martial arts are.
Anyway, even the fight ceases to be the point while we witness the gradual bonding between Sensei Miyagi and Daniel-San. Sure you have "Sweep the leg", "Wax-on, wax-off" but... "you're the best friend I ever had" is my favorite line from the film. And I couldn't believe Ralph Macchio just made the same comment while I was writing this, listening to the 2013 reunion on Youtube. But he's right, that quote encapsulates the beauty and purity of the film.
"The Karate Kid" not only acknowledges the necessity of a guidance, but it turns the guidance into a friendship and creates in Mr. Miyagi not just a father-friend figure but a man with a past, one that honors and acknowledges the sacrifices and heroism of many Japanese-Americans, a present which is the movie and a bright future incarnated by Daniel's final triumph. Not over himself or some demons... the film is beyond these clichés.
Daniel has the right spirit from the start, he stays respectful to Miyagi, his romance with Ali doesn't fall into sentimental contrivance and together, they have a terrific chemistry, so the real victory is about not letting the adversary take the best of you. Maybe that's what finding the balance is, being something to be proud of and earning self-respect. So technically before the competition, Daniel had just won everything, the tournament was simply the record to settle between two schools of Karate: the good one and the Cobra Kai incarnated by the merciless Vietnam vet Kreese (Martin Krove).
And the film's ending is epic in the sense that it wraps up everything the movie was about in one single minute, exactly like the ending of "Rocky": the villain gets a lesson of shut-your-mouth humility, the not-so-bad bully (Billy Zabka) acknowledges Daniel's merit, giving him the trophy, Daniel is carried away by a cheerful crowd so eager to celebrate his victory he literally vanishes from the screen... but we can hear him sharing his victory with his friend and surrogate father, Mr. Miyagi. So it all makes sense that the film ends with his proud smile and held-back tears: the perfect conclusion.
Morita was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but this is clearly the symbiosis of two acting talents as Ralph Macchio, looking like a 80s version of Sal Mineo, gave a fresh and authentic performance that worked with Morita and Elizabeth Shue (as talented as youthfully beautifully) and the other cast members. This is Avildsen's second masterpiece after "Rocky", served by pop music and naturally a score ,from Bill Conti... why changing a winning team?
The Freshman (1925)
"The Freshman", still so fresh, man!
Sure, we've seen many sports movies with an underdog determined to prove his worth and earn people's respect, going the distance, failing with grace or winning the big game and some heart in the process ... but "The Freshman" IS the original from the roaring twenties, codifying many tropes that hours of 80s sitcoms have engraved in our minds.
You wouldn't believe it but there were college jocks who made it in the football team (probably the "Carpe Diem" ghost whisperers from "Dead Poets Society"), there were even nerds, jokers, pranksters, mean deans, and coaches at the verge of a breakdown. In fact, what you've got in "The Freshman" is the whole college sociology with the popularity pyramid still prevailing today, minus the cheerleaders and justice warriors.
While not as accessible as today (an argument for the film's modern relevance) college has always been a pivotal moment in the life of a few privileged ones, that chronological point of convergence between the athletic and hormonal peak and the most advantageous freedom and responsibilities ratio. There's only one point in college: to have fun, otherwise, why would the Tate college be described as a big stadium with a college attached to it? (a great quote by the way).
And in these idly studious days, popularity played exactly the same role as wealth or power and naturally, the first page of the yearbook was dedicated to the football captain, the most popular figure, the one who always gets the prettiest girl at the prom, as if even in an intellectually driven micro-society, the law of the strongest (and most attractive one) applied. The majority would be relegated to fraternities, football games and Toga parties ("Shout!").
Harold Lamb is as marginal and dorky as any "Animal House" alumni except that he doesn't know it and believes he's the most popular student. His desperation is moved by a sort of Darwinian impulse that only makes sense to those who went to colleges or campuses and couldn't accept to be labeled as nobodies (God forbid!). "Thankfully" for Lamb, his chances of getting unnoticed instantly vanish when the college cad (Brookes Benedict) makes him the butt of many jokes before throwing him on a stage in front of the whole school.
In this critical situation, Lamb can only think of mimicking his movie idol the College Hero with his trademark handshake jig. Automatically nicknamed 'Speedy' like his impersonation, Lamb takes the laughs and applauses as signs of approvals while being a literal lamb sacrificed at the altar of the college dogma, as much in need of a charismatic chief than a village idiot. And there is something sadly ironic that a comedian would play a character who wishes to be loved by being funny but ends up being mocked and despised.
If I dared to psychoanalyze Lamb, I would say he's the reflection of a comedian's existential nightmare: being a clown in the pathetic sense. Just like Chaplin who questioned the notion of comedy by playing someone who couldn't be funny 'on request' in "The Circus", Lloyd gives a sensitive performance as a man you both laugh with and at him, his joy is our satisfaction, his sadness our guilt.
There is bitter sweetness in "The Freshman", with his wide-eyed, optimism and adorkable charm, Lloyd turns out to be the most joyful 'sad clown' figure, the happier he is, the sadder we are. And as if he feared the material would be too mean-spirited, he sugarcoats the story with a blissful romance with the cherubic landlady's daughter Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), the only girl who genuinely likes him, the way he is. And I was glad that the hilarious Frat Follic sequence (with the tuxedo going to pieces) didn't inflict us the predictable scene where Peggy catches Harold with his pants down... and some girl. That bit would have deprived the film from that powerful moment where he finally understands what's going on... only half the truth actually, but it's enough to devastate him... and awaken in my memory the message a girl left in the back of my class picture at the end of the schoolyear: "it's not about leaving a mark, but what mark you're leaving".
Of course, "The Freshman" didn't have such a downer ending and provided a memorable and heart-pounding climactic football game working like geek escapism at its finest. The final sight with Lloyd making his wet dream a 'wet' reality was as satisfying as "Rocky" or "Rudy" and made me reconsider what I said that about Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" being the seminal Sports film. "The Freshman" deserves the same title if we believe in the spirit of sports more than the aesthetics, the way it allows us to rise above our condition in a more fictionalized way ... for cheers... and for laughs.
Laugh-wise, the film provides unforgettably creative visual gags and even the intertitles are part of the fun instead of being just verbal vehicles, but there's something nuanced and mature in the film as if you could tell Lloyd wanted a good story rather than a ha-ha picture, he succeeded in both and his film (unlike "Safety Last!") made the AFI's Top 100 List. It's one thing to be about a goofball but embracing the whole goofiness would have killed the heart of the story.
Speaking of the heart, in an early 1953 episode of TV game show "What's My Line", available on Youtube, panelist Dorothy Killgalen told mystery guest Harold Lloyd that she cried at "The Freshman" as a little girl because of the way his fictional alter-ego was mistreated. This seemingly benign and cute confession had picked my curiosity.
Obviously "The Freshman" was more than a slapstick comedy about a nerd playing football, it carried a genuine poignancy that I needed to discover. I just didn't expect it would be of such a Chaplinian level!
A (Musical) Trip Back to the Moroccan Roots...
If you look at the world as a huge forest, globalization makes us feel like trees with expanding and branches intersecting with other branches from other trees, so at the end, you don't even know to which tree they belong... the only way to tell is to go the other way down.
And I guess that you can never know who you are without looking at your roots... acknowledging them, and more than anything valuing them... and Watching a documentary like Ahmed El Maânouni's "Trances" was a salutary experience; because every once in a while, I need to remember the meaning of username.
I need to remember that I come from a country of millenary history that dates back to the Berber and the Roman civilization and that underwent many influences from Saharan tribes, Arabs, Mediterranean conquerors and African tribes from which we inherited the 'Gnawa' tradition and the trance music.
I need to remember that globalization is positive in the way it makes us feel like forming a united whole but it's meaningless if you don't know what 'part' of that whole you represent. And that it took the endorsement from Martin Scorsese to make me discover that gem was revealing about my own ignorance.
Of course, the name Nass-El-Ghiwane rings a bell to every North African, but being aware of some songs is one thing and being capabl to experience each lyric, each percussion, each banjo plunk and feeling like your body is taken to another dimension is something that even a lifetime of cultural re-appropriation can't achieve.
You can't cheat with their music. Those who danced to their songs, who joined them on-stage, who were in that state of trance, young and old, men and women, were no professional actors, their reaction was authentic and genuine and you could tell so because they never cared about the camera. When I listen to Nass-El-Ghiwane, I can feel the music but if a camera was on me, I would probably restrain myself.
Ten years ago, the company I worked for invited the group for a special occasion, I remember almost everybody was dancing to their music and my boss with a few colleagues of her were in trance. I thought they were overplaying it and naturally, I couldn't even dance. Now I know I was the one whose soul became too rational, maybe too much impregnated by globalized or standardized music, I don't mean that negatively, but "Trances" made me realize that I denied a big part of my own DNA, to the point that I have no right to claim to be a Moroccan.
"Trances" echoed a similarly regretful reaction I had with the more celebrated "Woodstock" after which I wished that my generation could have lived such an experience. "Trances" also deals with the lost youth that didn't need Hendrix or Joplin when they found in the lyrics of the late Larbi Batma, Omar Sayed, Abderhaman Paco and Allal Yaali and of course, the dead-too-soon-icon Boujemâa. the resonance of their own cries. The timeless hit song "Siniya", which means the 'tray' is a metaphor for "sharing" and a nostalgic hymn to a time were friendship, comradery and family weren't just values but social pillars.
Nass-El-Ghiwane were called the Rolling Stones of North Africa (the group was notorious for being fans of their music) but the Stones, like any other Occidental performers, made songs of three, four, maybe minutes... five minutes was the time it took for Nass-El-Ghiwane to get to the chorus. Their songs told stories, they had introductions with eloquence that drained inspiration from Arab poets, melodies as penetrative as 'Sufi' prayers and then their climaxes could last for minutes where I don't even think the players had any control of the reach of their voices or the beatings they were stimulating... until an orgasmic musical knock-out.
And I guess this is why the documentary is made in a way that matches their artistic talent, to the point it should have been a contender for many awards. On Youtube, you'll find many TV archive footages of the group, and the videos are nothing like Maânouni's work. Heswings back and forth between the group and the audience, to emphasize their symbiosis. The film is also full of close-ups on the focused eyes of Paco, the 'peaceful tension' in Batma or Yaali, the sweat on Sayed, showing how psychologically and emotionally involved and dedicated to their art they were. And even the instruments get their close-ups, how could a music that sounded sometimes like guitar electric chords could be fully acoustic, even Scorsese couldn't believe his ears!
And as if he was carried away by the group's freedom of expression, Maânouni doesn't just let "Trances" be a simple concert film but keeps the form free, almost experimental, with many interviews, recorded conversations, and shots on the Moroccan street and the people... as if he was aware that his film would also be a snapshot of an era soon to be lost... an era still influenced by the oral traditions, the myths and legends that built Moroccan folklore and forged the mainstay of Nass-El-Ghiwane's inspiration.
Indeed, they belonged to a generation mainly influenced by Arab music, convincing some artists to join national orchestras and spend their careers playing songs they never created. But one of the founding members Boujemâa (dead in 1974) convinced Sayed to join the troop of another artistic icon Tayeb Seddiqui, and like troubadours, door-to-door chanters and political theater a long time ago, they sung songs of social relevance and entertainment value. Little did they know their music would have an effect far more transcending than entertainment.
The group created songs that penetrated people's minds, hearts and bodies. It is Moroccan 'soul' music indeed, and it's no surprising that a director so concerned about the themes of soul, guilt and redemption could be so sensitive to the lyrics and power of Nass-el-Ghiwane. It is musical poetry at its finest.
Harold and Maude (1971)
The couple no one saw coming... and no one saw leaving... their hearts...
"L-I-V-E! Live! Otherwise, you've got nothing to talk about it in the locker room".
This invitation to cherish and live life to the fullest obviously addresses a young man but there are other places than a locker room to brag about your achievements. Indeed, any human being facing for some reason an existential crisis should listen to Dame Marjorie Chardin aka "Maude", played by the always delightful Ruth Gordon.
Why are some of us so hesitant to confront whatever the day above the ground has to offer? This is not exactly the central question of Hal Ashby's "Harold and Maude", the film is less interested in the disease than the remedy and a few side-effects. The suicidal tendencies of life-sick Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) are handled in a comedic way that confines to absurdity, each staged suicide looks pretty horrific but the deadpan reaction of Harold's snooty and affectionless mother (Vivian Pickles) asks the question: which one's attitude has caused the other?
All jokes put aside, Harold is caught in an existential never-ending circle where his mind contemplates death like a ticking bomb, one attempt might not be for fun. To satisfy his morbid curiosity or simmer down his lust for life-termination, Harold attends funerals and seems to get some temporary relief. In one of them, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) a pint-sized 79-year-old lady with a face never deserted by a smile and a body never deserted by a happy though. A strange bond emerges from their encounter, Maude seems like she feels a gap.
Is it her insouciance? Her eccentric habits and antics? The way she steals car and motorcycles as as if she was simply borrowing them? The way she cares about any living creatures to the point that she visualizes the suffering of a tree and gives personalities to flower? Is it her smile that is more defiant than any anti-establishment rally? Or maybe is it because, like Harold, she's got an 'attitude' and that she acts according to it ... that happens to be positive in the way that it achieves every single goal she dares to challenge. At some point, I wasn't even questioning what would Harold find in Maude because I could figure it out myself, strangely drawn to her life-embracing persona.
And Harold couldn't have a better antidote to his mental suffocation, everything from his family is about having the control, molding the individual through the army or psychoanalysis, even rigging the dating game through pre-computer selected rendezvous. It's a puppet circus and a freak show hidden under a tent of respectable hypocrisy magnificently embodied by the mother. Harold is only 18, he isn't influent enough to fight but he's smart enough to see right through it, just not desperate enough to end his life for real.
When asked which flower he'd like to be, he points to a daisy, one among many others, because they all look alike, Maude contradicts his point, they're all different, bigger, smaller, with or without petals ... she sees in these daisies the tragedy of life: each one wants to be unique but we all end up the same and in one of the most beautiful ellipses of the New Hollywood era, we see them walking across the Golden Gate National cemetery and the shot is worth a thousand words. The place is full of persons who were all unique in life, only be reunited in death and become as neutral and impersonal as a standardized sepulture.
The film is full of other haunting images, one of them that shall not be missed, is a brief shot on Maude's arm, that might explain why she rejects everything that compact us to masses, and embrace what makes us unique in life and sing "If You Want to Sing, Just Sing". And I guess that's what Harold found in Maude, a person who didn't treat him as a freak but someone who was looking for answers even if he couldn't formulate the questions. Now, is that a good enough a reason to make the beautiful friendship blossom into a romance?
I don't think the age gap should be problematic at all, once you admit that the person you love makes you want to be a better man, you know that this person is meant for you. I can't think of any actress who could have pulled a performance like Gordon, she's a real peach and makes every line both funny and poignant, she's the sum of all positive wisdoms that could enrich a life even within tragedy and Cort evolves from an introverted and secretive adolescent to a young man capable to express his feelings, to be capable to make the kind of stuff he'd be speaking in the locker room or anywhere.
Am I rationalizing a film that is too bizarre for its own good? It was panned by many prestigious critics like Ebert or Canby for being too unnatural or aggressive but I only found gentleness and sweetness wrapped up in black comedy because there's got to be a package and the so underrated Hal Ashby couldn't just adapt a movie adapted from the thesis of a college student (Colin Higgins) without maintaining an air of vital eccentricity. The tone can be weird, but the message is straight-forward and inspirational, the actors are all perfect and Cat Stevens' soundtrack is just the cherry of the cake of posterity.
I think the film was ill-received first because we despise eccentricity in our lifetime but once we get closer to Maude's age, we regret these little moments where we could just be free to be whatever we wanted. A film like "Harold and Maude" is precious in the way it teaches the value of life before it's too late... and this is why with time, it became a classic for the ages. And a beloved one.
Is the Universe Friendly ?
According to Albert Einstein, that's the central question any human being should ask themselves in their lifetime; and if "Friendly" doesn't sound too science-friendly a term, let's remember that the iconic genius never took science as an end but a means to a humanistic end.
Indeed, some secrets about our existence can be more profound and distant than any lone star from the furthest galaxy and perhaps the reason-to-be of science fiction is to leverage scientific speculation with an extra kick from human imagination, liberating a creative energy meant to anticipate the most daring solutions to our most troubling puzzlements... or simply put, to trust the future.
Directed by Christopher Nolan (and co-written with his brother Jonathan), "Interstellar" isn't set at a time that leaves much for optimism: devastating blights are reducing the Earth resources to nil, dust storms make the air unbreathable and in this suffocating dystopia, even politics and crime became pointless. With a beaten spirit, humanity undergoes the slow apocalypse. But how can anyone be a pioneer or a conqueror again when any part of the world is doomed, when there's no 'West' to go anymore?
What's left then is one single desperate measure we owe to a Science-fiction's classic : "Keep watching the skies!". One man follows the motto, a Midwest widower and previous ace pilot named "Coop" (Mathhew McConaughey). He doesn't know it yet but a scientist did the same, with fruitful results. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) found a "path" to a galaxy with potentially inhabitable planets. While it doesn't take the mind of Stephen Hawkins to understand that there would be no chance of survival in any planet of the Solar System, I wish the question of Mars could have been raised at least once.
We also gather that the exodus wouldn't be just some fancy cruise and might last a bit longer than the one to the Promised Land, except if you precede years with "light", but this is where the interference (so to speak) between the screenplay originating from creative artists and a physicist named Dr. Kip Thorne introduced the fascinating concept of wormholes, sorts of tunnels that can take you from point A to another B within a universe comparable to a piece of paper fold in two, like a pencil cutting through it. And once you consider time as a fourth dimension, you guess the implications.
Time travels, space travels, dystopian future, artificial intelligence ... is there one realistic sci-fi concept that "Interstellar" doesn't cover? Once again, Nolan proves that he's the star pupil of all filmmakers, and there's only one stardust of sarcasm in an inner space of admiration. I sincerely believe that the film is so ambitious in scale, CGI and practical effects and attention to scientific accuracy that it is beyond any rational criticism. Nolan's wish was a studio's command after the success of his "Dark Knight" trilogy, if there ever is one to push the envelope, to be the 'Coop' of cinema, it's Nolan.
But there's one reason why "Interstellar" stands above other sci-fi blockbusters... no, not the romantic subplot with Anne Hathaway or Matt Damon's character. At the risk of sounding corny, many things are relative according to science, time is: one hour in a planet can equal 23 years, distance is no better as it can take as much time to jump from a galaxy to another as to travel from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. Still, there's one powerful force that hasn't unveiled all its mysteries and can be everything but relative, the power of attraction aka love power.
There's this bonding between Coop and 'Murph' (Mackenzie Foe and Jessica Chastain for the adult version). Murph got her name from the infamous Murphy's law and the 'science-detective' virus and looks for any paranormal manifestation, some she calls ghosts... don't worry, there's an answer to everything and the rational answers provided later could only come from the man who designed the rubik-cube like plot of "Inception". Precise and effective, maybe a tad too effective. Nolan sure does this homework but sometimes, he gets so carried away by scientific perfectionism that he indulge to a few moments or lines where it's hard to keep a straight face.
But even "2001: A Space Odyssey" had such moments. In "Interstellar", I think I can sum up the criticism by saying that the film wanted to be many things instead of just one... and Nolan, wanted to make the consummate Sci-fi film, after which every sci-fi film director would ask himself "what would Nolan do in that case?". And I guess sometimes, there's nothing wrong with sacrificing realism for the sake of plausibility. Sometimes, I regret Nolan's perfectionism, could he make a movie like "Back to the Future" if no scientist could endorse the theory of the flux capacitor? Once again, paraphrasing his greatest character, I want to ask Nolan "why so serious?".
"Interstellar" still touched me for its intelligence of the heart, the way it did answer Einstein question by making us parts of the universe, Earth can stop being friendly, not that divine whisper that made us exist can also figure out how to keep us "immortal" and it's all about entering a journey, not with rage, as Professor Brand repeats, but with the sheer conviction that there's got to be a way.
Mathematics is the alphabet with which God created the Universe, so all it takes is to break the code through the powerful bonding between two people. Bogart said: "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world". Well, according to "Interstellar", the problems of two little people matter a lot in the whole universe, in the great cosmic scheme of things.
That's why, for all its visual effects, its Hans Zimmer's score and heart-pounding action sequences, the most memorable part of the film is McConaughey's bursting into tears after seeing his grown-up daughter.
His Girl Friday (1940)
Not So Quiet on the Western Front... Page...
If Howard Hawks's screwball classic "His Girl Friday" isn't a perfect film, it had at least a perfect role for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell... and that's the stuff durable greatness is made of.
Indeed, Grant was the epitome of wisecracking charm and his Walter Burns happened to be an obnoxious fellow delivering so many wisecracks that by the time the receiver found the proper repartee, someone was already being verbally crucified.
Rosalind Russell wasn't a star... yet... until she portrayed Burns' ace reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson, reliable and relatable 'girl Friday'. These two backgrounds explain why she plays in the same rhetorical league, she's a match to him... even when there's no matching anymore.
But maybe because she's taller than many actresses, she can get above Grant's shoulder high enough not to be totally swollen off by his charismatic despicability. She talks the talks but can walk the walk even if he's gallant enough to hold her the door... but why would a woman calling herself a newspaperman expect gallantry?
At a time where gender talk wasn't such a sensitive subject and this is where the film got tricky, Hildy is engaged to insurance agent Bruce Baldwyn and is determined to become his devoted housewife, to have children and live a peaceful life in Albany, of all the towns... so she expects some gentlemanly behavior from her editor and former husband... might as well expect Hitler to sign a Peace Treaty.
The titular 'Girl Friday' can't wait for her existential 'week-end', torn between her job and her future. The way the film makes these two situations irreconcilable can seem far-fetched but given the way Hildy handles her job, it's hard to imagine the combo. The lady must make up her mind. Meanwhile, Burns gets an opportunity that instantly tilts in his mind "thanks God, it's Friday!".
As usual with screwball comedies, the timing is crucial and when a top reporter is missing and an execution is polarizing opinions because of proclaimed insanity and suspicion of political motivations, someone must cover the news and Hildy happened to be in the right place at the right moment.
For Walter, Hildy's presence is to be exploited even if it means using every bit of his malevolent creativity against the gentle but rather bland Bruce... who looks exactly like Ralph Bellamy, according to Burns (or was it Grant having fun with the script?). Given the mistreatment poor Bruce undergoes, "His Girl Friday" is a tale of Machiavellian ingenuity at the services of one profession: journalism. Basically, the ends justify the means if it means covering the hottest topic of the day (pre-war days but they didn't know).
So Burns uses every trick of his sleeve to prevent Bruce from taking the train and forces Hildy to be on the front... and for the front, fully aware that her professional conscience will finally get the best of her. And there is something in Russell's performance, the way she resists the call of her profession while being fiercely attached to her fiancée that calls for admiration.
Whether she handles the other journalists who pose like vulture-like creatures, indifferent to the pleas of Williams' friend and hungry for any scandal or tip to it, she knows how to adapt her manners, to talk different languages, but that would be too easy with screwball comedy. We noticed from the start that the pace of the dialogue is as quick as if the box office depended on it, yet Hawks gratifies us with scenes where journalists and Burns are all together, sometimes, Bruce and Walter talk to Hildy and on the phone and the rhythm is so fast it sounds like harmonious cacophony.
The film was known for having a dialogue that could be contained in a twice longer film but Hawks insisted on having something natural that could flow simply and easily because people did talk like this in real life. And only for the rapid fire delivery of Russell, I'm glad they didn't take someone else, I can't imagine Katharine Hepburn in that role, Russell had the street smarts, the modern touch, the look, the sexiness... she got the scandal but the only thing she didn't get was an Oscar nomination, and that was a scandal too.
I didn't like the film at first because I have a problem with the schematic aspect of screwball comedies, the two men in love with the same woman and one of them has no chance because the other is Grant, that's why I didn't like "The Philadelphia Story"... but here, Grant is so unlikable you've got to wonder how come he had to get Russell at the end except to show that these two were equally unlikable thus meant to be together, which in that case makes the film modern in its daring anti-family bias.
And the ending doesn't imply that Hildy made the right personal choices, maybe journalists have a way with every non-personal matters but are totally ignorant of the things of life. I recently saw "Sweet Smell of Success" and I guess it's a common trope of Hollywood to depict journalism as a business dealing with cops, politicians, uses of bribes or blackmails and many methods that can only give it a cynical flavor.
Grant could embody these traits without being totally detestable, maybe it's because we try to see them from the eyes of Hildy and we accept that he's not such a bad guy after all. Ironically, when Hildy becomes the newspaper man, she lets the woman takes the upper hand and encourage Burns to show a more comprehensive and gentle side. But Hawks was a smart director, if he was smart enough to know that he could remake "The Front Page" with a gender swap, he could handle his characters as well.
After all, they might be unlikable but they have a likable way to be unlikable, and that's also the stuff durable greatness is made on.
Stalag 17 (1953)
What happens in the 'Stalag' stays in the 'Stalag'... or does it?
A narrator with a slight stammer (Gil Stratton) introduces the film by saying that no war movie ever tackled prisoners of war (aka POW). Objection, your honor, how about Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion"? Granted there was no significant American POW film at the time but surely Billy Wilder must have heard about a French movie nominated for Best Picture in 1939, he must have heard a few anecdotes from Erich Von Stroheim during the shooting of "Sunset Blvd. So, is the lie deliberate or not?
I think Wilder didn't feel he was telling the same story, and that "lie" is very revealing about the spirit of "Stalag 17": it tries to fool us but in such an obviously fraudulent way that it doesn't fool us, as if there was a joke somewhere but not on us. And I think that very lie captures the spirit of the film, it is cynical but deliberately deceptive about the human nature, to the point that sergeant Sefton's farewell line about pretending to have never met might have been a genuine statement. Yet it ended with a friendly gesture just to keep the right amount of ambiguity. And God, is this film ambiguous!
In many ways, "Stalag 17" could have been an Americanization of "Grand Illusion" with WW2 as the setting, and I guess that's the accomplishment made by "The Bridge on the River Kwai" also starring William Holden, the bonding between the Japanese commandant and the British officer echoed the friendship between the two aristocrats in "Illusion". "Stalag 17" was adapted from a play written by 'Stalag' survivors Donald Bevan and Edmun Trczinski, where what happens in the Stalag stays in the Stalag ... or does it? The main drama consists of finding out the identity of the stoolie who warned the Germans about the upcoming escape of two prisoners, causing them to do escape but inside coffins.
As Camp Commandant Oberst von Scherbach (Otto Preminger) observed with a proud smirk: "No one escaped Stalag 17. Not alive anyway". It's interesting the way these deaths are handled. While the gravitas of the moment is heavily marked in the faces of the prisoners, especially Duke (Neville Brand) who spends the whole time with the expression of someone who wished he got Holden's part, William Holden's Sefton is proudly collecting the cigarettes he got from a bet against their lives. The two sacrificed lambs are only cinematic props to warn us about the presence of a traitor and to tell us that first-billed Holden is the number one suspect (aka the hero).
Once you get that the dead prisoners represent drama and that they're handled in a lighthearted way (the narrator even leaves a joke at their departure), you get the point of "Stalag 17", less a lighthearted drama than a serious comedy. And at that point of the review, I have to mention the two comic reliefs: Robert Strauss as Stanislaw 'the Animal' Kusawa and Harry 'Sugar-Lips' Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck), these two goofs crystallize the appreciation of the film, fans love it because they make the film feel like "Animal House" in a POW Camp and the haters hate it for the same reason.
Speaking for myself, I thought their comedic routine was overplayed at first but then I processed the tonality of the film in my head and figured out they needed to provide more meat for the story and give us a few comical interludes with the Russian prisoners, the raw eggs, the 'At ease!' moment and the 'Betty Grable' dance, until the unforgettable "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home Again" where they're so busy dancing and marching they can't notice the spy quietly delivering a message in the "mailbox". We're definitely not stupid, they are.
"There are only two guys who know I didn't do it. Me and the guy who did it". Basically these two are also the only sane and reasonable people, though Sefton could have toned down his enthusiasm at the midst of the whole suspicion-ambiance and the traitor could have kept the incriminating piece out of his pocket, but nonetheless, the characters of Holden and a young Peter Graves managed to prevent the film to fall into the muddy trap of a nonsensical farce. There came a point where the last thrills came from the rat's race and the film needed one or two confrontations to spice it up. Humor and comedy can be great but with a right amount. As Schulz said "one fuerher is enough".
The film was released at the end of the Korean War and the peak of the McCarthysm and some found in Sefton's accusation an illustration of the Jews' persecution and the HUAC-related paranoia, I think there's something more relevant within its tone (not the content), somethiung about the disillusion of men who're entrapped in their own condition and become easy preys for foolishness, and they just need a culprit to shoot first and think after, I get "Stalag 17" works a little like "M*A*S*H" a movie that handles war in such a goofy way it contains a few bits of subversion but doesn't keep you quite at ease.
Holden won the Oscar while believing it had to go to either Lancaster or Clift who played in a more 'serious' picture as if he saw something of a fraud in "Stalag 17". Maybe it's a fraud, maybe it needed less ambivalence and that's why its follow-up "Hogan's Heroes" worked better because it was plain comedy, but this is a film that tells us one thing, no one can fool you without your consenting, and the only guy who wasn't fooled was cynical but had smartened up, patriotism is one thing but keep smart is a nice advice and modern for its taste.
"Stalag 17" might be more brilliant than it seems, for such a classic prison escape movie, there are many aspects that escaped me, I reckon that.
La fille inconnue (2016)
The Unknown... Reason behind such a Bland Picture...
I said I was waiting to be disappointed by a Dardennes brothers' film but I guess I wasn't in such a hurry and didn't expect that after six tremendous cinematic experience, seven wouldn't play as lucky number.
Disappointed is too harsh a word but I can't say I enjoyed "The Unknown Girl" even within the definition I give to the verb 'enjoying' when it comes to the Belgian siblings. You don't enjoy their films, you experience them, generally following a normal person in a sort of quest that will define a new path to his or her life, it's existential and essential, it's often a make-it or break-it journey with more than one destiny at stakes... and often ends with a lesson of humanity or humility, lesson, not lecture.
Let's make it clear, I'm not trying to find patterns in the Dardennes' body of work, but only a simple common thread which applies to every film I saw. My bias isn't even negative because I think the Dardennes are also caring for meaningfulness but while not meaninglessness, "The Unknown Girl" works differently because the story doesn't grab you with the same intensity. It is about a young hard-working doctor named Jenny (Adele Haenel) who refuses to open the door after the day is over and is busy telling her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) how he shouldn't get overwhelmed by his emotions. The kid wanted to open the door but needed a sermon about how to be a doctor.
The day after, the verdict falls, Jenny learns that the woman was calling for help and that the door staying closed threw her at the hands of someone who apparently killed her. Jenny didn't know it was a cry for help, there was only one buzzing sound and naturally, she's devastated by the news, and so we are. At that point of the film, I was wondering what direction Jenny' life would take, where could she go anyway? Basically, the quest is simple and will consist in finding the identity of the woman, an African immigrant, and to understand what happened.
Jenny feels she owes that to her and our empathy is granted at that moment, if she can't redeem herself with someone, she needed to create a change in her life in order to give some weight to her gesture, there's got to be a before and an after, something to conceal the amount of poisoning guilt. So she declines a more promising job at a clinic, she encourages her intern to resume his medical studies and she leads her investigation as an amateur Hercule Poirot. The intent is noble but we're far from the usual framework of the Dardennes as many things don't quite work.
For instance, we don't see a real shift in Jenny's attitude, she remains constantly emotionless apart from a few moments of emotionality. I know it is a deliberate choice from the Dardennes not to let any spectacular emotion slip from the characters but seriously, without the plains, there would be no peaks, with Haenel, it seems we're always venturing in the realm of plains without any moment of true fragility or emotionality, Haenel leads her investigation with the enthusiasm of a shell-shocked victim so unusual even in a Dardennes film. "The Unknown Girl" was longer than their usual work and I felt like Emperor Joseph yawning at the Figaro representation in "Amadeus".
The second thing is the sense of danger, there are some threats pending over Jenny but since the object of her quest is dead, it's like we already reached a feeling of disclosure, the rest is only about wrapping up, there's no other life that can be concerned, affected or be saved and give a proper meaning to Jenny's investigation. Maybe this would have been too cinematic but why not? It's like the Dardennes abandoned any chance to surprise us, to stick to realism at the expenses of a capability to entertain none of their previous films ever lacked.
So we see Jenny meeting patients, kids and their parents (many cameos from the usual Frabrizio Rongione, jérémie Rénier and Olivier Gourmet, natch) but the pay-offs are rather meager and the acting sometimes problematic. Indeed, it's weird how she keeps the same face and tone with every single person she meets, and you can't tell the difference between her state of sadness or happiness. Meanwhile the film lingers on the detective work taking our patience for granted. The resolution came and it was conclusive but not quite satisfying because the set-up was weaker than usual and even by the standards used from the Dardennes, the film was too sober.
I feel guilty to point out aspects that have me usually satisfied with the Dardennes but maybe this is the revelation that at their point of their career, they should try something new. Ordinary stories about ordinary people can make for extraordinary experiences but there should be something to hook us on, Jenny is no "Rosetta", there's one interrogation mark in her quest but she acted in such a way she became a mystery within the mystery, and maybe both canceled each other. If not an unpleasant experience, a rather forgettable one... because it doesn't live up to the level of greatness the Dardennes brother got us used to.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Stinky Price of Success...
"Sweet Smell of Success": an olfactory alliteration littered with the foulest aspects of greed and ambition, how far ego can go, how dignity doesn't amount to a hill of Heinz beans and how ethics are no match for the green rectangle's appeal.
This is a film made by a director whose named has faded into oblivion, Alexander McKendrick, it was poorly received by the audience but not the critics. As members of the Press, they could relate to the corners some unethical members of their professions cut... or were driven to. I'm no journalist but the film made me understand paparazzi, the pictures they take are just bargaining ships, nothing personal, only business.
And in the film, the principal currency of this business consists of articles that can make or break people just like Twitter comments undo careers today. As smears, they become weapons with the newspapers as crime settings... the muscle is Sidney Falco and the mastermind is J.J. Hunsecker, the shady press agent and the egomaniac press columnist and national icon. The two men are as thick as thieves and form an unforgettable Faustian duo, they don't like each other, but Falco allows Hunsecker to see how high he climbed his way up and Hunsecker is the Sherpa who can take him to the same Everest of power, watching New York City as microcosm of the very America he just conquered. "I love that dirty town" says Hunsecker... ignoring that he's part of that very dirt, a furoncle stuck to New York City's body pulsating to the rhythm of sex, drugs and jazz.
For the trivia, J.J. Hunsecker was named 35th villain in the AFI's Top 50 but Falco is the soulless soul of the story, only redeemed by the fact that he's not as bad as his mentor, which is not saying much. When we first meet him, his name isn't even painted on the door but taped on it, his office and room make one, he's to his profession what Lionel Hutz is to lawyers, a disgrace... but of the sympathetic type. Who can resist that smile? Tony Curtis wanted to prove he wasn't just a cutie pie and battled to get the role, I can't picture another actor as Sidney Falco (same judgment with the "bigger one"). I admit it, I appreciated his boundless ambition that kept him awake all the night on the lookout of any scoop, any tip to a scoop, any promise to a juicy reward. I liked his clean-cut image, his rapid fire repartee and his tactical genius combined with a total lack of scruples. As one of his employers told him "I wouldn't hire you if you weren't a liar"there are layers or liar.
One who plays in another league is definitely Hunsecker, based on sulfuric columnist Walter Winchell... actually, that contextualization is irrelevant, we don't remember "Citizen Kane" for being a merely disguised pamphlet against William Randolph Hearst, do we? But it's interesting how a film meant to denounce sordidness of its time spoke statements about the excesses of power modern audiences could easily identify, especially in our social media time. Hunsekcer wants to crush a decent jazz player because he disapproves his union with his sister and Burt Lancaster plays him in the kind of smooth performance that doesn't give you the heart to despise him, maybe it's the signature grin, the catchy lines such as "You're dead. Get buried" or the little truths behind cruel thoughts... or maybe the glasses, but when you see Hunsecker, you kind of understand Falco.
Hunsecker paved the way to all corrupt and charismatic executives such as Gordon Gekko or Buddy Ackerman and in his establishing scene, we're tempted to admire him. Seated at a fancy restaurant, the bespectacled muscular tycoon is verbally crucifying a manager and lecturing a senator when Falco joins him, earning himself an unforgiving description concluding with the film's most defining line "Match me, Sidney". The real pay-off of that moment isn't in Falco's refusal to light Hunsecker's cigarette, which of course is part of his "smiling street-urchin pal" act, but when later, both manage to break up the relationship and Hunsecker doesn't even have to ask Falco, the right-hand man complies as automatically as a living Zeppo. At that point, he's a match to Hunsecker, will it last?
Later, Hunsecker admits "I'd hate to take a bite out of you, you're a cookie full of arsenic". How many 50s movies feature such hateful but eloquent protagonists, some blamed the bland performances of the romantic pair but they were merely pawns, the story is about the chess-master and the game. And the game is played in a short period of two nights where we see Falco moving his pieces, going as far as framing an innocent man, lying, pimping a poor woman and blackmailing an editor in front of his wife, with such ardor that he's immediately taught a lesson of decency, but no one can checkmate Falco because the real adversary is himself, as Hunsecker points out, "you're prisoner of your own fears and ambitions". Little did he know that he was also prisoner of his own ego.
"Sweet Smell of Success" is a quotable masterpiece that feels as fresh as it was sixty years ago, proving that America didn't wait for the New Wave to reinvent itself and maybe that's why the film didn't meet with commercial success, it was ahead of its time... and forgive the hackneyed expression, severely underrated.
Though it's quite a poetic irony that the film didn't meet with success because it provides a rather stinky image of success. Nonetheless, the film is a noir classic, modern in every sense of the word and certainly the best performances of both Curtis and Lancaster. Success stinks in the film but the films has a cinematic fragrance for the ages.
Insanity Tiptoeing Over Haunting Stairs
They say a film is as good as the villain, but sometimes, the villain might be too good for the film's own good. I don't think I've been as distraught and upset by a villain as I was by the manipulative expert Gregory Anton in George Cukor's "Gaslight", the most famous and best adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's play.
Indeed, enduring the psychological torture he applied to his love-seeking wife Paula, played by an emotionally versatile Ingrid Bergman, was such an infuriating experience that I left almost one decade between the first and the second viewing, and I literally tiptoed to the DVD to force myself to refresh my memory. After the first fifteen minutes, just when I thought I could stand it, I realized that any horror movie would have been more supportable... or am I overreacting?
I think there must have been some strong reaction toward that novelty of a plot where a person drove another one insane through mental manipulation to the point that "gas light" became part of common language... that's how impactful it was. Not many movies deal with that particular device, but this is how "Gaslight" was revolutionary and sophisticated in a twisted way, suiting the emerging noir genre.
The "gas light" effect referring to the dimming of the light that made Paula believe she was going crazy isn't effective on a narrative level because it's driven by a fact but rather by the seeds of doubt it sows on her mind. We know for a fact that a woman is being manipulated but only suspicion can heal her from her husband's cruel dominance.But she can't suspect him because she loves him in a way that echoes Stockholm Syndrome and he's a Machiavellian gourmet who knows exactly the amount of cruelty and suavity to apply.
Charles Boyer's with all these cunning eyes, that mouth always wary about not letting a word slip, and his faux-affable "French lover" manners, elevate his characters to summits of vileness and gaining extra altitude by a symmetric effect with Ingrid Bergman who brings an extraordinary level of pathos while maintaining a strange aura of dignity. This is a woman whose heart and mind are slowly shred to pieces but she's resigned to believe any word of her beloved husband because she can envision anything except such capability of vileness.
Why would the gaslight dim every night? Why would she hear noises the servant doesn't notice and why would Gregory be wrong if the second maid wasn't so arrogant and defiant? Even Angela Lansbury in her screen debut is perfect in the role of Nancy, the street smart and slightly slutty maid whose deadpan and snarky attitude is more affecting than any hint of false empathy or true detachment. This is a free-spirited woman yet manipulated by the way Gregory exploits every element of the environment and every possible situation. So what we have is a conspiracy perfectly oiled where Cukor makes us witness the action while making us as powerless as Paula. We're like passive observers bound and gagged and undergoing the villain's sadism. In a way, if we consider anger as a brief madness, we're also being "gaslighted" by Cukor.
The mark of great films is to elicit strong responses; and watching "Gaslight" a second time reminded me of something I meant as a compliment after my initial viewing, I thought it was the most Hitchcockian non-Hitchcock film... and the presence of Dame May Whitty or Joseph Cotten play like interesting nods to "The Lady Vanishes" and "Shadow of a Doubt". In"Vanishes", the main protagonist was toyed with her own certitudes and lured into doubting her own sanity and "Shadow" is about a villain who's a close parent. "Gaslight" makes these two plot points converge beautifully but there is another Hitchcock classic it bears a kinship with: "Suspicion".
And I think I can now be more explicit about what bothered me with "Suspicion" and that makes "Gaslight" a superior movie. In "Suspicion", the husband's guilt was the central theme but worked as a double edged word, if he was guilty, then he left too many hints to be a believable villain, if he wasn't, it was anticlimactic. In "Gaslight", we know the villain from the start and we know he's good at hiding his vileness (the essence of 'gaslighting') and the frustration doesn't come from the act but the lack of suspicion, the point is the psychological struggle within a woman whose passion blinds her mind and endangers it, a woman who trades her self-esteem for the sake of the most harmful person she could ever meet.
"Gaslight" foreshadowed, no pun intended, the way film noir would dominate post-war cinema, at a time where many people were blinded by patriotism and driven to real madness by leaders who had contempt for them. "Gaslight" is also a marvel of film noir in its use of the nightmarish fog of London Victorian streets used as the perfect camouflage for a Jekyll/Hyde villain, and where d the walls of respectability of an ordinary house, hid the claustrophobic nightmare of a woman lost among so many useless items and trophies, being the most precious one of all... or the most disposable.
Boyer, Lansbury were all Oscar-nominated, but it was Bergman who won the first of her three Oscars and deservedly so. In what could have been a one-note performance she explores every possible shade of fragility, doubt and panic, disbelief and resignation, whiplash moods orchestrated by her evil husband until her shining moment at the end, perhaps one of the most satisfying cinematic rants, when the whole scheme of Gregory backfires in the most delightful way.
But I still wonder why he wasn't listed in AFI's Top 50 villains, the film made the "thrills" list but hey, who made the thrills?
Le gamin au vélo (2011)
Two Wheels and One Chain...
Cécile de France was an established star in 2011, but by her own admittance, when she was proposed to star in the Dardenne brothers' next movie "The Kid With a Bike", she embraced the role with the nervousness of a debutante. That says a lot about the reputation of the Belgian siblings' cinema: new, original, fresh but maybe more vital and more indispensable than anything Hollywood would deem worth producing, their films is the oxygen suffocating artists and audiences are severely needing.
Forgive the alarmist talk but cinema has entrapped itself in so many patterns that even the rebellious artsy attitude is predictable. At the end, audience get what they expect, so do critics and festivals and the circle of life goes on with the same hypocrisy. But when you hear the Dardennes talk about their movies, they insist on their aversion toward clichés or cheap emotions (hear, hear Spielberg): they can use scores, a few familiar set-ups but they'll never indulge to "tricks": their stories are simple in their straightforward and not too fancy directing but through their characters, the brothers drilled soils of human complexity with an equipment as effective as the truth and a certain respect to our intelligence.
As the title implies, the film centers on a kid, and so does the first frame: Cyril (Thomas Doret) holds a phone, seeking someone desperately, an unseen adult tries to dissuade him, the case seems hopeless but the kid resists, entrapped in the frame but freed by his certitude. Whoever he tries to reach matters less than the attempt itself, the film begins as strongly as "Rosetta": with fierce determination and in many Dardennes film, determination is triggered by a specific event, death, unemployment... what can eat that poor kid? What can be at stakes?
Enthralled by our curiosity, we follow the camera following him, riding his bike, escaping from youth-farm educators until we find out he's looking for his father, but his father is as unreachable as if he was a figment of his imagination, maybe he is... no, little Cyril is too smart, street-smart actually, to be that kind of child. Even when he found out his father left the apartment he used to live in, he escapes from his pursuers by hiding in a medical center and grabbing the first woman he sees: Samantha (Cécile de France). We expect her to become an important player in his life but see how coincidental and un-cinematic the encounter is, in a sort of truthfulness to life where random moments can make a difference.
And the bike is the incarnation of that existential banality, an everyday object that contributes to every pivotal moment (a tribute to "Bicycle Thieves" maybe?). It is the bike that indirectly leads Cyril to Samantha and from Samantha to his father, a restaurant worker. It's interesting that the father is played by Jérémie Renier who was the son in the Dardennes' first success "The Promise" and the immature young father in "The Child", he could be the older version of that father actually, fatalistic and coward. In a poignant turn of event, Cyril's rebellious attitude fades away and he follows his father as if both were connected via an invisible wire, trying to help him, sweeping every "sorry" by "it's okay". The father asks Samantha to take care of Cyril as he needs to restart his life... meaning without him. And since she has no reason to cover him, she does the right thing by confronting him to his son and responsibilities.
The first act was about a boy struggling to find his father and ending in the pivotal and heartbreaking moment where he discovers the truth. Telling the rest of the film with as many details would spoil the experience so let's say the story will be about a kid in quest for anything that would make his childhood meaningful, that can cancel out the feeling of sheer abandon, and anyone to provide him, if not love, true guidance. So what we have is a kid whose parameters of life are as messed up as clearly set-up and this woman we know nothing about except that she's a hairdresser, she has a boyfriend but nothing else apart from the fact that she saw the kid being rejected by the only person he cared about. It doesn't take a heart like Mother Teresa's to sense an impending doom over Cyril's frail shoulders no matter how tough he acts. He's a kid but not a kidder, his resourcefulness might become a double-edged sword and it doesn't take long before his bike leads him (through a bicycle thief) to a gang. Cyril's reaction against the thief earns him respect and a nickname that was going to be the original title: pit-bull.
A recurring theme in the Dardennes' riveting portrait of the 2000s, we catch "pitbull" at a crossroad of his life, like Renier in "The Promise" where he could either follow his father's footsteps or redeem himself by helping an African migrant. But once again, the resolution matters less than the way it highlights the flaws or virtues of human beings; something in the way the choices made by Cyril reflect the depth of his wounds and of Samantha's heart. This is a kid who needs help and a woman who wants to help but there is a gap to fill because some wounds don't heal easily. The film isn't much about love but a process of trust, a gradual realization of life priorities and also how relative notions of good and evil are.
Had the film ended ten minutes earlier, it would have been good enough but the last minutes shed a new light over the inner workings of the human soul and how indispensable the presence of an adult is for a kid. Adult and responsible, the film is almost a metaphor of the cathartic effect the Dardennes' cinema can have on audiences constantly infantilized by mainstream corniness or artsy pompousness.
Le fils (2002)
In the Name of the Son...
Before reviewing the Dardennes brothers "The Son", I needed to check the trailer. The reason was simple: did they reveal why the character of Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) was so intrigued and focused on the kid? They didn't. And the trailer only shows a scene with his ex-wife asking if the boy is the "one" then bursting out of anger and fainting. The mysterious kid wants to help, Olivier shouts at him to stay away. The only bits of dialogue heard are "it's him" and "why do you do that?".
So the surprise must come from the film. And if I could encourage someone to watch the film without spoiling it, I would say this is a movie about an ordinary man, a carpentry teacher in rehab school, who seems obsessed by a kid who comes from a juvenile detention center. He peeps over him for the first ten minutes and then decides to take him for his courses, the man is divorced and his ex-wife announces her remarriage and pregnancy. He doesn't take it in all stride but his reaction shows a mix of anger and resignation that doesn't strike us as odd. The film deals with the interaction between Olivier and Francis, a teenager who looks lost and tacitly looking for help.
That's the situation, now, what do you make of a title like "The Son"? We've seen enough movies to anticipate that Francis is Olivier's hidden son. The Dardennes brothers are straight shooters and never use symbolical titles... or it's got to be about a father-and-son relationship, with a wound from the past and some potential catharsis from this relationship. Or is there something darker or more poignant in that "secret"? Viewers aren't given much time to endure the suspense as the revelation comes early adding suspense to drama like in a Cassavetes' film. And it works.
After the success of "The Promise" and "Rosetta" (Golden Palm winner), the Dardennes decided to dedicate their next feature film to their fetish actor Olivier Gourmet. Like Gérard Jugnot for French Cinema, this actor looks so exceptionally banal he can be believable in any movie exploiting the reality of Belgian society in general and humanity as a whole. I believed the man was a carpenter all his life, I believed every word from him and I couldn't believe he was capable to do anything harmful or bizarre if it wasn't uncalled for. And that impression is crucial to appreciate the film because we're put in a situation that will call for a confrontation, sooner or later, the mystery is all in the "when and how it will happen?".
As Gourmet said, you can play many expressions or feelings but "I don't know?". He was constantly asked to be neutral, not to let any obvious emotions slip because his psychological journey was tough enough and his interaction with (Morgan Marinne) so awkward that it didn't need to be overplayed. The angle taken by Gourmet shows how much an acting genius he is and how he truly deserved the award at Cannes Festival. Gourmet didn't play "I don't know", but played a man driven by contradictory forces, one driven by instinct and one pushing him back, revealing how rational and truly human he was. At parts, avidly stares at Morgan when he's not looking and get neutral when they make eye contact.
And you have the camera of the Dardennes brothers following the man through the school's narrow corridors, the kitchen, the offices, the car, and getting the two closer then further then closer again. We all know it will lead to a resolution, if not a solution, but again with the Dardennes, the journey matters more than the destination and the ending has every merit including the most important one: to be satisfactory, conclusive and believable. And it truly consecrates the talent of Gourmet as one of the greatest and most underrated actors of French-speaking Cinema and the perfect foil for the Dardennes, ever since their first collaboration in "The Premise" where he played a flawed father. Interestingly, that film was about a kid trying to get off his father's bad influence, while "The Son" leads to a reunion.
And I remember my initial reactions with the Dardennes, I naively thought they were only taking the camera and followed the actors like in a documentary. But "The Son" is full of master-shots and close-ups, many were shot multiple times at different paces to play safe as the Dardennes clearly didn't want to miss their first film where Gourmet as the lead (notice that the character was named Olivier in that sense so they could think of his own body while making it). Reciprocally, Gourmet couldn't ignore the Dardennes' camera either. It might look like cinema-vérité but the actors know where the camera is placed, Gourmet can make a gesture that shows good acting but that goes unnoticed by the camera and then the effect is lost. A Dardennes brother was the last movie I expected someone to point out the necessity to remember there's a camera behind.
I mentioned Cassavetes, his movies felt improvised but they were not, he let his own truth implode in front of the camera but never forgot it started with an eye watching you, even Bergman never forgot that pact with the camera. And that's the essence of the Dardennes' talent as well, they don't tell, they show, they use acting and interacting as the vehicle of their plot, everything is left to our attentive eyes, it's all in way we see them... and even the climactic resolution is all visual.
You can be a Nolan, a Spielberg or a Chazelle, but the minimalist talent the Dardennes showcases might be even more difficult to reach, because without budget, special effects and marketing, you can't take any chances, you only have the truth to hang on and that has no price.
M or the Mark of a Disillusioned Genius...
M like Manichean? What can you say of a plot driven by criminals and where good people are rather inefficient for the most part and where the most despicable character earns our own sympathy. This is a movie using such stark black-and-white contrasts, noir in its soul and gray in its core.
M like Mob Mentality? Fritz Lang personal "J'accuse" against a system where accusers aren't all innocent.
M like Maturity? The film also consecrates German Expressionism as a peak of creativity and social relevance, a sequence in history where Berlin became, literally, the best area and arena of expression to an art that had reached its maturity.
Or M like Mörder, murderer in German, Maudit in French (doomed) and Masterpiece in the universal language of cinema.
M like Menace (and Music).
Children are singing an elimination game of ominous undertones, later we see little Elsie playing with the balloon, a shadowy silhouette appears, the face remains unrevealed while we hear the whistling of "In the Hall of Mountain King". Before the 'shark' theme in "Jaws" to the "Psycho" shrieking violins, the "Peer Gynt" tune became the first notable leitmotif meant to suggest an evil presence, the perfect device to put us in the victims' standpoint for the first act, as powerlessly as the poor mother calling Elsie while her balloon (the bait used by Hans Beckert) is drifting along the telephone wires.
The effects are then shown through the growing fame of the new 'Jack the Ripper' figure, the ensuing paranoia with any adult basically talking to a child is assaulted. The killer is a menace to an already crisis-stricken society, forcing the police department to triple the efforts: psychiatric cases are explored, handwriting analyzed and daily and nightly raids operated to make further pressure on the criminal world.
M for Methodic. For its second act, "M" iss the seminal police procedural.
While covering that angle with a documentary-like precision, Lang still seems dubious about the police's efficiency and provides an interesting twist by paralleling the work of the law with the outlaws'. In a long sequence where both sides brainstorm about the methods to use to find him, we swing back and forth from one world to another and the only indicator of the side of the law we're put in is the presence of uniform, last time I saw criminals acting like politicians in a masterpiece, it was in "The Godfather". One even points out insightfully that the killer must be a bourgeois, because it's the very standard of life that provides the level of idleness driving any easily corruptible mind to the most extreme corners. M like the sign on the shoulder.
So in a famous sequence, criminals, helped by the street beggars find Hans Beckert quicker than the police force, he was betrayed by his trademark whistling and (irony) a little girl who noticed the infamous letter marked on his shoulder. The following chase takes maybe too much time for the film's own good. Not saying the film could do without the struggle to catch him but the court is such a high point of cinema's history that the previous part seems more forgettable.
And Peter Lorre with his round face, innocent eyes when he's cornered like a rat and utters his memorable speech, gives the performance of a lifetime, as a living symptom, a man incarnating the sickness of a society where bad people toy with justice and the worst of all acts as childishly as his victims, claiming innocence with such rabid eloquence he's almost convincing.
Beckert says he can't control his impulses, a little voice urges him to commit the irreparable acts and his body language is simply gut-wrenching when he simply can't put "words". His 'lawyer' makes a good point about the past of some accusers, whose Becket call hypocrites because they could choose to be honest, but the accusers retort that whether he's responsible or not, he's still a menace. Sure, whether their reasons are selfish or ethical is debatable but can we empathize with Beckert?
M like Modernity.
Looking at Twitter or Youtube or Facebook comments today, you can tell there's something ferocious and still on-going about mob mentality and a film like "M" could be deemed as feeble and liberal in the way it provides a tribune to a child molester, the worst possible crime.
M like Multilayered.
Yet there are some powerful truths hiding underneath the thriller, the truth about a society sick of its own contradictions, determined to impose standards of morality (white) and condemning true crimes (black) but indulgent toward activities that have no worse repercussion. That the film ends with black-clad mothers admitting their own responsibility is perhaps the most optimistic thing about "M", the sentence doesn't matter, what matters is the lesson behind... but did German learn the lesson?
Ironically, one could have seen the rise of the Nazi empire as the antidote, like Thea Von Sarbou who wrote the film and worked for the Nazi regime, other could also see it as its worst possible consecration like director Fritz Lang. That he didn't side with the criminals at the end emphasizes an intuitive comprehension of his world and allowed this film to be hailed as a true, intelligent, nightmarish and alas, premonitory masterpiece.. with M as the mark of a disillusioned genius.
M like Meditative? Mysterious? Mantic?
Interestingly, the French title is "M le Maudit", meaning the doomed one, as if Beckert was the living incarnation of a doomed society, as if there was indeed something rotten in the Weimar Republic and It wouldn't get any better after but could Fritz Lang anticipate it? Looking up his second masterpiece "M", I was wondering whether Lang reflected his own rejection of German society or cared enough to warn the audience against the impending doom of decadence.
Surely, the director behind "Metropolis" could only pinpoint with the accuracy of a soothsayer the limits of a civilization that might take its heritage for granted.