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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!
ListsAn error has ocurred. Please try again
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which one is your favorite?
Après avoir voté, vous pouvez discuter la liste ici
Which of these 28 movies released in 1982 is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Indeed, one of the many shadenfreude-driven delights of this game is the embarrassing way some blanks can be quite misleading, like in that South Park episode.
This poll is about movie titles that would be too embarrassing to read if some particular letters were missing or would inspire a rather unsuitable wrong guess.
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
(no need to tell which letters should be missing... you can figure them out by yourself... most of them at least, just use your imagination)
Two movies set in 2002, one in Sacramento and one in Toronto.
Two heart-warming coming-of-age stories about girls trying to get more confident about themselves in spite of their loving (but overbearing) mothers.
Which of the two stories, the Panda-Girl or the Lady Bird, impacted you the most?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(The anger eventually escalates toward more violence or cools down and ends with a more peaceful atmosphere.)
Based on that description, which of these memorable angry dramas would you consider the angriest?
After calmly voting, you might discuss your vote here
And as a proper tribute let's honor through her memory all TV female characters who like Lieutenant Nyota Uhura changed the TV game forever as far as representations and narratives were concerned.
Indeed, each of these heroines or female protagonists subverted a few male-driven tropes and/or shed the light on categories of people seldom shown on TV.
Which one of these trailblazing TV female characters is the most iconic?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
So, which fantasy movies with no effect (except on your heart) is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the vote here
The Father (2020)
The POV thing proves less effective on the movie than it had to be on stage...
I had a bad feeling about it when it started with Opera...
You know these kinds of jokes that rely on redundancy: "Dental plan" "Lisa needs braces" or the long introduction of the vessel in "Spaceballs", it's funny because it challenges our patience, then it stops being funny when it gets on our nerves and then it takes that extra level of length that gets it back to funny... I'm not sure this work for drama.
Take a premise that could work for a 30-minute TV theatre film, but multiply the scenes that say exactly the same thing and cast an acclaimed aging actor like Sir Anthony Hopkins, and apparently, you get a masterpiece.
Now, I just saw "The Father", the highly-acclaimed and universally praised film about a man estranged to his daughter, in fact the whole world around him and hopelessly battling the inexorable descent into dementia. It so happens that I saw it with my own father, we thought this was going to be one of these poignant family dramas with two persons coming to terms at the end, for the obligatory deathbed scene, not the peak of originality but with an actor of Hopkins' caliber, watching him waiting to catch a stout for two hours can be a sight to watch.
I wish the film was about fishing.
I like a film to subvert my expectations, to come with something new, and Anthony Hopkins gives a great performance, a magnificent one, an Oscar-worthy one and what do you know, he won it. Haing said that, the choice of portraying a dementia form the POV of the patient is interesting and revolutionary but for a play. I admire the daringness and guts of Florian Zeller to challenge and disorient spectators by putting on stage scenes that are the figments of a man's imagination.
Now, every review raves about that challenging idea and the way it allow us to feel the confusion of the poor man and being as disoriented and dizzy as he is... I agree that it's a great way to build empathy but I don't think this is the ultimate way to put ourselves in an old person's shoes or feel the ordeal of senility or Alzheimer, let alone, feel the emotional burden of the children. Since we never know who is real and who is not, it kind of defeats the purpose of empathy.
For me that's how the film lost me, when it played hard to get for the third time, it was one to me and I guess my mind was so unwilling to pursue the effort that I told my effort there was no need to go on, I know his tastes, he needs linear and straight narratives. A film can be original if there's something entertaining to sustain it but I can't see how wrapping confusion with pathos can make for a pleasant experience. If you're going to hit the sensitive chords, maybe you shouldn't make it too cerebral. A good thing there are occasional burst of humor and lightheartedness, this film at times is literally the Anthony Hopkins' show.
Now, don't get the wrong idea about my Dad, the day before, we were watching "The Hunt", one film made us talk and comment and anticipate actions. With "The Father", after the first scene, we remained silent and I know what that silence meant, we hoped that something better would come up after. It didn't. After the first scene with Anne (Olivia Colman) the daughter, comes the one with the man played by Mark Gatiss who's supposedly married with a woman played by Olivia Williams who also plays the nurse at the end. Then you have Anne's husband played by Rufus Sewell and Imogen Poots who plays the new carer but by the time we got to the slapping scene, I could feel my Dad's agony and told me that I had just read about the film, and it wouldn't get any better.
I finished the film. I tried to appreciate the performance of Hopkins and his poignant interactions with Colman (who was nominated too). I consider the scene with Poots as one of Hopkin's career's highlights especially the mood swing that terminate the smile that kept illuminating her face. But for one moments like this, we have to endure these long walk over dark corridors, these moments of sheer melancholy, this Opera music and these damn violins. Watching them and even knowing that Zeller is a respectable playwright, I was wondering why he had to exploit that stylistic choice till the end. I know it didn't prevent the film from garnering 98% of approval on Rotten Tomatoes and get on IMDb Top 250, some Youtube videos from people who've seen it more than once provide explanations.
Well, I saw the film twice and I listened to the explanation. And for me it all comes down to one question: why the mystery since we already know the answer? Why not get to the heart of the matter, which is a matter of the heart? And that's what the final scene is about, a breakdown, something deep and sincere, without any trick or artistic license. I'm at least grateful for Zeller to have made the scene that way.
As for the rest, I think people were so blinded by Anthony Hopkins' performance, that they praised the performance rather than the whole film or they were so admirative of the change of perspective that they felt like rewarding its "courage". I have an idea, next time I will shoot a movie entirely in black and black, total darkness and I will say it's a way to make you feel empathetic to the ordeal of blind people. Maybe it would work.
Speaking for myself, and I know I'm in a minority, "The Father" made it for a depressing, bleak and confusing experience. It was a drag. And even the musical choices were atrocious. I stop here, I don't want to get redundant, myself.
Madds Mikkelsen is the "hunted one"...
I'm a high school teacher and I can tell you that "The Hunt" is about a teacher's worst nightmare: a false accusation of sexual nature. Indeed, even if you're proven innocent, there's still an aftertaste of suspicion that haunts you forever, spiced up by the inevitable Gregarian instinct.
And that's the story of Lucas in Thomas Vintenberg's "The Hunt", a film set in a little Danish village where men's favorite hobbies consist of hunting, skin dipping in cold temperatures and getting drunk (orders might vary). Lucas well-integrated in that close-knit community, his best friend is Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), whom he regularly carries back to his wife (Anne Louise Hassing) after one or two glasses too many. Lucas was a teacher, after the school closed he became a kindergarten daycare employee and we first see him playing cat-and-mouse games with little boys. With the except of his patronizing ex-wife, he's still appreciated by everyone and that includes his teenage boy Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) who wishes to live with him.
The film's introduction leaves no doubt about Lucas' integrity but he does strike as little detached and reserved, a shy man, played with poignant nonchalance by Madds Mikkelsen who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes Festival. In a way, his niceness foreshadows the way he'll be easily caught by the spiral of suspicion. Some viewers might debate the narrative choice of showing Lucas' innocence, it's actually a touch that honors Vintenberg, the film wouldn't work if we had the slightest doubt about his guilt. Children IS a sensitive subject and no need to add confusion to controversy, if there's any.
Now, let's get to the heart of the matter: should children's declarations be taken at face value? Just because the film's answer is "no" in its own context doesn't make the answer obvious. Vintenberg handles his story with tactfulness and doesn't make the accuser, little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) a bad but a confused girl. She feels lonely whenever her parents argue and both she and Lucas find a mutual confort for their loneliness. She's innocent and so is Lucas who doesn't realize the danger of bonding too much with Klara. But the seemingly slow pacing leaves enough space to understand Lucas, he's not bonding with the school girl but his friend's daughter, for a man missing his son, she's family and walking back home with her and his dog brings a sense of normality. For a while.
During a fgiting game with the boys, Lucas plays dead and Klara comes and kiss her, he's obviously embarrassed and tells her that kisses are only for daddies and mommies (that wouldn't be said in 2022), later he says he can't accept a little heart she gave him. Unbeknownst to him, Klara was shown nude pictures from his brother's friends that sadly fueled her imagination with 'realistic' details when she told Lucas' boss boss Gerthe (Susse Wold) that he had inappropriate behavior. But just when his life was improving, when his wife accepted to bring Marcus and when Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) a young colleague flirted with him and became his girlfriend, the psychologist's visit seals Lucas' fate. Much worse, he asks Klara questions that provide graphic details she might not even have had in mind, making her a collateral victim of her own "trick". And even when she retracts herself, the harm is done as it's interpreted as a sign of shame.
"The Hunt" is the kind of film to be better experienced with someone, as it allows to debate on the subject without losing track on the action. And there's a catch to that, I was so involved and empathetic to Lucas' troubles that I kept asking myself "what would I do in his place?" and sometimes I wasn't in the same wavelength than the script. When Gerthe warns Lucas that "a child" accused him of "inappropriate behavior" and the wording is deliberately vague, couldn't he still guess it was about Klara? Maybe he did give his version, or told the police about the incident.. The minute he knew it was Klara, I expected him to explain the situation. I guess he did but maybe Vintenberg felt he'd fall in a trap of redundancy. Fair enough.
And so Lucas gets into persona non grata territory at exponential speed. First it's Theo who after conceding one little beer loses his nerves and pushes Lucas to the wall asking why his daughter would lie and threatening to shoot him if its true. Then it's Nadja's turn to stop trusting him, he throws her out of the house so brutally he could have worsened his case with accusation for violence. Only Marcus' trust is unshakable and so is his godfather and Lucas' friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe). And without surrendering to machismo, Vinterberg draws an interesting parallel between the overprotectiveness of motherhood and the excesses of psychologism and the straightforward attitude of men who're totally disarmed and can only face the wind. Lucas's most triumphant moment is when he embraces his martyrdom, resists the insults and head-butt the butcher.
"The Hunt" can be compared to "The Deer Hunter" but in an American film, we would have media frenzy, herds of photographers, man-hunting or lynching in a forest. Vintenberg doesn't go for such predictable thrills but we can easily spot some prophetic elements (Johnny Depp, to name one) but let's not get any further. As relevant as it is, the film leaves many loose ends, how come no one ever mentions the dirty picture? And even when the tension fades out after the emotional Christmas climax, the "one year after" feels a little like a cop-out, I found it harder to believe Lucas would still stay that close to Klara even if it's heartwarming. The final minute confirms that you never emerge unscathed from such experience and if anything I wish Lucas will do what a normal person would: leave the town.
Or maybe it's reassuring that his optimism was left intact to that point?
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids... but they'll be all right, we're in a Disney film...
The best thing about "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" is that it allowed Rick Moranis to have a career-defining role as the quirky inventor Wayne Szalinski instead of being the eternal nerdy foil to cooler-looking heroes.
And if the film did defines my childhood, it didn't hold up as other franchises such as "Back to the Future" or "Home Alone", in fact even "Look Who's Talking" holds a more special place in my heart.
The film is cute but it's a pure Disney product, family-friendly, a little inventive, warm but it doesn't live up to the expectations the title and poster generate.
Now, let's face it, in reality, if four kids were truly miniaturized the size of one tenth a screw, they would be... screwed . There is no way they would survive a giant broom sweeping them off among so many debris, pieces of glasses and whatnot and throwing them in a trash bag that certainly doesn't contain cotton balls or sponges. And even by assuming they do, the prospect of having two of them not only survive the Bee-Valkyrie ride but also reunite with the others totally defeats the purpose of the backyard being as wide as a tropical jungle.
Take the obvious ancestor of the film, the sci-fi classic "The Incredible Shrinking Man", once the hero's thrown in the basement, his fate is sealed and he can't even reach his own brother who's not too far from him. In that film every step requires a combination of physical strength and ingenuity. But had the man been put in the yard, he'd be eaten up by the first coming bug. Now, I'll put my criticism into rest, "Honey" is naturally a Disney movie, it doesn't abide by that logic and it's obvious that all kids would survive (although I read a version had one dying) but the film's problem is that it never seems to reconcile the obligatory happy ending with a certain sense of danger that is not diluted with a certain cartoonish atmosphere, a little like "The Goonies"... God forbid, it tried to be "Stand by Me".
But seriously, why is it that Disney producers didn't have the guts to allow kids to play it real for once? I doubt young people would start picking at each other or still think of their Saturday schedule when they can be crushed, eaten, drowned or buried at any time. It's a shame because half the job was done with the young talents they lined up for the film. Why would such a natural girl like Amy O'Neill be given such a 80s sitcom corny line as "she told me that he told you", do we need to know that she's the gossipy girl at school? I liked it better when she noticed that the size of the moon stayed the same (reminded me of "Shrinking")
Her brother is another archetype: the nerdy inventive kid and Daddy's proud Xerox copy, with his glasses Robert Oliveri as Nick can make a very convincing Rick Morani's Jr. Nothing bad to say about the two others except that they're obviously meant to spice up the interactions with the Zsalinskis, "Little Russ" (Thomas Wilson Brown) a a potential love interest to Amy, and Ron (Jared Ruhston) as the cool sporty kid, the anti-Nick.
I appreciate the writers' efforts to polish things with some subplots: Little Russ trying to make proud his father "Big Russ" (Matt Frewer) while that should be the least of one's concerns if he's downsized the side of his father's toenail. I wish they could have found more material for the journey, once they get in the backyard, it's pretty much an adventure in the jungle, not boring but 'meh'. The special effects are convincing but I'm sorry I'm not sure ants emit sounds and if they do, did they have to make them so horrifying and specify that the ant who was mortally stung was a baby one. If you're going to have a tear-jerking, make sure there's an avalanche of gags to make up for the tears.
But the comedy doesn't work, for all his likability and goofiness, much of the gags involving Rick Moranis can be counted with one hand's fingers, his rivalry with "Big Russ" falls flat and as the long-suffering wife Diane, Marcia Strassman does her best although she has to be given that 'fainting' cross-eyed bit I swear every 80s film had to throw. Very funny. The contraption used by Wayne and Diane to find the kids (supposedly one of the film's memorable images) is perplexing, surely he could come up with better: a giant magnifying glass? An ultra-sound device? Would he really sleep in such a life-and-death situation?
It all comes down to the one overdue iconic moment with Nick falling in the bowl of Cheerios and shouting "Don't Eat Me!", that's what the film was begging for, something trivial, domestic, over the top, but relatable, in fact making the whole film set in the yard kind of make it boring. At least in "Shrinking" things of the everyday life made for props, but I guess Disney producers couldn't find ideas with kids being put in a room full of toys for instance? I remember when I discovered it the first time, it was disappointment. I saw it to my daughter, and she found it a little 'meh' and that best describes it.
The same year, "Back to the Future Part II" was made and I didn't like the 2015 part but it set up the rest of the film and that sums up my criticism with this film, it should have been goofy enough to set up a real plot with more realistic kids or funnier situations or some that don't seem retread from adventure in a jungle.
It's still a little sci-fi classic and watching the sequel made me like it a little more.
Remember the Titans (2000)
The Team with a Titanic Legacy...
Julius Campbell (Wood Harris), one of the black players of the T. C. Williams High School's football team, wanders in the WASP suburban neighborhood of Alexandria (Virginia). A police car pulls over, the window rolls down revealing an officer with the kind of stern look that makes us expect a line such as "are you lost, boy?". Instead, the cop congratulates Julius for the last game" calling it he best he'd ever seen. Not only is Julius relieved but he's so enthused by that warm display of support than when he meets the mother of the team's captain, his buddy Gerry Bertier (Ryan Hurst), he embraces her and lifts her as if if she was part of his own family. No matter how prefabricated they feel, never underestimate the satisfactory effect of small little moments like this one. In fact, that scene was so satisfying that I was willing to be manipulated.
That moment encapsulates the spirit of "Remember the Titans", not a film about a series of victories but one big victory over prejudice and racism, with the first American "mixed" football team trained and managed by Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) in 1971, when civil rights matters were still debated on the streets with signs or batons. And now that we live in a time where Hollywood and Netflix feeds us with polarizing antiracist films, I was pleasantly surprised by how moderate "Titans" was. Sure the boys are antagonized and you have several episodes that showcase how tough these times were: ,they're refused the access to a bar, Gerry's girlfriend played by Kate Bosworth refuses to shakes hands with Julius and a brick is thrown at Boone's house but it's obvious that the overall attention was on the positive stuff.
If the film was made today, it would have been shamelessly overdramatized: an athlete being beaten up by racist thugs, a monologue about a grandfather being lynched by the Organization. Hell it's even possible that the kiss from Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass (Kip Pardue) would have gotten more significance and he wouldn't be thrown out of the bar just because he's a 'hippie'. But "Remember the Titans" isn't a history session about racism nor a film that desperately tries to be relevant, in fact, it's less about the teammates overcoming racism than the two coaches trying to overcome their professional differences. And that's the best thing about it: it's got two compelling and realistic characters in Boone and Bill Yoast (Will Patton). Here are two men who are equally competent, share the same passion for football and have legit reasons not to get along first and even more legit reasons to stick together.
Boone is frustrated not to have had his efforts rewarded by the position he sought for years and the new assignment as a head coach actually puts Yoast in a similar situation. However Boone realizes the new responsibility he's given and what it represents for his community, so he asks Yoast to be his assistant. If Yoast listened to his pride, he would boycott the new team but then 'his' boys would lose their chances to get scholarships. He accepts the new offer when he sees that Boone has a fair approach to the game and will not just favor 'his own'. Boone also has priority, he knows a defeat won't be permitted and Yoast discovers the politics beneath Boone's assignment and the two men are given occasions to show support and solidarity for each other.
Had the film tried to make one a hero and another an antagonist, it would have failed. And just when you think Yoast has a better diplomatic approach than his partner, you have Boone telling him that he's unconsciously patronizing and at least he's a mean SOB to everybody. It's for these subtle touches that the film is more than your inspirational feel-good crowd-pleaser. Maybe it all comes down to having Denzel Washington and Will Patton first and sticking to formula with some standout moments like the speech at the Gettysburg Civil War cemetery and some fun scenes that involve the supporting cast, another good thing about the film. The training session is one awesome moment after another.
Ethan Suplee as Louie Lastik, is the first to eat with the black players because he has no 'people', he's immediately accepted. Seriously, who'd believe this is the same who played the hateful Seth in "American History X"? Craig Kirkwood makes for a nice "Rev" and Donald Faison is responsible for the funniest moment of the film: when he keeps raising his fist until Boone confronts him, telling him this is no "Black power" thing and the interaction with the 'fun' word has the comical timing of "Who's On First?" with Denzel Washington channelling Clint Eastwood in "Heartbreak Ridge". Honorable mention to a young babyfaced Ryan Gosling dancing in the locker and a funny session of "Yo Mama" jokes that shows male bonding at its finest.
Hayden Pannetiere steals the show as a little tomboy who breathes football like a certified bookmaker while Boone's daughter would dodge a basketball because she made her nails and insists she doesn't play dolls but accessorize them. To each her own. And Burgess Jenkins is given the thankless role of the only player who doesn't go along with the rest of the team, forcing his best friend Gerry to 'take a decision'. I liked Gerry a lot, his evolution, his personality, his friendship with Julius that overarches the whole story. Now, I'm no football expert (to give you the idea, I call soccer 'football') and so I didn't see coming that event that changed his life, a very short life actually but what a legacy, if anything he was the Titan!
Of course, Boaz Yakin's film is full of triumphant sports moments, races around the clock, and decisive blitz-like offensive actions served by powerful last-minute speeches but like "Rudy", the best part don't involve football, but the very spirit that sports can infuse in people's minds.
Noble intentions but director Lemmons was in awe of her central character while seeming bored by the prospect of making a true cinematic homage...
The woman named "Harriet" is such an extraordinary historical figure that I would almost blame director Kasi Lemmons for making her story so formulaic, a depressingly linear and uneventful as if it was made out of a pitch delivered by a 6th grader... coached by a feminist teacher. Well, if anything "Harriet" made me want to know more about the real Harriet Taubman, or Araminta "Minty" Ross as she was called during her slave years in Maryland circa 1849.
As a slave, she belonged to the Brodess family and ran hundreds of miles for freedom until she reached Philadelphia. What makes her escape interesting is the motivation: it wasn't about a cause but an injustice. The opening scene shows the master negating the right of Minty's family to be free and to add insult to injury, tears up the lawyer's document at the face of Minty (Cynthia Erivo) her father (Clarke Peters) and mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway). The gesture that doesn't bring him him luck: cursed by Minty, he dies soon after, leaving his son Gideon (Joe Alwyn) the sole heir.
That Gideon developed a sort of love-and-hate relationship toward Harriet that is not without reminding Amon Goeth's strange attraction to Helen Hirsh in "Schindler's List". But he's disturbing without that eerie magnetism that makes him look capable to be of a real threat, compared to his mother (or stepmother) played in all hysterical venom by Jennifer Nettles, Gideon is a real wimp. Anyway, Minty escapes and the first escape alone would have been good material for a movie: a frail little woman willing to go through the wilderness.
I wish I could really watch that fugitive woman crossing hostile territories at night, imagine the cinematography, watching the menacing shadows of white slave-owners, night creatures, swamps, moving sands and what not. Imagine her sneaking her way from one danger to another. But Lemmons, who wrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard wasn't interested in making "The Revenant" or "The Defiant Ones". So fundamentally blinded by Harriet's aura, she seems incapable to make up her mind on the best part to highlight: the first escape, the second one where she came back to rescue other slaves or that she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during the Civil War.
Lemmons compacts everything into a two-hour format without any particular momentum. Some critics pointed out the sort of divine providence a la Joan of Arc governing Harriet's actions, that sort of diminishes the significance of her exploits. However, I find it more problematic when these aspects were thrown as character-defining traits without being used for some meditative moments. Make this a spiritual journey with some moments of silence, of communion between Harriett and the surrounding nature, something à la Terrence Malick. Cynthia Erivo is actually good as the woman who might not be aware of her own power but in the film she comes across as a badass guide.
And everything is effortless and the escape looks like a walk in the park. Even that scene where she's cornered on that bridge and I expected something like Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive" but Gideon's had ten times the time to grab her but doesn't because the script requires it. So she jumps and before we know it, she's ashore and just like that, she comes to Philadelphia where she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) a Philadelphia abolitionist, and she lodges in a boarding house belonging to Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). The two become friends but everything goes as quickly as a TV previous episode episode summary. One ellipse again later and Harriet's initiation is completed.
And as if it wasn't frustrating enough, the film started flirting with caricature with the new trend of men having to be portrayed as either vile, or or uncooperative or plain cowards. Let's see, she begs Williams to help her bring her family back, and he seems reluctant. It's Minty (now Harriet) who comes back home alone, only to find that her husband Zackary Momoh is married, with a child. During the second travel, one disputes her authority, needless to say that she immediately puts him in her place. There's slave hunter Bigger Long (Omar Dorsey) who's not only a traitor to his community but is shown beating and killing a woman. There's even a moment where Harriet castigates Frederick Douglas' himself (Tory Kittles) for being too soft.
Ultimately she kills the Big Bad and has a final confrontation with Gideon where she tells him that slavery is bad and meant to disappear. So much for the character study, today's audiences aren't worthy of complexity and once again we're being spoonfed with a lecture about racism. That's how superficial the whole thing feels. "Harriet" is a curriculum vitae that honors her actions, that earned her the nickname of "Moses" but as if it kept her wrapped in her prophet-like reputation, she treats the other characters without any substance. In fact, the others only exist for highlighting the nobility of Harriett.
There are a few redeeming qualities on a pure informative value, reminding that slavery wasn't just about the South, that things get complicated when the Fugitive Slave Act passed, allowing the slave owners to bring back the escaped, not to mention the remarkable achievement of Harriet. But it's just as if the director was so in awe of her achievement that she figured it would catch up with the Academy in a time where such biopics have gone from necessary to obligatory. Still, such a remarkable person needed a remarkable movie, not something that looks like a low-budget TV movie.
In fact, the TV series version of 1978 looked better.
The Square (2017)
Does art reflect life or is it people's reactions to it?
There is a great deal of comedy in Ruben Östlund's Palme D'Or winner "The Square" but the situations are never so funny that you'll feel a relief from the act of laughing. Indeed, behind every chuckle, there's a nervous breath you're trying to catch.
For instance, when an interview with a famous artist played by Dominic West is constantly interrupted by bursts from a man suffering of Tourelle syndrome, you don't laugh at the sickman man, but the degree of civilizedness that lets the situations drag for so long it compromises the interview and aggravates the man's state.
There are also elements of satire but just when the film seems to linger on safe intellectualism, random events come to challenge our certitudes.
In a universe where a man (Terry Notary) emulating a monkey is regarded as a work of art, we're never too sure that we're supposed to laugh at something or nod with a solemn look as if we were among those who got it.
That's the key question: are we part of the joke or are we the target?
I've seen movies that defy categorization, but "The Square" left me certain that it was totally on purpose. It's just as if director and writer Ruben Östlund feared that having a genre tagged on his creation would lessen its effect, rather than guide us toward it. Doing so, he separates himself from his main character Christian (Claes Bang) who's a museum curator. Östlund, he is the creator.
One sheds the light on works of art, and one uses art to enlighten.
But things aren't all black-and-white and as he indirectly pinpoints it in the film's opening interview with the journalist played by Elizabeth Moss: does an object become a work of art just because you place it on a museum? Her confusion speaks thousand words, she's got too much reverence for art to question it.
Still, perceptions from the public are as integral to the art than the creation itself and the question is: how much trust should be put on the artistic proecess: from the creation to the publicity.
Maybe surrendering to one 'genre' would have defeated the purpose of Ostlund who doesn't make a free movie as much as he makes a film leaving the viewer free of his or her own reactions.
And so we can pluck in that mess of bizarre (but deliberate awkwardness) the central questions about men and art and the web of contradictions ensued from the fact that art is an individual work aiming the collectivity while our post-modern societies that hyperbolized the individual.
It all comes down to a centerpiece named "The Square" that is supposed to be the sanctuary for altruism and humanity and yet is lost within the whole cacophony generated by the polemics around its teaser, featuring a crying little girl. Talk about the superficial muffling the essential.
There's also a large subplot about Christian trying to retrieve his wallet and phone by placing threatening messages in every apartment of the building where his phone has been localized. He dares put a message in each door in every single floor, which goes to show you the level of energy we're able to dedicate when it comes to our belongings.
The scene ends with his friend Michael (Christopher Laesso) sweating his ass off waiting inside a Tesla that looks like a trouble-bait in that neighborhood although he promised he would be the one to put the letters. Christian emerges from the experience exhilarated, Michael is disgusted by his own cowardice.
Perhaps the film's overrarching theme is men's individual involvement or eargeness to help. Maybe the less sincere it is, the less likely it is to backfire. When Christian offers a sandwich to a Romani girl, she asks 'without onions'. Christian is baffled, if he expected gratitude, was his altruism that genuine?
"The Square", despite being the eponymous oeuvre and a hymn for universal tolerance is quite secondary because Ostlund's preoccupation is the present world and seriously, who would let strangers care for your children in today's world? The film is less about the square than about people's indifference mirroring its irrelevance. It's not art that reflects our life but people's reactions.
Take the signature ape scene. People are mildly amused or blasé by the man emulating a scene. They're all blasé, admiring the performance and like usual spectators, not too eager to be approached. Dominic West is playing the game but when his patience is at end, Christian can't stop the show and it gets out of the hand. Only after the ape-man crosses the line (by dragging a young woman) that the bystander's syndrome show its limit.
The ape performance and the ad with the little girl crying are the 'creations' that generated the most passionate emotions. Why didn't men react sooner when the ape started cuddling the woman's hair? Why are journalists complaining that the little child is blonde? Or why do they criticize Christian's apology as an act against freedom of expression given their dislike for the work?
It is possible that "The Square" is a pious wish, an utopia, more of a diagnosis of a syndrome of intellectual malfunction than a a real arena for peace and sincerity. Art is so entitled that it feels like the only way to denounce the individualism of modern society but it's possible that Ostund took the step further by actually denouncing the way art can manipulate its people and highlight their naivety.
There's something remarkably intelligent in the treatment of art, so strong that I was less sure about the family moments of some awkward interactions with Moss, it's possible that "The Square" would lose its audience with moments that seem irrelevant or pointless or patchy, and yet because it's well done on a pure artistic level, we want to trust "The Square".
Maybe because denouncing hacks is the best way to look sincere...
Crimson Tide (1995)
Launching a nuclear missile is like tango, it takes two to do it...
There's something about submarine war films and I don't know what it is. Maybe the claustrophobic feeling, the invisibility of the enemy or the psychological battles arising from within, it's like POW films where soldiers are prisoners of their own sides. Whatever it is, the very setting of the U-boat enhances the usual thrills of the military genre and in a very short span of time, the three classics were made: Wolfgang Petersen's "Das Boot", John McTiernan's "Hunt for Red October" and finally "Crimson Tide" from "Top Gun"'s director Tony Scott.
I suspect in today's political climate, the perspective of a war with Russia is no longer inconceivable. Youtube commentators laughed at the expositional newsreel clip, watching it in 2022, I think we can credit for its prophetic resonance the script written by Michael Schiffer (from a story by Richard P. Henrick). And there's another aspect to compliment in the story, despite the whole "Tom Clancy" feel, this is more the study of two schools of decision-making, clashing at the worst possible time.
At the top of the chain of command, you have Captain Frank Ramsey (CO for Commanding Officer), he's charismatic, headstrong, but in the Old West, he'd be the kind of sheriff to shoot first and ask questions later. Still there's something about him, his commanding smile, his cap or the Jack Russell pet he harbors as if he was Caligula's horse that evokes a sort of modern-day Patton. Second-in-command is less colorful but as competent Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, Executive Officer (XO) and played by Denzel Washington.
Making Ramsey a villain would have been a waste of character and I appreciate the way the first dialogues progressively unveil layers of their personalities and differences soon to become irreconcilable. The first interactions between Ramsey and Hunter are delightful, Ramsey uses his friendliness to scan Hunter's personality and you can tell that he respects but doesn't like him, or at least what he represents: the intellectual and analytical type, put it simply, the wuss. During the famous sunset scene before the immersion, he tells him that he hates eggheads, gives one or two advice that resonate like warnings, and shares a cigar like a peace pipe before the war.
And it's precisely war talk that brings the first elements of discord, Hunter says that bombing Hiroshima and Nagazaki might not have been his decisions, but knows how to dodge the question by saying if he didn't believe it was a right thing, he wouldn't be there. By calling his bluff, Ramsey also reveals more about himself. He believes that a radical solution can bring peace more quickly than peace itself and perhaps as a Patton, he believes that one should make the other guy die for his country. Except that this time, victims can be civilian and war means nuclear annihilation. Hunter might be too cautious but Ramsey is out of touch.
The animosity grows with Ramsey's decision to order a missile drill during a galley fire (resulting in one officer's heart attack). Ramsey deplores the death but believes confusion can be a good additional element to test his men who surely deserve a kick in the ass. Hunter is more of the pat-on-the-back school but as Ramsey points it out while patting his dog "we're here to preserve democracy, not practice it" (a terrific line, by the way). He's basically asking Hunter to share his opinion in private because dissonance in the chain of command can have worse effects than a torpedo.
Still, history's actually proven that the two-men decisional protocol is the best because it preserved worldwide peace in 1962. History buffs are familiar with the name of of Vasily Arkhipov, the man who could with a simple approval authorize the launching of a missile at the climax of the Cuban crisis. Why isn't his name as famous as Neil Armstrong or Kennedy? Maybe because war is more palpable than peace and while we're always sure about those who start or stop conflict, we never care about those who prevent them.
"Crimson Tide" reminds the viewer the stakes: striking a preemptive launch over an enemy like Russia is basically asking the remaining half to destroy America. It's such a lose-lose situation the paradox is that you never know whether the nuclear is humanity's worst invention or its salutary grace. And so the equation is simple: two messages: one ordering the launch, and a second incomplete because of radio damages. Could be a retraction? Could be not? Ramsey believes that the protocol commands to follow the last official message, Hunter's position echoes Juror 8 in "12 Angry Men": "a testimony that should put a man to electric chair must be that accurate".
Tension arise and mutiny ensues with officers choosing their sides; you have George Dzundza as Chief of the Boat (COB), Matt Craven, a young Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini. Their titles don't matter as much as the roles played by these men in the "mutiny"and their choices reflect a certain idea of human unpredictability, sometimes you'd find a precious ally in a person who despises you and a friend might be the one to stab you in the back.
Whether "Crimson Tide" is the best submarine film or not is a matter of interpretation. I believe there is one or two unfortunate missteps that compromises the title: when Ramsey threatens to kill an officer. The scene works dramatically but given the conclusion that was kept on the side, it is downright impossible that Ramsey would get away with a simple disapproval from the Admiral played by Jason Robards.
Apart from that, "Crimson Tide" is a classic, having achieved a higher pop-culture status than both "Das Boot" and "Red October" thanks to Hans Zimmer's synthetiser's score and "The Simpsons". Who can forget the "In the Navy" sequence or the 'Soviet Union' renaissance that became part of "The Simpsons Predicted It" lineup... let's just zope there will never be a nucu-lar war.
The Wednesday Play: In Two Minds (1967)
Not as narratively fluid as "Cathy Come Home" but no less effective and intense at parts...
It's very telling when the most cheerful part of Ken Loach's "In Two Minds" happens to be the upbeat music of "The Wednesday Play" intro. After that it's all downhill.
"In Two Minds" is a film about anxiety of the worst kind, one whose early symptoms were caused by the very people that are supposed to bring the remedies: love, comfort and understanding. Again Ken Loach knows how to start his movies, by a simple close-up on Kate Winter (Anna Cropper) who's speaking about her personality disorder, referring to a 'she' that is her mother and trying to articulate her thoughts.
There's a lot of talk in the film being a docudrama made of multiple interviews, but in the case of Kate, contrarily to the other speaking persons, it's not what she says that counts but the way she delivers it. The first thirty seconds shows her trying to process her thoughts about her mother and just when it makes sense (a little), a voice-over coming from her father starts covering her word as if it didn't matter whatever she'd say. Loach shows the conflicting parallel between the serenity of the man's voice and the escalating angst in Kate's voice. And in a masterstroke of timing exactitude, once the narration stops, Kate's gibberish is interrupted by a scream of terror that abruptly cuts to the father's interview.
For all I know, maybe the cut wasn't intentional but the effect haunted me for real and became one of my most memorable Loach moments. (You can find the film on Youtube check the first minute and you'll see what I mean) As an opening, it sets the tone, doesn't try to sugarcoat the horror and establishes the huge wall of incomprehension between the parents and their daughter. There's something about the incapability to go on rationalizing what you're going through and simply giving up and letting a simple organic cry speaks more words than any monologue would ever express. Ken Loach knows how to not to overuse these bursts of hysteria and so "In Two Minds" in less an exercice in voyeuristic sensationalism but a harrowing examination of the way a woman's personality has totally disintegrated because of parental pressure.
The parents constitue the worst case of persons being responsible for a tragedy and yet totally in denial. Mrs. Winter (Helen Booth) especially is quite striking, she knows how to trick the interviewer and dodge the difficult questions: about alcohol. Is the dad allowed to drink? Yes, he's a man. Does he get drunk? She could just say "no, he doesn't" (which we would believe given the father's type) but in a very defensive tone, she looks straight at the camera and insist on every syllable that 'no one drinks in the family", so it's obvious that she cares about the talk of the town, and sees the interview as an opportunity to clear her name than defend her daughter.
Mr. Winter (George A. Cooper) is an illustration of the henpecked husband so busy focussing on his daughter's "bad manners" toward her mother that he's incapable to realize the damages inflicted by his own wide. The film was made in 1968 and it's obvious the parents are from a sort of war-generation, with ideas and principles in contradiction with the evolution of society. Having lost the ability to change, they programmed their daughter not to change and conform to their own beings, it's interesting that the mother totally rebukes the word 'abortion' while she's obviously the one who convinced Kate to resort to it. Once we know what it's all about and we have a glimpse on the boyfriend, it's easy to put two and two together and separate Kate's two minds apart.
Loach remade the film in 1971, it was titled "Family Life" and in many ways it is a better film. But I can see why. The family members are more nuanced and have moments of apparent kindness. The scene with the sister is also one of the best in Ken Loach' filmography and is treated with more narrative density than the 1967 film. And as I said, there are times where the black-and-white gets too clinical and horrific and it gives a very unsettling feeling, it insists on the nightmarish aspect and makes it rather unpleasant to watch. It worked with "Cathy Come Home" because the film didn't get 'dramatic' until the middle act and they were truly happy moments.
I said in the first paragraph that the intro was the happiest part, I was partially right. If the ending credits doesn't leave much for optimism, there's still a thin light of hope from the questions asked by the medical students: asking finally the real questions about the parents' responsibility (the questions are intersected with the credits), that part wasn't kept in the remake. I wonder why.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Not just born in the wrong body but in the wrong place, too...
In a way, watching "Boys Don't Cry" in 2022 is like watching "In The Heat of the Night" in 1990: you can measure the progress we've made and the price it cost. I could have compared Kimberley Peirce's debut film to "Milk" but Gus Van Sant told the story 30 years after the actual events. However "Boys Don't Cry" was made in 1999, six years after the real-life events took place.
And take it from someone who lived that time, people like Brandon Teena were still looked at as typical 'trapped in the wrong body" syndromes, subjects of our sorrow like wheelchair-bound people. The most tolerant among us comforted our minds with thoughts such as "it's not their fault". If the film isn't a masterpiece of directing, its most remarkable aspect (besides the acting) is how it never patronizes viewers by begging them to pity Brandon. On that level, the script written by Peirce and Andy Bienen has aged quite well.
But not pitying him for his condition doesn't prevent us from feeling sorry for his ordeals once his identity is revealed. Mind that I carefully use the word 'identity' expecting readers from 2022 to get the point. In 1993, Brandon Teena was considered Teena Brandon no matter how strongly he felt as a man. That's the soul of the dilemma: Brandon is not a lesbian because he's attracted to what he regards as members of the opposite sex. And being with a girl awakens his masculine side as instantly when he hangs out with boys, have a beer, and do 'dudes' stuff. It's not much an act than the necessity of hiding what can't be hidden yet. It's one thing to pretend you can't grow a beard, but it's even tougher to pretend to relieve your bladder in the standing position.
Let's put it straight -no pun intended- the performance of Hillary Swank was the make-it or break-it of the film. As Brandon, she (the actress) never overplays the masculinity but rather goes for the natural awkwardness of a kid trying to act like a man, not because he feels less of a man but because it so happens that the film is set in a part of America whose history with gays isn't exactly Golden Age material. Brandon's cousin (Matt McGrath) refers to it as the place where they hang them and that he refers to his own group with a derogatory term emphasizes the existential motto of the community back then: keeping a low profile, which Brandon doesn't.
The character of Lonny was essential to provide some backstory about Brandon, we learn that he's expected to be put in a hospital and that he's trying to get money for a sex-change operation. It all seems all over the place and the devices used by Brandon a bit extreme but judging him would be a dangerous move without the proper contextualization. We're in 1993. It's a time and place where lesbianism was ill-regarded, let alone transgenderism. Paradoxically, Brandon's condition might also be the reason of his success with girls, so used to the macho type that they did appreciate his sensitivity. Some would say Brandon would know how to please a girl because it brings up his feminine side. I'm not sure we're being controversial because Brandon never denied being born a girl.
But he does get a state of grace as a man, being accepted in a circle, composed of John (Peter Sarsgaard) and his friend Tom (Brendan Sexton III). The two are ex-convicts, drink beer, engage in bar brawls and 'fight the power', they're the epitome of 'bad boy' masculinity and accept Brandon as 'one of them'. What's more, Brando catches the eye of Candace (Alicia Goranson from "Roseanne)) and finally falls in love with Lana (Chloë Sevigny), John's ex-girlfriend. I guess it's fair to say that she found something 'different' and intriguing in Brandon, acknowledging he's not the 'big guy' type (John called him a wuss) but her performance never suggests anything but tender and well-guided curiosity. And the sex scene in that case aren't gratuitous, nor is the apparent confusion in Lana's eyes driven by suspicion.
In fact even Lana's mother (Jeannette Arnette) takes a long pause to examine Brandon's face and finds him incredibly handsome. It's all a matter of perception, once she knows the 'truth', she reveals her own ugly side. The film is the least likely to restore sympathy toward a certain bigoted population of America but these are facts we're dealing with. Once they knew what it's all about, it's not only homophobia (in their minds, but actually transphobia) doubled by the resentment of having been fooled by Brandon. Indeed, Brandon's tricks to conceal his 'sexual identity crisis' (as he calls it) through false driving licenses ultimately backfires, putting him in a woman's jail and starting the tragic escalation.
I've seen horrific rapes in film but perhaps the most atrocious aspect of the one in "Boys Don't Cry" is the way the two rapists acted all friendly after that, believing they acted right by punishing a liar, the sense of total self-denial is beyond words and the following interrogation with Sheriff Laux and his questions he asks... well, it chilled my blood listening to these "questions". As for what ensues from the rape's aftermath, let's just say I'm not ready to watch "Boys Don't Cry" any sooner.
This is the story of a crime that made a martyr out of a person who's got thousands of self-declared counterparts today. The title was inspired by 'The Cure' song dealing with the necessity (?) of guys to cope with heartbreaks without shedding a tear. I guess that song reflects Brandon's story in the sense that he was forced to pretend what he didn't feel like pretending. The problem was with the place he lived in, one programmed with bigotry.
That is indeed Brandon's tragedy: born in the wrong body AND in the wrong place...
Western buff, if that film isn't your huckleberry, I don't know what it is...
Truth be told, folks, I have no excuse for "Tombstone".
I first heard about it in '94.
I knew the film's reputation as one of the best Westerns after Sergio with a cast ringing like a who's-who of all the defining male faces of the 90s, like "Heat" for the crime genre.
Not only that but I'm among these Western buffs and I happen to know a little about thewhole Earps vs. Clantons feud culminating at O. K. Corrall. I've seen the Douglas and Lancaster version, John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" and even the feeble Kevin Costner version.
Finally I noticed that George Costamos' film was in every single "First Time Watching" videos (you know that recent Youtube trend).
Why it took me so long to satisfy my curiosity I don't know. But just like the recently discovered "Rio Bravo", whatever I long for in a western: male bonding, posses, powerful arcs, shootouts, romance, romanticism and 'end of an era' undertones, "Tombstone" WAS my huckleberry.
The film isn't perfect but it's not about the flaws than the way it rises above them. Like "Young Guns", it sweeps its own incoherences off with such bravado that criticizing them would be like accusing someone to cheat when you have the upper hand. But for the sake of objectivity, let's get critical.
There's a scene where Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) leaves the place after his brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) was injured and two minutes later is seen playing pool before being shot. Editing-wise, it doesn't really work. I also wish the character of opium-addicted Mattie (Dana Wheleer-Nicholson) got further development. Now, one is a matter of debate: during a shootout, Wyatt (Kurt Russell) runs through the enemy fire without getting a single bullet. This scene is the height of improbability, but who said it was incompatible with awesomeness?
Now, let's get back to the good stuff, pretty much everything else.
In the late 18th century, "Tombstone" became the furthest limit of the conquest of the west, the arena where civilization and barbarity met for the ultimate duel, the symbolic spot where violence had its ugliest ambassadors buried. In an opening sequence using early black-and-white Western footage, a narration from Robert Mitchum mentions the Red Sach Band named 'Cowboys' as one of first crime organizations in America. Their leaders were "Curly Bill" Brocius (Powers Boothe) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn).
When the Cowboys turn a wedding celebration in Mexico into a bloody massacre, symbolism couldn't have been more eloquent. Cowboys have no ethics whatsoever, being to the West what the Huns were to civilization, spreading their own law (or lack thereof) through mindless violence. On the other side, you had' townspeople, settlers, those with interests to protect, it's no coincidence that the first thing the Earps do at Tombstone is open a business, or that Wyatt (Kurt Russell sporting the only mustache to rival Elliott's) hits back a man who was hitting his horse. This is civilization speaking, settlers vs nomads, settlers who would respect their animals.
But it's no tender foot Wyatt is setting at Tombstone, he knows it's a place where it takes a little more than a badge to sing the Gospels of Law (and the old marshal played by Harry Carey doesn't seem to possess the makings of a ruthless lawman). But Wyatt knows when to show his teeth and call a bully's bluff. In one of the film's best scenes, he shuts Bob Thornton down after three slaps and one-liners that I'm sure Eastwood would have loved to deliver. Just like that, he gets a business. You can't make it in the Old West by playing Mr.-Nice-Guy and with hell-raisers as rivals, you've got to remind them that hell might be coming with you as well.
It's a truly Darwinian world, where at any point in his life, a man must show what he's got. On that level, the 'right stuff' is fully embodied by the eccentric and dandy-looking Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer... simply his greatest role. Oscar-worthy. Every line he says is an item of cinematic memorabilia. Now, this is a man dying of tuberculosis, with the utmost respect for Wyatt Earp, and so when his friend is the target of provocations, Doc is more than happy to 'oblige' the bad guys by retorting. Whatever it is: death wish or friendship, it gives him the edge.
It's interesting that the Cowboys aren't all trigger-happy blood-thirsty savages, Johnny Ringo is clearly intimidated by Doc. Billy Clanton (Thomas Haden Church) is all talk, too and when his brother Ike (Stephen Lang) threatens the Earps who are clearly outnumbered, Wyatt points his gun on his forehead and promises that no matter what, he'll die first. He can tell he doesn't bluff.
In that symphony of threats and bullets, the film leave some room for a romance between Wyatt and theatre actress Josephine (Dana Delany). Their courtship could have been made of banality but Josephine knows what she's looking even if it's not "ladylike". She also knows that a woman must rise above the manners of her gender to get what she wants. She dares ask a disoriented Wyatt "what are your dreams?" "are you happy" and the last time I was so hooked by a romantic dialogue was John Wayne and Angie Dickinson in "Rio Bravo".
But besides the romance and the whole vendetta ride between the Cowboys and Earps' posse, the friendship with Doc is what made the film. This is one hell of a bromance that will get even the most hardened heart melt, and Kilmer's performance is integral to it. With bloodthirsty and perpetually angry enemies like Ringo, the survival of civilization depended on the fittest to embrace it and the quickest to draw. Doc and Wyatt had it, minus the health for Doc. And if it's a foregone conclusion that Wyatt would triumph, what he offered wasn't the legend but the narrative that allowed cinema to romanticize the genre.
Hey, the good guys won, didn't they?
Blown Away (1994)
Tommy Lee Jones pushing the 'mad bomber' trope up to 11...
On the paper "Blown Away" sounds like the action thriller that would live up to its title. Everything's there: the bomb squad expert keeping his cool even when the place is three seconds away from turning into a Jackson-Pollock-like representation, the family man with a painful secret, the mad bomber and former nemesis back with a vengeance, and so many elaborate devices creating bombs out of the most mundane objects. The film toys with many elements of plausibility but I had no problem believing that men like Ryan Gaerity (Tommy Lee Jones) existed who could create bombs out of chocolate powder, vinegar, a vacuum hose and a toothpick.
Add to that Boston as the backdrop, several references to Irish culture and a terrific cast that includes (besides Jones) Jeff Bridges as Lieutenant Jimmy Dove (or so everyone thought), his uncle O'Bannon played by his father Lloyd Bridges, Suzy Amis as the future wife and Forest Whitaker who can steal the show with one drop of his sweat. Granted the film wouldn't have been a masterpiece of originality and couldn't do without common tropes of the bomb films, it's quite sad that director Stephen Hopkins left such a high-potential story at the mercy of so many tired clichés: the climactic car race, the melee fight, the dramatic "Nooo!", the past resurrecting when the cop is about to retire (a nod to "High Noon" that starred Daddy Bridges?) and the most misused one: the psychopathic villain.
To tell you what's wrong, let me share an early memory. As I mentioned in many reviews, I used to watch action films with my Dad when they aired on Sunday nights. We were an easy audience, for as long as good action sequences and interesting characters were displayed, we didn't feel like playing critics; we saw "Blown Away" in 1996 and couldn't care less whether the film was better or worse than "Speed". And then came the part where Ryan, having snuck into Jimmy's house, starts jumping on the daughter's bed, manically laughing at the idea that the universe started by an explosion. My father who seemed to be receptive all along said "now, he's trying to play the maniac, it doesn't work". That commentary hit a chord and made me stop looking at the film seriously, not the villain anyway. Watching it again, I've got to say: Dad was right.
Tommy Lee Jones is a terrific actor but with a slight tendency to ham it up. While it worked for his character in "Under Siege", a film that had elements of pop corn comedy à la "Die Hard" and that was calling for an over-the-top villain, channelling the same personality in "Blown Away" creates a stark contrast with the serious burden he carries, and that should justify his grudge against Jimmy. It's a film about Ireland, about past memories, terrorism and so that comedic angle from Jones is both misguided and counter-productive.
The film was often compared with "Speed" but I found a stronger kinship with "Patriot Games", especially the way they insisted on Ryan being too crazy for IRA. Now, I'm not a big fan of the whole madness/vengeance angle to being with, as it makes the adversity so straightforward and gratuitous no room is left for any sympathy toward the bad guy (at least in "Patriot Games", we see Sean Bean's brother dying). "Blown Away" doesn't make the slightest effort whatsoever to make us feel a little for Ryan, except maybe during one specific scene where he shares a pint of Guinness with Lloyd Bridges, for some reason that little Irish bond has an air of authenticity... not that it lasted though.
The rest of the film is an alternate source of enjoyment and frustration. Jimmy's establishing moment consists of defusing a bomb placed in a computer and forcing a female student to keep typing and typing, which is good. Jimmy cuts the right cable one remaining byte away from the explosion, which is laughably cliché. Another scene where he tries to desperately prevent a huge explosion should have been a dramatic highlight, alas it did struck me as a rip-off of John McClane trying to prevent the Windsor plane to crash in "Die Hard 2". Other moments work perfectly, when Franklin (Whitaker) has a bomb placed in his headphone, and a squad member freaks out when he remembers his horoscope. By the way, the chemistry between Bridges and Whitaker almost equals Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon 2".
The 'private life' part is effective, too. Suzy Amis as Kate Dove has some good moments with Stephi Lineburg as the daughter although the film once again exploits the family element by using tropes from other movies. Just like in "Patriotic Games", you get some strong "Fatal Attraction" vibes and you know you've got to worry for the pet animal when there's a psycho stalking a good family. These clichés do interfere with the film's attempts at seriousness. A shame because I loved the premise of a former terrorist trying to atone for his sins until a former nemesis unburies the past... with a vengeance. But there's a limit to which I could accept Ryan's creativity and it lost me with the whole Rube Goldberg device during the obligatory climactic fight (basically, two clichés at once).
It pains me to give a bad review to the film because there were some standout elements besides the two Bridges and Whitaker's acting. I especially loved that scene where Kate and Lizzie were alone at home and kept using familiar objects, each one of them likely to trigger a bomb device placed by Ryan. This sequence intersected with a race around the clock (one that worked at least), was of pure Hitchcockian delight... and one of the truly original moments from "Blown Away", one that was not borrowed from a previous 90s action picture. The rest is pretty generic.
King Solomon's Mines (1950)
An Indiana Jones of its time (minus the 'fun' aspect)...
If Compton Bennett's adaptation of Henry Rider Haggard's novel was praised for the obligatory elements: visuals, escapism, African wilderness beautifully rendered by Technicolor cinematography etc. Etc., it still left critics cold. Reading Boswley Crother's review, it was hard to believe this film was nominated for Best Picture.
And yet, as accidental as it might have been, the film is forever placed in good company with "All About Eve", "Sunset Blvd.", two American classics and "Father of the Bride" and "Born yesterday" two comedy classics both on AFI Top Laughs. The Oscar-buff I was has always been perplexed by that inclusion. In fact the title mislead me. What do you expect from a film called "King Solomon's Mine" and sandwiched between "Samson and Delilah" and "Quo Vadis"? I have always avoided the film expecting a peplum... and I didn't care much about King Solomon.
But when the opening credits made it clear that the film was more in the vicinity of "Mogambo" or "African Queen" (in fact, a precursor), I was quite excited. The excitement didn't last for long - and one must be warned- the film starts with one of the, if not the most sickening image ever, an elephant charging at a party and being shot... for real. I had to check on IMDb trivia and found out it was a time where they had to regulate the population with such drastic methods. I forgot this was the same era Cousteau's crew dynamited a reef, killing creatures to identify the living, quite the sordid irony.
In all fairness, the film didn't cause the shooting and cleverly exploits it for a scene that actually shows cocky white hunters whose carelessness causes the death of one of the African guides. You can see the pain and grief that don't desert Stewart Grainger's face for a while. The is a man who doesn't fear for his life but who's learned to value its fragility through the contact of animals. Big game hunters value their lives too much to ever understand how vulnerable they are, they are fools, that's what make them dangerous. And Grainger is perfect as Allen, heroic to the degree that it is his job and failure is no option since it would mean death but wise and humble enough to stay away from danger and adventure for the sake of adventure.
But the plot thickens when a young lady named Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) accompanied with her brother John Goode (Richard Carlson) wishes to find her husband who disappeared while looking for the eponymous mines. Deborah Kerr had made a specialty of playing women out of their element in foreign countries. But there's something irrational in a project that jeopardize so many lives for one that might be dead anyway. Allen can't figure what's on Elizabeth's mind and there's a certain sexual tension rising from their opposition. The more intriguing, the more willing he is to help and the less he is according to his own code. She knows how to settle the case by offering a large sum of money. That's rational enough.
Rational or not, It's a foregone conclusion that heart matters will follow and their differences won't be as irreconcilable as they look but it doesn't matter, there's a lore more to enjoy in the film. "King Solomon's Mines" does justice to the magnificent landscapes of Africa... at the risk of bordering too much on National geographic but it's effective especially during the tribe scenes. I've never been to a safari but even I don't expect that every animal from the little red ant to the rhinoceros will gather to see me as if I was Rafiki carrying Simba. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief but I wish the live remake of "The Lion King" was half as colorful as this film.
Everything hasn't aged like fine wine. I guess we can accept, as modern viewers, Allan's view that a woman's place isn't in a safari, but that's only because the film spared us all the Bwana and patronizing colonial tropes à la Tarzan. And there's no white man being cooked on a pot. Still, Kerr is so abrasive and cocky we want her insurance to be toned down by a few damsel-in-distress moments. It was a tad overplayed at parts and I think the film is more efficient for simplest details as when a suffocating Elizabeth realizes that she must takes off the corset... later she'd feel the need to cut his hair and the ridiculousness of her perfect haircut is compensated by the cute exchange between the two covered by the falls' need.
There are some genuinely great moments and I found Graigner more confident in his role than Kerr who's always a little too melodramatic. I prefer her in her serene role where she exudes her mix of regal confidence and restrained humility. If not chemistry, there's a great complementarity between the two and Carlson does his best in a thankless role that should have been occupied by a funnier or more colorful character actor. Speaking of which, honorable mention to Van Brun (Hugo Haas) proving that the white men who went to the colonies weren't all driven by noble intentions.
Now, I admire a film that dares have Africans helping the protagonists and not in a 'sidekick' way. Umbupa, their African guides, actually saves the day. It's interesting that for all the adventure they lived, their fate depends on a fight lead by an African, and their performance is convincing as the giants Watussi, whose culture is beautifully documented here.
Did they or did they not know that there was a limited number of bullets? Never mind? That bluff was a clever bit and it inspired me an analogy. "King Solomon's Mines" it is pure popular cinema and despite its dated undertones and the stuff that didn't fool critics it managed to bluff its way into posterity.
What "Chouchou" should have been...
Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's "Man is a Woman" was not exactly what you'd call a box office hit but it was a nice little story full of colorful characters and a few shots here and there of good old Jewish humor. It also had a complex central protagonist in Simon, Antoine de Caunes as a Jewish homosexual and accomplished clarinetist whose efforts to keep out of touch with the family always bumped into the 'issue' of his homosexuality. Family could excuse his lifestyle but not that it deprived the Eskenazy lineage from an heir.
The film's centerpiece was the romance with a singer named Rosalie (Elza Zylberstein) and the cultural clash ensuing from the encounter with her Orthodox family, revealing the latent hypocrisy of the religious world etc etc. The film concluded on a rather lackluster note with a baby born from the marriage and an anticlimactic separation. It was just as if at the very last minute, Zilberman's inspiration dried out and nothing original or satisfying or funny (even in a cynical way) could close Simon's arc. And so I expected a lot from the sequel that came 11 years after. Maybe the director needed more perspective to come up with new ideas or maybe that was the time it'd take for Simon to triumph over his demons.
Speaking of Simon, he's aged gracefully; Antoine De Caunes is 56 but can pass as a man in his late forties. He's still smoking, still serene about things and his inclination toward younger men seems to indicate some Oedipan gaps the film doesn't really explore. Maybe he likes to be a mentor-figure or maybe he's amused by the immaturity of the youth... I guess I'm interested enough to question this. The film opens with a flirting scene with a young married man named Raphael (Micha Lescot), the boy doesn't reappear until an hour and to add to the confusion, the second scene shows Simon waking up with a young North African boy named Naim.
In fact this is the central relationship; Naim (Mehdi Dehbi) is not only a transvestite but a Muslim as well, not only does Dehbi steal the show through his performance but his character was a revelation. Now I can verbalize what was wrong with the film "Chouchou", the character played by Gad El Maleh was funny and heart-warming but he lacked depth. Gad was busy impersonating a woman, Dehbi finds the right note as a man struggling to be the woman he wants to be. Dehbi is so good Simon feels totally accessory.
There's a scene near the end where Naim questions his femininity and wonders whether he could pass a woman during a party or was he so vulgar he didn't fool anyone. Then, Simon and he look at their reflection on the mirror and looking at Naim's beauty as a woman, I was confused myself. That the film could achieve that and make me feel for a character who could be a walking cliché was impressive. And speaking of "Chouchou", I was wondering why Gad El Maleh didn't reprise his role as the handsome cousin David.
Maybe he was reluctant to kiss a man or maybe he was busy making "Coco" a film about a rich Jewish guy celebrating a bar mitzvah and one that kept me kvetching all the time. Gad, as talented as he was, made a specialty of stretching one-note sketch characters into film protagonists, for disastrous results. "The Strange Romance of Simon Eskenazy" doesn't go for the laughs but tries at least to go for the emotions and it works... to a certain point.
For all its good intentions, the film suffers from a tedious and unfocused script that makes you constantly wonder "where is this going?". The original, despite dealing with an interesting subject: homosexuality and its difficult recognition among the skeptical and hardened families, kind of lost its way in the romance but it did so for the sake of funny and meaningful interactions. The second opts for the meaningfulness but without that little edge, that extra push of Jewish humor, it falls into sappy sentimentalism more than once. There's no conflict whatsoever with Rosalie, no problem with the American born son Yankele.
The film tries to explores Simon's complicated relationship with his mother Bella (Judith Magre) who must be taken care after an accident. While not the prototypical Jewish mother, she's still unbearable for her son who'd rather go sleep at his frtiend's house, played by Catherine Hiegel who was Rosalie's mother in the first film. There are some good and heart-warming moments, I wasn't too surprised by the way Naim became the catalysis of Simon's reconciliation with the mother, but there was something too convenient in the way they made her die after she and her son came to terms. Does everything have to be so neat?
Overall, I liked the way the film brought again all the element of the Yiddish culture and the music always plays a good role. De Caunes is serene and nonchalant and I guess it's the right tone, he really played a character worthy of a trilogy but it's like Zilberman thought of a totally original film and then decided to insert it in Simon's universe as an afterthough. And maybe I'm in a minority but I had a feeling that the film tried too much to be one of these hymn for fraternal loe between Jews and Arabs to better contradict the reality of the world. It's true there are common roots between the communities but with the Sefaradic community.
Also I found the profainity a tad overused by Naim, I'm an Arab speaker and some words he chose to insult Simon were beneath him, one wouldn't say them to someone he loves... but Simon doesn't care anyway, and he's always with these sad eyes and amused little smile as if he was embodying in his face the bittersweet clarinet leitmotif. I can accept that.
The Wings of the Dove (1997)
Caught between the wing of the dove and the cunning of the crow...
Henry James' "Wings of the Dove" is certainly no mind-numbing read but brother, is it a time-consuming one! Believe the poor non-native English speaker I am; each page was like canoeing over a long, sinuous and tortuous river of prose with paragraphs as so many granite blocks hammering on my head. I eventually gave up and read the French version that had the merit of instant intelligibility.
The book started slow but retrospectively, on the scale of five hundred pages (scripted like a phonebook), Henry James did get quickly to the heart of the matter: the triangular love between Kate Croy, Merton Densher and the delicate Millie Theale. Kate and Merton love each other but the domineering Aunt Maude would not have her niece Kate married to a penniless man and suffer the same fate than her mother. Merton doesn't care about money but Kate actually does. And it does so because it's consistent with Kate's character, it allows the plot to thicken and it gives a taste of irony to the affection between the wealthy Millie and Merton.
Now, is it tragic that Millie's dying? Absolutely not. Millie is so perfect she's literally hovering over the meadow of muddy materialism and calculations. Millie's death is the central jewel of her aura's crown... James who idealized and idolized his lost cousin Minnie knew that keeping her alive would be like actually cutting the wings of the dove. She lives as long as it takes to get deeper within Kate's psyche and James' way with words makes that internal exploration more exciting than the Venetian travelogue. Indeed, when a rich woman falls in love with a commoner, the financial implications can't escape a mind as cunning as Kate's. The story is like a descent not into the hearts of darkness but the darkness of hearts.
And so by adapting the film, director Iain Softley and screenwriter Hossein Amini took quite a challenge. It's one thing to make irreproachable period set-designs and lavish costume designs recreating early 20th century London and Venice -any competent director is capable of cloning a Merchant-Ivory production- but the point is to make the viewers penetrate the soul of Kate Croy, understand her motives, condemn her acts but admire her resilience. Kate is the soul of the story: mysterious, sensual, smart, and independent and yet willing to conform to the ugly norms of society out of pragmatism rather than blind obedience.
From the start, the film spares us the whole long 'backstory' chapter with the father, allowing us to understand the reason why she choose to leave with Aunt Maude. We discover that her father Lionel (James Gambion) is a dissolute man who at least admits it. It is a rather cynical and straightforward exposition with the merit of narrative economy. As Maude, Charlotte Rampling glows with cold authority and the passive-aggressive relationship she has with Kate sets the two issues: one should have the means of his ambitions and how long can love last before money runs out? Kate loves Merton but not to the point of abandoning any prospect of wealth... Merton does love her but he has no alternative.
But Kate does take risks with her many secret rendezvous with Merton (Linus Roaches) in public or remote places. Could it be just a case of sensual attraction? When she meets Maude in the company of the more suitable Lord Mark (Alex Jannings), she says she was with a "friend", that the two would assume it's a "her" indicates either delusion or benevolent hypocrisy until Kate wises up. In this world of treachery, deception and secrecy... nothing can't be fixed with arrangements. Being rich just give you an edge in both situation, being with someone rich gives it by proxy. Once Merton meets Millie, he earns the 'alternative' and so she becomes his Maude, so to speak.
Roache is good as Merton, not too flamboyant and more prone to elicit out sympathy. He's humble but not devoid of ambition, he does love Kate but in a way that submits him to her cunning mind. He is a little like Pinocchio trying to be the "right man" for his woman, by befriending the "right woman" for a man like him. But love works in mysterious ways, the less straight a shooter you are, the more likely to hit the bull's eye. The closer Merton gets to the dove, the more he realizes the maneuvers of the crow. The Venetian centerpiece shows a man caught in a web of contradictions he can't handle. When he's forced to hide his feelings toward Kate, he involuntarily opens a breech for new feelings.
It all comes down to the genius of both film and book being a moral story rather than a romance.
Think of it, it's precisely because Millie is so pure, so vulnerable that she inspires Merton's confusion and Kate's Machiavellianism. And it's for the same reason that James couldn't permit a happy ending; the final intimate scene between Kate and Merton consecrates the posthumous victory of Theale over two hearts who've hidden, and lied so much they lost the ability to function. You can feel how dried out their souls were once the dove had sprung her wings. Carter was perfect as Kate, deserving every nomination, including the Oscar. Allison Theale was simply ravishing and that she was hardly nominated is understandable for Millie's presence was enough to have an effect, it couldn't by essence be showy.
The book is still superior as far as 'narrative density' and 'character complexity' but we're talking of one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Still, the film as if it was inhabited by Kate's rebellious spirit knows how to distance itself, through dance and music, moments of pure flesh and delight, with an energy, a vibrance, a raw resonance out of James' intellectual reach.
A good film adaptation respects the original material, a great one doesn't forget to be a film.
Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)
Such joie de vivre...
"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", Golden Palm winner of 1964 and two-time Oscar-nominee was quite an emotional ride orchestrated by one of the most emblematic duos of French cinema: composer Michel (the so-fittingly named) Legrand and as the other "half" director Jacques Demy. Their collaboration contributed to two defining musicals of the 60s, and I'm wondering if both Demy and Legrand didn't feel the need to come up with something a little jollier... for the sake of balance, (you know, after the lacrymose, the saccharose).
And so in 1967, the two creators concocted "The Young Girls of Rochefort", a film that does transport to, paraphrasing Aznavour, a time that people under 60 can't know. The film is a carnival of fun, innocence, love, warmth, comedy and a little je-ne-sais-quoi of irony, enrobed with a touch of jazzy joie-de-vivre, glowing exuberance and candy pink innocence. Everything swings from the music to the dialogues whose prefabricated repartees and silly puns prove that such a film isn't to be judged on rational terms. You've got to unplug your cynical self, put on your rose-tainted glasses and embrace the deliberate corniness if you want to be touched by the grace... and end up saying: "what a time to be alive!".
Watching the film, I became nostalgic toward a time I didn't live. I felt almost the same for "Cherbourg" but this time, I wish I was there in Rochefort. The film opens with a group of caravans bringing the fair to the town. You see young people, anonymous, among which a familiar face: George Chakiris. Boys wearing colorful shirts and white trousers and girls the greatest invention of the 60s: the mini skirt. Arriving at the town square, they try a few steps, with a trombone tune that sounds like a horn, the theme is jazzy, funny and somehow suspenseful (like in a caper film), you can tell by hearing it that it's leading somewhere and it does go crescendo, revealing more and more levels, more instruments until the final explosion. It is not the most sophisticated opening but it does make you feel good in a way that you won't see today in movie. And you should listen to the way Legrand recites the music with all the 'papapa', the man really had the tempo in his blood.
After that opening that plays like the missing link between "West Side Story" and "La La Land" the film doesn't waste time and takes you immediately to the next iconic piece of music. We discover the eponymous twins played by real life sisters Françoise Dorleac and Catherine Dorléac, one is a ballet teacher (Deneuve as Delphine) and the other is a piano conductor (Dorleac as Solange), they grew up in Rochefort, both are looking for the ideal man and are tired of the playboy archetypes their beauty keep attracting. And they are truly attractive. Then their establishing song, the much iconic "We Are Twin Sisters" (one of the most instantly recognizable tunes of French cinema) gives the edge to these characters in case we mistook them for superficial trophy girls, they conform to timely tropes to better raise beyond: they are smart, funny and so confident that they don't even play hard to get.
One can go on describing each scene where songs are replaced by lyrics told in a sort of unique prose that is pure Demy, unlike "Cherbourg", the film isn't entirely sung but the illusion of spontaneousness is preserved here as we discover the gallery of characters who populate the city. We meet Etienne (Chakiris) and Bill (Grover Dale), the carnival workers who are trying their luck with girls and who'd play a fateful role in the sisters' ascension in show business. They spend a lot of time with local café owner, Yvette, the mother of the town, played by Danielle Darrieux, the only one with her real singing voice, and who tells a story about some man she loved in the past.
There is the egotistical art gallery owner Guillaume Lancien (Jacques Riberolles) whom Delphine breaks off with with a great "reason you suck" speech. And when she noticed that she looked exactly like the painting of a sailor who's drawn his ideal woman, a jealous Guillaume spares no effort to hide his identity. The sailor is Maxence and is played by the late Jacques Perrin. And there's Simon Dame, played by Michel Piccoli, who tells a strange story about a certain woman he loved but who left him because she didn't want to be called Madame Dame.
Finally, there's Andy Miller, Gene Kelly as the singer who's doing recitals in Paris and come to see his friend Simon and will find a little more. Kelly himself is so gentle and humble, never played as the film's start, so we'd almost take his role for granted. And his little ballet for Dorleac is a marvel of pure poetry in motion, the best swan song she could have. It was obvious for the minute they crossed eyes that romance would ensue, but the film doesn't care for predictability, the story is a series of events that unfolds followed the partition of Legrand, and the common thread is the overall ambiance of a little town in the 60s in France and people just enjoying themselves... a series of event lead the two sisters to perform in their iconic red dress, replacing two artists who left for sailors. And at the end, all's well that ends well.
What makes Rochefort such an endearing film? I don't know. I just feel the film is inhabited by a simplicity orchestrated by the music and it just gets better and better... it is only tarnished by the untimely passing of Françoise Dorleac under tragic circumstances... what a sad and tragic loss for French cinema, one that forever impacted Deneuve who became the most iconic actress of her generation... while the other half of the duo would blossom in eternal youth and beauty.
Zoku Sugata Sanshirô (1945)
A film beneath the standards of excellence of Kurosawa but that will satisfy the completists...
I ended my recent review of "Sanshiro Sugata" by a sneaky remark. I alleged that the lead actor Susumu Fujita was no Toshiro Mifune... and I wish I could have found a more pleasant way to put it.
Now, let me reformulate. As true as it might be that Fujita doesn't have the same range, charisma or 'magnitude' than international icon Mifune, it is as unfair as comparing Harry Carey Jr. To John Wayne. And after that weird and rather corny opening, his appearance was quite a welcome sight. Indeed, something about the first minutes of the sequel of "Sanshiro Siguta" (which I prefer to refer to as "The Legend of the Great Judo") really set me off. The drunken Yankee sailor (played by Osman Yusuf!) kept blabbering some American slang with a rather convincing accent but the rickshaw was playing it it (no pun intended) as if he was playing in a Mac Senntt film.
Fujita's entrance changes the tone. He looks stern, menacing, and oddly intimidating. The confrontation did not leave much for suspense; it was obvious that for his opening fight scene would be an easy win. Still, whatever is wrong with the sequel has nothing to do with Fujita, who delivers a memorable performance as the young, idealistic and well-meaning martial arts student. It is a good thing because Siguta is in such a perpetual self-doubt that his quest could have taken a trilogy. I doubt it would have helped Kurosawa's career and I am sure he was more than glad to change this after the war. Therefore, at the end Siguta reaches his personal nirvana after Kurosawa stretched his arc as far as he could.
For the rest, it takes a while for the film to find its tone as it keeps being entangled in the necessity to make a point about the art of judo's superiority over boxing, the decadent export of US. Apparently Kurosawa was somewhat forced into making the film a propaganda by underlining without any attempt at subtitlity that boxing incarnates a failure of civilization that is so opposed to the quest of Judo... but for that, Americans are barely present and are replaced by a Japanese manager who's a caricatural sellout. While the film is by no means mediocre, it is not the master's finest hour and you can tell that if it wasn't for that propaganda subtext, it could have made for a better experience. It doesn't help that the image and sound quality (obviously not restored) make it difficult to appreciate.
Now the film is slightly better when it makes connections with the previous one and shows Sigita struggling to forgive himself for the death of Yono's father (played by Shimura in the first film) and when all of sudden, two strange long-haired characters who look like coming from a fantasy horror film and with expressionnist shadows decide to come to revenge their brothers, leading to a climax set in the snow-covered mountains. Iy is so magnificent you'd think it was borrowed from another film... and come way too late in the film.
Overall, it is a decent film but, the result is so beneath the standards of excellence of Kurosawa and of intelligence, that it will probably satisfy some history buffs looking for expressions of propaganda Japanese film and naturally the completists. Apart from that, it is a warmup before Toshiro Mifune who was certainly the muse Kurosawa needed (with Shimura being the touchstone)
Van Gogh (1991)
Pialat's "Van Gogh", a nuanced, mundane and oddly soothing depiction of the artist's final days...
Released in 1991, at the centenary of Vincent Van Gogh's death, Maurice Pialat's "Van Gogh" chronicles the final days of the legendary artist whose last stay in Auvers-sur-Oise inspired some of his most celebrated works. The film isn't much about the painting or the painter but a journey into the usual spectrum of human interactions: casual talk, mundane conversations, awkward moments and here and there some outbursts of passions and energy, especially with women, and the brother Theo (Bernard LeCoq).
One would look at Van Gogh's life with glasses tainted by the vivid colors of his celebrated paintings, anticipating lust, passion, furor and anger... but defeating all expectations, Maurice Pialat's "Van Gogh" is a rather quiet film, one of simple warmth embedded in profound melancholy. Jacques Dutronc never leaves you the impression that he's playing Van Gogh, with his sad and worn-down eyes, you barely notice their beautiful blue. Even in his most joyful or tempestuous moments, his eyes look exhausted. It's just as if the pop culture Van Gogh we "knew": the man in love, the self-doubting artist, Gauguin's friend and the ear-cutting madman where all contained in the frozen ocean of his silent stares. This Van Gogh is a moody fellow and it's up to the lively population around: luggage carriers, inn-keepers, maids or prostitutes to 'cheer him' up.
I must say I thoroughly enjoyed Pialat's "Van Gogh". And for one reason, Pialat never felt inclined to tell a story about Van Gogh but of a man with both talent and demons, like anyone else, like Pialat himself, maybe. Vincent is a man who was so focused on the quest of a lost genius in his art that he somehow lost the ability to look at the genuine simplicity of life. And he was so demanding of himself that he could never satisfy, let alone like himself. He wasn't incapable to love a woman but being loved for his talent or his peculiarity as an artist would be like tricking himself into self-appreciation, a reconciliation by proxy... one can't just be cured easily from the imposter syndrome.
But don't take my word for it, this is only my take on Dutronc's performance. The singer-turned-actor won a César for the role and he doesn't play it with the self-awareness of the actor forced to channel standard emotions but by distancing himself from the easy way and paradoxically from the artist himself. On a simple level, it's easy to guess that neither Vincent, nor Theo, could speak French as fluently delivered by two French actors. The suspension of disbelief is all granted because Pialat recreates such a natural and historically accurate microcosm of French society in the late 19th century, we believe this could be Van Gogh. Sometimes, the further you get from a model, the closer.
And at some point, Vincent stops being the main focus and becomes the sponge that absorbs all the liquefied emotions of people around him... the more distant or reluctant to share his feelings he is, the more efforts people pull in order to reach him (including Theo). Doctor and art collector Gachet (remarkably played by Gérard Sety) uses amiability and friendliness, his daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) is not indifferent and her charm is so natural that any recipient of a cordial smile would take it as seduction, but maybe she is attracted to Vincent. Finally, Theo can be diplomatic and tactful but doesn't mince words when the situation calls for a harsher tone.
I don't think Pialat ever intended to solve a riddle about Van Gogh rather than paint in his own way the tumultuous mind of a man so focused on his visions, doubts and (paradoxically) certitudes that he confined himself into a room that could only be opened from the outside. As gentle as he was, Gachet didn't have the key and in one memorable scene, he keeps on praising an an item that is not even a painting. Vincent smile and Gachet admits that he was being hypocrite. While the scene is played for laughs, who knows if it didn't break a parcel of Vincent's self-esteem. Sometimes Marguerite seems to have a connection with him, as she's also suffocated by the corset of social conventions (like her mother) but it is possible that Vincent only gets from her what any woman can give him, like Cathy the prostitute played by Elza Zylberstein...all the 'joie de vivre' in the world can't cure a man in quest for a meaning to his life.
Le Coq delivers an interesting performance as the sane brother who yet has been infected by that very lust for life from his brother and is incapable to dissociate his own being from his brother's state. He embodies what's so fascinating about Pialat's Van Gogh, he's not the passionate one but the one everyone's passionate about. And what we've got is a vision of an auteur who finds a certain sympathy to ambivalent people, unpredictable, whose conduct never follows a particular pattern. Such people who stand out from the crowd aren't necessarily extraordinary but they have the merit to guide ordinary people into new horizons, discovering many things about the world or a few about themselves, which is almost the world.
This Pialat's Van Gogh could have been a Rodin's thinker as well, but Pialat provides him flesh, a soul, a spirit and that little lust for life that allowed such great moments as the alfresco lunch where he and his brother impersonate Toulouse Lautrec (that whole sequence is one of the best and jolliest moments from any French film). Special mention to that brother party that ends with everyone impersonating a miliary march and walking hand-in-hand before chaos takes backs its rights through a frenetic Can Can.
Ambivalence again is the key word for that surrealist scene has the ominous resonance of a last surge before death... the only historical fact Pialat couldn't revise.
Another of these show-business themed musicals that mean business and intend to show it!
Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" abides by the "show must go on" creed, no matter the situation, music sneaks its way into the narrative whether as a performance or more originally, as actual conversations. Reality becomes as spectacular as fiction and one could also argue that the fiction is as compelling as reality in "Dreamgirls". The film is constantly ornated with catchy hit songs that capture the flavor of their time and make you believe they really existed.
And so music is organic to the story, to the point that it almost undermines the drama. Sometimes, I just wish there were more moments silences to emphasize the heroine's exile from the stage. The film ends with her reconciliation with the friends who turned their back years before and I thought this was a way to leave the audience with a positive feeling. Seriously, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) was backstabbed so many times it's a miracle she could still stand on her two legs at the end. Hudson plays a woman with talent, physical presence and a charisma that appeals to more men that they'd dare to pretend . She is the natural leader of a trio composed of Deena (Beyoncé) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) , the strong, the pretty and the funny one.
Now, the casting of Beyonce (still called Knowles) is interesting because she must pretend to have an inferior voice. Let's be honest it's quite a stretch to make us believe she hasn't the makings of a great singer. That said, her performance as a mild-mannered soft-spoken girl (even Lorell had more charisma) does enhance the natural presence of Effie. And basically if there's anything the film is showing is that naturalness isn't just what it takes, image counts especially during the TV era, and let's not pretend that the future Queen B was the most gorgeous of the trio that launched her career.
But I wish it could do more for Queen Hudson who won a justified Oscar for her performance and the revival of Eddie Murphy's career. Murphy who gives here his best performance (Oscar nominated). He didn't duplicate the prowess, as for Hudson, her career has been zigzagging and her late performance as Nina Simone wasn't the Oscar darling it was thought to be. Ironically, the one who remained the true star is Beyoncé. Again, "Dreamgirls" allows us to appreciate the truth-to-life notion that looks aren't just a detail when it comes to musical ascension. And without demonizing it, the film proves that you don't make stars without breaking a few former partners.
I guess music industry has never been regarded as a haven of charity and "Dreamgirls" is preceded by many music-themed biopics including "What's Love Got to Do With It?" or the recent "Ray" that had earned Jamie Foxx his Oscar. Foxx is the sleazy Curtis Taylor, a disguised version of Motown director Berry Gordy. He starts as a smooth-talking sleaze who knows how to make the right connections. There's a music contest, singer Jimmy Early (Murphy) just lost his chorus girls, the 'Dreamettes' are making a sensation, in one slick move, he casts two birds with the same stone and become the manager of Early and his for-the-moment-to-be chorus girls... courting Effie with the beautiful Deena in mind. Curits isn't much a villain than a man who takes everything as a business deal.
Criticized by the real counterpart for his controversial behavior, I'm glad he didn't go as far as becoming a wife-beater à la Ike Turner. I was also glad I could decipher all the maneuvering that lead him to every success: offering the Dreamettes on a silver platter, getting rid of Early's long-time manager (and father-figure) Marty, played by Danny Glover and luring Effie into believing she was the star on the stage... and worse, of his heart. He'd even cause Effie's brother and lyricist (Keith Robinson) to betray his own sister by stealing one of her songs, the same trick he was victim of when his hit song "Cadillac" was reprised by a White group. But Curtis doesn't mind scams or betrayals, just being at the wrong end of them.
It is obvious that Curtis Taylor is incapable of loving, judging everything through its monetary value. He doesn't even hold Deena in respect and considers her a product or a trophy girl at the very least. Was Deena that oblivious to it is the question the film unfortunately dodges as if it was afraid to break her angelic façade. At the end, Curtis takes all the hits and the two girls are never really held accountable for their acts, which doesn't exactly serve the feminist cause. At the end, the only help for Effie comes from Marty who gives a fine wake-up call and an audition with a former friend. "Dremagirls" doesn't fall into all the "all men are evil" tropes.
I particularly liked the attention to timely details and fashion to suggest the passing of time and the few allusions to real stars such as Diana Ross and the Jackson Five (though they could find better than 'Campbell Connection") . I only wish it could have a little more of Effie and less of bad Curtis and bland Deena. Eddie Murphy's snub is due to the lack of one truly moving scene. Once he proved his versatility, the moments where he was patronized by Curtis and his facial expressions kept reminding me of (I mean, seriously) Sherman Klump when he was roasted by Reggie. For me these scenes were preparing us fr a heartbreaking finale but Murphy just vanishes from the story without taking the role to its full potential. And so the Oscar went to Alan Arkin who just played a grumpy grandfather and typical scene-stealer in "Little Miss Sunshine".
Things would have certainly turned out different today, Murphy would have been given a denser role, Hudson more scenes and at least one nomination for Best Picture.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Starts like "Hotel Rwanda"... but ends like "Blood Diamond"...
Directed by Kevin McDonald, "The Last King of Scotland" is an absorbing and uncompromising portrayal of one of the most brutal dictators of the second half of the last century: Uganda's president Idi Amin Dada. As a character-study, it is also a gripping exploration of that deadly delusion of grandeur so typical of dictators: the belief on a sacred destiny, the certitude that each decision, right or wrong, is blessed by God's tacit endorsement and whoever comes across the path, accidentally or deliberately, interferes with the plans of God himself.
Forest Whitaker's performance embodies the tragic duality of men like Amin Dada or Bokassa or Saddam Hussein: this capability to charm, attract and make crowds cheer and laugh by the thousands and yet to scare a man with one single stare. For such reasons one should take words like charisma into perspective and the film, written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock (from Giles Foden's novel) centers on a young man who's first drawn by the charismatic figure until his so-called friendship reveals itself to be a Faustian pact of the worst kind. The man is Nicholas Garrigan, freshly graduating from Edinburg med school, he's played by young, blue-eyed James McAvoy.
Actually, Nicholas is a composite of many real-life figures who encountered the dictator but as a fictional character, he offers the ideal standpoint so viewers who're not familiar with the dictator can model their own appreciation and let it evolve. The young man came to Uganda, fleeing the suffocating Scottish life and joined a missionary camp ruled by Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson). He barely gets time to work or even court the beautiful Sarah; one day he meets accidentally Idi Amin (who had just seized power) and takes care of his sprained hand. Amin is impressed by the young man's resistance to stress and the cold-blooded way he shoots the cow responsible for the accident (an act of mercy rather than a vengeance). That Nicholas is Scottish seals the deal of their frienship, Idi Amin adores Scotland and admires Scots.
The two men exchange their T shirts and one thing leading to another, Nicholas is appointed director of Kampala's hospital and the President's private doctor and his 'closest advisor". Needless to say that his life standards increase considerably . Nicholas is young, driven by a quest of adventure and couldn't resist the flamboyant charisma of Idi Amin who shows more of his Teddy Bear façade than the 'grizzly' one. But the film follows the usual three-part structure that will inevitably lead him to discover what kind of a man he's dealing with. It's interesting that while it didn't bother him that he had many wives, he's shocked by the way one of them, Kay (Kerry Washington), is isolated because she gave him an epileptic son. Later, Nicholas is confronted to a situation that involves the other advisor (Stephen Rwangyezià). Little does he know that his decision will have dramatic consequences and will earn him a severe blacklisting from his British compatriotes.
What goes around comes around and there are scenes of Karmic delight such as the one where Simon McBurey's refuses to frant him a new passport. Nicholas is very interesting character because we do want to like him as the hero and he's got a likability that doesn't delve into evil schemes but it's satisfying to see him pay for his lack of discernement. Still, following Nicholas' journey, I asked myself: was it a sort of Stockholm Syndrome? Did he love the President? Or was he enjoying being the teacher's pet, the only one who could befriend and talk frankly to one everyone fears, a sort of privilege of his own. Obviously, there's a path to redemption triggered by horrific discoveries, some take quite a solid stomach to endure them but there's just a limit to the number of plot conventions I could get before being bothered by them.
The problem isn't in the white perspective thing but that the enigmatic Idi Amin could be seen from a character who didn't exist therefore leaving enough space to throw every informative element. Fine, but by doing so, the script sometimes mixes between elements that don't fit together. When Nicholas makes love with Kay, I couldn't believe in the ensuing pregnancy, that was an intolerable cliché. And at the end, during the infamous airport hostage that took a life of a British-Israeli citizen (that part wasn't even mentioned) there's a moment near the end where Nicholas' destiny hangs on a situation worthy of an action thriller. And how about the doctor (David Oyelowo) who saves his life, couldn't he at least try to leave the airport?
Mixing documentary and fiction isn't necessarily a bad stylistic choice but fiction should be a way to ease the narrative and not be the narrative itself. The core of the film was the enigma of Idi Amin and Whitaker does a fantastic job in humanizing the beast, even when he's literally ordering the death of a 'brother' you can see the tear dropping from his eyes, just like you could see his spitballs erupting from his mouth during his tantrums. There's never a moment where you feel he's acting, it's a raw and passionate performance that deserved to win. But that's the problem, such a real performance couldn't coexist with the aforementioned plot elements.
Recently, I saw a film named "A World Apart" and it was based on Shawn Slovo's memories of "South Africa" and I said : "By being so attentive to details of childhood and matters so trivial compared to the real deal, the film is actually more immersive and efficient, through the keyhole of peculiar details" "The Last King of Scotland" does the opposite, it cares so much about the 'big picture', that the realism obtained by the photography, the locations, the background music and Whitaker's performance are compromised.
A muse of grace and fire named Isadora...
As I'm about to write this review for Karel Reisz' "Isadora", my writing is like held back by a thought I didn't see coming: "why am I doing this anyway?". What chances are for that review to be read by ten users this year?
I have watched the film and thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has a great deal to do with the magnificent performance of Vanessa Redgrave as the iconic dancer, in fact "Mother of Dance" as she was nicknnamed, Isadora Duncan. And that Redgrave was five or six inches taller than the original model made me even more drawn to her dancing moments for I think there's nothing more graceful than a tall woman, let alone one who's dancing barefeet. Sorry for expanding on fetish territory but if anything the film made me realize that it's the little guilty sparks that ignite the most fiery passions.
And while we're on confessing little secrets, I have to say that morbid curiosity also brought me here. Many years ago, my aunt told me about a film where a woman had her scarf struck in the wheel of a car and had her neck instantly snapped. In these days there was no Google or internet therefore was no way to get such an information. And as I was following the story, I kept anticipating the tragic moment, that pivotal second when the scarf would be caught in the spoke... just like the shower scene in Claude François' biopic. Some celebrities are so iconic that even their death had to reflect a certain uniqueness. As if a free-spirited, volatile and ahead-of-her-time woman couldn't afford dying peacefully in her seventies.
It's interesting that the film tries to embody Isadora's 'modernity' by not following the classical structure by the book and insert some bit of surrealist juxtaposition between her dancing and some pivotal life moments but overall this is a rather classic biopic whose main asset is the performance of Redgrave as the eccentric, temperamental but damned if she's not true to herself. We see her as a woman advocating free love (her establishing moment as a child consists of burning her parents' marriagecertification while pledging her total dedication to her art. And the film is a series of back-and-forth between her impoverished bohemian lifestyle in her late forties in French Riviera and her rise to stardom then her scandal-driven fall, the men she loved and had children with and the tragedies that took away her children from her.
Of course, there's s a good deal of dancing don't expect "The Red Shoes" the film is more about a woman so much inhabited by her passion that she's many steps ahead of the people who share her life. And if a minority can still label her as brilliant or at the very least avant-garde, for the majority of people, there's one word that can describe her: insane. And I don't think she would ever reject that word.
How could someone who modelled her style from greek classicism and dress as if she was one of Apollo's muses not be insane? Art is timeless and conformism implies a true obedience to the mores and trends of your time. Isadora couldn't care less if she married a Bolchevik when the anti-Communist sentiment began to rise or if she bared her breaest during a recital in Boston or if she shared her life with a companion of female persuasion (Cynthia Harris), even in the roaring twenties, I don't think it was pretty common. Isadora's life is such a hymn to liberty and to the Russian-Occidental friendship I'm surprised the film underperformed despite its release in 1968.
It is possible that the descent into madness was accelrated by the death of her children and the leitmotif of the 'car' is a bit overplayed. But there's an interesting pattern in the men she loved. Stage designer Gordon Craig (James Fox) was so flamboyant and confident he literally had Isadora at 'hello', she would bear his child out of wedlock. Then came the second, sewing machine tycoon Paris Singer (Jason Robards) who'd win her the instant he threw his ex-wife from a party (a stunt more efficient than the jewellry he offered and she sold right away). In all logic, she would compromise the boring comfort of her marital life by succumbing to the advances of a repulsive pianist. Finally, there was the Soviet poet Sergei Essenin (Zvonimir Crnko) with whom she'd endure a destructively passionate and vodka-soaked romance
Isadora embraces the foolineshness of men who dares to follow their guts and so being with isadora is also like being besaddled on a horse called unpredictability. On that level, I truly fell in love for the statuesque Redgrave... and her performance is simply a mixture of joy and madness proportional to her devastation after the loss of her children. I was less convinced by her portrayal as the fifity years old not because of her acting but because she couldn't be uglified like this. But I did enjoy one exchange with a cocky Englishmen who complimented her by saying his mother thought she was great. Redgrave's facial expression is priceless.
So, why the review? Maybe because there's something on a microcosmic level that maintains my own flame for movies and my irrational exploration of Oscar-nominated performances... much more I love and respect the actress and what a sad irony that she had to experience the loss of a child just like her own character.
The film isn't about dancing, but about giving, sharing, making your life worthwhile to you and those who count, and as I'm concluding the review, I can't get off my mind that beautiful communion with her audience in Russia under the frenetic and infectious rhythm of the Kalinka and Isadora like the new muse of the revolution, with her red dress ... her beautiful smile... and her bare feet, naturally....
Faites sauter la banque! (1964)
If he doesn't rob the bank, De Funès still steals the show...
"Let's Rob a Bank" might not be among Louis de Funes' Top 20 comedies (not even by the numbers) but who cares? The film is obviously one of the last steps back before the big dive into stardom, a minor but charming companion piece to "Pouic-Pouic", also directed by Jean Girault, written by Jacques Vilfrid and composed of the same plot elements, mixing family, financial misunderstanding and vaudeville-like misunderstandings. De Funès plays Mr. Victor Garnier, the owner of an equipment store for fishing and hunting who's suffered a big financial loss because he was ill-advised by his banker played by Jean-Pierre Marielle. How does he contemplate vengeance? Simply by digging a tunnel to steal bulions from the safe.
Within its silly premise, the film has a little unpretentious charm of its own. And I suspect it was shot earlier than 1964 and from the little crop of hair remaining on Fufu's head and their shades of black, I guess he still had to age a little physically. Still, he was at the top of his game here, surrounded by a family that feels more like sparring-partners to his eternal tantrums. The cast isn't as memorable as "Pouic Pouic" where he had to act along Jacqueline Maillan, Christian Marin and Mireille Darc. Here the faces are relatively unknown (Yvonne Clech and Anne Doat aren't exactly household names) Doat is cute enough to catch the eyes of the young bank clerk (Jean Valmont) and form the obligatory beta couple. Clech doesn't have the comical timing of Maillan, nor the imperial elegance of Claude Gensac and the son (Michel Tureau) looks too old for the part.
In fact, it's the little nerdy daughter who saves the day and has that precocious quality that reminded me of the little sister in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" she's played by Catherine Demongeot who was little Zazie in Louis Malle's film and she'd grown so much she was almost the same height than her father. In fact, the second big cast member is Jean-Pierre Marielle who's almost totally unrecognizable. The first time I saw the film 25 years ago, I couldn't associate that suave and debonair smooth-talking man in black suit (with hair) to the mustached bald guy who was harassed by Jean-Paul Belmondo in "Hold-Up" although his voice was unmistakable.
Now, there's something about De Funès confronting a man one foot taller that never gets old, and from the way he interacts with them, you could tell he was practicing his last comical quips. There's also a great moment where he confronts a policeman played by George Wilson and that foreshadows the keen eye he will always display with his subordinates or superiors, bluffing his way out of uncomfortable situations.
In fact, the film is mostly memorable for watching Funès interacting, shortening himself even more to get away from tricky moments or 'playing dumb' with people dumber than him like that interesting conversation with Jean Lefebvre. Speaking of Lefebvre (who co-starred the same year in the first "Gendarme") the film is also a little who's-who of all the character actors of that time Jean Droze, Philippe Dumat and Claude Piéplu. Some less inspired parts that can look as obvious fillers such as the unnecessary interventions of Belgian relatives giving the film the appeal of a little sitcom.
Still, Jean Girault makes it a great vehicle for De Funès and Marielle. It's obvious that it was made with a shoestring budget and wasn't meant to be a huge box office but it proved itself to be effective. I guess Girault understood that the 'family man' thing worked but there had to be a little more in the narrative territory to allow De Funès to express his comedic talent to the fullest. That 'little more' came the same year with the first 'Gendarme' film.
The story of a bohemian artist named Simon and his unorthodox relationship with the conservative Rosalie...
Jean-Jacques Zilbermann's "Man is a Woman" is a relatively forgotten film, and it's a pity. You would think a comedy mixing religious conservatism and sexual preferences would accomplish miracles but after a promising set-up and a decent middle-act, the story falls flat on both levels.
The film is about a young homosexual man named Simon, a gifted clarinetist; and the last male representative of a Jewish family. He's therefore pressured by (no, not just his mother) his uncle Salomon (Jean-Pierre Aumont) to get married and have children. Why does the premise work? Because of the obvious gap between Simon's lifestyle and the calls of the clan. Here's a man wandering along a sauna corridor full of muscular men with towels on their waists, he's in love with his cousin David (Gad El Maleh) and now, he's got to Yentl his way into marriage. For the story to work, there's got to be a catch for Simon and ther a twist, for us.
Uncle Salomon has reasons: the family was exterminated during the War, and Simon is the last representative of the Askenazi lineage (with an "I", not a "y"). But reasons are not enough and as a practical banker, Salomon promises to bequeath a share of his fortune and his private hotel. At that point the film is walking on pointy egg shells in form of clichés but because it's treated in a very lighthearted way, the film gets away with it. As for the mother (Judith Magre) who learned to cope with her son's homosexuality, she's more than willing to seal the deal. Still, with such a set-up the question remains: do you fall in the vaudeville trap or try to do something more substantial, like "The Birdcage" meet "Would I Lie to You?".
My hopes that the film would stick to comedy-drama were maintained when Simon was approached by a Yiddish singer named Rosalie (Elza Zylberstein). Yet their first interaction suggested that he thought she was interested by his money which wouldn't make sense. Then the relationship is sidetracked to more conventional (and pleasing) dynamics. It does help to have a woman from an orthodox family and a man who never made it with a woman, that's a no fooling-around guarantee if there's ever one. Ironically, that's how they learn to appreciate one another and let their feelings blossom.
And Antoine de Caunes, a former TV animator from Canal+ (the channel was the biggest provider of new comedic talent in the 1990s/2000s) has a strange but effective way to make Simon so enigmatic he becomes sexy. You can never guess his intentions: is he willing to cheat with Rosalie? Does he presume that she knows? Is he growing genuine feelings? Or is he was afraid to be stripped of his identity if he tried something? Naturally, if the film was made today, we would never believe in a change of 'heart'. But as less obvious as it was in 1998, there was no way it could happen.
So film is mostly enjoyable on a superficial level, in the way it depicts the coexistence of the thrills of transgression with religious orthodoxy, and the air of social hypocrisy that emanate from it. One of the film's most memorable moments is when Simon meets Rosalie's religious family and discovers that one of her brothers is attracted to him. And sleeping with a man when pretending not to be gay would be like pretending to only eat K osher while attending Oktoberfest.
Zilberman doesn't turn the film into a farce nor a satire a la Woody Allen it's an interesting reflection on the way religion is used as a smokescreen to cover some inconvenient realities and that even the most religious persons aren't immune to naughtiness. There are some funny moments, and I was surprised by the comedic talent of Zylberstein who doesn't need to force it, like a French Jennifer Aniston. I loved how determined she was to buy Simon's clarinet back, which didn't prevent her from passing out at the end of the auction. Later, she tellss Simon that he can be her roommate for a symbolic price, I won't spoil it... but I will just say that it's got more than three digits. Other funny moments include Rosalie's brother who says to Simon "how did you recognize me, you don't know me?"
The musical moments are very catchy to the ears and to the heart, it's true that that clarinet tune sounds both funny and tragic, which encapsulates many good things about Jewish humor. If only the film could hold up to its promise. There comes a point where the lack of "novelty" becomes critical and I deplored the way Rosalie was treated near the end. The attraction to cousin David isn't explored to the fullest and ends up with the latter announcing his divorce. As for the couple, the deal with the uncle, Rosalie, the ending felt like a copout, with no proper resolution.
I suspect the film was made by someone who knew religion but had a shallow vision of homosexuality, making it a matter of simple physical attraction, not as rich or conflictual as being religious or not religious. Even worse the title suggests that "man is like a woman" and so either it means that a man has a part of femininity and that's what Simon is attracted to... doesn't he ask his cousin to find his own feminine side?
I gather that Zilbermann didn't try to offend either parties and treat them with benevolence and good spirit but by being so frivolous, he doesn't give his film its proper resolution and leave us with more questions than in the beginning... quite a ruined potential. In fact, "The Birdcage" for all its clichés and flaming and over-the-top acting, had more guts!
En guerre (2018)
Brizé predicted the yellow vests...
The title says it all. "At War".
Stephane Brizé's film is a hard-hitting and uncompromising portrayal of workers whose lives are literally hammered by the grotesque peculiarities of capitalism. It is even more relevant since it was released a few months before the yellow vests revolt in France, and it almost predicted the crucial role of the 'battle of image' with the ambivalent assistance of the media. When there's war, there's conflict and it evolves on three levels.
First, you have the workers of the Perrin Industry in Agen, a factory about to be closed for lack of economical viability, a state of fact that not only contradicts a promise made by the management but also the insolent increasing of the company's stock value. The establishing moment of Laurent (union leader) shows him daring the boss to go tell his workers that they're going to lose their job while the company's making profits.
Then following a funnel-like structure, there's the internal conflict between the two major union forces: one that insists on meeting the German CEO and the other which is more pragmatic and would rather negotiate the number in the redundancy check. It's literally a Cornelian dilemma: one between passion and reason, which in that psychological arm-wrestling is translated into desperation vs. Defeatism.
Finally, we get a glimpse on conflicts within people who question the futility of everything: the more they raise their voice, the less they're heard, the less they're heard, the more inclined to violence... and if not listened to, they're seen and exposed by the treacherous cameras. That's the vicious circle of violence, the more you're willing to fight, the more likely you are to lose because your determination must be contained in a spectrum of conveniences and curtesy that is almost obscene in that context.
But the tone is set already with that quote from Bertold Brecht: those who fight might lose, those who don't have already lost. That's it. The remaining question is: is it a fair game or is it rigged? Brizé doesn't surrender to pessimism but simply uses documentary-style realism and 'fake' news report to depict the escalation of the situation. We get to more private moments where the union traders plan their communication strategies. It doesn't take long before the "divide to rule" principle is evoked during one of these heated meetings.
But the first conflict, while not the subtlest one, is the most spectacular... and infuriating. It's truly two worlds colliding at each other. And there's something rotten in a state when you have a clean-cut well-dressed rosy-cheeked Human Resources yuppie telling worn-down workers that they can't even meet one man. Sure, you can ask for the mayor to help or a President's representative but the state can't interfere with economical freedom. It all leads to the first misstep where they all refuse to leave the headquarters are pushed by security guards. People who want to move forward and being held back. The perfect analogy.
Now I could talk about Vincent Lindon, once again brilliant in the film after having played the unemployed guy in "The Measure of a Man". I could also mention Mélanie Rover, but listing the cast isn't the pont, not even for Lindon. The film is about the collective force and Brizé did the right thing by never going into their private lives except for a few moments where Laurent watches pictures of his pregnant daughter (calling him "her hero") or where Melanie says that her boyfriend (or husband) isn't very implicated in the fight and is more annoyed to take charge of everything. The rest of the individual struggles are alluded to during the internal arguments where we discover that Laurent isn't even the most in trouble, but he's got principles.
And boy are principles shaken in this conflict! There's a lot of noise and anger and disbelief displayed in the film that it's a miracle there's no incident. But there's a fine line between knowing anger is detrimental to the cause and not falling in the trap. And since we're put in the worker's shoes, having to endure the patronizing mumbo-jumbo of well-educated men and women who "hear what they say" but their hands are tied, it's hard not to full into insanity... and anger is truly a brief madness.
It's a dialogue of the deaf where the winner is the one who doesn't snap. The irony is that the more workers you have, the more likely you are to have troublemakers or traitors or 'breakers'. I read once that a group that counts more than 100 or 150 elements is more vulnerable because you can't control more persons (that's what Romans had centuries). You can't even listen to more than three people talking.
On that level, Brizé proves again a master storyteller by the way he plunges us in long and interminable interactions where people talk the same time and you can barely hear them, but that does happen in real life, doesn't it? The impression of chaos and cacophony is obviously deliberate and renders perfectly the vulnerability of union. All it took was one incident that would give an excuse for the government to "denounce violence in all its forms". They know the drift.
I am not sure it needed that ending that looked like a gratuitous downer, I understand the motives behind it and the shock value but the realism of "At War" was beyond that and the ending kind of made the Manichean angle a little more forced. Apart from that miscalculation from Brizé and his screenwriter Olivier Gorce, I applaud the film's boldness and honest portrayal of the workers' struggle, even more difficult in our media-driven world.
"At War" is a sort of modern-day cinematic "Germinal" that proves that ever since Zola's "J'Accuse" things haven't changed much.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Gene Kelly sang in the rain, Gene's mother danced in the dark...
"Dancer in the Dark" might be implausible but it is never ridiculous. The nuance here is capital: you might find some parts strange or weird but the whole film is functional and very thorough.
Still, what a premise!
First you have Björk, the Icelander pop singer (of all the countries) as a proletarian Cinderella of Czech background named Selma. The story is set in Washington 1964 but Von Trier never feels inclined to throw a few temporal markers such as a Beatles song in the radio or footage on TV. Why would he do that anyway? Selma suffers from a degenerative disease that affects her eyesight and she uses many tricks to hide her conditions (counting the steps, learning eye charts by heart), sometimes with the help of her friend Kathy, played by French icon Catherine Deneuve.
Selma is also a fan of musical comedies and belongs to a little troop where she rehearses for a recreation of "Sound of Music" where she plays Maria. She rents a trailer house that belongs to a cop named Bill (David Morse) his wife Linda is played by Cara Seymour. There's a mutual appreciation between Bill and Selma while there's a dim-witted factory worker played by Peter Stormare who's truly in love with her. Finally Selma has a son, Gene (Vladica Kostic) who inherited her disease. Selma must collect money to pay a costly operation that will prevent him from turning blind.
If there were as many calories in the films as plot elements, it would make my cholesterol explode. Add to that that the film is shot by one of the Dogme 95's disciples and sometimes, speaking of eyesight, you have the feeling that you're watching something from behind fogged eyeglasses. I've recorded better home videos, believe me. But thankfully, Von Trier never let the dogme come in the day of the story and for the sake of visual artistry, he used 100 digital cameras and brightened the colors the musical sequences. These artistic licenses didn't heighten the film as much as they reassured me that Von Trier was being an artist who didn't get carried away by dogmatic minimalism.
It's very hard to take "Dancer in the Dark" seriously not because it's not serious but because there are too much oddities for minds who've been nurtured by the conventions of American cinema, sight, sound, method acting and all that jazz. But the fact that at the end you find yourself moved to tears by an unknown actress for a poignant drama, punctuated with silly daydreaming dance sequences, is the real prowess of Von Trier. And I think this is one case of a film whose success relied on one casting: Bjork.
The eccentric singer who was famous for her "It's so Quiet" song delivers the kind of performances that are so unique and atypical you can't imagine them with another physique or another personality. As Deneuve pointed it out, she wasn't a professional and therefore she really had an instinctive or emotional approach to the role. Take the killing scene, she was truly repulsed by the gun and so it showed. Her 'method' was a mix of improvisation and total detachment but always with a sincere mindset. That she had to write her own songs says it all, in fact she was as pivotal a part in the making of the film as the filmmaker himself.
And so even in a setting as improbable as a factory, we get a moment where the machinery noises and sounds form a sort of "music" (same will be done with footsteps) and Selma escapes from her condition by imagining people bursting into songs and dances like in old Technicolor MGM musicals. The more desperate she is, the gloomier the prospects are, the more extravagant it gets so you can imagine how far it will go for an execution. The film has so many mood whiplashes you would lose count but they do create an ambiance of unpredictable but entertaining (or at the very least interesting) strangeness, something that is so gutsy and risky that it actually impresses you. But for one crazy moment where Joel Grey starts tap dancing on a trial court, you have genuine moments of friendship between Kathy and Selma, like that moment where she describes to her the film in the theater, much to one viewer's displeasure.
Von Trier said his earliest memory was "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and so he wanted the film to be reminiscent of that harrowing experience: a woman who couldn't admit her innocence without a moral price to pay. There had to be many contrivances to make Selma incapable to admit she killed a man for self-defense or accidentally and yet the story within its many elements of corniness and deliberate sentimentality made it logical. But if it wasn't for Björk and the way she looks, acts and 'feels' in the screen, the result might have been disastrous.
There's something honest in the film's sentimentalism. Even Von Trier was a fan of Deneuve and wanted her in a role that could echo "Demoiselles de Rochefort". But he put it over a social backdrop that generally pleases the Cannes Festival ("Rosetta" had won the Golden Palm one year before) and so the film is also a composite of elements that find a true audience at the Cannes Festival (social commentary, genre blending, uniqueness of style etc.) And so it did win the Palme d'Or but more impressive (and more deserved) was Björk winning the Best Actress prize..
Lars Von Trier knew where he was taking us viewers with that journey and that he had to abandon a few restrictive guidelines of his sacrosaint Dogme 95 speaks highly of his dedication to the project. When you love your story better than your craft, you're drawing the line between the artist and the craftsman. And imperfect as it may be, "Dancer in the Dark" is a work of art.
La loi du marché (2015)
A sharp depiction of French economic reality... and the life damages that ensue...
Like Ken Loach or the Dardennes brothers, Stephane Brizé belongs to that category of filmmakers who use the camera like a political tool or at the very least a window to our post-modern society where the majority is theoretically free but economically tied. His "Measure of Man", starring Vincent Lindon, is sandwiched between the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night" and Loach's Golden Palm Winner "I, Daniel Blake" and can almost be regarded as a composite of the two stories.
Thierry is a man in his mid-fifties (or younger after the difficulties of life have struck a blow on his youth), he lost the job he's been doing for several years and became unemployed at the very time he should have been a stable middle-aged man whose house land has finally been repaid. And yet he finds himself stuck in that spiral of job applications, resumes and cover letters and impersonal interviews where you've got to exude enthusiasm for jobs you know you don't have the makings for. If honesty was part of the game, you'd say "I need the job, period", but the it is a rigged game whose viability depends on the tacit hypocrisy driven by basic needs. Better the other schmuck than me.
The film opens with scenes that are close to "Daniel Blake" as they highlight the obstacle course between the jobless and the job. It's not much the bureaucratic aspect that bothers Brizé but the lack of logic. In the first scene, Thierry complains to a employment agent about the uselessness of an offer that takes weeks of preparation while it should have been more explicit about the qualifications. The scene rang true as I used to be unemployed and I forced myself to apply for jobs I had nothing to do with them, to swallow my pride and answer such questions as "are you aware you'll learn less than your old salary" to which I wanted to reply "would I be here if I wasn't?".
Lindon delivers a perfect performance, all in sobriety without any emotional breakdown, you can sense the exhaustion in the man's eyes, in the way he stutters , in a few tics to hide his embarrassments, and even in the casual ways he avoids eye contact as if it was the first step to conflict. The realism of the film depended on him and any pitch lower or higher could have ruined everything. He would win the Best Actor prize at Cannes and I do believe this was an oscar worthy performance. Alas the man didn't have these showy breakdown moments like Marion Cotillard in "Two Days, One Night" but that Brizé didn't want to delve in spectacularity is all to his credit.
That's the paradox and yet the whole genius of his directing. You have a long sequence showing Thierry trying to overcome his stiffness and learn a few rock n' roll steps with his wife and a tragic incident, a potentially memorable "scene" treated through an ellipse. Brizé's instinct for realism is nuanced and clever, he cares for the effects on his character, not viewers, trusting our patience. And so he gratifies us with many painful scenes that drags on but it's never gratuitous. Whether a long negotiation for the price of a mobile home, his handicapped son struggling to express something or shoplifters being interrogated (Thierry eventually finds a job as a store security guard), Brizé stretches it for so long that our own perspective changes.
First, we see a client (sometimes employee) who's been caught red-handed but as it lingers and silence gets heavier, we feel the tension, the uselessness, the whole absurdity of the thing and we have time to fill the silence with our thoughts: they must have a reason, there's got to be a history or simply: how about arresting the real criminals? It's indeed a petty world where there's so much effort pulled for shoplifters and so many politicians can get away with stolen millions. Brizé doesn't denounce them, he just confronts us to these realities, doesn't take any side, even Thierry is never seen helping anyone, he just does his job, looking for eventual thieves, he's not here to ask questions.
Ironically, he's put in a safe situation: after all, if social workers seem to be immune against unemployment, someone charged of spotting liable employees is certainly the least likely to ever be fired. But for a man as principled as Thierry, it's a meager consolation. Thierry is confronted to a situation where he realize the corners where normal people are put, and as he recovers from his financial troubles. The ending leaves a big interrogation mark on his future but speaks deeply about the gap between the man and the capitalism era he's living in, where people are all part of the merchandising product and as the prize won by the film at Cannes says: "For its prophetical stance on the world of work and its sharp reflection on our tacit complicity in the inhumane logics of merchandising."
Not that Cannes can be regarded as the anti-liberalism sanctuary but it has allowed many directors to raise their voice and shed their lights on the struggle of little people.
The screenplay (written by Brizé and Olivier Gorce) is hard-hitting and contains so many familiar situation that I kept nodding, sometimes even in anticipation, I even cringed at the moment his interview performance was being judged and it turned into a real roasting session (as if "normal" people had their body language scanned continuously). Lindon's acting is sublime and if the directing doesn't reinvent the rules of docudrama (handheld camera is almost a cliché), I must say I was struck by these long moments of hesitations where you could realize measure the gap between the people who pulls the string, those who play the farce and the passive spectators.
That's the law of the market and in his situation, Thierry couldn't just afford to be an outlaw...