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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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Which of these notable 1950s movies about show business is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Indeed, while it's one of the most common forms of body fetishism, it still held many negative connotations and over the course of a century, a few movies have portrayed scenes of foot massage or kissing.
This poll is not intended to diminish or mock the "Girl Power" message, on the contrary, foot fetishism could be considered as one of the expressions of female empowerment in its "gender inversion" aspect as it makes the woman in control of the situation only in a more private area and in a (more or less) playful way, which didn't prevent some films (including many classics) to feature it rather explicitly.
Now we all know a poster of Thelma & Louise (1991) or Wonder Woman (2017) would be more appropriate, but if you wrote a book about "Girl Power in the Movies" : which of these movie images on the book's cover jacket would deliver the most shocking impact and spark the most interest in the book?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
These movies were all directed by directors (obviously) who had made a name for themselves through acting or whose first notability was on the field of acting or who were known as actors prior to their directing debut. We're good? Good.
Oh, and these movies have another thing in common, they won the Oscar for Best Picture. To date, only 10 movies fit that category.
Which of these Best Picture winners directed by actors is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Honoring such pioneers as Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, Michael Gore and John Carpenter, this list includes the most memorable "synth" scores from that period. So here it goes...
Which of these 70s/80s synth scores strikes the most personal chord?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
In the former case, the finality of the film (granted it's a happy ending) is that the two will spend their life together, which generally means marriage but in the latter case, marriage isn't the end but rather the starting point of the thrills (aka troubles) or at least the mid-point.
The following movies have two things in common: they were all listed in the AFI's Top 100 Greatest American Romances and they feature a married couple for the most part of the film, if not the totality.
Which of these AFI's marital romances is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these quotes with the word 'good' is the most memorable?
You voted? Good. Now you can discuss the list in... a good place.
Indeed, when it comes to dramas, nighttime is generally an ideal setting for climactic scenes as darkness emphasizes danger and allows violence to reach its highest point. Then, the sun can rise peacefully, lighting hopes for a brighter future...
But sometimes, the night plays the "quiet before the storm" part or let things escalate until they can finally implode at dawn, in the morning or let's just say a few hours before noon.
This is a compilation of memorable climactic scenes that take scene at a moment viewers can identify as the morning, either because it's shown or strongly implied (some pictures don't match in order to avoid spoiling the ending).
Not necessarily from your favorite film, which of these morning climaxes is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these Black movie musicals is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Mister Roberts (1955)
A lackluster vehicle for old-fashioned sentimentalism (only redeemed by Jack Lemmon)...
First I thought "Mister Roberts" was the name of the US Navy cargo ship that carried all the plotline (not a heavy freight, mind you), and it would have been a fine name, but her name's "The Reluctant" and everyone aboard calls it affectionately the 'Bucket', including Mr. Doug Roberts who has a few reluctances to express in an odyssey that consumed much of his patience... and is about to use up ours as soon as the opening fanfares stop.
"Mister Roberts" has all the makings of classic old-fashioned Cinemascope entertainment with an all-star cast that includes Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Ward Bond and a young scene-stealing newcomer named Jack Lemmon. The film offers dazzling shots of the Pacific 'backwaters' under various shades of blues, with a sunny weather that seems to go over the heads of most of the seamen stationed so far from the action going during the final days of the war. The boys are either devoured by boredom or feel their body temperature increasing with the heat and the longing for amusement like previously the men of the bounty.
So the film is rather quiet, but it's the relative and colorful quietness that make you expect an entertaining storm. At the end, it gets away with a timid breeze, enjoyable to some degree but not brazen enough to pass as great entertainment, something is lacking in that glorious picture directed by John Ford and Melvyn Leroy. Whatever is lacking can be summed up in one word: execution. The film is adapted from a play of the same name where Fonda's reprising the role of the titular Douglas Robert, the sympathetic lieutenant who wishes he could take part at some battle before the end of the war and fraternizes with the crew, shielding everybody from the petty tyranny of the Commandant played by James Cagney.
Fonda is good in a role where his ego is more than flattered: he's brave, kind-hearted, patriotic, he's such a perfect human being that it's irritating. Meanwhile, the Commandant is a sort of Napoleonic figure who vents his past frustrations over his crew and use discipline as a pretext to prevent them from any kind of distraction like swimming or a shore-leave near an idyllic island. Cagney isn't exasperating because he's playing with passion a rather ungrateful role and seems more alive than Fonda who wanders in his contemplation of the war and already acts as the heroic relic he's about to become. I like positive characters to a point: Fonda's nobility was overplayed ad nauseam, so much it betrayed the film's problem: good story, poor execution.
The actors are all great, William Powell is a solid addition playing with the right balance of resignation and optimism the drawn-out "Doc" who accepts with paternal benevolence the hypochondriac shenanigans of his 'boys' and with honest empathy the melancholy of his friend Doug, Ward Bond is good and I'll get back to Jack Lemmon, but seriously, whoever was responsible for casting the sailors did to the movie what the Commandant did to their moral, an act of sabotaging. It's very telling when awkward acting is given a free pass with legends such as John Ford behind the camera. These boys reminded of these schools of mackerels who ride the Ocean waves in one block going at the same direction.
You can see the evolution of Robert's popularity just by cringing at these guys: first, they're all looking at him as if he was Eisenhower, or Jesus, or Elvis. Then, when the Commandant makes it look as if he turned yellow, everyone rejects him and I mean everyone. No one is two-dimensional enough to smell something fishy in that 180° turn, the guy who just earned them a permission for Heaven has supposedly turned into the Commandant's pet. There wasn't one ounce of believability in Robert's disgrace, it was played in a rather infantile and intelligence-insulting way that could have only worked if it was meant to be funny. Not all the gags involving Lemmon as Ensign Pulver are sophisticated but even in their silliness, Lemmon played them with the kind of bravura that justified his Oscar nomination (not sure about the win). His Pulver was lazy, luscious, opportunistic, cowardly, hypocrite but he played all these negative traits as if he was submerged by them, the sailors were just emotional mannequins.
And you can see the emergence of Lemmon's talent, in the one dramatic scene he's got to play, Lemmon transcends his character and shows that he's got nothing to envy from the veteran actors, and when the establishing moment occurs, involving Commandant's beloved palm-tree (actually a replacement), you can see behind him sailors who are gazing with smile and admiration. At that moment of the film, there was no way any sailor would be smiling and once again, what should have been the height of awesomeness was ruined by poor directing, someone with the experience of Ford, or whoever directed that scene, should have been able to manage the crew and get the right reactions.
Take another military movie of the same period "The Caine Mutiny", the film focused on the officers and the crew had Lee Marvin, that was enough to sustain a minimum of believability in the story. "Misters Roberts" reaches some genuinely funny moments that remind of "Stalag 17" or later "MASH" (though I didn't like that one much). Some gags are too raunchy to be funny by today's standards, but the joke is still on Lemmon and hi mimics and raunchiness save the day by canceling the goody-too-shoes nobility of Roberts and the counter-productive meanness of the Commandant.
"Mister Roberts" is a lackluster vehicle for old-fashioned sentimentalism filmed by a Ford at his loosest. I heard he didn't get along with Cagney and Fonda, and even punched the latter's jaw after a heated argument so had the film been half as interesting as what it inspired behind the camera, it might have deserved a few superlatives.
Carmen Jones (1954)
You're hot for me and I'm taboo, but if you're hard to get I'm all for you...
"Carmen Jones" is a milestone for African-American cinema and that will cover most of the review so let's start by giving Otto Preminger the credit he deserved to have trusted his instinct and served a wonderful platform to Black talents such as Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Olga James or Pearl Bailey. And let's not forget Saul Bass who designed the rose in the middle of an incandescent red flame, growing and growing under the tempo of "Carmen"'s overture.
Just like the opening credits sequence, some moments are nothing short of brilliant in a precociously modern way. However, other elements are so naively conceived and lacking in inspiration that it prevents the film to reach the same heights than many acclaimed classics. It doesn't do to "Carmen" (Prosper Merimee's story and George Bizet's opera) what "West Side Story" did for "Romeo and Juliet", but the intentions were there, and the Cinemascope musical did a lot for the African-American cinematic presence in the early 1950s.
And there are two things to which "Carmen Jones" owes a great deal of its impact: the iconic music of Bizet's opera and the sex-appeal of Dorothy Dandridge who doesn't even need any music to inflame the screen, her sole presence does the job. Whether dressed in that tight bohemian-like dress or that slinky pink outfit, the woman with the rose, a wild rose herself, is the kind of screen-presence that only a heart made of stone would resist. Dandridge's performance as the titular Carmen will make history as the first to earn a Black performer a nomination for Best Actress, competing with Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland for the golden statuette but ultimately losing for Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl".
But Carmen Jones isn't your average "country girl", as the hedonistic and sultry vixen, she's a winner per essence, a woman who knows how her charm operates and never misses an opportunity to seduce the eyes and catch a resisting heart. As she sings along with the Habanera music "you go for me and I'm taboo but if you're hard to get I'm all for you", we would almost miss the warning if it wasn't for the catchy melody. The voice doesn't belong to her but to Marilyn Horne. I guess it was too much asking to get the voice and the acting in the same body, but Dandridge exudes such vivid sensuality allow that it suspends our disbelief and we carry on, following the growing romance with Joe, the naïve Corporal who abandons his doll-faced but prude fiancée (Olga James) for the more volcanic beauty.
It doesn't take too long for the romance to take off, interestingly, it's caused by the imprisonment of Carmen for a fight with a co-worker, and even in the realm of violence, there's something fascinatingly torrid and wild in Carmen's body language, making the film unusually sensual by the standards of the fifties. Look at the scene where Carmen literally slides her head between Joe's legs to firmly clean his pants from mud and how this builds up to the great moment where she threw the peach he was eating and put his arm around her hips, as to say "kiss me you big fool" and finally, the epitome of eroticism is reaches where she gives her feet to him and he kisses them, subverting the balance of power, becoming the slave of her love.
I can't recall a more sexually loaded picture of the same era except for "A Streetcar Named Desire" but one should wonder whether the Code would have left these scenes uncensored if they were featuring White actors. This is not to review the film under the prism of racial considerations but only to say that there are many timely aspects that date it in a subtler way. Yes it's impossible to overlook what makes the film such a milestone as a Black movie musical... but sometimes, you almost feel a sort of outsider fascination, from director Otto Preminger who adapted the Broadway musical. Sometimes the film gets too intense for its own good and the 'dramatic' moments, which Preminger intended to film as narrative highlights strike for their savorless and condescending superficiality.
It results in an uneven production where great singing moments such as Olga James who plays the poor fiancée and Pearl Bailey, who as Carmen's friend, Frankie steals the show with her unforgettable "Rhythm of a Drum", a spontaneous and not too fancy act that lets the real creativity implode and makes you almost regret the film's insistence to recreate the opera. The boxer who supposedly replaces the toreador is a rather forgettable rival to Joe, who isn't even given much substance especially during the second half of the film. Belafonte is never given a true chance to shine as much as Dandridge and his emotional moments are inevitably ruined by the operatic voice of LeVern Hutcherson, which seems to belong to a a different universe than the one we've been immersed to.
Some scene becomes pathetic but in a sort of a laughable way that shows the limit of an opera modernization when it comes to a contemporary setting. And the awkwardness is enhanced by the fact that there aren't the real singers' voices. Now all these considerations apart, how the film stand as a musical or as entertainment? I think there's something however that makes the film a standalone classic, the way it defies many conventions of the musical and the romance and even dares to challenge the narrative requirements by not hinting anything condemnable in Carmen's behavior. She's a selfish person, to which it's hard to empathize with, but the film was directed with enough guts to let her be till the end. She was a natural and strayed loyal to her own personal appetites despite the tragedy pending over her.
"Carmen Jones" was a true anti-heroine, and certainly a decade-defining and culturally significant character, which is enough to redeem the musical.
I Want to Live! (1958)
One of the all-time greatest female performances...
I think the last time my heart was shattered by a female performance must date back to Giuletta Masina in "Nights of Cabiria". Before there was Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence", Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream" or Maria Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and from now on, whenever I'll have to mention the greatest female performances ever, the name of Susan Hawyard will inevitably come up for I will never forget her role as Barbara Graham the woman who was sent to the gas chamber because of the most unfortunately tragic set of circumstances ever put on a single human being.
Believing in the innocence of Graham is integral to the film's emotional impact because this is the point where our empathy is rooted and can deploy itself through all the events that will pave her way to the chamber. It's also important because the film is structured into three acts with three different styles of directing from Robert Wise showing three different steps in Babs' harrowing journey, from the perky and fun-loving B-girl to the sacrificed lamb a media frenzy, victim of her own candor, to the resignation of a woman who for the first time of her life is submitted to an uncontrollable force that even her good nature can get her rid from.
And the title "I Want to Live!", from the Pullitzer-winning chronicle of Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) is all the more heartbreaking because the woman didn't wait for her condemnation to have an appetite for life! This is where the first act intervenes, it starts in pure late 50s fashion with a Saul-Bass like credits and a jazzy opening full of Dutch angles to convey the dazzling and twisted world where Babs evolves. Frm her very first second on screen, I was getting the vibes of an Oscar-winning performance, the lights aren't even turned on in the sordid motel room that we can feel the cool and jazzy chill crawling down her spine and inspiring a tigress-like move... when she gets arrested, she behaves like a pretty lady of petty crimes, she doesn't let the copper touch her, she lets a few wisecracks slip and from her comical pictures behind the bars, we gather that it wasn't her first time on the rodeo.
Next time we see her, she's entertaining a bunch of young army-men in a clandestine party, she accepts to help some crook friends by providing them an alibi and later she's dancing to a frenetic bongos drumming and he way she literally makes one with the music reminded me of Fellini's "Cabiria". There are performances where you know the actress isn't cheating, she becomes the character to use a hackneyed expression, and the funnier she was to watch, the more anxious I was while anticipating the obvious mood whiplash. You know tragedy will raise its ugly head sooner or later and during the transition from a free-spirited volatile pin-up to the death row, every step will feel like a judge's hammer. That's how painful the film is.
The second act is perhaps the most excruciating, in what I'd call the five stages of realization. At first, Babs is in total denial, oblivious to the accusation pending on her and believing she's only convincted for a few misdemeanors, she sings in her shower, have fun with the inmates and it takes a letter from the court to understand why the bond for her release is so big and finally shout that she's innocent. And then we follow her from anger from having been crossed to fear over not providing an alibi, which leads to the bargain that puts the final nail in the coffin. I hate it when movies make something inevitable and force us to endure the fatal mistake And when trying to justify her "confession" her past perjury felony backfires at the trial, provoking the hilarity of the audience.
Even Babs smiles while tears are coming, she's devastated but she can taste the cruel irony. In a way she becomes the witness of her own legal demise, orchestrated by the journalists who were preying at her from the start. Babs made herself the star of the show when she brandished a cuddly tiger to the camera during her arrest unknowing that the press wasn't an ally to count for but a system more interested in the show than the truth, her downfall was more spectacular than the investigation. The social commentary about the power of the press is one of the film's highlights, and Babs is able to denounce that instrumentalisation with her own biting words as she lives San Quentin for the death house, another woman but not out of the woods yet.
From that point, the film turns into the contemplation of a coming death and the legal maneuvers applied to commute her sentence or prove her innocence notably from psychiatrists (Theodore Bikel) to Ed Montgomery who realize the harm the press caused to her case. It all leads to the final twenty minutes where she will battle her way out of her cell to the gas chamber with every detail of the preparation shown by Wise with a docudramatic precision. Nothing is spared to us, for every ringing from the near-by phone, every postponing and every second passing by that clock, my heart was beating at the same pulse as Babs', waiting for the torture to end.
If Robert Wise's directing was nothing short of brilliant and the screenplay shone for its biting realism, it's Susan Hawyward who made the film and left one of the all-time greatest performances ever, one where you could almost taste the emotional pain endured, and each breakdown had the effect of a mental seizure, that's how extraordinary "I Want to Live!" is, a stressful and upsetting portrayal of a woman charged for murder, victim of the limitations of the legal system and the overwhelming power of the media.
The Unbearable Heaviness of Being (Good)...
"To be or not to be, that's the question."
And that's the central question that encompasses many aspects of film-making. We gather that it's all about what is and what is not, what seems and what reality is, if it can be taken for granted... but that the iconic question was raised by the appearance of a spectrum speaks another truth about cinema: it's about death as much as it's about life.
It's about death in the sense that we're watching a present that is no more and the older a film gets, the fuller of ghosts the screen is. It's also about death because fiction isn't reality in the first place. We learn about life through a ghostly present called fiction, or a living death in motion, that's the first truth. And like life, "The Idiot" opens with a scream, a seminal scream tracing the invisible frontier between life and death. It's upon that screaming truth that "The Idiot" opens in an overcrowded train where passengers are sleeping.
Kameda (Masayuki Mori) shares with Akama (Toshiro Mifune) the nightmare he just had, a dream-like flashback of the execution from which he barely escaped. After that episode where he literally saw the ghost of death coming to seize him, he made a tacit pact with destiny: anything carrying life would be instantly precious, from the dog he threw stones at as a kid to any human being, everyone was worthy of his goodness. But because of the shell shock and the war-trauma, Kameda spent time in an asylum, and his dementia was translated into an uglier word: idiot, a verbal leitmotif with the same resonance as 'stupid' in "Forrest Gump".
Kurosawa adapted Dostoyevsky's famous novel changing its Imperial Russian setting to post-war Japan. He was perhaps one of his biggest fans, considering him the most truthful author when it came to paint humanity. And indeed, you can see another truth in Kameda's behavior: he's a good person, not candid or naïve, but good because he learned to fear death, it's the awareness of his mortality that forged his goodness. Goodness is at the core of being human, because what defines our condition is death and what should define it is being good. This good/dead duality turns Makeda into a zombie-figure, a ghost sleepwalking among humans.
Normal people are too stubbornly attached to life to realize that they miss its very point. And it's only until they look at themselves through Kameda's eyes, played with quiet intensity by Mori that they're too disarmed to toy with feelings. I never really liked staring at people in the eyes because I found it like obscenely undressing them. And it's true that the titular idiot while not doing anything except reading, speaking or being present, allow these people to unmask their real selves. In a way, he is like a living metaphor of the camera, the threshold between the living and the seeming, a trigger to people's honesty.
I mentioned Forrest Gump, but the idiot can be also compared to Peter Sellers in "Being There" where his candidness was mistaken for profundity. In the case of Kameda, there is a genuine perceptiveness in his eyes, capable to see beyond the barriers of reputation or social bearings, but that capability backfires at him because you just can't idealize everyone without hurting some. Kurosawa's movies have always been about people who could 'look' but being a passive observer was only one step before action, there was no meaningless look. In "The Idiot", looking is active by essence and meaningful by necessity, not just for the observer.
Indeed, it all starts with Akama showing a picture of Taeko (Setsuko Hara) a woman he's literally buying from a "benefactor" who's literally auctioning her, Kayama played by the baby-faced Minoru Chiaki is also interested to buy her for a lesser dowry. When Kameda sees the picture of Taeko, it's not just love but truth at first sight, he can't see the whole thing, until a birthday party where he reveals with a sharp candor the amount of humanity he can read in Taeko, connecting it to the same fearful look he saw in a man who was executed. Taeko is so fascinated by the man she asks him if she should marry Kayama.
Later in the film, the triangular love has evolved, the rivalry isn't between Akama and Makeda but between Taeko and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) the daughter of Kameda's host played by Takashi Shimura. The two women love the same man, a situation that is likely to have two collateral damages and speaks another truth about life: the intentions no matter how good they are carry inevitable bad effects and vice versa. And Makeda's ambiguous relationship with Akama (Mifune has rarely been as intense... and sexy) reminds of their previous confrontation in "Rashomon", two men with two versions of the same story, each one living in his own fantasy or dream-like vision of life, each one driven mad because of truth.
Dreams or alternate realities are often present in Kurosawa's oeuvre, maybe to better preserve us from the painful truth as if goodness was too unbearable. The film is set in a cold wintery town, covered by snow, where people are too struck by coldness to act naturally, or during a carnival or a fancy reception where everyone plays a role and only one person stays the same, the man without a personality, a persona, a mask. He's the man who affect personalities, allowing them to transcend their condition, encouraging a woman with a reputation to emancipate herself, a crook to apologize and the weakly Mayaka to renounce money.
Every scene is staged with an opposition between passive liveliness and active inertia, reminding of that transcendent power of the camera, a frontier between life and death, dream and reality. The film speaks so many truths (a word I used a lot) maybe at the risk of being overlong, but it carries an irresistible poetry of its own.
Some Came Running (1958)
Tell me who you love, I'll tell you your weaknesses...
"Some Came Running" screams "male gaze" in every single frame. What would you expect from a film featuring rat packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin?
Yes indeed, under its attempt to denounce the hypocrisy of the American way of life at a time when better movies did the job (movies such as "Anatomy of a Murder" or "Touch of Evil") the film is only a pedestal built for cool cat Sinatra to show how manly he is even in the most virility-challenging situations.
Sinatra is Dave Hirsh, an army veteran and writer trying to give a new start to his post-war life in his little Indiana hometown. His brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) succeeded and achieved every standard of respectability, he's a banker, a good citizen, married to a good wife Agnes (Leora Dana) and with a pretty young girl named Dawn (Betty Lou Keim). That's for the façade, in reality, Agnes is as cold as a living popsicle with a barbed-wire heart and Dawn is suspiciously tempted by her uncle's life as a drifter, which by the day's standards, would only relegate her to the unenviable status of a tramp.
In between this flattering portrait of women of the fifites, there's Gwen French (Martha Hyer) as the teacher who's obviously infatuated with the writer but daren't embrace his life made of boozing and gambling and can only play hide-and-seek with her feelings. One can't ignore Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie, the gutter-girl, in love with Dave but whose colorful cheerfulness can hardly hide her desperation to stick to the first Prince Charming her who'd give her enough consideration. MacLaine overacts because her character is about overacting, her character is too innocent to be able to subdue her feelings, unlike the cold teacher.
Sure this is not a film to content a feminist and after watching it a first time this afternoon, I was tempted to label it as an old movie conveying the same old-fashioned vision of women under the fallacious dichotomy between broads with a golden heart and respectable women with a frigid body. However, something happened this evening, I had a date, a second date after one that supposedly sealed the feelings and then my "Mr Nice Guy" façade earned him one of the most humiliating brushes of my life. So right now, I want to review the film with that episode in mind and I completely assume my bias.
Yes, for all the flaws in this film and there are many, I appreciate it. Yes, for all its hurtful cynicism, for all its incapability to draw a straight portrait of people entrapped by the requirements of a society too clean to have a clean conscience, for all the technical flaws, which includes contrived coincidences, binary characterization and too-dimensional characters and an out-of-place ending, it's with all the bitterness that can fill a man's heart that I find the film to carry some hidden and politically incorrect truths, that still hold up today.
"Some Came Running" was adapted from a James Jones novel which was probably clearer in its intentions and more multilayered. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli who was certainly more focused on his syrupy "Gigi", starts very well, introducing many interesting dynamics between David and his niece, his conflicted relationship with his brother, introducing the character of gambler-boozer Dean Martin and a triangular love where both the educated teacher Gwen and the simple-minded nutty Ginnie are interested in the same man.
But Dave is obviously more interested in the woman who can see his real sensitivity as a writer but ends up with the tramp because he'd rather have a worst human being to worship him than begging for someone's heart. One is the trophy girl and the other one is the prize of consolation. It's interesting how the person you love says more about your personal weakness than any other thing. The idea is also highlighted in the relationship between Frank and his wife, an unforgiving selfish human being who keeps throwing at him that he's luckier than she is to have him, throwing him into the arms of his secretary (Nancy Gates).
The film almost makes you feel sorry for Frank who does his best to maintain a good marriage and satisfy everyone around, but the narrative loses its logic when the little fling with his secretary encourages his daughter Dawn to get looser and enjoy a life deprived of any morals. So the film comes to a point where it morally condemns the behavior of the husband without giving him any loophole, he's like trapped in a situation that makes celibacy the only possible salvation. Quite a cynical turn for a movie to show marriage as a jail or as a prize of consolation. So it's cynical, subversive I guess, and surprising from the director of "Meet Me in St. Louis".
I think I'm bitter enough to be able to forgive the flaws and look at the scope of the film rather than the characterization, provided the characters were given more subtlety and humanity, that wouldn't have taken too much from the core of "Some Came Running", which is a rather self-loathing portrait of marriage and love. I guess I can only agree since a previous relationship gave me one certitude: in love, there's always one who loves more, who's more in need than the other, and this lack of balance leads to dysfunctional marriage or pretensions of happiness that never fool anyone. Is there a solution? Well, this is a film that diagnosis a sickness but doesn't care for a remedy. Maybe because it can be worse than the diseased.
It takes a bitter mind to like it better, which suits me perfectly, in one evening, the film got two extra points. Now, let's forget this ugly day!
Moulin Rouge (1952)
Art like a life modeler, and life like a condition reminder...
Just like "The Adventures of Robin Hood", "Gone with the Wind" or "The Red Shoes", "Moulin Rouge" is the kind of movies color was invented for. Who would endure the constant bitterness of a depressed artist if it wasn't stirred with the flamboyant cocktail of bright colors provided by the Moulin Rouge ornaments? Who would dare to follow the little shadow of a man in the darkness of the gutter-city without having a fine boost of lively palettes from one of the most emblematic places of Paris of the "Belle Epoque", the good old days as they said in France, between the end of the war with the Prussians in 1870 and the beginning of the Great one in 1914.
This was a time of industrialization, driven by social and medical improvements, and extraordinary artistic creativity. From impressionist painters like Monet to the rise of naturalist literature with Zola, and not to mention, the invention of cinema by the Lumière brothers, France was the center of the artistic turmoil, out of which emerged the talent of Lautrec as well. And in these good old days, Moulin Rouge was only a cabaret and the can-can dancers would struggle to make their way to the central area and have their leg-lifting dance right in front of the viewers. Two jealous dancers could even go into a catfight and spill wine on some too close spectators, which is impossible to imagine now where they're all as impeccably disciplined as Buckingham palace guards.
That was part of the spirit, if not the show and in this mix of refinement and savagery, one man found his place. His name was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a man with many demons to fight like a true Hustonian character. Henri came from an aristocratic family, so cautious about keeping the lineage pure that his parents were cousins. This obsession backfired at the family when young Henri was victim of a bad fall and his legs couldn't grow again due to bad genetics, he would end with the torso of a grown-up and and child legs. In sitting position, Henri had the austere look of a notary clerk rather, standing, the deformity of his body made him look either grotesque or pitiful . Eventually, the man built a façade upon which he became the first to mock his own appearance.
As a character study, "Moulin Rouge" is a painful and harrowing immersion in the mind of a man who faced rejection so many times it cemented a wall of self-deprecation around his persona. Basically, anyone that can be tall and handsome is a predator and any woman he can ever love is the potential prey and he's only an accompanying monkey, a pastime. The film is perhaps one to speak the most vividly about an issue seldom explored: heightism. Many men have the feeling to have been betrayed by Karma when at the prime of their adulthood, they were as tall as teenagers or children for the most misfortunate. And an arrested developement is even more tragic when the rest of the body have developed fairly well, and a man can be adult, articulate, professional and a good family man but incapable to sell that very image because of a flaw in the package.
Have a look at any dating website, and you'll notice that most of the women look for a tall man and indeed, tall goes before handsome. Venturing in the realm of 5'7 or 5'8 (if I want to be generous), I could more than relate to the torment of Toulouse-Lautrec and his defiance toward Karma. Over the course of his journey, he meets two important women and the stories don't go so well, providing the lights of false hopes before throwing him again in the self-loathing catacombs. As Marie Charlet, Colette Marchand plays the gutter-girl who falls in love with the only man who didn't see in her a vulgar prostitute as for a man of Lautrec's condition, any woman who'd love him would do.
But this is no Chaplin movie and as time goes, nothing he can offer to her, a date at the restaurant, a painting can satisfy her, because she despises the reflection on her own condition Lautrec shines on her. Being with such a man is a failure as a woman, which is even worse than poverty Oscar-nominated for that role, Marchand played the second most tormented character of the film and literally steals the show. Suzanne Flon plays a more noble kind of woman as the one who can see the man in Lautrec, but then again, Lautrec's demons will resurrect through one provocation too many by destiny, and if goodness can't buy love, self-loathing and defiance can annihilate it.
It takes more than a harness and a clever knee-trick to make Jose Ferrer's performance, as the man with dignified self-hatred, he strikes as someone impossible to love because he can't even give the good example, he was clearly an avant-garde artist and it showed in his pictures but he also belonged to a time where one couldn't afford his looks. His alcoholism was obviously a way to seek oblivion and fight the bitterness, his own "Moulin Rouge, but his attempts to find the true love in any woman who'd show interest made up for a painful journey. Dedicating his life to the art wasn't enough, art is about recreating life and as a model, life would always be there to remind him of his condition.
This is the spectacular tale of a man who was doomed to live his life as a loser aware that some triumph would outlive him, like Van Gogh. John Huston had always a talent to paint such ambiguous portraits with fifty shades of pastels and brightness. "Moulin Rouge" wasn't just a cabaret but a state of mind and I just love the way this was played for the extraordinary deathbed scene, nothing like a good old can-can before the curtains close!
Same old story, a boy finds a girl...
...the boy is tied to a job he hates. The girl Is married to a man she doesn't love... and the rest is left to the secrecy of the coroner.
Through his novel "Double Indemnity" James M. Cain had set the literary template to modern film-noir where an easily impressionable fellow would stick to the spider web of a tempting femme-fatale. The boy is never looking for trouble but the girl is the kind of offer one can't refuse, the stakes are always high and so is the price. There's always a catch in that morbid game but nothing that greed and lust can't overcome... and that justice can't trick.
So film-noir and tragedy always went hand in hand, one with red-polished nails and hair-cuddling, cheek-caressing expert hands and one to pull the trigger, hit with a bottle, throw someone off a train, or a car over a cliff. But if "Double Indemnity" established the patterns, one must give a credit to Cain's other novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" for having pushed the boundaries ever further, making something that was deemed unsuitable for the movies. These novels were written at a time of Great Depression and only the aftermath of a war allowed the big shots of MGM studios to wise up and understand that the audience was ready to rawer stories.
Indeed, even "Double Indemnity", adapted by Raymond Chandler, was closer to "The Maltese Falcon" than the hard-core noir movie, carrying many elements of the private-eye film. Fred MacMurray had that clean-cut image that made him as desirable from a female standpoint than Barbara Stanwyck for the guy. The glamorous setting didn't conceal the cheap sordidness of the fool-proof insurance scheme but the film was Hollywood material. Though the motives are the same in "The Postman Rings Twices" and the woman even more beautiful, that was a classic of soaring sensuality and debauchery that no one would have seen coming from Leo the roaring lion.
And if the characters are less cunning and Machiavellian, they're no more kind-hearted and only earn our sympathy when their ideas or schemes are too approximate and hazardous to succeed. There's something pathetic in these people caught in the middle of the desert in a diner/service station owned by a clueless imbecile, and trying to figure how to rise beyond the mediocrity of their situation. The romance is driven by the attraction but there's a sort of existential call beyond it.
Lana Turner is Cora Smith, the bored wife of the aging diner's manager and John Garfield is Frank Chambers, a drifter, a bum who can't let such a beauty to that rotund fellow played by Cecil Kellaway. Nick is rather forgettable in the story, he has his moments but his naivety is so baffling you've got to wonder whether he didn't like that raunchy side of his wife, and his possessiveness never strikes as fully disinterested. So it's a fair trade that Cora and Frank look for their own interest.
When Frank is asked to work in the gas station, he's reluctant until his eyes meet Cora's in one of the most breathtaking encounters ever captured on the screen: a lipstick tube rolls, a camera pans over the floor and Garfied's literally out of breath. Lana Turner in white shorties, with innocent eyes, stares at him. Later, he's burning the sign that said "men wanted" and he realizes she's Nick's wife he knows he wasn't just the 'wanted' working man. It doesn't take much time for the love to be consumed, they kiss the very first night, they have another escapade to the beach and from there, their relationship is sealed... for better and even better, for worse.
The directing of Tay Garnett keeps it low-key with many external shots to keep on the realistic flow, the two aren't Romeo and Juliet, the setting is banal, Frank would rather leave the diner's with Cora but Cora has "ambition" she wants to turn the place into something and counts on Frank. The two encapsulate the torment of ordinary people with goals so big they have to take a few ethical shortcuts and toy with the law, the ends justifies the means.... And it's their very weaknesses that backfire at them, when you despise yourself so much that you're not sure about your actions, you end up betraying yourself or your accomplice. When the crime is committed, the film takes a fine U-turn to become a sly legal drama with two slick lawyer and D.A. using Cora and Frank for their private battle of egos, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames would almost make you feel sorry for the two.
A critic that can be formulated is that the film is slightly overlong after the trial part and kind of loses its pace until the emotionally affecting finale. But there are reasons why this is one of the best film noir ever, as the film never tries to glamorize the subjects, they're ordinary persons, easily impressionable and too liable to even be happy when they can. They don't deserve to be happy and while the title of John McCain's novel is obscure enough to leave a shadow of mystery around the fate of the two plotters, we know they won't get away with it and karma will show the bill.
Many things have been said about Lana Turner but once again, I had the pleasure to admire Garfield's acting, intense, realistic, neutral, even his silent moments, his pauses, make you feel his tension, the way he always keeps himself on guard as someone who's never too sure of himself. Garfield was one of these naturals without which we'd never praise Pacino or De Niro, a natural, an average not too attractive man but a man nonetheless. If only to admire his talent and Turner's, this is a film to watch.
And those two form one of the greatest romantic casts ever.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
There's no place like home...
I suspect I didn't give "Meet Me in St. Louis" the attention it fully deserved.
Sometimes, the words Technicolor, musical, Golden Age don't necessarily hit a sensitive chord and I blame it on the Millennial side of me, too blasé and hungry of modern significance. I could watch "The Wizard of Oz" for its status as an iconic classic, "A Star is Born" for its relevance and place in Judy Garland's filmography. But Vincente Minnelli's ode to Saint Louis never caught my attention despite its more than respectable reputation. And now that I saw it, and that I digested it, I realize how misinformed I was and I suspect this is a film I might want to watch again.
This is one of these pitch-proof movie where you keep waiting for something to happen... yet you realize that's not even the point. Indeed, who needs plot when you have the Smithes? This is a family full of such colorful characters that there's no room whatsoever for any plot or pre-written arc. Why should it anyway? Adapted from the happy memories of Sally "Tootie" Benson (yes, told from the little one's standpoint), the film displays such an exhilarating form of happiness that spoiling it with a plot would be a cinematic sin.
So let's visit the family! Leon Ames is Mr. Smith, father of one son and four daughters including Rose (Lucille Bremer), the second oldest Esther (Judy Garland) and the youngest one, Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor) endure their shenanigans valiantly while they can count on the support of their cool and hilarious grandpa (Henry Davenport). These are the Smiths and as soon as they appear on the screen, we're literally caught in their communicative amiability and optimism with the opening theme of the same title.
"Meet Me in Saint Louis" belongs to these vignette family-themed movies such as "Amarcord" or "Radio Days" where it's just about getting a mood and feeling part of a loving community rather than watching something happening. And just when you think something ought to happen, false alarm, a new song pops up again to lift your spirit up and puts you in the most cheerful mood, even the "straight" sister Rose is fun to watch, especially during her shining moment where she gets quite a brush from her correspondent. And everything's in good spirit, no character is laughed at but rather laughed it.
The closest to a plot comes when Mr. Smith announces to the family that they're going to move to New York and the decision is irrevocable, by the time it happens, we got used to the seasonal enchantment of the city and can't imagine the Smiths anywhere outside St. Louis. Even New York resonates like a place of doom for the family, but it's deliberate since the film is a postcard recollection of middle-upper class family, from the perspective of Tootie, only spiced up with adult and romantic subplot and unforgettable musical numbers that were the perfect vehicles for Judy Garland.
If "Meet Me in Saint Louis" is incredibly catchy, it's nothing compared to the "Trolley Song" and of course the "Have Yourself a merry Little Christmas" that became Hollywood standards and among Garland's signatures. The two songs, listed in the AFI's Top 100, convey two opposite emotions: joy and sheer sadness, the excitement of being part of a city and the resignation before living, the Christmas moment is particularly heartbreaking as it allows Margaret O'Brien to implode her full acting power and make thousands of souls cry with empathetic tears. That the comic relief of the film, that bratty little kid could pull off such a masterful performance is one of the unexpected effects of the film. She would deservedly win an Academy Juvenile Award for her incredible performance.
I can go over and over about the film, its merit is to be so blatantly cheerful, never indulging to cheap thrills, even the love stories are sweetly naïve and idealistic, almost surreal but fitting for a fantasy picture whose purpose is to highlight the real thing about th film: family ties, and the bonds between sisters or parents and grandparents, the film is a non-stop delight, that can be regarded as itsch or campy but I find it more straightforward and honest than Minnelli' "An American in Paris". In a way, it's a fine companion piece to Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz with the same conclusion that there's no place like home... and sometimes, we don't cherish enough the place we live in.
My only complaint is Garland's awful hairstyle, was she trying to imitate Katharine Hepburn or what?
Th greatest measure of love lies in the ability to renounce to it...
"Anna Karenina" was such a soporific (and let's say it) disappointing experience that I wasn't too enthralled by the premise of "Camille", the "next" costume romantic drama starring the great Greta. Yet I decided to watch the two films almost back-to-back because I felt the former didn't do justice to the acting potential of the alliterative icon, and there were many other personal reasons.
First, the film is included on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Romances (if you check many reviews I wrote, you'll see I'm a big AFI buff).
And there's the tragic story of Marguerite Gautier, a high-class courtesan who was putting on a generous and bon-vivant front in her inner circle only to make up for her own insecurities, in other words, a complex performance, made of hopefulness and poignancy, adoration and desperation, where Garbo would demonstrate that the face of the 'Face' could be the underrated container of genuinely true and truly genuine emotions.
Finally, there's the name of George Cukor who was competent enough not to have a dull movie as an offering. The film is immune to dullness and despite a few low spots, I wasn't disappointed.
Yes, the film has the look of these MGM period productions that would make a name out of William Wyler in the early 40s, but what strikes first is the way Garbo starts as an all-smiling, all-greeting woman whose charm is made of a positive attitude irradiating all around her. She doesn't need to overplay the emotions: a simple glimpse, a witty retort, an intonation can convey all the needed emotions and belie the 'I vant to be alone' reputation and the whole publicity around "Ninothcka".
Indeed, Garbo didn't wait for Ernst Lubitsch to laugh and glide with positiveness: any smile from Marguerite, the Lady with the camellias was sincerer than the so-called breakthrough moment where she laughed at Melvyn Douglas' fall in the restaurant. So the reason to watch "Camille" is Garbo's acting, that's her movie and she's so expansive, generous and versatile that every other actor pales in comparison... except maybe for the female players.
"Camille" is also a splendid, though not too showy exhibition of the decadence that prevailed during the 19th century within the Parisian high society... and decadent isn't just a fancy word: there's a party sequence with hysterical screams, naughty jokes, drunken games and debauchery I didn't expect to emerge from such a respectable MGM production and certainly not under the Hays Code guidance. There are moments where you're literally caught in that wave of subversion and let yourself transported so enthusiastically that even the handsome Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) feels like a party-pooper when he asks Marguerite to dismiss the guests. I wish that party could last longer, it was so exhilarating I almost forgot a plot had to move on.
Yes, it was so fun to enjoy the jovial, rotund and gossipy Prudence Duvernoy played by Laura Hope Crews; Lenore Ulric also steals the show as the manic Olympe. Garbo, in contrast, looks more distinguished and dignified but as the film goes on, it becomes obvious that the happy-go-lucky nature is only there to hide a deep stigma and a low self-esteem. Marguerite is courtesan, much more she's full of debts, which means she's a woman in the lowest position of the highest society, and whose beauty is the only asset she depends on, after her man's wealth. With the stiff and pompous Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) she was doomed to contemplate a potential freedom in any smooth talking playboy and then fate struck with the young Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).
There's something tragic that emerges from their initial exchanges. At first, he's courting her but she dismisses his attempt and reduces it to mundane flirting, is she tempted or does she know nothing good can come out of their relationship? In fact, she's too depressed deep inside to let any intrusion of love, and yet she starts to believe and abandon her soul because the need for love in her heart is the only thing that doesn't decline in her body, her healthiest spot. And so we're transported in that tale of deception and self-abandonment, so regretful to watch the spectacle of Marguerite's descent into hell but consoling ourselves with the certitude that Garbo was a true first lady of cinema.
As Anna Karenina, she was the Garbo mocked by the Looney Tunes cartoons, in this film, she's just an acting monument who fully deserved her Oscar nomination. The flipside of the coin is that it's truly a woman's movie, all actresses are great, but I wasn't as impressed by Taylor's acting as I was by his looks, he's incredibly handsome but he's simply dwarfed by Garbo's intensity. As the Baron, Daniell has a glorious acting moment where he confronts Marguerite and tests her loyalty while frenetically playing the piano and the sexual tension was as thrilling as the crescendo of a can-can dance. But I'm afraid that the romance between Camille and Armand can only offer a few bucolic pictures and a sight of passion sterilized by a Hays Code injection.
Indeed, there's more in her eyes and words than anything the poor playboy can give. So the ending which seems to be the apotheosis of a gripping romance ends up being a rather anticlimactic despite all the intentions of Cukor to make it an emotional climax. Lionel Barrymore also makes a honourable presence as the man who'll lead the plot to its fatal conclusion, making Camille that tragic heroine who sacrifices love out of love, and the great measure of love lies in the ability to renounce to it.
Speaking of great, isn't that remarkable (and fitting) that it's the anagram to Garbo's name.
The Black Stallion (1979)
Blessed by the genes.... and the djinns...
"The Black Stallion" says a lot of things about the bond that can go between a human being and an animal, and it shows it with such hypnotic beauty and dazzling shots that the form almost overshadows the content, maybe it does it completely. Indeed during the mesmerizing island sequence, there came a point where I was just asking myself, how did they do that?
This is one instance where the cinematographer is more known than the director. The director is Carol Ballard and the cinematographer who captured such magnificent images is Caleb Deschanel, and watching the film made me realize how fragile and accessible perfection is. Some directors never achieved greatness, I guess one is lucky if he leaves four or five masterpieces to posterity. Hitchcock, Kurosawa or Scorsese have nine or ten... Ballard has only one but that's good enough, or just enough.
The irony is that the scene where Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) is trying to make a contact with the majestic stallion, earning his trust through an improvised platter of alga, like he probably did when he gave him these sugar cubes in the boat, and then the symphonic and majestic ride through the beach is such an overwhelming moment that anything that goes after will feel conventional. I remember watching the AFI Cheers montage first and the Black Stallion picture was the one that stuck to my mind, something to do with the angle, the brown sand, the exaltation of sheer freedom, a metaphor for life at its most inspirational, obvious and penetrating.
The sequence is not only inspiring, it's just breathtakingly communicative, it just says something about the power of cinema as media, no picture, no symphony, no drawing, no dance could have conveyed all the emotions that sequence did in less than fifteen minutes. Without any words, any sentence, driven by the pure and divine magic of the arts of motion picture, we feel the motion, we embrace the picture, and every second of it. Even the start with the tender underwater ballet carries something magical and original in the sense of "origins", like a sort of primitive communion with nature, man, beasts and water all together without any social burden. The use of Oriental music provides the final touch of hypnotic mysticism, reminding us of the Black's root, the Arabian stallion, the Arabian nights, whatever made the Black Stallion such a wonder of nature, genes or djinns.
To put it simply, at that point of the story, they could have stayed One Thousand and One Nights, I don't think I would have minded. In fact, I almost felt the boy would be happy alone with that horse as an only friend. But the film was meant as a Two-Act structure and they couldn't stay forever there. And what follows involves familiar stuff: the racing, the training with Mickey Rooney, his performance as Henry Dailey, earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, the underdog undertones and all that jazz. I'm not diminishing the narrative value of these elements, especially because they're never directed in a way that shows a huge shift in quality, it is just that the story is too familiar for a film that ha just taken us in unknown cinematic height.
I do applaud Ballard for having maintained the same inclination to powerful imagery even during the conventional parts, after all, the ship sinking scene was as impressive as the aftermath in the island. It's like the perfectionism of the director is inspired by the very perfection of the black stallion's (Cass Olé) and the way the child values it and never seems touched by anything peripheral, what goes between them is just pure and disinterested friendship. So whenever the two are in the screen, the film never fails and Mickey Rooney is the third driving force, there's no scene without any of them, and no bad scene either, which is the fool-proof asset of "The Black Stallion".
Teri Garr doesn't add much to the film and isn't given the same character's substance as the father (Hoyt Axton), who infused the passion for horses to his son by telling him the story of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus. But the mother is obviously treated as the outsider she is, and her only reason to exist is to accept the race, she does it benevolently despite initial reservations that we're not kidded as her status as a tertiary character. And so Alec rides the 'Black' against the two dominating champions and naturally, that race has an outcome. Now, did the film need the competition climax? Certainly to close Dailey's arc in a satisfying way, to reward him for his effort to tame the Black and make him famous for the rest of the world. The racing is Rooney's story.
This is why we might feel underwhelmed, despite the glorious ending, maybe because we already felt rewarded by that island sequence. The Black Stallion is the culmination of Ballard's career and the highest spot of that culmination is obviously the ride on the beach, one of the greatest images of American cinema, endorsed by producer Francis Ford Coppola, the man who shot the Valkyrie ride in "Apocalypse Now", that says a lot!
Love Affair (1939)
Not too much of a tear-jerker (like the remake) and that's what I liked about it!
Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle" brought me to Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember", which inevitably lead me to the original from 1939, also directed by McCarey.
The Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr version is the emotional rollercoaster it's all cracked up to be yet it had left me with many reservations. I thought the film was too unbearably sentimental at points, that it was deemed to become the sappy chick flick Tom Hanks and his buddy laughed at. In such cases, you can only give the original a shot to see why the remake ended up being the "classic" one.
As I was watching "Love Affair", I was wondering why even the chemistry between Charles Boyer as Michel Marnay and Irene Dunne as Terry McCay didn't earn the film a place in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Romances, while the remake is the fifth entry, while "Anna Karenina", which I watched yesterday and that left me as cold as Siberia, was included as well. Granted Boyer is no Grant, he's actually better than him in that role and Dunne was full of humour and spontaneousness.
A similar case of a remake overshadowing the original in the AFI's Top 100 is "A Star is Born", but I called the 1954 film an enrichment of the original version. "An Affair to Remember" is only an embellishment, which is acceptable and a stretching which is not since the extra parts relied on these embellishments. McCarey had directed "Going My Way" in between and that might have influenced his choice to fill the 1957 film with so many musical numbers featuring poor children. It didn't help the remake, the original has such scenes but get away with them, that's how good it is.
The children scenes are never overused and only made the point of Terry McKay's recovery spirit-wise. And the music wasn't the remake's only problem anyway, it was the whole silliness of the marriage pact and that Kerr wanted to hide the fact that she couldn't walk. If love inspires an immediate vow, why shouldn't it ignore handicap? The original had the same 'problem' but also gets away with it because it didn't play the melodrama too strong and they never talked about marriage only the need to find decent jobs, he as a painter, she as a nightclub singer.
I also criticized the remake for having a great first act and a great finale but a rather weak second act filled of boring musical numbers and pointless scenes. At ninety minutes, just shy of one little minute, "Love Affair" skips the unnecessary parts and feature a solid three-act structure: the romance in the boat, the first six months and the last six months till Christmas. The second part is still the weakest but the film benefits from a masterful sense of cinematic restriction and two unforgettable performances from both Boyer and Dunne. For one thing Boyer didn't have that awful distracting tan and Dunne never sunk into the kind of pathos, an easy trap for such roles..
The two actors were born before the century and were in their early forties in that film and what strikes at the moment they meet is how natural the flow and glow of feelings go between them. As playboy Michel, Boyer plays the man bored by his own lover's image when he's approached by three giggling fans, his autograph proves that he's come to a point of his life where he doesn't care anymore. He plays a man who doesn't want to play.
And then, his eyes cross Terry, a playful woman whose smile and wisecracks do all the flirting necessary to surprise Michel then taunt him at the very moment he was fearing to suffocate from boredom. So the romance navigates in the warmest waters and the chemistry between Boyer and Dunne never leaves any doubt. I understand why Dunne was Oscar-nominated, she plays her Terry like a screwball lead character à la Stanwyck in the context of an adult drama, it works beautifully.
Now, it wouldn't be the love affair to remember without that halt to visit the grandmother in the Mediterranean countryside. Maria Ouspenkaya, Oscar-nominated for her role, illuminates the screen and creates a more believable bond with Boyer as Grant who was too play-boyish to be boyish in retrospect. Although it was in line with the emotionality, Deborah Kerr also hit the emotional button too far in that 'halt', making it a moment of sad epiphany while it was supposed to indicate a potential for happiness, Dunne is such an uplifting and positive character that I was glad her smile was maintained all through the visit and that the two never broke down crying even during the late night before New York.
As a matter of fact, "Love Affair" reminded me of how much of a tear-jerker the remake was, so blatantly it was like trying to pluck them out of your eyes. The film is melodramatic of course but never at the expenses of a certain confident pacing, even when it gets too generous in coincidences and contrivances. Boyer never loses his cool and Dunne never loses her smile, and it's very telling that the last act is made of laughs rather than tears.
I liked the film for that to-the-point and nuanced approach, just as if 1939 McCarey knew there was no need to stretch the material more than needed and maybe that left him with a feeling of incompletion, and encouraged him to make something more lavish and splendid, all in Cinemascope. The 1957 remake is more celebrated while the original had at least the merit to be one of the 10 prestigious Best Picture nominees of that glorious year of 1939.
Anna Karenina (1935)
As Anna Karenina, Greta Garbo doesn't want to be alone anymore...
Da, even as a married woman, she was alone, much alone, alone in that Czarist Russia's upper-class gilded cage locked up by a highly respectable -though annoyingly sanctimonious at times- diplomat Alexei Karenin played by pre-Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone. Being a loving mother to her only son Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew) wasn't satisfying enough, she needed the passion and when her eyes met the dashing and handsome Count Vronsky (Fredric March), she threw herself at him as desperately if he was some running train's wheel.
I guess he whole believability of "Anna Karenina" (the movie of course, I'm not talking about the literary masterpiece from Leo Tolstoy, which I didn't read because I'm more into Tintin and Asterix), so the whole plausibility of "Anna Karenina" lies in the confidence that even during her brief romantic interlude before responsibilities and social burdens showed the "bill", she'll find enough passion in Vronsky to make up for her lethargic and loveless marriage.
The problem is that Greta Garbo (which as a cinematic monument as the book is for literature) isn't convincing as the titular Anna. One would call 'blasphemy' but Garbo is such a presence that even the feelings that can fuel her hearts look as secondary as feathers on a hat. In that movie precisely, for all director Clarence Brown's good intentions to make it a legitimate romance, she seems as much in need of passion as Nicholas II for Marx' "Capital". Garbo is a splendid actress but maybe too dignified for a role that needed more liveliness, her heart seems forever mummified except for the moments where she visits Sergei her son, but not for one instant, I did believe in her romance.
And Fredric March carries some responsibility in that failure, he's convincing as the loyal and romantic cavalier but I noticed that in March, even as a lead character, likability isn't exactly his strongest suit. In "Anna Karenina", he strikes as a man loyal to his country, capable to resist alcohol and petty temptations, a great crocket player and horse rider, but too committed to duty and a semblance of etiquette not to appear stiff and rigid in a love that is supposed to make our hearts melt. And it's only because I believe in the competence of the two actors that I'd rather withdraw the term 'cold' and say they just looked bored. The romance was boring because as soon as they loved each other, they condemned themselves to isolation and shame.
Alexei refused to divorce Anna, reminding her of her marital obligations and Vronsky couldn't afford to ruin his reputation, the romance was a dead-end and the ultimate affront to her happiness was Alexei's forbiddance to see her son. It's a cruel part all right but the irony is that no matter how hard the film tries to make a villain out of Alexei, he comes across as a noble man, boring to some degree, but loyal and principled as attached to his vexed ego as Vronsky is dedicated to his uniform. Indeed, Vronsky, after his idyllic romance will crave for more adventures and thrills, invoking the same call of honor that forced Alexei to ruin Anna's life. So it comes to the emotional climax where Anna literally begs Vronsky not to leave her alone. Seriously?
I was wondering how a woman of Anna's intelligence could really expect that Vronsky would even desert the army for her sake, Anna's biggest mistake is that she didn't understand the mechanisms of gender-driven conventions and just committed a social suicide, and everything about her romantic aspirations backfired at her in the worst possible way. She's a tragic character we got it, but there's a sort of obviousness in that failure that emerges almost as instantly as the romance itself. Anna is an isolated woman all through the picture and can only realize how women who've been wise enough to stick to their roles like her sister-in-law Dolly (Phoeve Foster) or the cute Kitty (Maureen O'Sullivan) managed to be happy, and couldn't even pretend to envy Anna who destroyed the foundations of her life because of a romantic fling. Alexei warned after all.
This is a terrific tragic romance on the paper (and what paper!) but it's also a singular case of miscasting involving two great actors, Greta Garbo whose heart was locked in a dome of crystal from the start and the cold Fredric March who didn't even try to make her sacrifice worthwhile, kind of depressing isn't it. So what is left is the typical MGM costume drama with its ballroom sequence, a few vertiginous shots on a lavish banquet and a few great sequences that didn't fool the Academy. I was surprised that it didn't garner any Oscar nominations but maybe even at that part, there were failed Oscar baits. The romance was still convincing enough to garner an entry in the American Film' Institute's Top 100 romances, a meagre consolation.
It's still one of Garbo's most memorable roles as the woman who didn't want to be alone and ended more alone than ever.
A Star Is Born (1954)
Certainly the most emotionally loaded version of the "Star is Born" tetralogy...
Well, this is definitely an enrichment of the Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The 1937 tear-jerker wasn't much a draft than an emotional outline that could only draw the potential of the story without really imploding it, though it did at some powerful parts but I guess once the 1954 was projected in full Technicolor grandeur and starring Judy Garland and James Mason, the 1937 was inevitably dwarfed by the magnitude of its follower, which says a lot about the follower.
Naturally, the film passed the inevitable test of the two lead performances, the talk is mostly about Judy Garland and the fact that this was the performance of a lifetime that should have earned her the Oscar, but I think James Mason was incredible in a role that challenged his usual facade of respectability. It's interesting that Garland lost to Grace Kelly who also played against type as "The Country Girl" while Bing Crosby also came with a spectacular performance as another washed-up has-been alcoholic actor trying to recover. So many coincidences in one year probably troubled the Gods of cinema and the Oscars ended up in Brando's sweaty hand for "On the Waterfront" (everyone was okay with that) but for Grace, everyone screamed robbery. Some Oscars are just like that.
Maybe Garland was too good for her own good, maybe her musical numbers especially the signature song "The Man That Got Away" were so in-line with the perception of her talent that people saw Garland in Esther aka Vicki Lester and thought it was easier for Garland to impersonate her deep fears and traumas than it was for Kelly to subdue the temptation of being melodramatic or glamorous. But that says something about the volcano burning within that petite frame of a woman, she could be childish at times, sensual at others, motherly, confident, vulnerable and all of sudden, with a fury that could cause emotional earthquakes and send shivers down one's spine. She was just the epitome of passion, a woman who, given the right opportunity or role, would move the mountains. But even Garland's performance isn't enough to understand how good she is.
The trick with "A Star is Born" is in the dual nature of the lead performances, that it takes one role to appreciate the other, it's a better love story than a showbiz story and it's ironic that none of the six Oscar-nominated performances as the Maines got the Oscar. As if there was some completion between the two, we appreciate one behaviour as the Yin to the other's Yang. Notice that when Mason makes his entrance as the inebriated Maine during the opening show, the only one taking it in all stride is the future Mrs. Norman Maine, and notice how it does totally change his own behaviour. You can appreciate Mason's acting but there's more than acting in that scene, there's the growing chemistry between the two. In the reverse party-pooping speech during her Oscar win, it's only after the accidental slap that he's put on shame and understands how low he has sunken.
The film is full of such moments where the roles are reversed; Norman can be the dumbest fool but when confronted to the talent of Esther, he becomes a true protector, mentor and a man of distinguished taste, he lives again, leveraged by her talent and she gets success driven by his love, which takes me back to what I said about the first film, it's about being a good performer and a good person. And the film is never as good as when these two interact on the screen. The other players such as the benevolent producer Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) and the more resentful PR manager (Jack Carson) are other notable presences but the third real star is the music, but I won't develop that part since I wasn't much interested in the show than the chemistry between the Maines, though I loved that "improvised" song and choreography in the living room, which gives another true measure of Garland's talent, if it was ever needed.
Speaking of the music, this might be the only 'complaint' I have, the musical sequences are well-staged and (naturally) sung but it seems rather odd that the best song is the one before she becomes a star. Maybe I wish the story had a great musical finale, a sort of 'apotheosis' moment but then again the story doesn't fuel its energy from the music but the love and passion the two Maines put in there, with a level of intensity in some dramatic moments that really cut straight to your heart... it's a great film about Hollywood and show business and I guess the ending is just perfect after all, it didn't need an extra song, just a simple "Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine" and the rest is history. I could end here but here's something I just noticed.
The more I dig in the life and journey of Judy Garland, the more similarities I find in the French singer Edith Piaf, both were diminutive and fragile women size-wise, who started young enough to understand the ropes of show business and who could never be totally satisfied in their personal lives. They both died at the tragic age of 47, battling many demons and incapable to find the inner peace that allow people to live a little longer. Yet their legacies are undeniable and tragedy is part of their legends. There's a great deal of Garland's life path and own demons in Vicki Lester, only fiction ended happily to some degree while reality made Garland closer to Norman, even "A Star is Born" was marking her comeback to bigger screen roles.
Anyway, with that in mind and considering that Grace Kelly's fairy tale also ended tragically, who really cares about who got which Oscar.
The Country Girl (1954)
Playing Against Types...
It is so fresh to see a leading character (and a ladies' man) playing a weakly, submissive and down-on-his-luck character that it can be good enough a reason to watch "The Country Girl", George Seaton's tale of the uncertain come-back of has-been singer-actor Frank Elgin emerging from an ocean of alcohol where he had drown out of sorrow and bitterness, using his wife's love and trust as life jacket. The wife is the titular country girl named Georgie, she's played by Grace Kelly in the role that defied her glamorous façade and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress over the favourite Judy Garland who was praised for her performance in "A Star is Born".
Some said Garland was robbed, I would be more diplomatic, if it was about awarding the "playing against type" performance, I think Crosby deserved that Oscar a little more because it takes some acting bravura to play under the usual tempo of confidence and male assertiveness the era or reputation usually dictate. Take William Holden for instance, as theatre director Bernie Dodd, he's perfect and convincing in it, there's no phoney chord in his dialogue and the way he snaps at either Mr. or Mrs. Elgin. This is a man who knows how to handle business and knows a talent when he sees it and isn't blinder with flaws. If Holden's performance is flawless, it suffers from the contrast with the other players, Crosby as a washed up moaner and Kelly as a cold-hearted control freak.
Naturally, there are more than these two dimensional observations and "The Country Girl" is mostly to be enjoyed as three-player act where we're invited to appreciate the complex intricacies of dependences within a couple and get richer understandings of the hackneyed "behind every great man, there's a woman". The catch is the following: behind the great "man" in the professional or legacy's sense, there must be the great man, the human being, or maybe the man-man, and this is where the woman behind plays her role, when it comes to enabling the performer to overcome the man's demons. So the woman is the coach, but what when she's herself caught in her own demons and the man is unable to return her the favour back, then the couple turns into a one-sided relationship even the triangular attraction introduced by Dodd turns into a fair balancing.
And so we have the backstage of some random pioneer musical becoming the real backdrop of the story, the show is only pivotal in the way it establishes the evolution of the three relationships. "The Country Girl" gives a few insights about show business (nothing new after "All About Eve", "Sunset Blvd." or "A Star is Born") but its real merit is to show us a real directing job from Grace Kelly's Georgie when she believes she must stay by her husband until he gets straight while Dodd tries to write the right scenario and convince her to go away. Meanwhile, Frank does the acting, unaware that he's never a better performer as when he's performing his weakness. The film unveils a subreptitious incorrect truth about victims, the fact that they "enjoy" their victimhood for as long as it provides them excuses and loopholes.
The theme can seem overused by now but I guess in the 1950s, the film is rather blunt and honest and even truer to life than the 'superior' "A Star is Born". The trauma that caused Elgin to slip isn't portrayed in the subtlest way, but it's definitely handled better and better as we can see that he's putting an act, and even using a truly tragic event to mask his own insecurity, Elgin is perhaps the most insincere of all, even when he tries to please Georgie, seeking or begging for her approval or telling his buddy that he' worthless, sometime, there's nothing more manipulative than a poor unlucky man acknowledging his weakness, and Bing Crosby, of all the actors, outdoes himself, performing a natural born performer.
And the first sign of recovery is when he realizes that he's performing indeed. But when we have three persons, each one acting for the sake of another, it's the one who's the centre of attentions who risks letting love slipping from his hands and lets Dodd get Georgie. Maybe some would see it as too conventional a probably but you can never doubt the sexual tension between the two, and the film even makes it believable that the two wouldn't like each other at first stance, obviously Dodd is the man to be attracted to submissive and old-fashioned women and Georgie loves her husband and can't see him being used like a puppet, but it's all in the way the film reveals the real softness of Georgie and the unconscious manipulation of Frank while making these revelation the triggers to the show's finally getting back to its feet and our lovers to their terms. At the end there are not two arc in the film but three, counting Holden's, but out of the three, it's only fair that it's Grace Kelly who got the title role, if not the Oscar.
And if the performance of Bing Crosby was good enough a reason to watch "The Country Girl", I can't believe I missed it the first time I saw the film but there's a moment where Holden wants to talk to Grace, and what she tells "Mr. Dodd" will certainly ring a bell to music buffs.... Now, I have to see where "Humphrey, we're leaving" is from and I won't google it!
Timeless classics and timely trends....
Remaking, retelling, rebooting, rewriting... I used to believe that our era sealed the death of imagination, I forgot the basics of economics: supply influences demand and vice versa. So maybe we deserve an abomination like Tim Burton's "Dumbo". Producers lack imagination because we're not craving for originality, we love to see pre-established characters, familiar universes, only with a few twists in the story. There used to be a Golden Age of Hollywood, then TV, now it's the Golden Age of series, TV series, movie series and series of movies series.
So why such an immortal and simple classic of Walt Disney's Golden Age called for a modernization 'à la sauce 2010's'? Maybe because they felt there was a significance in that story to which today's kids could relate to, "how to accept yourself despite your flaws" or "how to learn to fly with your own wings" or "how to succeed by being a sweet and gentle person"... or maybe because there is big money in trends (and that's why they're trends). I hate to be cynical but after watching the film, I know now that whoever validated the final script cared for Dumbo exactly the same way the circus managers did: a phenomenon whose plus-size ears will attract the crowds. And from what I gathered from the box office grosses, they were right to think so.
Could they fail anyway, with a logo like Disney's, a name like Tim Burton, special effects and the legacy of the original? The whole tragic irony is that they're not even quality-markers, they only guarantee a good cinematic cash-cow. Dumbo is one of the cutest and most sympathetic Disney protagonists but that had no bearing in box office results since people went to see "Maleficent" as well. And I guess this is why they didn't care about Dumbo's legacy anyway, they knew they had a movie manufactured to please the crowds, and it's very telling that the spectators in the film are all shown like Pavlovian sheep only capable to laugh, clap, boo, gasp or even laugh in unison.
In the classic, Dumbo was mocked by The Elephant Matriarch and a few followers then he was bullied by the bratty kid, here the audience is like a uniform mass only used to enhance that self-congratulatory sense of grandeur, that's how we're perceived and are we proving them wrong? It's even more insulting because the film's capable of acknowledging individualism, of course for the sake of another trend. Now, whenever there's a Disney movie, I expect some young female misunderstood outcast with a "dream of her own" but with Miss Thandie Newton Jr. takes the cake. The film lost me the minute I saw her welcoming her dad (Colin Farrell).
Seriously, this is a girl who has lost her mother, who didn't see her enlisted father for two years, she sees him without an arm lost in some WWI battle and yet she had to pose like Wednesday Addams and whenever she can, has to say "Mom knew how to..." as if she was blaming her father for having killed the Archduke. Naturally, to keep the right balance, the young brother is dumber and too likable to be interesting but that's part of the trend. The film isn't about Dumbo, the film doesn't even care about Dumbo, it cares about the message, so the Dumbo's arc is wrapped up in less than fifteen minutes, we have the incident with Mrs. Jumbo, the "Baby Mine" sequence (supposed to be an emotional highlight but significantly shortened) and then we have the discovery of his capability to fly and the equivalent of the original's climax,.
The original film is only Act One. Why not? But it's quite a challenge to introduce new important characters after the story has taken off, Michael Keaton plays a sort of Disney-like visionary tycoon who invented in 1919 new attraction park and wants Dumbo, Eva Green is Colette Marchand the trapeze artist whose sole purpose is obviously to be the love interest of Colin Farrell. And as if it tried to make amends for that bit of old-fashionness, the film had to feature one of the most awkward and cringe-worthy visions of recent times: it's one thing to preach equality but God help me, I can't get off my head these two creepy blonde mannequins: the man making coffee dressed in women's suit and the woman dressed in male business suit smoking and drying her hair.
It's called the Progress Carrousel or something like that and it would have been a terrific "joke" like the Simpsons' "Electric Car of the Future" but a joke, it's not. Disney's doesn't even make it subliminal anymore. Where is subtlety? Where is personality? Probably floating in a limbo between selfishness disguised as empowerment and mass-reactions negating the individual, Dumbo pleases the masses and empower a girl, it's not about him achieving his potential with the disinterested coaching of Timothy, it's just about achieving "your" dreams. "Dreamland" is the materialization of such ideas and it could have passed as a gutsy attack against Disney' capitalism if it wasn't wrapped up in a rushed up climax so full of lazy points and contrivances. Even the beautiful moment where Colette is riding on a flying Dumbo is only part of the climactic montage, even the demise of the villain is just senseless because his motives didn't make sense, if he wanted Dumbo to perform well, why deciding to kill the mother?
So I didn't expect the animals to talk, I didn't expect the storks and certainly not the crows, I didn't even expect the iconic "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence (because of the alcoholic implication)... but the film flies over whatever made the story a timeless classic because it made a film relevant for its time, that's our problem, that's cinema's problem, making money out of superficial relevance.
A Star Is Born (1937)
The birth of a timeless story...
It is remarkable that "A Star is Born", of all the movies, is the first and perhaps only instance of a film opening with a shot of a screenplay's opening page. For screenwriting buffs, the Courier 12 font is there with the unmistakable 'FADE IN' followed by a description of the opening shot.
Cinematic to the core! It's just as if the writers, director William Wellman included, were visionary enough to guess that there was something 'special' about that story, so singular and yet so universal it wouldn't inspire one or two but three remakes, almost one for each generation. The movie said something about Hollywood that said something about humanity.
And so "A Star is Born" became like "King Kong", "Yojimbo", "Seven Samurai" or "Scarface"... movies that didn't last just because they were classic but because they dealt with such classic material it was calling for a timely update.
It opens on a farm in Dakota and ends with the signature quote "This is Mrs. Norman Maine" as the triumphant music swells up and the Technicolor images "FADE OUT". Even the last version with Lady Gaga ended with "This is Mrs. Jackson Maine!", the line that wraps up the whole story and evokes all the many reasons why "A Star is Born" is so timeless.
First, it's a success story, but not any success story, one that carries the usual 'wags to riches' undertones but insists on the deserving factor of the heroine. We relate to her because she strongly believes in her talent, and the film doesn't make her rise difficult, it's a Cinderella but not an underdog story, quite the opposite: as her career skyrockets, we also follow the decline of her Pygmalion Norman Maine, meaning that success isn't the end to all means.
We're enthralled by the ascension but we realize there's more in life than success. Still, the story would be too corny if it was just a matter of love, there's more than that between the two leads, there's dedication. "A Star is Born" is about a kind of love rarely depicted by Hollywood; one that resists adversity and ignores the corrupting effect of success. Careers have their fluctuations but not feelings.
I guess this o what people like in the film, seeing someone who deserve it becoming successful, and taking enough perspective on success not to ignore the one who made her succeed. It's not exactly a fairy tale but a tale that plays fair with the odds of life and shows flawed but honest and decent people. And after watching the Bradley Cooper and the 1937 version from William Wellman, I think I just spotted some patterns I'm looking forward to finding in the next instalments.
What have Lady Gaga, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and Janet Gaynor in common? Perhaps a genuine girl-next-door likability... and principles. What have the males in common? Probably a tad of maturity-driven cynicism that stained their idealism but not enough to stop caring about their new protégée, the trick with the male lead isn't to be a good person but to be attracted by goodness before inspiring it in the end. "A Star is Born" is about being good, as a performer and as a human being, and it's interesting that in both cases, the woman has the edge over the man... which creates the whole tragic irony of the romance and makes it even more powerful.
Just when I thought I was going to revaluate my appreciation of the last version, this one uplifted my heart and set it back to its initial enthusiastic state. Now maybe it's time to judge the 1937 out of the shadow of its predecessors instead of making constant comparisons.
First, Janet Gaynor is sublime as Esther her eyes sparkle whenever she dreams of Hollywood until she sets the foot there and it barely fades. May Robson steals the show as the strong-headed grandmother who whispers the right words and insufflate her desire to conquer the mecca of entertainment. The portrayal of Hollywood varies from her outsider's perspective to the reality hundreds of wannabe actresses being relegated to operators' job, many are called but a few are chosen; but the film is in a hurry to make Esther a star because that's the point, not the finality.
So she befriends an assistant director, also out of work, played by Andy Devine. He doesn't get her a job but a waitress contract where she meets the eyes of former star and alcoholic Norman Maine, who convinces her to become an actress. One thing leading to another and with the support of producer Oliver Niles -another fine performance from Adolphe Menjou- she becomes Vicki Lester the new Hollywood's sweetheart while Maine only attracts wisecrack and contempt especially from cynical publicist Matt Libby (Lionel Standler). Fredric March is perfect as the declining star, he's not Norma Desmonds but Norman's demons, never preventing him from seeing the good in his Vicki.
And sot was 1937 and yet the dream to become a star was as vivid as it is today, from Donald and Daffy Duck to Emma Stone "La La Land", what price for Hollywood! What prevails in the film is the idea that one can't succeed without a bit of luck, of work and of love and that we can't lost all of them. Which takes us back to the concluding line: Vicki Lester is a living star, so is the legacy of Norman Maine and their love is the root-theme of the film, success is only the illustration of this love.
And I'm looking forward to seeing the 1954 version, the only one that made it in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Romances and considered like Judy Garland's best stories.
I guess one of the reasons to praise the 1937 one is to have inspired that story of all ages. Pauline Kael called it self-congratulatory, but isn't that a lesser sin in a movie that still promotes such old-fashioned and un-Hollywood like ideals like loyalty and generosity.
The "Rocky" (IV) of Thaï Boxing...
Last night, I wanted to watch Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet", the DVD didn't work. I tried the original version of "The Ballad of Narayama", the DVD bugged as well. Then I put the original "A Star is Born" but the streaks of malfunction didn't want to end.
Then I said to myself "oh what the heck, let's just watch "Kickboxer" on Netflix!" Which feels like cancelling a reservation to the town's fanciest French restaurant for a kebab. But if the film doesn't exactly offer the same menu than the other distinguished titles, it's perhaps the most likely to be visited again and again. I don't mean that it's so bad it's good, but one should revaluate the taste of these old martials arts movies, getting better with time. Now that "Kickboxer" has celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, it's interesting to note how well it holds up or let's just say, better than expected.
Enumerating the flaws would be a vain exercise but let's do it for fun. Sure the acting and the writing isn't exactly the film's driving force, sure the brother's body language is as convincing as a mayonnaise tube. Sure the Winston character seems to belong to some "Rambo" or "Commando" wannabe. Sure the revenge story is as predictable as a Disney film. Sure the character of Tong Po who starts as a legitimate opponent gets a useless villain-upgrade as if we needed more reasons to hate him than breaking the bro's vertebras. Sure the film is as implausible as it's corny, but the real question is: to what extent does that make it unwatchable?
When it comes to movies that "bad" on objective terms, I tend to remember Ebert's critic of a really bad movie of the same year: "She's Out of Control". Following his inquisitive critic, I watched the film again and realized it wasn't as bad as it was wrong on many levels, especially the creepily incestuous implications. "Kickboxer" keeps a rather clean image behind its simple concept of a brother avenging his brother after he's been left paralysed. I'm not saying any film can get away with positive feelings and morality, but in the case of "Kickboxer", the plot has so little subtlety that one can concede that much to the film, it's got heart, and a good heart. There's more to appreciate, like the passion and respectful dedication to martial arts and in that case Muay Thai. Once the story takes off and the basic training begins, we're immersed in a territory that wouldn't feel unfamiliar to "Karate Kid" fans, after all, Xiao is a likable character but not far from the sensei with unorthodox method training codified by Mr. Miyagi. Still, Van Damme designed the story in a way that showed respect to the discipline and discipline in general and prompted many young viewers to adopt martial arts as a passion of theirs.
Inded, whenever I consider Van Damme movies, I remember my older cousin and his poster-clad bedroom, he was Van Damme's number one fan, practised Karate competition, and always brought us the latest Van Damme VHS, needless to say we used to watch in crappy 80s quality. And that's part of the charm; one that gives a slight gourmet taste to these films, the sound was awful, the cropping hideous so we were looking to beauty whenever it could pop up. Anyone must remember these old-school textures that DVDs and Netflix swept off, the film looks so empty and bland now that it makes you easily forget the kind of experience VHS provided. You had to stay focused, to get through the film, it filled your afternoon and your heart before you'd get back to reality, "Kickboxer" provided so much fun that even its laughable flaws were forgettable.
And yet for all these flaws, there were a few scenes that stuck in memory, "Tong-Po hitting the pillar concrete, the palm tree breaking, the trick to run faster, the training in the Buddhist temple and one of Van Damme's infamous drunk-dancing moment, one of the highlights of his fluctuating career with so many ups and downs and double kicks, Van Damme had the moves and not just for the splits.
Finally, it's a martial arts movie so one that must be judged on the basis of its climactic fight, once again the choreographic staging shows some relative professionalism. It doesn't stand out like the "Bloodsport" Kumite but it's still the second best Van Damme movie, one that makes you want to chant "Nuk Soo Cow" all over the place, before some random uplifting 80s theme start.
"Kickboxer" is the reflection of simpler times when combat movies didn't rely on sophisticated stories but just stars with enough appeal to drag an audience. Sure it's not a masterpiece, but it'll please the right amount of fans whether of Van Damme or martial arts, it's probably the "Rocky" of the Thai Boxing.... Or le's just say the "Rocky IV".
Yoidore tenshi (1948)
Life is a liquid that either spills on you, drowns you or inebriates you...
In a post-war run-down area of Tokyo soaked by a large putrid pond, life reigns... or at least it tries.
Indeed, when even the local doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura) turns out to be an embittered -if not slightly cynical- alcoholic, this says a lot about the broken spirit that governed Japan at the aftermath of WW2. Some try to mend the pieces, others just drown it in alcohol, gambling, girl and whatever the Western civilization could provide that didn't consist on artilleries or radioactive particles, in other words, the perfect setting for a film-noir gem "made in Japan".
Remembered for being the first personal film from director Akira Kurosawa, and the first of sixteen collaborations with Toshiro Mifune, "Drunken Angel", released the same year than "Germany: Year Zero" or "The Bicycle Thieves" could be the third installment of an unofficial 'aftermath' trilogy in the three defeated countries of the worldwide conflict, each one venturing in one emotional realm of defeat and contemplation of future's uncertainty.
"Drunken Angel" is a fine example of Japanese neo-realistic noir film with a drop of romanticism to sugarcoat the bitterness. Like a shot of sake, it's rough, vigorous but heads toward melancholy, depending on how drunk on life you are. And humidity is everywhere in the film like a strange metaphor for existence, from the big industrial pond to the drinks, and eventually the alarming coughs of blood, the title "Drunken Angel" convey three aspects of life: something that spills on you, drowns you or inebriates you, depending on your heart's accessibility.
It's all about the way you touch or are touched, from inside or outside. And Sanada touches everyone's body but the inside is another matter, especially when it belongs to a tempestuous young man named Matsunaga (Mifune) who pretends his hand is hurt by the door he'd just slammed on him, and asks him to remove the nail. Sanada extracts a bullet and figures out that he's a Yakuza underboss. He patches his hand but doesn't anaesthetize the wound, Sanada cares enough to use other tactics when it comes to self-destructive behavior, he goes with the flow.
Indeed, scoffing and insulting Matsunaga is his way to open his eyes, to hurt him with the truth. But to his anger, Matsunaga retorts by anger and what we've got is a failure to communicate between two strong-headed men. But notice how in the next scene we see Sanada berating kids for getting too close to the pond, he knows tuberculosis is striking and using a polite language with kids won't do them any good.
Sanada IS a good man, taking under his protection a young girl who was the girlfriend of former Yakuza boss Okada, serving a sentence jail. He's also coaching a young tuberculosis-stricken student, helping her to triumph over the bacillus thanks to a battling spirit and he desperately tries to convince Matsunaga to quit drinking because he suspects the hole in his lung might be the sign of the same disease.
Tuberculosis is the embodiment of fatality, whose musical leitmotif is a lamenting mandolin or that "cuckoo waltz" too whimsical to fool anyone. Sanada wrestles with fate, but Matsunada doesn't even try and that he's a yakuza says a lot about the spirit of young Japanese who, out of shame, decided to entrust the criminal world. And just when he starts to acknowledge the symptoms, Okada comes back and ask him to celebrate his return with shots of drink that worsens his case. Liquid again, filling himself with sake before coughing blood.
And as the coughs increase, his girlfriend leaves him, he eavesdrops a conversation where he realizes he fulfilled his usefulness, and in a surreal dream sequence, facs his own mortality. And in all noir fashion, when even the right choices have tragic implications, Matsunaga decides to be a pawn but not for his bosses' schemes but for the one move that would get rid of the impeding threat over Okada's ex-girlfriend. As Sanada said, times have changed and she didn't belong to him, but Matsunaga knew that some men like Okada would be as deaf to such advice as he was for stopping drinking.
This all leads to a climactic knife fight set in the corridor, predicting Kurosawa's topographic instinct for fight sequences, one he displayed in masterpieces such as "Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon". Even the concept of "Drunken Angel" started with the idea of using the setting of a previous film about black market, because it looked too authentic to be wasted. Only Kurosawa decided to fill one third of the area with water to represent the menacing presence of germs and sickness.
This says a lot about the master's ingenuousness, drowning the setting of past to make a new one live again, even a fight scene is enriched with feet getting soaked in barrels of white paint to make the drunkard of the past metamorphose into an angel, the film is all about liquids, poisonous or salutary contributing to a sort of "primal stew" out of which emerged the life of new talent, life made of Mifune, Shimura and Kurosawa, with one last noir excursion in 1949 with "Stray Dog" before the streaks of masterpieces of the 1950. But "Drunken Angel" is no humble beginning.
And like a self-reflexive moment, Sanada regrets not to have taken his studies more seriously to get a higher position like his friend, but the same friend reminded him that he had a positive influence on people. Sanada could measure it with the young girl but did he fail with Matsunaga? Looking at how he sacrificed himself, it's highly doubtful. And Mifune gives such a tremendous performance as the tormented young man who redeems himself through that it's easy to see why the film marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
At first I was wondering why Sanada was also an alcoholic but then I guessed it gave that ambiguousness to the title "Drunken Angel", who's the angel after all?
The King of Cop Thrillers...
"We had the reality we wanted" says Peter Yates in the short but insightful "making of" clip of the groundbreaking 1968 rhyming-with-hit "Bullitt".
The San Francisco classic isn't much about effects rather than moods and textures, just as its hero Steve McQueen isn't about acting range but about presence. Though "Bullitt" consolidated McQueen's iconic status as the King of Cool and one of the undeniable charismatic personalities of Hollywood... what strikes in "Bullitt" defies all the conventions.
I enjoyed it as an action thriller but from the perspective of someone whose father was a teenager at that time, I also enjoyed the time capsule of 1968 and was surprised to be absorbed by scenes involving a hospital staff working, a telecopy machine or personal items checked from luggage. It felt so real it was oddly gripping. This is a film that doesn't stick to reality as much as it respects it and doesn't compromise with restrictions when it comes to recreate authenticity in what could have been an ordinary cop-thriller or a vehicle to McQueen's popularity (no pun intended).
And the way it works is almost hypnotic on the screen, there's no scene that feels random, no line of dialogues that feels contrived, every single moment looks in its place, this is a film that elevates minimalism to a level of efficiency rarely reached. And Steve McQueen is just perfect for the role of a cop who doesn't say much, does his job and when he feels he's being tricked, never lets any emotion overwhelm him and simply moves forward. No, this is not your vigilante in a personal crusade or a cop with a settle to record, Bullitt is a man of his job.
And that's the vibes anyone would get from the film, it's a competent movie about a competent cop made by a competent director. The technical achievement is so great that it influenced the narrative and improved what was a rather straight-forward script about a witness to protect against the Mafia (called the "Organization") and some political implications above. The plot isn't revolutionary but its treatment is respectful to the audience's intelligence and patience in the sense that it doesn't try to be subtler or more complicated than needed, reality can be complex but to a limit.
Still, I agree with Roger Ebert's comment about one scene with Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) making a speech about violence and its affect on Bullitt's callous attitude toward life. The scene feels gratuitous and misplaced in the narrative flow, it allows McQueen's role to carry more gravitas but the ending which involves a short but bloody shootout says so much more without the need of a speech, I myself was surprised by that 'intimate' moment in a film that said a lot without saying much. Like many 'mans movies', a romantic subplot almost ruined the mood.
But other than that, the film is just a high-power action thriller full of suspenseful sequences, foot chases and a ten-minute car chase that influenced film-making and made the chase almost a genre requirement. Speaking for myself, I grew up with American movies being associated to the sounds of screeching tires, revving engines, crashing cars, sirens... that and Westerns. "Bullitt" set the template to most modern action pictures, for me only equaled by the heart-pounding car-train chase in "The French Connection".
The chase looks fluid, riveting and efficient on screen but it demanded a painstaking precision and that eventually won the movie an Oscar for Best Editing, this is how good it was. And it was rightfully set in the middle part of the film so we could catch our breath and follow Bullitt to the rest of the investigation and moments of more bleakness and intensity set in the tarmac of an airport, which probably inspired Michael Mann's climax in "Heat".
The merit of Bullitt is that it has a rather simple story but it tells it in a way that we never know exactly who the bad guy is. Robert Vaughn plays such a slimy and despicable politician (and he played it so well he would have deserved an Oscar nomination) that I was surprised he wasn't involved somewhere, but maybe I'm used to these convoluted plots where should lead to a big explosive twist or revelation at the end.
"Bullitt" has none of that, it trusts its material enough not to count on additional tricks, it trusts the genuine menacing atmosphere of San Francisco and the street setting, no other sets were built in the film. It trusts Steve McQueen who doesn't need to play the Cowboy Cop to be convincing, riding his mustang and being what he is, is enough. McQueen the actor plays a man doing his job in a way to inspire cheers from the audience, but he plays him as the actor doing his job, it as if he couldn't care less about it.
And yet he cared. But it didn't show. And that's what coolness is about. 1968 was a great year for thrills: "2001", "Planet of the Apes", "Rosemary's Baby" or "Night of the Living Dead", and here's another landmark. I could say more about it but if there's anything the film taught me, is the least said, the better.
Alice in Wondering-Land...
Or "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (Scorsese fans will get the reference), there seems to be some inner-girl escape-impulse associated to the name Alice and Woody Allen's heroine, played by the irresistible Mia Farrow, is no exception.
Alice is married to Doug, a wealthy businessman played by William Hurt. Together, they live in a luxurious apartment of Manhattan, her kids go to a private Catholic school, she's got a baby sitter, a cook, a trainer, a decorator, and all the time in the world to go shopping, get beauty treatments, gossip with her friends... and worry.
Some deep torment expresses itself through backaches and a sort of Catholic guilt due to her infatuation on Joe Ruffalo, a dark and handsome Jazz musician played by Joe Mantegna. Something is burning inside, channeling itself through that innocent lust, behind the obvious, there might be some strong existential call. Following numerous advice, Alice visits Dr. Yang (Keye Luke) a herbalist who seems to know what it's all about, certainly not the back.
The film deals with serious matters such as existential boredom, meaning of life, infidelity, but the "Chinese Riff" and tango leitmotifs remind us that this is all played for laughs, so we're not surprised when the treatment ventures in the realm of fantasy. Comedy needs that extra-kick when the laughs are too mild-mannered. For instance, when Alice mentions that penguin mate for life, Yang's answers "you think they're Catholic?" echo the infamous 'pigeon' quote from "Hannah and her Sisters" and it's not a good sign when Allen recycles his own jokes.
Only halfway through the film when the adoration of Mother Teresa and a few references about childhood reemerged that I understood that Catholicism wouldn't be the butt-monkey of Allen's humor but something with a strong bearing on Alice's guilt and existential crisis. Something that can be summed up in that quote from "Inherit the Wind": "What touches you, what warms you? Every man has a dream. What do you dream about? What... what do you need?"
The answer is surely not in Alice's life, Doug constantly belittles her ambitions, a TV series executives played by Cybil Shepherd dismisses her writing projects, and everyone treats her with relative condescendence. It's hard to believe that the film was released 22 years after "Rosemary's Baby". Here is Mia Farrow as a middle-aged mother caught in the suffocating coziness of an apartment supported by seemingly benevolent people and looking as frail, powerless and "young" as her Rosemary counterpart.
I guess fragility has always been Mia's strongest suit, one she wears with grace and gentleness, the only negative feeling she's capable to embody is that Catholic guilt less as a principle than an alibi to her incapability to fight, except her own demons. That's Alice Tate in a nutshell, and one can draw parallels with Cecilia from "The Purple Rose of Cairo", a woman who could only find artifices to escape her condition (and coincidentally, the film became my highly rater movie for helpfulness).
So there's one thing that Woody Allen's "Alice" gets right is the casting, Diane Keaton is too strong and free-spirited to fit the character. It's obvious Allen wrote it for and with Mia in mind, a few years before their marriage would collapse, foreshadowing of many scandals and accusations. I'd rather ignore the storm and contemplate the silence; this is one of Mia Farrow's best roles and it was written by someone who obviously knew her a lot and loved her enough to provide her a character with a happy ending, not bittersweet but happy. Mia was overdue one.
There's a catch though, she's so sweet and genuinely sympathetic that she' not really the best choice for a leading comedic role, it's not a case of "women can't be funny" but there's a moment where after drinking of a mixture, she learns how to talk with a seductive voice and talks sexy with Joe , who responds nervously. That scene was funny but it was incongruous and I was afraid it would be a "reveal your inner self" moment. I needed to relate to the real Alice, which happens to be in line with Mia's personality.
So the film is a series of situation where a fantasy device allows Alice to know about her husband's whereabouts, to talk with her deceased ex-boyfriend, a sexy bad boy played by Alec Baldwin, to have a hilarious talk with her muse played by Bernadette Peters, to talk with her mother... it's basically a psychoanalysis through magical plants with many visual gags, some genuinely good moments, especially the visit to her sister played by Blythe Danner, but we're never taken to the heights reached by "Hannah and Her Sisters" or "The Purple Rose of Cairo" except for a hilarious sequence involving a love potion.
Despite a few moments of creativity, the film is Woody Allen at his mildest, driving us at cruise speed to a satisfying ending where Alice finally fulfills her dreams because she knew how to control herself and get rid from her entourage's nuisance, embodying that quote from a French great man named Clemenceau: "in life, you've got to know what you want to do, have the courage to say it and the energy to do it."
Still, had they made a "Real Housewives of Manhattan" in 1990, I wonder if a character like Alice Tate would have been kept in regard to audiences' premises. She'd be just too gentle, too shy, too introverted to contribute to the narrative dynamics... and yet she is the titular heroine of a film with a high promise, the result is uneven, it's heart-warming but slow-paced though not deprived of interesting dynamics.
Maybe there's a reason why it's rarely mentioned among Allen's best... but never among his worst. Some would call it a gem, I would call it an enjoyable little film. Which is good enough.
Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993)
"It's only after we've lost everything that we're (almost) free to do anything."
Freedom is a beautiful word but "Blue" deals with the kind of freedom we'd rather not confront once, the one born from the rejection of all achievements, possessions and items of meaningfulness that defined our life... after a tragedy struck.
Julie loses her husband and daughter in a car accident. She tries to commit suicide but living is too strong a call to be ignored, she spits out the tablets and apologizes to the nurse for breaking a glass. Later, she sells her property, gets rid of her fortune and starts a new life with what's at hands: anything but the past that would drown her in an ocean of melancholy. The only concession to the past is that Julie knows she'll never be happy.
And so she moves to some random apartment in Paris and has an affair with the man she knew was in love with her. This is the freedom she doesn't enjoy as much as she undergoes it in a sort of survival and cathartic move. Whether it's truly freedom is left to debate, but we're never left with the feeling that Julie is seeking joy, maybe contentment, acceptance and pinches of satisfaction here and there. So life goes on and appease wounds but allows a few corridors to the past, weakening that fragile 'rebirth' edifice.
And I guess the appeal of "Blue" relies on that very fragility, one that only Juliette Binoche, one of the sweetest and most delicate faces of French cinema could portray. Binoche is so great an actress that even her expressionless moments deliver the right amount of emotionality. She never looks totally happy, nor totally sad, but always at the verge of two totally opposite emotional directions, whatever they are. She's walking on a tightrope with the past acting like gravity and the wind of present blowing, she can only move forward, never look down, any step back and it's the big plunge.
This is not a character but a feeling's study, a remarkable exploration of the complexity of a brave soul from Krzysztof Kieslowski. The late Polish director uses many shots that emphasize Julie's perspective: a close up on a sugar cube absorbing the coffee, a fight seen from her balcony, a street flutist, an old lady with a stooped posture, a family of mice found in the new house. Like the sugar cube, Julie absorbs all these encounters as micro-experiences and then drops everything, never letting any encounter rooting in her life, she finds comfort in the vacuum of the present.
It's easy to regard "Blue", the first opus of the famous "Three Colors" trilogy as an auteur film without a tangible plot but with an introspective look on life. The film might strike as too slow, too contemplative, too bizarre in its editing but it could only work as long as Binoche was consistent with her character... and she always was, as a woman who, unlike Blanche Dubois, depends on the comprehension of strangers. Life has been so unkind to her she can deal without kindness and this is why she has no scruples throwing her husband's last opera partition (composed for some European Union ceremony) in a waste truck. But maybe Art is too great a thing not to survive and Kieslowski the storyteller can't side anymore with his muse and allow the music to resurface in the story.
In the end, it's up to Julie to accept that she can't pretend her past doesn't exist because her husband affected so many lives and those lives still depend on him. There's an arc in Julie's journey in the way she cancels out a few clauses of her existential pact after realizing the way her selfishness deprived people from something that meant a lot in their own live. The director is too passionate an artist to have a great piece of music being sacrificed, even in a fiction, and there might be a symbolic parallel between the posthumous oeuvre and one baby leaving in the womb of a mistress. Life like the show must go on... and perhaps the greatest triumph of Julie would be to face the present without pretending the past doesn't exist.
I think it's a film about grief more than any exhilaration of freedom. The photography is always intimate even in the external shots, served by a beautiful cinematography, exploring any possibility to paint the screen in a shade of blue (a swimming pool, emerald stones, a blue room). But beyond all thesephotographic ingenuousness and this is coming from someone who's favorite color happens to be blue, the story was so absorbing that I could find a whole world in Binoche's blue performance. Whether it was intentional that the "Blue" opus would be that sad I don't know but it's a film that I won't forget any soon... not on a personal level. As a father, I can't imagine how unbearable life would be if something ever happened to my daughter. I don't know if I'd be as tough as Julie, but I guess I would try to find a way.
It's a cathartic experience indeed, difficult and serious but short enough to sustain that heaviness in gravity. I won't forget that shot where Julie is in fetal position in the swimming pool, she doesn't sink, doesn't float, doesn't swim, she resists like a baby in the mother's womb... waiting for the miraculous rebirth, as a woman without a past. At the end she's a woman with a past and a future, reconciled with time and able to let a timid smile slip from her face. Just because tears are flowing all over your eyes doesn't mean life isn't worth a little smile, after all.
There's probably a lot to say about "Blue" but let's just see what's behind "White" now, the story about equity... though I suspect it will rise above these values' gimmick and be another powerful statement about something about life. We'll see...
Pelle erobreren (1987)
Fatherly to the Max...
... and you know which Max we're talking about.
Personally, I couldn't watch the opening shot of Bille August's "Pelle the Conqueror" without transposing it with the sight of Ellis Island and its ethnic gallery of immigrants contemplating hope for a brighter future from the majestic and motherly salute of Statue of Liberty emerging out of the foggy morning. I have Chaplin's "Emigrant" in mind right now and the theme of "The Godfather Part II" playing.
There is a difference though as the emigrants don't look much different from their hosts. Missing a few chapters of Nordic history, I didn't know about that wave of Swedish immigration to Denmark circa 1850. Denmark was the promised land of Swedish impoverished peasants and workers coming to sell their muscle for bread and shelter... some even letting themselves being checked like cattle or slaves. Yet two of them don't have such "luck": a man and a child, Lasse and Pelle.
Lasse could pass for Pelle's grandfather, but the Swedish Vito Andolini is his son all right. Lasse, played by the unique Max Von Sydow, is a man so beaten down that even his tall height doesn't impress and his age doesn't fool. Pelle (played by namesake Hvenegaard) is the boy who has two parents in one and finds in his father the man-to-man complicity and even motherly tenderness. In the boat that landed in the Danish island, he asked Lasse about how beautiful Denmark was, how delicious the food was from coffee served in breakfast to feasts of ham and roasted beef.
I won't exactly play a "reference" game but I was also reminded of "It's a Beautiful Life" in the way Lasse tried to sugarcoat the image of Sweden, enrobing it with chimeric images of luxury just to maintain his son's spirit, more important than his own. Lasse already strikes as a complex but moving character, he knows he's heading toward hardship but he must keep on a confident façade for his son's sake. In other words, Pelle doesn't have time to be himself, nor that he can afford it, this is a matter of life and death and if the weather is still warm, urgency whistles like a blizzard.
Pelle can't afford hopelessness or failure (it would be one too many as I gathered it) and once all the candidates are gone and only he and Pelle are left, a few shots of drinks fuel him with enough confidence to convince a farm manager to hire them. The wages are mediocre but they'll have a shelter and will work hard. "Pelle the Conqueror" is interesting in the sense that ten minutes after it had begun, the 'hardest' part was over: ensuring survival. But that's only from Lasse's perspective, another hard part was still pending on the frail shoulders of Pelle: becoming a man, learning about life. And life will sure play "hard to get" in that Kongstrup property.
There's not much of a plot in "Pelle the Conqueror", just a series of life events where a little boy discovers the extents of the adult and children's brutality and learn the hard way not to trust people while Lasse values his starting point and does the best to rise above. Both learn the struggle to find their place and sometimes fight for it or get wise enough to swallow their pride and wait for the next battle. And step by step, they do find their place.
First, they learn how to identify the cows, Lasse can't read and Pelle just started school. Later, Lasse identifies the one man he can trust, Erik, the only worker who avenged him from a slimy trainee's whipping humiliation. That's exactly what the conquest is about, a matter of identification. Lasse wants to find a woman to have "coffee" in bed and in the course of the story, he meets the wife of a sailor who disappeared and their attraction is immediate.
The film doesn't seem only focused on the father and son journey, and manage to get a few glimpses on other peoples' lives: a little deformed kid named 'Rud', one of Kongstrup's many illegitimate children, the mutual harassment between the manager and Erik who dreams about America, a young man who couldn't marry the common woman he impregnated and perhaps the most notable subplot of the film for its spectacular climax, the womanizing habits of Kongstrup who had one affair too many with his own wife's niece.
There are also scenes set in school, with the expected bullying, a drowning, people frozen to death, women being wasted by men and the daily routine in the Danish farm. Shot in all cold whiteness, the film still delivers a complex and three dimensional portrait of a place and time that didn't afford any weakness and there's never one moment where any of Lasse or Pelle get so strong they play against characters. When Lasse promises to 'kill' the boy who humiliated his son, he can only formulate a mild protest and admits his impotence before switching to the strawberries he brought from Sweden (I couldn't believe it wasn't a nod to another Swedish icon).
As for Pelle, he switches between moments of passiveness and action till he finally understands the true purpose of his life. And it's precisely because the film is slow, in typical Nordic tradition, concealing every artificial outburst of emotion that the ending is so overwhelming. Yes, it's precisely because Lasse and Pelle's paths diverge that they succeeded, one came to term with his own insecurities, and one knew he had to relieve him from that burden.
Perhaps the most uplifting thing about "Pelle the Conqueror", Golden Palm winner of 1988, is it title. Ironically, the film is only about the process that built that spirit, a Darwinian tale and a coming-of-age story... and that goes for the father too.
The Fortune Cookie (1966)
Fun to watch for the most part but it fails when it gets preachy near the end...
"The Fortune Cookie" marks the first pairing of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon at a time where they were no acting newcomers but began the second chapter of their careers as middle-aged men whose chemistry never looked like they were cheating on screen. If only for that, the film is a mini-landmark that can be enjoyable to a not negligible degree. But the 1966 comedy also confirms a start of decline of director Billy Wilder.
"The Apartment" is regarded as his last masterpiece for reasons: while his later films were still valuable, "The Fortune Cookie" seems to emulate the previous movies while downplaying the dramatic undertones of "The Apartment" and missing the sheer goofiness of "Seven Year Itch". The two movies centered on a man caught in an ethical dilemma set in the cozy confinement of an apartment but the way the resolution is played in "The Fortune Cookie" is problematic in spite of its good intentions.
Indeed, it seems that Wilder's movies portrayed two kinds of men: womanizers and cheaters and straight well-intentioned but too easily gullible schmucks, cunning crooks vs. decent simpletons. In "The Fortune Cookie", we have the same duality in Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) and his brother-in law, ambulance-chasing lawyer Willie Gingrich (Matthau). Harry's a cameraman left injured after football player Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson ran over him during a game and while he ended up with mild injuries, Gingrich convinces him to feign a more serious one and pull a "Double Indemnity" trick to the insurance company. Surely they can afford it and we agree to agree as long as it pays off in the gag department
And seeing Lemmon being forced to play the injured guy while Matthau delivers one wisecrack after another will make you crack many smiles yourself and a few chuckles. But the plot begins with such a great premise and such a good deal of one-liners that we expect a continuous laugh riot. Still, there's a reason why it's not as popular as "The Odd Couple": the timing, it is too long for its plot, something I also noticed in "Avanti!". Comedies and length never really go hand in hand and maybe the film could have sustained two hours had it had a denser plot but even its attempt to sugarcoat its cynicism with at least one sympathetic character, Ron Rich as the black football player turned his performance into the kind of patronizing characterizations indicative of the old-school mentality.
At first, I loved the Boom Boom character and his guilt ridden behavior; taking care of his buddy and never suspecting anything but then it just went too far. It was so awkward to see him acting as if it was the end of the world and compensating it with some servant work while Jack's ex-wife came back to pretend she still loved him when she heard about the suing. And here's another ugly character who doesn't hold up today. We owe Billy Wilder two unforgettable villainesses from "Sunset Blvd." and "Double Indemnity", a sexy and innocent Marilyn Monroe, a fragile and funny Shirley MacLaine but granted this is a male bonding film, I didn't hate Judi West as much as the way she was treated, that she was a gold digger left no doubt but the "reason you suck" speech Lemmon gave her could have done without the little ass-pushing.
Are we supposed to endorse that behavior because she sort of gets it coming when in reality, the brother-in-law was far worse?
In fact, yes... there is something in Matthau's performance (he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) so blatantly unethical it inspires a sort of guilty admiration rather than sheer resentment. He doesn't give a damn about "Boom Boom"'s career, he assumes his corruptness but he has fun playing that role (in every sense), humming the 'Barber of Seville' case, hamming it up in front the insurance men, slapping the woman's butt, mocking the ugly nurse, provoking the private eye who's supposed to be the bad guy (Cliff Osmond steals the show as the film's "Javert")... the film doesn't make us root for him but tells us to accept the scam for laughs.
Fair enough, but what when it gets serious? Should we also accept how patronizing it is toward the black man and insulting toward the bimbo. That's another story. Maybe I'm reading too much into a film that's only supposed to be a vehicle for great visual and verbal gags with Jack Lemmon being his usual butt-monkey until he finally redeems himself. But there's something (maybe unintentionally) manipulative in the treatment that reflects the unpleasant facets of its time. In a way the film applies the same ugly reasoning than Willie's, they're big companies, they can pay, they're women, they can deal with a few slaps in the ass and the good black guy will forgive everything because one can't say "no" to Jack Lemmon. I doubt this was intentional from Billy Wilder so I guess he started to lose his touch.
I'm not judging the film by today's standards, one can see the contrast with Matthau and Lemmon's next pairing in "The Odd Couple" where the treatment of women is handled with class. This one is handled with crass, it doesn't make it a bad comedy, but its dramatic moments do a great disservice to whatever message it's trying to deliver. It's good but there's something definitely rotten in it. I've come to a point of my life where even cynicism played for the sake of laughs leave me with a sour taste. I don't mind amoral characters especially when the film doesn't invite us to side with them... but I found some mean-spiritedness in "The Fortune Cookie" that doesn't hold up today and its even worse when it tries to atone it with mawkish sentimentality.
"Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone."
Never have truer words been said. And I agree with the second part even more. This is a film where the hero and the villain are both lonely individuals because they're in a grieving process. But you can't be truly heroic or villainous when you're that pathetic, so "Old Boy" is less the tale of an upcoming good-vs-evil confrontation than the journey of a man who was stolen part of his life and had the remains to give it the only possible meaning: knowledge first, then revenge.
I won't spoil the twist, one brilliant paradigm the film provides is that sometimes it's not about looking for the right answers but asking the right questions. But I'm talking in abstractions, let's just get into reviewing mode. Oh-Daeh Su is a man we first see drunk in a police station, he missed his daughter's birthday and is ready to go home when he's suddenly kidnapped and jailed in an apartment where he's given food, clean laundry and a TV as his only connection to the world, like Peter Sellers' character in "Being There".
TV teaches him one thing or two when the rest of the experience hardens him. At that moment we're hooked already, we want to see his escape and want to know what this average-looking man ever did to deserve this? The way he "gets off" is an indicator that the film isn't exactly trying to match our expectations. Indeed, it's not as simple because it's much simpler than we'd have anticipated, he's released and finds himself with new clothes, a cellphone, and time to readapt to the city he left.
There's even a scene that echoes "Being There" where he's confronted to street thugs, Oh Daeh-Su says "Can 10 years' worth of imaginary training... be put to use?" Apparently it can, and his fifteen years of isolation improved his physical skills as much as they damaged the social ones. Yet, everything feels too convenient, too weird, even in a restaurant, a young girl named Mido seems to grow an infatuation on him... even after he did the grossest thing ever; eating a live octopus! Is the film falling in the romance trap? Wait till the end, that's not the right question to ask.
Now why did he eat the animal? That's a question. "To feel something alive in his mouth after having been deprived from life" seems like an organic answer, remember that Oh Daeh-Su has been totally desensitized from life and naturally pain, taking the life out of an animal or a human being would make him feel alive again as if he had sucked the juice of life to feel something again.
The "octopus" scene sets our mind to the most gruesome parts where Oh Daeh-Su tracks down his captors until he finds his former warden and pulls seven teeth out before getting the names. All the discretion shots in the world can't distract from disturbing "Marathon Man" vibes but here again, it's not just about shocking for the kicks. When Oh Daeh-Su pulls off the tooth, believe it or not, he's the one suffering, he's the one who has surrendered to his bestial nature to commit atrocities he never thought he could.
As he says: "Even though I'm no more than a monster - don't I, too, have the right to live?" And living, as far as he's concerned, is looking for the answers, there's something worse than suffering which is suffering for no reason, this could apply for violence in films, it can only work if there's a reason. So for a film so inclined to disturbing acts of violence, it's interesting that its central theme is knowledge.
The film puts us in the mind of someone who wants to know but maybe the truths it's ready to reveal would make his torment worse, his life more hellish, but he's willing to take the risk... this is why you can't judge the film without considering its antagonist. Woo Jin-Lee is everything Oh Daeh-Su is not, he's handsome (very actually), rich, confident and he defines himself as a scholar in Oh Daeh-Su. So we have the man who wants to know and the scholar.
And as the cat-and-mouse chase goes on and the plot gets thicker, Woo Jin-Lee's cool and detached demeanor fades out to unveil as tragic depths as Oh Daeh-Su did so we understand that they were the perfect match to each other until the climactic face-off. And like Bill in "Kill Bill", it's not just black and white morality. I know, you could see a "Kill Bill" allusion coming, there are so many parallels to draw between the two films and it's a fitting coincidence that QT was the Cannes Festival and gave the film its Grand Prize, but "Old Boy" flies high miles above American Cinema.
Indeed, calling it a revenge story, an action film or a psychological thriller wouldn't give you one tenth of the idea. American movies have proven that a good editing, a compelling story and shocking value are integral to a film's success but I blame them for having given me the wrong idea about that South Korean's gem, perhaps one of the most immoral and amoral movies I've ever seen, it's just disturbing, disgusting and graphic on levels rarely reached by American cinema (Tarantino included)... on the surface.
Indeed, it's impossible to give "Old Boy" a negative review. The reason is simple, the film is amoral but it's a masterpiece of amorality, it embraces it with a sort of morbid enthusiasm whose credibility depends on its sincerity, whoever uses violence can atone with it. Yes, the film is extreme but if it wasn't, we would feel either manipulated or cheated and the film might show revenge as something necessary but never satisfactory!
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
There is a universal truth in "Dangerous Liaisons" which is that whenever you try to compromise your own feelings toward anyone you love in order to please someone you admire, you'll lose the two of them. That's the truth that pierced the skin of Vicomte the Valmont before a sword would do the same, perhaps less painfully.
There's another truth in "Dangerous Liaisons" is that you can't manipulate human beings without it ever backfiring at you, in that game of "sprinkled sprinklers", it's hard to tell which of Valmont or Madam de Merteuil was the biggest loser... but I guess Valmont has the nobler edge in the sense that he recovered a parcel of humanity before dying, acknowledging the tragic waste of Mme de Tourvel.
His death is his redemption but can it ever erase the cortege of co collateral damages his initial bet with Merteuil caused? So many destroyed souls just to entertain two bored persons who considered themselves so above the rules of love that they toyed with it in the name of something that goes beyond cynicism. Both are incapable to come to terms with their own weaknesses, which is love and pursue it by throwing it as a carrot for poor little donkeys to guide them to ravine.
Only Valmont forgot one thing, he was the one riding the donkey and fell with it. A silent thought for the loss of Mme de Tourvel, played by the delightful and innocent Michelle Pfeiffer, Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
It's hard to enjoy a film that kills people for "fun" albeit unintentionally, "Dangerous Liaisons" is the kind of movies that makes you understand why something like the French revolution happened, a little like Patrice Leconte's "Ridicule" which howed how a simple word could destroy one's life. I'm not sure the peasants who took over the Bastille knew all the little pastimes of French aristocracy but that class had reached such a low in decadence that for its own sake, the Revolution was a blessing.
Vive it, I want to say.
So "Dangerous Liaisons" is the fascinating but painful chronicle of such a low, it was written in 1782 by an aristocrat officer Choderlos de Laclos seven years before all these diversions would be drowned in a pool of blood draining its source from the guillotines. The epistolary book epitomizes the culmination of this decadence when two lovers played with people's feelings for the sake of their own amusement. And it's precisely because they did love each other that they know the implication of such feelings.
It's one thing to be cruel to steal money, to gain something; but this is a game of pride, challenge and sticking to one's reputation. Mme de Merteuil is an established socialite whose power relies on her capability to influence and manipulate people. In an extremely riveting scene, she reveals why she was driven to such extremes. As a woman told to listen and shut up, she learned to read in people's body language, giving them a false sense of pride before stabbing them in the back, that was her revenge from the burden of being a woman in a man-centric world.
But she couldn't care much for feminism, she's her own master, she uses her influence on Valmont to spoil the virginity of a young woman Cecile de Volanges (played by a young Uma Thurman) to avenge a former lover promised to marry her. The challenge is too easy for Valmont who'd rather seduce the pure Mme de Tourvel before rejecting her. The reward for wrecking a life: a nighttime with his former lover, the bet is set and then starts a morbid waltz made of letters written on women's buttocks, bribing of maid and servants, hidden keys, arranged encounters and secret meetings in antechambers. Classic 18th century stuff!
Both Valmont and Merteuil use their charm as a sort of hypnotic weapon, it's as if everyone knew how twisted they are but surrender to their "charms". And this is where the casting plays its part, Glenn Close and John Malkovich aren't exactly acting beauties but every single word they utter, every line, every loo exudes sensuality and confidence, whatever they say has been deeply thought out and that's their edge over other spontaneous and naïve people such as Cecile or her enamored music teacher played by a young Keanu Reeves. Even the infamous "It's beyond my control" was said with total detachment and of course self-control.
Malkovich was robbed of a nomination, as someone torn between his reputation and his real feelings, turning from a cynical prick to a tragic romantic lead.
Stephen Frears' movie is a classic period film that feature all the archetypes of the decadent century... it's unethical, immoral, decadent and doesn't leave much to appreciate in any of their characters, until the end where there's no targets left and they have no choice than turning their weapons against each other and between professionals, it doesn't take too long.
The film is painful to watch inasmuch a we feel sorry for all the victims of that cruel plot but it's also a delight for the ears and the eyes, taunting our devilish sides and making us secretly wish to be part of these games without being victims. The first and third part are splendid and riveting while the second is slower but the film never ceases to amaze thanks to the performance of Close, Malkovich, Pfeiffer and Thurman. That the victims never get what's going on them say about the way people love, it's like loving is about wishing to believe.
The irony is in the way both villains get their comeuppance, because somewhere their pride get hurt and they're caught at their own game but where some would see Karmic justice, I only saw waste... of loves and lives...