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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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This poll is about quotes that don't make sense when you first hear them but sound so attractive to the ear even if they make you go "huh?" Read each quote -if you know the film, you'll probably agree; if you don't, it's even better.
Which of these head-scratching quotes, quick exchanges or dialogues is your favorite?
A poll vote without a discussion here is like a soup without a mustache!
With their own terms, their specific poetry, funny, sad or even corny in a soothing way, one can seriously identify himself (or herself) with the lyrics. So here's a panel of a few movie songs that directly or indirectly tell a love story, or illustrate a specific situation involving love (or its lack of).
Which movie song tells your love story?
After voting, darling, you might discuss the list here
Which of these 80s erotic thrillers is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
The French didn't invent love but gave it a little "je ne sais quoi", unidentifiable and yet so typical. However, they invented cinema and with love made it rhyme with "Oh la la!", "Cha-bada-bada" or just "comme ci, comme ça".
So, which of these classic French romances (rated 7.4 or higher) is the most iconic?
After voting, you might discuss the list ici
After voting, you might discuss the list here
However, all these classic climaxes, as violent and spectacular as they were, didn't need any death to be emotionally effective, nor to reach cinematic posterity.
Which of these surprisingly deathless climax from a deadly movie is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Bound for Glory (1976)
The Guitar of Wrath...
It's ironic that "Bound for Glory", a musical biopic about country singer Woody Guthrie, remains the unsung hero of a year that provided such timely classics as "Network", "All the President's Men", "Taxi Driver" and "Rocky", all Best Picture nominees, all AFI entries, as if the timing justified the oblivon. Indeed, when the disillusioned America could find in Travis Bickle, Howard Beale, Bernstein and Woodrow or even Rocky Balboa the right spokespersons to the everyman's pleas, who cared about the man who did exactly the same thing, only four decades earlier.
And yet it's forgetting that the period where America almost flirted with socialist ideas (if not ideals) served as the backdrop of many "New Hollywood" classics starting with the groundbreaking "Bonnie and Clyde" where the iconic "We rob banks" served as an alibi to the peculiar endeavor the titular couple picked. "The Sting", "Sounder", "Paper Moon" and even "Chinatown" revisited the 30s with a scope that could appeal to the 70s audiences without overlooking the social issues that made some people opt for the wrong path of life... even a contemporary film like "Norma Rae" chanted "Union" with the same fervor as the yokels that left their Idaho home to pick peaches and dreams in the fertile land of California... or so they thought.
And here is perhaps the most authentic immersion into that era, ironically the most forgotten despite being in total osmosis with the spirit of the 70s and its Depression-like mood.
The film has a dreamy sepia-toned cinematography that translates the melancholic spirit of its time into various shades of yellow and a brownish texture unlike the gray tones of the urban jungle where Bickle or Balboa aimlessly wondered... ironically the two figures would become the symbols of men whose ambitions were shattered by the laws of the strongest and the limits of the American Dream and their triumph incarnated the two polar opposites of reconquered manhood: violence and guns, victory and going the distance, Woody Guthrie also has his V and G, voice and a guitar but before he found his voice... he too wandered across the no man's land that his natal Texas became where any visitor was welcomed like a light of hope or when dust storms interrupted uplifting interludes provided by square dances. Woody, a small time painter, will discover a hidden gift for appeasing the torments of people, and after one wandering too many, will follow Horace Greely's advice and go west.
The cinematography never ceases to be breathtaking, it gives us the Great Depression on a silver-screen platter with all the usual archetypes, wagons filled with hoboes, cars filled with families longing for brighter sunsets and left-wing prophets haranguing the crowds and the deserted corn fields of American Midwest, and all are served by Haskell Wexler's Oscar-winning photography and Hal Ashby's talent to let the images speak for themselves as if they were characters of their own, so fitting for an era where contemplation was perhaps the only luxury one could afford. And Guthrie does start as a quiet but not passive observer, until that epiphany moment that is also a pivotal sequence in the history of American cinema, the first ever steady cam shot, a big deal since the Best Picture winner of the year, "Rocky" exploited it for its defining 'stairs' moment where Balboa too was bound for glory.
The Steadicam shot starts with a panoramic view on the new wannabe pickers of California and the crane obviously lands on Woody Guthrie who then tarts walking among hundreds of extras, he's a face in the crowd, a man among other men, one noticeable difference though: he's faceless, anonymous, but walking to the opposite direction, that sequence looks simple but it's a directing prowess (Ashby wasn't nominated) and it encapsulates the essence of Guthrie, he's a man who doesn't go for the obvious direction, he never follows the plights of the little people as well as when he follows his instinct. And that's the overarching them of the film, a series of deliberately missed opportunities with the easy ways that could have corrupted his soul, a contract that could have made him a sensation but also lose his touch with the common man, a stable marital life or a romance with a rich woman,
Woody is never as comfortable as when he stays in touch with all the dirt, the poverty that became the backbone of America before War would flush down everything like the providential rain Bickle was expecting. And his picaresque odyssey finds its justification in the way it rooted his social conscience, quite fitting that the lead role was played by the son of John Carradine, the vocal protester in "Grapes of Wrath", this is the guitar of Wrath that belonged to his son. And Carradine plays his Woody like Ashby directs his story, he lets himself being transported by the mood of his contemporaries, talking the talk and when the right moment comes, walking the walk, peacefully and gently. Yes, whether for abandoning his singing partner (Ronny Cox), his rich mistress (Gail Strickland) or his wife (Melinda Dillon), the choice is handled in a rather casual non-spectacular way, as if the real issues were so dramatic that not even Woody should care for these petty inconveniences. As a man capable of great empathy, Guthrie took the path of the gutter, the hobo, the lowest strata to find his voice. We don't get much of his songs because the film is more of a character study, not Woody's but the people.
Hard to believe it's the same director who made the slick "Shampoo" but Ashby never needed to side with his characters to portray their soul in the most truthful way, he was a true emblem of the "New Hollywood" period and still had two masterpieces to come with "Coming Home" and "Being There", while making the story a man who couldn't come home because he needed to "be there".
Doctor Dolittle (1967)
1967? human talking to animals? musical? Nah, watch "The Jungle Book" instead...
That "Dr. Dolittle" was both a commercial and critical failure in 1967 says it all: audiences, regardless of their ages, weren't fed up with musicals per se but with that pretension from big studios to take their attention-span for granted and drench them with self-important ostentatious music-driven costume movies whose philosophy of cinematic greatness consisted on a running time exceeding two hours and including ten minutes of a thunderous opening fanfare and an obligatory intermission (as a matter of fact, that's a blessing in disguise as there's no more satisfying feeling than skipping them and shorten the torture).
Now, aren't you exhausted after reading that sentence? It took me forever to say nothing special, well that's exactly what "Dr. Dolittle" does... "a little" ironically. A whole paragraph instead of simply saying "in 1967, audiences weren't thrilled by epic musicals anymore" and epic is the key-word: people filled theatres to see another movie about a human talking to animals Disney's "Jungle Book" (also a musical) whose least inspired song is more likely to stick to your memory than any sung dialogue from "Dr. Dolittle", even the catchy "Talk to the Animals" was a surprisingly lackluster sequence that didn't carry the energy and enthusiasm one would expect from a man blessed with such a gift. And yet it was that song that won the Oscar, beating the "Bare Necessities" in a year that didn't even include "You Only Live Twice" or "To Sir, With Love", or "The Graduate".
I swear I didn't want to talk about the Oscars but as an avid Oscar buff, I can't ignore the fact that the film also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and was nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, for which the studio campaigned for with the same marketing-driven tenacity as Disney executives promoting the 165th "Star Wars" instalment in 2031... that's how desperate and out-of-touch Fox was. In the ground-breaking year where Sidney Poitier defied the rampant racism of America in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night", the year where movie violence came to age through "Bonnie and Clyde" and "In Cold Blood", where antiheroes defied social norms in "The Graduate" and "Cool Hand Luke", only four of these landmarks were nominated for Best Picture.
That blatant malfunction could have been accepted if Richard Fleisher's dud was in the same vein than major studios' previous successes. Indeed, if "The Sound of Music" is a follow-up to "Mary Poppins" and "My Fair Lady", "Dr. Dolittle" is an anachronism, with all the makings of its high-budgeted family-oriented star-studded predecessors but their flaws as well: too long, too big a budget, too much saccharin, ruining even the best premises: a man who likes animals, takes pride of his vegetarianism can be regarded as an innovative figure in that context and I must say that whatever is the problem with the film, it's not Rex Harrison, it's not a nuanced performance but the fact that he didn't enjoy taking part of the project made him immune to the form of overacting that can destroy any attempt to enjoy the film.
Harrison was good, so was his sidekick played by Anthony Newell but I had a problem with the little boy (William Dix) who was at the verge of a torticollis in the sequence that introduced him to Dolittle and his improvised menagerie, seriously the kid was constantly gazing at the doctor with his head forming an 45° angle in the most unnatural fashion. The first quarter is actually decent until it's ruined by a festival of totally unfunny gags involving falls on stairs, women scared of mice, a man with a bandaged leg getting hit at his foot, a sneezing old man etc. what could have been a fun exercise in slapstick is ruined by a mediocre sense of timing that couldn't be blamed on Harrison but on Fleisher's directing and the supporting actors. And the way the plot is stretched for more than two hours while it could have sustained a good ninety-minute fantasy format is another insufferable flaw. With such a slow pacing, there's never a moment of true excitement, even animals who are supposed to be central to the film never give the illusion that there's a communication whatsoever with their doctor, apart from the parrot (which is not saying much). It all looks awkward when Harrison plays his animal-whisperer prophet because there's no apparent chemistry with the animals.
The film could have heightened the tension with a good romance but Samantha Eggar is totally wasted in the role of Mrs. Fairfax and her appeal never fully exploited, nor is Richard Attenborough as the circus owner. Too many things happen in fact, romance, comedy, adventure, fantasy, the film tries to tick so many cases it succeeds in none, ending like an empty shell or a modern relic trying to fit an outdated vision of entertainment in a year that saw the release of genuinely good movies that changed the face of Hollywood while "Dolitte" almost bankrupted Fox.
I guess one can see a historical significance to that film as it probably convinced studios to give a shot to the new beards who knew a little more the aspirations of the public (1967 was also the film debut of Martin Scorsese) or studios like Disney who were competent enough to provide entertainment for kids and children. Indeed, whoever thought that kids would enjoy this dud and take the sight of a giant pink snail as an emotional reward, should have made better focus groups: the plot is adult oriented, the gags are lame, the musicals don't have that nursery rhyme quality and the story isn't just compelling enough.
So maybe there's no reason to make such a big deal about the film's failure, in the context of it's a ground-breaking year, it(s a hair in the soup and as a soup, I knew socks juices that tasted better.
Shampoo for the real lovers and real poo for the sham lovers !
"Shampoo" is about someone who seems to have all the makings of the alpha male of the late 60s although the film never makes an effort to make its 1968 different from 1975. To call this man a womanizer would be like calling Hitler a curmudgeon, as George Roundy, Warren Beatty is one "s" shy away from Beasty, the man wants them all and what's worse, he gets them all. From the wife of a rich businessman involved in Nixon's 1968 campaign, Felicia (Lee Grant) and cuckooed husband Lester (Jack Warden) to Jill, the likable pixie girl who still dreams of the Prince Charming and played by Goldie "see-my-panties-under-my-short-dress" Hawn, perhaps the one likable character of the film.
She's likable because her heart is as wide open as her eyes, and her desire to have babies and to believe in George being the right one is so tragically ludicrous for us who witnessed his adventurous trips that she gave the dimension of pathos the film needed not to sink in the cynical trap. I hate cynicism and I guess the reason why Warren Beatty's performance was criticized is because he's such an unlikable fellow the only way any average viewer could relate to him is to realize that he doesn't have such a good time after all. George is a rather stressed if not depressed fellow as we him drifting between the bank where he's refused a loan to Lester's mansion where he makes the one man who trusts him a double cuckooed, making it with his wife Felicia and his mistress Jackie and even Felicia's own daughter (Carrie Fisher) with whom he has a quickie that doesn't even turn the mother off.
It's true the film has an insolent way to make George get away with his sexual fantasies but a more relevant question would be: what's got hair to do with it anyway? I gather that being a handsome hairdresser meant having a free access to all the desperate housewives of Beverly Hills, but without looking to any extra symbolism, I find something utterly sensual in the way "doing someone" referring to the hair obviously indicates other regions of the body, you could feel George has a way to literally rub the women in the right way, but it's only a matter of time before reality takes the upper hand and George gets his comeuppance. Mixing this with his own selfish ambitions makes George a rather questionable fellow who like a Millennial, embodies a generation too focused on its hedonistic obsessions it let the conservative America conquer America.The film seems to deliver a warning against a certain lack of commitment through its bold and uncompromising portrayal of American counterculture and the way it backfired at its own representatives.
The film's climax is a posh party where the Republican Lester is caught up by the lusty atmosphere and decides to loosen up ignoring that he was preceded by his rival who was already having a good with his mistress... and yet the film ends with a depressing note, Jill (Hawn) leaves George and so does Jackie (Andrews) who can't resist the call of the cash register. George ends up alone. He deserved it certainly like America deserved Nixon but that's not the point I think the film wants to make. George doesn't even know where he stands, he switches from a girl to another like a tennis ball, delivering to each one an adequate rhapsody but the truth is he doesn't know what he believes in, the man isn't shallow as much as he's an emptied shell, so wrapped up in his desires that the notion of goal or projects escaped from his inner dictionary. He wants to open a new barbershop all right, but then he ruins every opportunity by taking Lester's woman, women acually.
George is a product of his time who suffers the same symptoms that made America lose its spirit in the late 60s, he doesn't even take responsibility, accusing women to be the source of his troubles, seems like the America of 1975 has wised up a bit. But the problem is that it was so disillusioned that it couldn't make the film a tad more entertaining and enjoyable. In the end, "Shampoo" is so shallow and superficial that it ought to be deliberate, especially from Hal Ashby the director who translated the psychological turmoil of the 70s into cinematic eloquence. The trick is how much we're ready to overlook the way those privileged pricks trivialize important matters like love and the future of their country for the sake of their petty ambitions. Quite a challenge.
Well, I'm not sure the future of the country has any bearing in the sexual "shenanigans" that cover most of Roundy's timetable, but it seems like the film insists so much on the context that we're invited if not coerced to find some relevance in the fact that the film has the eve of the 1968 election as a backdrop, the one that made Nixon President, and 6 years later, left America with the hangover of its life. Maybe "Shampoo" is the cinematic "Alka-Seltzer" America needed to wake up. I say "maybe", because when the film opens with a woman moaning in the darkness while humping sounds are heard and the date of America's election indicated, you got to wonder who's screwed between the two.
One thing for sure, Ashby and Beatty met each other in that weird crossroads of talents, ending with two Oscar nominations for Warden and Grant, the latter winning the Best Supporting Actress award. I don't mind these wins but I just don't think the film deserved its 47th spot in AFI Top Laughs, this is not a comedy but a satire of such a dramatic mindset the two writers thought we should laugh at it... still, the laughs are so few that maybe they overdramatized the material and made it a tad dated for modern audiences.
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
Such an avalanche of gags I wish I could wear a hat...
In his reviews of "Body Heat", Roger Ebert applauded the director's ability to exude the moods of classic film noirs without making it an exercise in style, referring to Pauline Kael, he objected that Kathleen Turner felt like following "the floor marks left by the actresses who preceded her". I wish I could say the same thing about "What's Up, Doc?" and Peter Bogdanovich' obsession to make a carbon-copy of 30's screwball classics, I wish I could say that Ryan O'Neal didn't walk on Cary Grant's floor marks.
I wanted to buy O'Neal as Howard Bannister, the submissive scientist, with the obligatory horn-rimmed glasses to conceal his good looks. But when the waiter in chief tells him "you're upside down" in reference to the badge he's wearing the wrong way, I was wondering why it was so hard for this man of high intellect to get the message instead of repeating like a mechanical parrot "I'm upside down". Screwball-wise, the gag works to the degree that we'd reject any interference with believability. I don't mind zaniness but never at the expenses of believability, which shouldn't be mixed up with realism.
I'm sure Woody Allen would agree that in comedy, the believability of a gag depends on the constancy of characters' patterns of behavior. As Bannister, O'Neal's either bewildered or so puzzled his IQ drops several points down. There's a problem when the straight man supposed to react to all the nonsense around him makes the least sense of all the characters. Barbra Streisand might be annoying as the street-smart and pushy Judy but at least she's consistently annoying, same with Madeline Kahn as Eunice, Howard's bossy fiancée, who gets a fair share of the mayhem all through the movie. There's also Kenneth Mars as a stuck-up linguist with a dubious accent, Liam Dunn as a depressed judge but "What's Up, Doc?" isn't interested in characters anyway, only situations.
And these situations all take off with four plaid overnights beating the odds by looking exactly the same and coming the same day at the same Bristol hotel, announcing an extravagant switching buckaroo. One bag contains Howard's igneous rocks (he's developing a theory about rocks serving as primitive musical instruments), another contains top secret documents and involves a tailing between two interchangeable secret agents, Judy's bag has her belongings and the most valuable one belongs to a rich lady and is full of jewels, tempting in the process the receptionist and the hotel detective. And for all the elaborate jokes thrown at the audiences, the single funniest moment of the film is a spontaneous outburst of creativity that lasts a few seconds. A man who looks like the then-version of Jon Polito is asked to use his charms with a lady twice his age, what follows is pure genius.
The rest doesn't deserve much superlative compliments, it's the usual cocktail of misunderstandings, comedy of errors and manners with a few romantic reliefs, a fight scene where one gets a cream pie in his face and a chase that makes good use of San Francisco's urbanism. It's one gag after another and we're never left with the impression that anything matters more than gags, so what we get is a great set of screwball gags, but too perfectly manufactured to constitute a screwball classic, it's a farce, it's not meant to be taken seriously, it's a joke. Still, haven't you noticed how many people mix up the "anything can happen" with their philosophy of a joke.
The Zucker-AbrahamZucker were far zanier than "What's Up Doc?" but they worked better and became classic for a reason, they had punchlines but bottom-lines as well. "What's Up Doc?" is so obsessed with the need to copy Capra, Lubitsch of Hawks that it forgot one little thing: to have a relevance whatsoever beyond that heritage. The ZAZ movies had well-written characters and believable romances as well, some with great chemistry. "What's Up Doc?" tends to recreate the charm of old movies treating them like relics to duplicate not spirits to resurrect, Streisand is a good Hepburn, O'Neal a passable Grant, but their chemistry was mediocre.
Peter Bogdanovich had just made the wonderful "The Last Picture Show" a film that was original and personal, "What's Up, Doc?" is neither, and I cringed at O'Neal's impersonation of Grant and Streisand forced to force her funny-girl shtick. I was never a big fan of screwball comedies to begin with and I thought the same premise could have lead to fresher material. Indeed, 1972 was the year of two of my favorite romantic comedies, Woody Allen playing a wannabe Bogart in "Play it Again, Sam" until he learned a lesson about being true to himself and find enough inner strength to outdo his own idol, and "The Heartbreak Kid", Elaine May's underrated study of a heart that puts so much effort to get what it wants that it lacked the strength to commit to it. Those were inventive and warm comedies.
It's hard to believe neither of them made it to the Top 10, "What' Up Doc?" earned its third spot right behind "The Godfather" and a classic upside story named "The Poseidon Adventure", I guess there was a primitive answer to the film, directors' homages to other directors have always been a hit-or-miss, "What's Up, Doc?" is Bogdanovich making his "Bringing Up Baby" like Chazelle channeled Jacques Demy through "La La Land" or Woody Allen Bergman with his "Interiors"... But I think such movies depend on the director's ability to transcend the source, like Mel Brooks did with his hilarious "Silent Movie", for instance.
Bogdanovich was focused in his homage, he knew what he was doing making the line between competence and self-consciousness rather thin, it even gets to the ironic point that its punchline, while both timely and hilarious, is the one thing that makes the film more dated than a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Body Heat (1981)
Hurt and Turned On by Hurt and Turner...
"It's the crisis atmosphere. People dress different, feel different, sweat more. They wake up cranky and they never recover.", delivered by J.A. Preston, that line sums up the double role played by heat as both a cause and an effect in many classic noir pictures, protagonists are driven by passion, the heat of the moment, and in crime as in love, they find night as their better allies. Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" is no exception where a Florida heatwave will be the trigger of a passionate and luscious romance between William Hurt as Ned Racine and Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker.
Directed in 1981, "Body Heat" has the smooth and satisfying feeling of these perfect evenings during which thoughts and smiles are shared, words and gazes exchanged and drinks on the rocks continuously filled up without ever interrupting the flows of mutual seduction. As soon as the film started, it hooked me like a sexy passer-by, a simple scene with Hurt staring at some fire burning at night in the background convinced me that it was going to be special. The actor has perhaps one of the mot peculiar physiques of Hollywood, his body is muscular and sensual, which explains why a woman is zipping her dress and addressing him with a mellow voice, but his balding head and sleazy mustache creates an awkward contrast, he's desirable but to a degree he ignores, he's a woman's man but not any woman.
The next scene proves that he's more in his element as a womanizer than as a lawyer, he likes to joke about it with his colleagues but he doesn't kid himself about his incompetence, which is crucial for the plot. Like in a good screenplay, nothing is gratuitous, not even the opening fire scene, but there's never a moment without its taste of authenticity. When the characters complain about the heat, we feel the sweat exuding from their pores and even I had a sudden craving for a fresh wine, the film has a way to make you feel like the characters, but it also finds its way to never anticipate anything, it's a film to be conjugated in the present like a cocktail, like sex. You've got to suspect with the right timing, and to be deceived with the right effect. On that level, the screenplay written by director Lawrence Kasdan, achieves something rare, it fools us without insulting our intelligence. Which reminds me...
"You're not too smart! I like that in a man!" says Matty during her first encounter with Ned. I love how Ned doesn't even react to the insult, probably satisfied that there's one thing she likes in him and it's obviously an invitation to go on with his rhapsody. This is a flawed man but a man with hubris, if he didn't think much of himself, having a woman like Matty wouldn't be a challenge, the man doesn't care about being an ambulance chaser, his real arena of self-accomplishment is wherever and whenever there are preys like beautiful women so he can be the predator, heat and nights are his territory. Ned doesn't care about being smart, being a smooth talker is enough, he doesn't aim high until he meets that white clad creature so blasé her soul can't be reached. How about the body then?
Ned is the last man who'd complain about the heat, heat unveils sensuality, hidden desires, urges to go at night that can only satisfy his instincts and Hurt has quite a way with his facial language, when he follows Matty, his eyes are almost bewildered, he finally met his match, something worth to focus his energy on, the exchanges that follow isn't without reminding of the "speed limit" innuendo in "Double Indemnity", Ned throws one-liners and Mary-Ann punchlines, she plays hard to get but he's a worthy opponent and the sexual tension is as palpable as the heat. Eventually, Ned breaks the ice by breaking a window and savagely intruding himself in Matty's house, much to her delight, sex ensues, it's erotic, sensual, adult. But she has a husband and the film, as unique and stylish as it, swims in familiar waters.
From "Double Indemnity" to "The Postman Always Rings Twice", many noir classics involved ingenuous schemes to get rid of the husband, schemes that generally backfired at the protagonists because greed and lust were double-edged swords or because there was one manipulation from the start. Matty Walker has all the makings of the femme fatale, the mantis attracting the victim to a web of lies and manipulations left uncertain after one viewing. At the second viewing, I started to notice a few interesting details, she accidentally calls Ned Matty the night they meet, she refers to her husband as "a small and weak man", hardly deserved epithets for Richard Crenna. And there's that mysterious girl who looks like her and pops up some night before leaving, add a drop of inheritance issues, a touch of urban sleaze and a pinch of tropical atmosphere and we get a cocktail of lust beautifully wrapped us in eroticism.
There are multiples ways to enjoy "Body Heat", the film follows a plotline that is exciting and unpredictable, thrilling and even funny at times, it's like a smooth talker, it makes you know it'll lead somewhere. Because it's greater force lies in the acting, every small character is given an extra ounce of depth or believability, even Mickey Rourke makes a short but memorable part as one of Ned's mall-time advisers, his colleagues, Preston and Ted Danson as the Moe-Green like Lowenstein is obviously l torn between his friendship toward Ned and his need to do their job. On the top of that, Hurt and Turner are perfect and Lawrence Kasdan wrote such a convincing erotic thriller that his film was propelled in AFI's Top 100 Thrills and Passions.
Gotta make you wonder why the film isn't better known!
Tengoku to jigoku (1963)
Morality as a choice-driven virtue, not a duty...
"High and Low" is Akira Kurosawa's unsung masterpiece, it's strikingly similar to "Straw Dog" in its meticulous depiction of police procedural and the indirect canvas it offers for an exploration of Japan's social strata in the mid-sixties, from the highest layers to the lowest depths, presenting in painstaking precision the cohabitation between the upper and lower classes, made of protocoled compliance and officious defiance. It's one of the few modern dramas directed by the Master, as if his usual period "Samurai" movies wouldn't fit the social significance he's aiming at.
To understand that, one should get to Kurosawa's vision of humanism, only a virtue if the character has a choice. In his Jidageiki movies, samurai or warriors lived under a code so strict that their bravery was closer to the realms of duty than genuine heroism. Only until his masterpieces in color, Kurosawa could portray characters the viewers could both admire and relate to, from the petty criminal played by Tatsuya Nakadai, charged to impersonate a lord in "Kagemusha" to the greedy and ambitious sons in "Ran", Kurosawa was never better as painting the flaws of humanity with a firm but forgiving hand and this is why "Rashomon" is such a milestone, it offered a new vision of characterization, not relying on personalities' actions but on their perception by or resonance on other people's live. Kurosawa is perhaps to cinema both an Einstein and a Sartre, bringing relativity and existentialism.
We're good or we're bad by choice not by duty.
This is why there always comes a point in his dramas when a flawed character chooses his destiny and this is why it never worked better than in movies set in the contemporary world such as "Drunken Angel" and "Ikiru" and even more in police procedurals like "Stray Dog" because these film offered a panoramic view on a Japanese society devoid of such codes of honor as the Bushido, so socially broad and ethically uncertain that it became the arena where the forces of evil and good, greed and generosity, calculations and disinterest, confronted each other. "High and Low" is the culmination of that introspection through one of the most painful choices ever forced upon a man, so vital to the film's emotional backbone that it needed a twenty-minute set-up. The opening is a remarkable exercise in exposition all in detail in concision as if Kurosawa was already experimenting in his directing style the same rigor applied by the detectives in charge of the case.
The residence of Mr.Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is located at the top of a hill offering a panoramic view on the lowest parts, it's vast, well-furnished, his boy has a cowboy disguise and plays with the chauffeur's son, which means that he's rich enough to be a chauffeur. Gondo is a no-nonsense self-made-man and one of the stockholders of a huge national shoe company and is coerced by his associates to make a move against the president whose old-fashioned views are incompatible with their visions of profitability, making lesser shoes but with higher profits. Gondo refuses the deal but what we take for a proof of integrity is contradicted by his plan, he bought enough stock to lead the company alone, which forced him to mortgage his house and twenty years of social ladder climbing; it's a fool-proof make-it-or-break. One phone-call later, he learns that his son has been kidnapped for a ransom of 30 million yens, we expect Gondo to pay, but that would be too easy, there's a catch in that plot.
If not the best or the most iconic Kurosawa, "High and Low" has certainly the greatest premise, the boy was the chauffeur's son, the two kids had switched disguises. The cops come, the chauffeur keeps quiet until he hears his son and then begs his boss to do something. The kidnapper realizes his mistake (which makes sense since there's no reason the son would pretend to be Gondo's) but the dilemma is all the same, either Gondo pays and jeopardizes his future or he lets the kid die. That's the equation. We know a man like Gondo will be likely to pay, it's interesting however to watch him examin his own conscience under the tacit observance of the police officer played by Nakadai. At that point of the review, I don't want to spoil much of the film because it is one to experience, and on three levels: the ethical dilemma, the police investigation and the social documentary on Japan in the 60s where the absorption of the Western way of life went at the expenses of the ancient codes.
While the first part is set completely in Gondo's house, a fitting bridge sequence makes the transition to the investigation that will structure the entire second part, with tracing calls, interrogation, tailings, facial composites and all the archetypes. Gondo is absent for the most part but we feel his presence from the efforts displayed by the public opinion, the chauffeur, his son and the police. Such a fruitful zeal couldn't have been possible if the right choice wasn't made; which raises a challenging question: is it always a matter of doing your job or is morality the true driver or people's actions? Had Gondo made the wrong choice, his public and private aura would've been destroyed, his decision was moral and ethical but let's not pretend it wasn't also practical. Still, maybe it's because Gondo climbed so high that he could have a full view on the low he could sink, materially or symbolically.
And when the investigation leads us to the criminal, we realizes he'd jus offered us the perfect counter-example as man who was so low that he saw the highest spot reached by Gondo with envy and jealousy instead of climbing his way to the top. Indeed "High and Low" is a captivating immersion into the heights humanity can raise itself above and the lowest lows it can plunge in... and it's a terrific cop thriller!
Poetic Japanese drama but a misplaced climax derailed the character's arc and emotional flow...
Shohei Imamura had already won the Golden Palm for his remake of "The Ballad of Nayarama" when he won again for "The Eel" a decade later. I wish I could regard it as a little more than your 'routine' foreign prize-grabbing movie but after such emotional knock-outs as "Underground" and "Secrets & Lies", I was perplexed. I thought it didn't do justice to a story that had a much greater potential.
"The Eel" has a poetry of its own, a melancholic quest for an unreachable purity from a man named Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) who served eight years in jail after killing his wife because she cheated on him. Receiving mail letters denouncing her, he pretended to go fishing to surprise her that same night with her lover. Takuro is startled, the scene is graphic and it's not out of voyeurism. It is possible that Takuro saw a facet of his wife he didn't suspect, one that reflected his own incapability to make his woman satisfied, if not happy.
And so he takes the most phallic deadly object and what follows is a disturbing and gory knifing scene that literally paints the screen in blood in ways even Kurosawa didn't dare. Takuro stabs the lover once but on his wife, he does it so much I believe in the impotency theory. Not only it's mentioned later in the movie but there's a sense of relief after the murder: Takuro covers his wife's body, takes his bike and gives himself to the police. Eight years later, he's released. There's a weird feeling of convenient expediency all through his actions, as if Karma sided with Takuro.
Indeed, the question of guilt is never really raised, which validates the idea that Takuro felt like he was delivering justice and that he paid what he owed. It's all natural then that he tries to work again as a barber and gives a new meaning to his life. He meets new people, gets his regular clients and befriends a fisherman with which he enjoys hunting eel together. Speaking of that, there's that pet eel he took from jail, the only creature he can talk to and share his secret with... to be honest, the eel left me cold, I appreciate some natural symbolism every once in a while but I couldn't picture the eel as nothing more than a sort of touchstone he needed in order to raise above, it was his Wilson the volleyball, so to speak.
Gradually, and thankfully, the eel loses his importance as we witness Takuro's icy façade melting. All's quiet then until he meets the young and beautiful Keiko Hatori (Misa Shimizu) who looks like his wife and whom he accidentally saves from an attempt of suicide and as a way to show her everlasting certitude, she works for him and naturally, falls in love with him, and no matter how hard he tries to dodge her courtship and the boxed lunches she brings him every morning when he goes back to work, work ends up bringing them together. It is rather strange how everything goes fine for Takuro, he was a decent man first and became a decent man again after, the film has an almost cynical way to tell you that every decent man has the right to "loosen up" and transcend ethical limitations.
Fair enough, the director can encourage us to side for Takuro, but sometims, he asks too much from our compassion and the least he could do is make the character problematic for the others, if not for us. Keiko is an interesting character but there never seems to be any problem with her with Takuro's past, the guy's got quite a puzzling aura for a woman used to deal with creepy individuals. And while the harassing garbage-man reproaches him (and rightfully so) his lack of guilt and redemption, the man is depicted in such a despicable way that we can only side with Takuro by default. Then there's a whole subplot about pregnancy, money, loan sharks and a lunatic mother that feel contrived and prefabricated for a film that aims for contemplation. Now, to make a long story shot, it didn't take me much time to figure out the film's problem, it's not about feeling sympathy for Takuro.
I was mentioning "Secrets & Lies", the previous Golden Palm winner, what made the film so impactful is the final revelation and the ensuing emotionality. "The Eel" handles Takuro's past as a secret but one that we know with every detail, we're like one step ahead of everyone and we don't see Takuro as a mystery, we see him as a man trying to get back to normality and knowing his past ceases to be a point. Then why would Imamura make such a big fuss about that murder if it doesn't have any specific resonance after? I believe the murder should have been the revelation, Imamura should have kept an aura of mystery over Takuro and at some point make him reveal to Keiko that he murdered his wife, only words, and leave the bloody sequence as a climactic flashback.
I don't want to depreciate the film for technicality but its most powerful moment should have been kept for the ending. Let us interrogate ourselves about that man, let us wonder if he's worth our sympathy and then let's just surprise us. A film so quiet and contemplative needed a more satisfying climax than that lousy fight, a moment that seemed to belong to another movie.
There' no denial that "The Eel" ("Unagi" as would say Ross) doesn't need to aim for high-standards of movie-making to be an overall solid and punctually powerful drama but a misplaced climax derailed the character's arc and emotional flow and turned the whole film into something poetic and beautiful, but rather lackluster experience given the thrills it provided in the opening scene. Indeed, it should have ended with the beginning.
A Humanistic Ode to Life and Death, and a Film Any Aspiring Doctor Must Watch...
Indeed, if there ever was one movie I would recommend to an aspiring doctor, it would be that three-hour Japanese 19th century drama. The film teaches humility and empathy, in a discipline where any feeble soul would easily be lured into arrogance and confidence to belong to a privileged class and intellectual elite. It's the perfect antidote against a conception of medicine as an instrument of social ascension, betraying its very purpose, something deeply rooted in humanity's instinct for survival which, over history, didn't only mean curing the body, but the soul as well. Medicine doesn't always prevent death but if one could die in happiness, then somewhat the job was done.
So we're in 1965, in a two-decade career that counts at least five other masterpieces, Kurosawa, at his artistic peak, had reached the kind of peaceful maturity that invites the crucial question: "now, what?" And when an artist starts questioning his mortality, generally looks for the right canvas to draw the right existential questions and allow the viewers to see shades of truths not through preachy monologues but characters whose actions would speak statements about the value of life, and death for that matter. Indeed, behind every agonizing patient, there's a story. A final breath is only the 'last' link of a chain that crossed both muds and gardens. At 55, Kurosawa didn't know he had still three decades to live, and took the opportunity of "Red Beard" to question existence through the intertwining lives of people in a free public clinic for the poor, they're young, old, living and dying and all have epiphanies of some sorts.
The film probably features one of the richest galleries of characters ever, there's absolutely no small role. I found myself surprisingly absorbed by the story of an elderly painter, abandoned by his wife and children, and whose final breaths were so excruciating they deserve a few words. So many films never dare to show death at its most straightforward state, you always see it from the observer's eye, one head gesture can signify that the beloved one has moved on, or sometimes, the final breath looks like falling to sleep, peacefully. Kurosawa doesn't sugarcoat it, death is disturbing, made of ugly noises and gasps and gulps. But death is still seen from the eye of the living, as if it meant a deliverance to the death and a transfer of pain to the living, a torch-passing moment so to speak. Emotional pain can either be driven by grief for the mourners or self-disappointment for the gruff head of the clinic, 'Red Beard', who realizes the limitations of science, if not his competence, and if it's not for the misery or ignorance of his patients, some would survive.
"Red Beard" is nicknamed so because of his unpronounceable name and the reddish beard he harbors the beard enhances his credibility as an authority figure and I must say the way Toshiro Mifune kept rubbing it reminded me of Takashi Shimura caressing his bald head in "Seven Samurai" one decade earlier. The disciple, the impetuous seventh Samurai gained maturity and became the natural born leader who speaks a few words but each with the resonance of a chapter of wisdom, Kurosawa and Mifune couldn't find a better way to conclude their partnership. Mifune started in "Drunken Angel" as a cocky young criminal who challenged a doctor (Shimura), talk about coming full-circle. Red Beard is the voice of reason of the film, a 'Godfather' figure, a living paradox: humble and modest but powerful enough to summon an overweight lord or bribe a banker, noble enough to take an underage prostitute under his protection but practical enough to know you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs (or bones) when the brothel thugs confront him.
In a scene of startling (and amusing) brutality but beautifully choreographed, he takes each man one by one and break their bones. He didn't seek brutality; it was the only to take the young Otoyo from the paws of her madam. When neutralized, he checked each wound and told his assistant Yasumoto (Yuso Kayama) to heal them, because a good doctor shouldn't have done what he did. And as we're drawn into his practical philosophy, we also follow with fascinated eyes the metamorphosis of Yasumoto, from an arrogant and embittered little snob who resented the stinking place and its Spartan regime and acted like an immature contrarian to a man who could touch the true essence of medicine. The apprenticeships took many steps such as falling in the seductive trap of a dangerous nymphomaniac, fainting during a gruesome operation, witnessing a man's death or hearing the story of one of the most revered patients of the block.
It's the young prostitute subplot that will affect Yasumoto more profoundly in a way I won't spoil because it involves an interesting role switching and introduces a young little thief who'll allow the previously shell-shocked Otoyo to bloom into a protective mother figure. And that's the key of Red Beard's conception of medicine, it's the very knowledge of these limitations that forces the doctor to know about his patients and to let them know each other, because in each story, we can find keys that open closed doors inside our own souls. The film might be three-hour long but it was the only sustainable length for such a film that give a substantial role to everyone: doctors, patients and even the kitchen staff.
"Red Beard" is an optimistic ode to life and humanity, sublimated by a beautiful black-and-life photography with the bold starkness of a Caravaggio painting or the contemplative melancholy of a Bergman movie and a lighting that makes eyes look so eerily alive, maybe because they saw too much of death. There's no white uniform in "Red Beard", no stethoscope, certainly no sexy nurse and nothing in the vicinity of the medical world as we perceive it but it's certainly the best film about medicine.
Poetry as Stylistic Escapism...
The opening of "L'Atalante" sets the mood of joy and sadness that will define the film. Juliette (Dita Parlo, the German girl from "Grand Illusion"), a small town girl had just married Jean (Jean Dasté) a barge captain and arms in arms, they walk toward "L'Atalante" where they will spend their honeymoon en route to Paris where the cargo will deliver a shipment.
The looks on their face is solemn, the bride seems more nervous than her husband and there's a sense of urgency and hastiness in that ceremony. The rush is so palpable than the cabin boy accidentally drops a pot of flowers in the river, he's immediately summoned by First Mate Père Jules (Michel Simon), they fetch a few branches to improvise a bouquet. There's something pathetic in that ceremony, not in the characters, but in the way they try to keep up appearances, it's too conventional to last, and Simon's antics prove the French proverb right, hunt the natural and it quickly returns.
Maybe that explains Juliette's nervousness, while they embarked on the Atalante, she didn't know the life she was embarking on, and neither did any viewer. Once they get in, something strange happens, a kiss evolving to a sort of non brutal struggle and then the first magical moment: as the barge goes, awe get a beautiful shot of a mother crossing herself, Juliette walks on the roof with the quiet grace of a tightrope walker and the courage of a lion tamer, this is her new life she's going to tame, getting on the top will give her the right perspective. The rest of the film is all marital banalities: fun, joy, jealousy arguments and fight, transcended by Jean Vigo's unique vision.
Vigo was only 29 when he made his first full-length feature film an age that wouldn't strike as relatively young when we remember that Welles was 26 when he did "Citizen Kane" and Truffaut 27 with made "The 400 Blows". Some movies are like disease that better get caught at young age and it was Capra who compared Cinema to a sickness whose only remedy was cinema itself. Son of an anarchist, coming to age at a time of intellectual turmoil, it's possible that Vigo was obsessed with such an idea of life that he could only translate it through improbable juxtapositions of images, patchworks between the real and the weird, the beautiful and the ugly, structural narrative and anarchical spontaneity... inspiring directors like Duvivier or Carné, or what is commonly known as French poetic realism.
Vigo made a few short films before, a documentary about an Olympic swimmer that certainly allowed him to experiment underwater filming, the most memorable shot of "L'Atalante", another documentary about life in Nice and the contrast between the rich and the poor and finally "Zero for Conduct", a film set in a boarding school and promoting rebellion like "If..." would do in 1968. The disastrous reception of the last film prompted Vigo to seek a less controversial material for what would be his next project. With the script written by Jean Guinée, the collaboration with cinematographer Boris Kaufman and the help of one of France's rising stars Michel Simon, Vigo developed the idea of a romance set in a barge, a man, a woman and a weirdo as first mate, and the rest was history.
It took more than a decade for the film to be seen in its entirety and provoke an epiphany in the minds of critics and future filmmakers like François Truffaut so Vigo never saw the film's impact as he died in September 1934 of tuberculosis, a condition worsened by the filming that was extended during winter. Vigo couldn't even finish to film, embedded, ignoring that his job on Earth was done, that he would be known now as one of the most innovative and influential director ever is perhaps a consolation for the injustice of his untimely death. Or maybe his death has a meaning, as if his legacy was caught within the flow of melancholic poetry the film delivers. After all, is there another director who'd make his debut, his masterpiece and his swan song all in once.
There's all of that in "The Atalante", the birth of talent, the culmination of a genius in some scenes that are too beautiful to be even described... as for the swan song, maybe it's because the director knew it would be the last, and as if he was caught in frantic delirium of creativity, he left a rather strange movie. Still, within its strangeness, we find hints of "La Strada" with the jovial street peddler flirting with Juliette and causing her to leave the boat, we see premises of Kusturica's "Underground" in that beautiful underwater sequence, we se Truffaut, Jeunet and... Vigo.
The film is carried by a unique vision, a simple one about simple people in ordinary situations but escaping from the coarseness of their living through unsuspected beauties. When there's a temptation for ugliness, the film takes the other side.When it looks like Père Jues is going to assault Juliette, she makes him wear a dress and together, they have fun. One thing leading to another, he shows her his personal treasure and another side of his personality, even behind his crass façade there's something good about the man. One must look at the inner beauty of things, it's only when Juliette is missing that Jean can see her as he never saw her, underwater or in an unforgettable dream sequence.
"L'Atalante" is like these old and dusty items you find on a flea market, at first they look banal and dirty but the closer you look, the more valuable they are. And once again, it was Vigo's only film, a unique model, because you don't need a career to be an inspiration, one good film made with the heart made Vigo an immortal in Cinema's Pantheon. L'Atalante is a boat but also a lighthouse for aspiring filmmakers.
Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958)
A long time ago, in a Japanese country far, far away...
A single swordfight was enough for Akira Kurosawa to build a groundbreaking narrative device, the movie was "Rashomon" and even within the technical limitations of a director who wasn't a name yet, the art of storytelling was changed forever.
A chronological leap toward the 80s: Kurosawa's magnificent bravura and unequalled instinct for epic battles is fully demonstrated in masterpieces in color: Golden Palm winner "Kagemusha" and of course, "Ran". After that, Kurosawa would make more contemplative movies at the twilight of his rich and so incomparable career. Now, how do you go from the choreographic duels of "Rashomon" to the large-scaled extravaganza of "Ran"?
My guess is that the artistic vision remains the same, all you've got to do is either change the perspective, the "Rashomon" way or to enlarge the scope, and that's "The Hidden Fortress" way. Indeed, the film marks a pivotal moment in his work with the revolutionary use of Cinemascope (Tohoscope) that allowed Kurosawa to transcend the geographical and optical limitations of the camera, and through vast panoramic shots of landscapes and crowds, give the film its epic texture.
And long before "Yojimbo", Kurosawa will also be a source of inspiration for Sergio Leone, in his use of a screen like a framed entity, the ironic outcome being that the characters never see what the camera doesn't see itself. You've got to hand it to Kurosawa to challenge the rules of practicality for the sake of thrills or jump scares. Take for instance the opening of "The Hidden Fortress" where the two disheveled Matashishi (Kamatara Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) drift across a no man's land.
The big guy and the little guy are having an argument as full of expositional information as hilarious one-liners, they might loathe each other because they know they deserve each other. While we're following them as if we were right next to Kurosawa's cameraman, we see them turning their horrified heads. Then an agonizing soldier pops us immediately followed by horsemen. The ensuing violence is so startling that we don't have time to realize the duo should have heard them coming. Later, when they attempt to steal the gold and escape from from Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), they only notice them when they turn their heads again, finding them in a spot they had just passed through. This time, the same device works for comical effect.
But "The Hidden Fortress" isn't an exercise in style, the merit of Kurosawa is to handle the novelty of the Scope to emphasize the movement, and the film allows us appreciate the gusto Kurosawa demonstrates in scenes that used to be impossible. Think about it, how can you film a speeding horse, it's not just about filming speed but action in speed, the long travelling shot on Mifune galloping with a sabre on his hand as he was chasing two guards of the Yanama clan is perhaps a moment that would have made John Ford proud because it also reinvents the horse chase. The horse doesn't gallop across Monument Valley, a deserted area that would ease the use of travelling cams, it's across a forest and the Samurai is also supposed to neutralize the enemy and take his horse, there's action within the chase so the difficulty is doubled and prove Kurosawa's mastery of movement in one epic travelling shot.
A word about horses. Kurosawa adored horses and when the young man saw galloping horses' manes waving in the air and smokes of dust flying off the ground, he thought there was so much beauty and poetry that cinema couldn't ignore it, I guess he probably loved "Stagecoach" and in many aspects, the film resembles the classic Western in the way it features different protagonists and personalities in a long journey toward a specific destination. "Seven Samurai" had valuable warriors and became a landmark of modern action picture, "The Hidden Fortress", while not being a staple of cinema's history, did have an effect one wouldn't have anticipated, indirectly.
Yes, Kurosawa is quite the center of the cinematic universe, modernizing Western after having been a Western aficionado, he inspired as well as he was inspired (one of his battle scenes is a nod to the Odessa steps), he changed narratives, created modern cinema and finally gave a little boost in the creativity of a certain George Lucas. So it's fun to spot the similarities: the two peasants and droids C3PO and R2D2, it's even better when the film opens with one shot that immediately reminds of their desert scene, Yuki, who looks so bad-ass even by our own standards makes Princess Leia looks like a Disney Princess. The forest chase in "Jedi" is a clear nod to the horse sequence... but "The Hidden Fortress" should also be revered for it own entertaining value.
Yes, it's an action picture after two dark movies ("Live in Fear" and "Throne of Blood") but it's not a mindless one. Every sequence contributes to a memorable moment (the climbing on the rocky slope, the bonfire) or is handled with ingenuous audacity like the way they pass the enemy checkpoint with a load of gold bars hidden in branches. And sometimes, even the cowardice of the duo isn't just played for laughs and inspires the whole mission, the rest is a spellbinding adventure story involving duels, fight, regal solemnity and sleazy comedy.
Speaking of comedy, calling Maashishi and Hati comic reliefs is almost an understatement or an insult, the film is shown through their despicable perspective, they're greedy, weak, even abject and yet they serve as the perfect contrast to Mifune's strong nobility and to the princess' courage. Without these two, I doubt "The Hidden Fortress" would have had the same impact. Must be like imagining "Star Wars" without the droids. Now, the film isn't probably in the Top 5 masterpiece but even when he's experimenting and making movies for fun, the Sensei remains an influence. And how!
The Fresh Prince of Aba Boua...
Maybe the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp occupies such a warm spot in my heart than any version is likely to hit a sensitive chord at some place or another.
I grew up with the rather unknown French animated film of 1969, a stable in my connection with the story that made me enjoy the 1992 Disney version even more, and I guess that's the way it works and maybe the reason why this "remaking" trend is a sure bet for Disney studios: they work on a Madeleine Proust level. I was with my daughter and I saw many parents in the theater who were my age and were obviously the same age than their children when they saw "Aladdin", so for them, as well as for myself, it's a sort of renaissance (a word that used to mean something else) and for kids, it's a fun movie they'll enjoy regardless of their knowledge of the original. Yeah, we can call it a win-win effect.
Guy Ritchie shows enough respect to the original film as if the consensus existed that nothing will replace Robin Williams' performance but it treats the material with enough special effects and costumes (obviously an Oscar contender in that category) to make for spectacular entertainment, though the singing moments proved that there's a limit to the level of extravaganza you can reach... not with special effects but with live-action looking CGI images. No matter how cute Abu is, you can't make an animal look as expressive as its cartoon version, the example of Iago is even more baffling, this parrot isn't Iago and is an insult to Iago. So that's the real problem with these remakes, the mix of computer-aided animation and live-action can create spectacular results but sometimes, it feels limited.
The "Prince Ali" and "A Friend Like Me"... in fact, even the "Whole New World" singing sequences, anticipated from the minute the Genie popped up, weren't disappointing but fell flat because they could never go as over-the-top as the laws of hand-drawn animation permitted... because you just can't handle real-life characters like animated props. Mena Massoud, the actor who plays Aladdin is terrific as far his looks and his smile go (and his acting is decent) but once he starts to act like an animated character, the sight is just puzzling to say the least. This is why I actually preferred Marwan Kenzari as Jafar because he maintained a sense of self-respect even within his aura of vileness, which made him credible and oddly sexy. Even the sultan was good and wasn't treated like the buffoon of the 1992 film.
But I guess it all comes down to one performance: Will Smith, you couldn't replace Robin Williams but Smith proves that he's an actor Hollywood should rely on when they need a funny street-smart acolyte with a soul, that's important. There were times where he even managed to be more compelling than the original because his zaniness wasn't overplayed and because he had the features of a human being. Will Smith made the live-action more effective than the original at some parts, too few unfortunately because (and that's something I could see coming), the remake had to give a more substantial role to Jasmin, who was a strong-willed character to begin with. Indeed, the twists on the Genie were so well-thought and effective that we didn't need to have a rewriting on Jasmin.
The 'revisions' on Jasmin didn't affect her character anyway and Naomi Scott did justice to the first animated character I had a crush on, but it was like her pose was constantly defined under the tagline "I'm an independent girl and no one can't fool me" making her servant Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) more attractive through her imperfections. So I wish the film wouldn't get so overboard with Jasmin, there's a moment where she's literally pulling a 'Let it Go' and it's like the writing was so sensitive about not offending the status of Jasmin as a strong princess, especially in the one story where the princess' status is a plot point rather than a set-up, that any conspiracy theorist would believe that the sole purpose of these remakes is to serve some feminist agenda.
But you know what, I don't care if it's true or not, I won't pollute the review with such thoughts, I just watched yesterday a documentary about the hellish life in ISIS-occupied territories so it would be indecent to comment on the way 'women's right of speech' can be promoted in movies, no matter how unsubtly. Maybe there's "good propaganda" after all. And I'd rather have Arabs or Muslims be associated to the colorful though stereotypical images conveyed by these '1001 Nights' fantasy movies than any Middle-East black-clad reality, maybe there's also "good stereotyping" after all. And it's worth mentioning that Disney did the right choices by casting ethnic actors for the part, even though they were not names, Will Smith is big enough a name to carry the film, he's the Genie of the casting after all.
"Aladdin" surprised me in the way it didn't make me complain about political correctness and could make an entertainment spectacle out of a captivating story, one that delivers a powerful message to children and adults, more sophisticated than the usual "be yourself", it's "whatever you get by not being yourself, you'll lose inevitably"... with an underlying truth about the vain obsession of not being true to ourselves. I called Ritchie a sell-out because, unlike Tarantino, he's not exactly making the kind of movies he was known for, but these considerations don't really matter as, the film didn't try to be something other than "another of these lousy remakes", but within that limited range of creativity, it succeeded admirably and it was fun to watch, it hit a nostalgic chord and it had the right cast.
At least, these three wishes were fulfilled.
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Tragedy as the canvas to perceive the comical randomness of life, comedy as the escapism from the random tragicness of life...
Not so long ago, I used to lament over my streak of failures to the remaining friends I had and of which I took the empathy for granted. I've been unemployed for years because I left a job to join my wife and just when I finally got a job, she wanted to divorce. I contemplated depression and even suicidal thoughts. That's tragic.
Recently, I went to the Social Security and told one of the agents, a woman, that I needed to change my card because "I had no job and I used to live under my wife's registration" then I added "now I finally have a job, but I have no wife anymore", she laughed and I laughed, I had just grasped in the magic of one little quip the comedic core of my situation and I thought that maybe I could survive if I realized how "comical" my downfall was.
It's just like this moment during a funeral where you surprise yourself smiling at a situation or laughing at a joke and realize that life is worth living. Maybe tragedy is the right canvas to perceive the comical essence of things, or maybe it's quite the opposite and quoting the late Seymour Cassel in John Cassavetes' "Minnie and Moskowitz": "If you think of yourself as funny, you become tragic." I'm sure Woody Allen has a high opinion of himself as far as humor goes but his capability to comprehend the tragic mechanism of fate and destiny are no less accessible to his intellect, and he brilliantly demonstrates it in "Melinda & Melinda". In fact, the first five minutes alone indicate how precious Allen's been for Hollywood.
The film opens in some Italian restaurant in New York, not one of these fancy feeders for the gratin of New York intelligentsia, from yuppie stockbrokers to wannabe artists, but a modest-looking Italian restaurant where old friends gather without any need of formality. The lighting is yellowish and convivial, the places is fairly crowded as if to contrast with the more prefabricated coming stories, this is a place for spontaneity, to have a good wine and talk about life, love and death. It all comes down to a simple question: is life tragic or comic? Two playwrights confront their views. Wallace Shawn considers life as an arbitrary thing, only sustainable to the human mind if one could laugh at its absurdity, while Alan Pine defends the idea that life is so innately tragic that people seek comedy for escapism.
The conversation was so compelling it felt like a follow-up to "My Dinner with Andre", the two men are such great raconteurs that I could have followed the whole dinner without any interruption. Actually, I felt slightly disappointed when the stories started, not because they're not good, but simply rather banal in terms of Allen standards but since they exist for the sole purpose of making a point, their flaws are forgivable. We stop caring for the plots but for the way they're tied to a vision of life that shaped one of the most fascinating careers in Hollywood.
So with the same set-up: a woman intrudes into a party held by strangers who work in the film-making industry and then a series of events unfold depending on the effect their authors intend to make... for tragedy, Melinda will be that friend who didn't show any sign of life for many years until coming back after a divorce where she lost the custody of her two children and a streak of bad luck that couldn't skip the suicidal phase... played by Radha Mitchell, Melinda is a fragile, blasé girl who's lost so much that she wouldn't even care for begging anymore, she has two friends (Chole Seivgny and Brooke Smith) and her entrance in their lives will also be the catalyst to new epiphanies from which she might not emerge unscathed.
Shawn on the other hand sees the perfect ingredients for a mixed up romantic comedy with the host's husband (Will Ferrell) falling in love with Melinda, the path to join their two hearts will ask for many ambushes and ensuing hilarity, and if Melinda's divorced, she has no children because that wouldn't be comically viable. Mitchell plays Melinda with the right lighthearted sensitivity and to get right to the point, each segment delivers its intended affect, one is not too melodramatic, the other is funny in a cute way and both are faithful to Woody Allen's spirit. However, what stands out in the film is the way Allen confronted (finally) the two tones he adopted over his long and prolific career as if the question wasn't asked to the viewer, but to himself, did he use comedy as a smokescreen hiding his own insecurities or did he see life as something too serious to be taken seriously?
I guess the point is that the randomness of life is what makes it so tragic and yet comical, think of Allen's career, he's been a brilliant contemplator of the New Yorker psyche for many years, a genius everyone wanted to work for and now his career ends on a bleak note because of resentful vengeance and the backstabbing of ex-stars. That's tragic. But I hope he'll still have that 'vis comica' allowing him to perceive how futile life is, except what's left from it, a brilliant career, an auteur in the true meaning of the word, not making movies audiences wanted but that he wanted, he is the Bergman of Hollywood.
And even in a Bergman movie, I don't think I've ever seen an ending as wise and perfect as the last five seconds of "Melinda and Melinda", one of the best ending from an Allen film, which is saying a lot when you have "Manhattan", "Love and Death" or "Hannah and Her Sisters", encapsulating the director's vision perfectly. Both Bergman and Allen contemplated life, Bergman looked for a meaning. Allen looked for a punchline.
Un homme et une femme (1966)
After Cherbourg, Deauville is Cannes' new French capital of love...
"A Man and a Woman" is as light and delicate as a morning breeze but leaves a memory as glowing and vivid as a sun tan. It's a little marvel of film-making that would leave even the most skeptical viewer in a gaze of speechless adoration.
Why does it work so well? Why did it stand the test of time and become such a landmark of modern romances and ambassador of French cinema all over the world? Maybe because the young director Claude Lelouch didn't try, he just let the camera roll, driven by the confidence that within the right framework, you can reach areas of authenticities that even a long contemplation of life wouldn't make you spot. All you have to do is trust the story, the camera and the actors. It's not just a love movie but a love letter to movies.
So Lelouch didn't direct Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée as the titular 'man and a woman' as much as he let the magic of his camera and his misty cinematography serve as a medium to their inner selves. It doesn't take an essayist approach to film-making to understand why they kept their original names (or close enough), Anne and Jean-Louis are just the cinematic reflections of two actors "directing" their own director toward some appreciation on the laws of attractions. It's the paradox of that unique romance, a parable about love showing that the closest path is never straight, but it's not an intellectual film for all that, it's not even emotional like the other Golden Palm winner "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", it just a tale of love as simple as "Hello" and "Goodbye" and as complex as an unsolved mathematical equation.
The tone is tender and whimsical: there's no argument, no anger ever expressed, no frustration that escalates to some melodramatic culmination, cinema is an ally but not a master, it expresses but doesn't intend to impress, except for a few little outbursts of genius that belong to the worldwide iconography, such as the orbital shot where the two embrace in that beach in Deauville, a scene that works like a perfect climax before revealing a subtle little twist that speak a thousand words about the mysterious ways of love. You can't rationalize love without compromising reality and turn the film into a dark fantasy à la Ingmar Bergman or a comedy à la Woody Allen. Lelouch serves us a few glimpses of comprehension within that bizarre bond that goes between Jean-Louis, the race car driver and Anne, the script director.
And it's fascinating how their professions indirectly mirror their own attitude to life. Jean-Louis is a go-getter, as a professional, he knows that it's all a matter of speed regulation and as he didactically explains it to Anne, sometimes one extra mph can cause the accident, one less makes you lose the race. Love is also a matter of timing, one word can make a difference, one thought can make it or break it, eye-contact and body-language are crucial despite their relative benignity. And as a race car driver, Jean-Louis can go full speed without ever feeling the effect except when he accelerates, as a script director, Anne has a rather detached reading of things, despite her obvious sensitivity, she never seems emotionally involved, some questions make her feel uneasy but she retorts with a smile, with another question and she's a great listener who seems to appreciate the way Jean-Louis "drives". But she does kept some secrecy in her thoughts, like a few pages that she'd rather censor because the script doesn't "work" in her current narrative.
And then their first conversation during the car is fluid and natural, you can tell that Jean-Louis is attracted to Anne, and handles his phrasing as tactfully as if it was the steering wheel... "you like the way I drive?" isn't an innocent question, he's begging for a compliment, another boundary to be broken to invite for a next step. Having the woman seated in his car is one opportunity not to be missed, she can't leave and he's got the whole Deauville to Paris trip to convince her to drive her the following week to the boarding school. Because karma is on their side, both have kids in the same boarding school, a boy and a girl, who get along, and both have wounded pasts that unite more than separate them... for a start. The film is divided intro three acts, the encounter in the car, the idyllic weekend spent in Deauville with the children and the final act played in a binary tempo and where the vehicles become metaphor for the accessibility of one's heart to another, some unite like cars, others separate like trains... or do they?
There are many artistic licenses in the film to introduce the various flashbacks about the couples, many instances where we switch from monochrome to color to sepia tone, many switching between eloquent silences and internal dialogues and there's no part that feels like a "trick" meant to impress the viewer, every element serves the romance, following its fluctuating harmony in a perfect osmosis between the form and the content. Even the narration doesn't have this prefabricated style I felt in "Breathless", Trintignant's thoughts in voice-over have the realistic resonance of a man talking to himself, before breaking the fourth wall. As for Aimée, she was Oscar-nominated for that role, maybe because despite the rather limited range of emotion, each line of her dialogues, her awkward smiles, the winks or the nods she tosses at her daughter, carry a poignant sincerity and hit the right note.
Yes, there's something playful and genuine in that film, a je-ne-sais-quoi carried by that unforgettable score from the late Francis Lai, something about the mystery of love with a perfectly satisfying ending that didn't even need to solve the mystery... and too beautiful not to be loved.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Just another juicy bone tossed at us...
Well, first of all, to the parents of young children (let's say younger than ten, not Peppa Pig level but capable to enjoy a good Disney film and grab a few mature elements of it) here's a sound advice: don't take them to this film, they'll be bored as hell. Not taking the case of my daughter like a generality but she kept asking me how much time was left and the next thing I did when I came back home was to show here the first episode of the original "Pokemon" cartoon series and I could see the glee in her eyes that was missing all through the film.
Apparently, four screenwriters collaborated for the project but serioysly, any screenwriter who believes the premise of Pikachu wearing a cute detective hat and talking like "Ted" without the F-dombs was enough to earn kids' undivided patience should learn a few basic rules about the art of entertainment. You don't make a kids' film like some stupid doll with a new prop. Indeed, "Detective Pikachu" reminded me of that scene where Lisa Simpson tried to stop girl from buying the new Malibu Stacy because the product was still embodying awful stereotypes about gender relationships, but then Smithers pointed out that she had " a new hat" and that was all it took for the better Lisa Lionheart doll to be ignored.
And I had serious reservations in the first place, I was afraid "Aladdin" would be too 'hardcore' and I already had a huge disappointment with "Dumbo" so I gave Pikachu a chance expecting a fine tribute to the universe of the Pokemon, with such a crazy premise it deserved a shot. The first scene didn't really enhance my expectations, Justice Smith who plays Tim struck me as the kind of dull actor who plays the younger version of the hero and then you get the real star after ten minutes, I wasn't sure I would enjoy his "presence" for more than an hour and half. I don't mean to be rude but he's got the kind of physical presences you expect for comedy roles and you know there's a problem when the moments that are supposed to be funny fall flat and the comments on the "jokes" don't make it better.
So I expected the first ten minutes to make me care for the hero, I don't think it made me care for the story either... and it didn't get any better after. In fact, the film embodies all the worst clichés about action-comedy-pictures aimed for a younger audience: since they can't drop F-bombs, they think they should compensate with chase scenes, explosions, pseudo-suspenseful sequences where we've got to follow people walking for endless minutes before "something" happens, cute romantic innuendo and the most possibly prefabricated sad backstory applied to a main character in order to provide him three-dimensionality. Sure, Tim had "depth" but then how about casting an actor who doesn't have the same range of emotions than Psyduck?
But who cares about Tim, Pikachu has got a new hat!
That's how it works, Pikachu, one of the cutest and most lovable animated character of all-time, has his cuteness level pushed to eleven with his CGI look and his voice, so Iwonder what's the worse thing about that: that the producers thought such a cheaply-gimmicked film would be enough to drain a maximum of viewers or that the viewers proved them right! It doesn't take an expert to figure that the film tries to be "Ted" but it takes a more mature mindset to realize it should have been a worthy successor of Robert Zemeckis' classic "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", it should have cared about having a better lead character because no matter how memorable Pikachu is (and the premise got rapidly tiresome), the film needed a solid duo like in the two aforementioned films. It takes two to make a buddy movie.
And so the film supposedly pays tribute to the Pokemon universe in all urbane greyness and a lifeless nature where you wouldn't even expect to find a squirrel, let alone a Pokemon. The whole look of the film is bleak and depressing Xerox copy of Gotham City. How about making other Pokemons talk? How about trying to do justice to the legacy of the franchise instead of some CGI-blockbuster ersatz? How about making something that kids would enjoy, since it couldn't be "Deadpool"? I think this is a fine candidate for the Razzies and at least "Street Fighter" tried something with the lucidity of a writing aware of its limitations... and its villain was bad-ass! The villain is virtually non-existent here.
Obviously, the super team of writers was so obsessed by the structural elements of the story: hero/ quest/ pivotal moments/ twist and redemption, as if the investigation was too important to let some recreation of the Pokemonverse interfere with it, so instead of a predictable but enjoyable live-action version of the original story, what we get is a novelty on the paper but eventually a boring character investigating on an uninteresting case and with a fun sidekick.
To end on another Simpsons' parallel (yes, the other yellow icons), the Pokemons are only some meat put around a bone, "Deecive Pikachu" is just a bone tossed at young viewers. And quoting Kent Brockman: "that's supposed to make it all better".
Signore & signori (1966)
An Italian Tale of Hysteria and Histrions...
"The Birds, the Bees and the Italians" is a delightful and enjoyable comedy of manners "Italian Style" with a kitschy and catchy soundtrack that sounds like a combo of Anton Karas 'Third Man' and Nino Rota's '8½' themes, the music gets stuck in your mind like melted cheese on a plate after the pasta's gone, it's both irresistible and irritating but it does serve a purpose: to give a playful resonance to a rather serious subject, too serious to be treated with solemnity, the days of neo-realism were over, comedy became the key. So the music is comedic because there's something tragicomic in the psyche and hubris of Italian society's upper strata... and something cathartic in a film that makes men's flaws laughable, if not forgivable.
Si signor, under their facade of marital respectability, conventions, white coats or gray-flannelled suits, these Italian men want to have fun, they want to have sex and for the most tragic case, they want to find true love. What have all these elements in common? They involve friends and mistresses and activities that generally do without the 'Signora', another social burden to get accommodated with. Indeed, in their ideals of escapism and fun, religion and appearances are like a jail and the wife is the chain with the ball. That the topic is treated in a lighthearted way doesn't deprive the film from the criticism regarding its male-centered version of a hedonistic life as if women didn't want to have fun too.
Still, one shouldn't get the wrong idea about it, the original title "Signore & Signori" is there to show that the film gives an equal weight to both sexes. By an interesting irony, the film will win the Golden Palm that year along with the similarly titled and more celebrated Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman". Once again, the Germi's movie gives more presence to men, maybe because the director has a more acute perception of the weaknesses of his peers, but the fact that men are the main protagonists is not saying much, they all have jobs, good situations, a social importance and the debonair confidence of self-accomplishment in their 40s/50s but they're closer to "Pagliacci" figures than Roman warriors. Their ordeals are all portrayed in a way that makes us laugh with them and at them too.
The film is divided in three acts: in the first one, a man's impotence is treated like a running gag and a deserved subject of mockery (there's a nice twist at the end). Then the second story focuses on a husband who's stopped wearing the pants and endures his wife's insults and condescending comments with stoicism... and ear plugs. Though it's not fair to overlook the other actors but mentioning their names wouldn't ring a bell, they're no Mastroiannis, Tognazzis or Gassmans but their relative anonymousness for the non-expert eye gives the film a subtle touch of authenticity. However, I've got to mention Gastone Moschin who plays the most endearing figure of the film, and the most memorable. This is a tall man built like a Commendatore (he was the intimidating Fanucci in "The Godfather Part II") but who becomes Pinocchio when he's confronted to his nagging wife. The way he falls in love with the little cashier girl is adorable and sweet, almost Comedia Dell'Arte, and resisting the temptation to make the story darker than needed, Germi makes the emotional impact a effective by sticking to comedy.
The wife can be regarded as a villain in the segment but she's only good as using the system as an instrument to avenge her hurt pride, it's fair game in an arena where it's all a matter of saving the appearances, of pride after all. Another wife will punish her husband's infidelity by showing her naked body in a balcony, much to a passing driver's excitement. These outbursts of hysterical (and histrionic) anger highlight a recurring if not defining motif in the film: hypocrisy. Indeed, the worst possible thing that can happen isn't the fault itself but the lack of discretion. It's one thing to fool around, even the Carabineer will understand, but to expose it in front of everyone, in a society still dominated by Catholic Church, is just provocation.
Germi's not just peeking in the keyhole to see what's behind the good society's curtain, he literally kicks the hornet nest and reveal how in fact everything doesn't revolve around morality and principles but sex and money, pride and honor acting as smokescreens between these two worlds. And the film's final act of was the best way to wrap up this social exploration; by showing that even women can be loose-moralled after all, and not just the mistresses, that little twist at the end was the little extra spice the film needed, the small revenge from the female side, the perfect device to maintain the film's savor, like when you need to add a little Parmesan cheese in the rest of spaghetti, or a drop of wine to conclude the dinner.
And so the finale takes us back to where (and how) it begun, to music and smiling faces as to reassess the detachment of the director, no hurt feelings, with bravura and a fine comedic instinct, Germi strikes as a great painter of people's morality, but not a moralist! Speaking of Fermi, it seems like there's just enough space in movie lovers' memory to contain names such as Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Rossellini or Visconti and it takes that little special gourmet taste to appreciate the likes of Pietro Germi, more craftsmen than artists, but maybe because they never felt overwhelmed with some sense of overly lyrical self-grandeur that they could make such down-to-earth little gems.
And here, I conclude my 1500th IMDb review.
Letyat zhuravli (1957)
From USSR With Love...
Two lovers, Veronika and Boris, Tatyana Samoylova and Aleksey Batalovhand, are playfully running across the bank of the Moskowa river: a tender, juvenile image that would have been too corny if I wasn't instinctively confident that director Mikhail Kalatozov wasn't trying to emulate romantic B-movies from the other side of the iron curtain. The self-awareness is bold and the metaphorical language, starting from the very title, powerful in its daring simplicity. The flock of cranes flying over the two lovers' headd, inspiring an oath of eternal love, has the resonance of an impending doom, especially with that V in the sky, too perfect not to suspiciously contrast with the sheer insouciance that govern the youngsters' hearts.
Another thing strikes in that small prelude, served by a delightfully whimsical music; the streets seem deserted and we get a panoramic view on the two silhouettes in the middle of an urbane vacuum where they're suddenly splashed by a vehicle passing over a huge pond. The incident seals their bond with water before the fire of war comes to challenge their inseparability. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that in a few days, the streets will be crowded with drafted men and family members coming to greet them. In a lengthy epic shot, the camera follows Veronika while she tries to find Boris among the new drafted. In any lesser film, they would have eventually bumped on each other, but the days of the little rendezvous near the river and their cute silliness are over. Operation Barbarossa interfered with Boris and Veronika's plans of marriage, making them suddenly and tragically inaccessible.
Yes even in USSR countries, war is hell. One decade before, Stalin was still governing with his iron hand the Soviet regime, reinforced by the war victory. That a director decided to depict the war with that universal sensitivity devoid of any patriotic fever as if he suspected this was the only way the film would get its ticket for posterity, should not only speak to the Russian people but to anyone who had gone through that ordeal. For any mother who has mourned the loss of her son, any father trying to swallow his tears, any girl who was eaten by desperation waiting for her lover to come back, the response can only be intense and emotional. And to the lucky ones who never had to face war, the film's lyricism is the perfect antidote against that morbid rationality making it look like a necessary evil.
But it's less for the substantial message the film delivers than the extraordinary camera work used to convey it that "The Cranes Are Flying" make for an unforgettable experience. To use a fitting Russian word, the leitmotif of love and passion is expressed through the way one character tries to reach or join another. In the opening scene, Boris forgot to ask Veronika the time of their next date, he swiftly climbs the stairway and the camera follows him as smoothly as if it was racing with him. The timing is perfect and Boris seems like waltzing with his own joy, the running is fast, confident and overwhelmed with excitement. The camera in "Cranes" doesn't only show but suggests, transports us within the emotion that drives the character, we see the face and we see the movement while static shots suggest dead ends and entrapment, like that ambiguous scene where Boris' handsome and treacherous cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorinraped) "lures" Veronika into marrying him because she has nowhere else to go.
Other 'running' moments are linear and whenever we get those dizzying tracking shots of Veronika running across a crowded place, it's generally played as a bad omen. Interestingly, there are two memorable 'moving' (in every meaning of the word) scenes with bittersweet implications. After Veronika hears Bori's father (Vasiliy Merkurev) consoling a wounded soldier about his girlfriend's betrayal, she tries to commit suicide and climbs the stairs of a station to pull an Anna Karenina. The rhythm is frantic, the music heart-pounding and suspenseful but the image of the stairs echo the initial one and the outcome of that particular moment is loaded with bittersweet irony. In a more dramatic scene, Boris is severely wounded and before passing out, the camera gets in subjective mode and we see the trees pointing toward the sky spiraling with a juxtaposed image of a happy marriage between Boris and Veronica, where everybody is invited. The movement remains circular and fast while the happy hallucination ensues in slow motion as to suggest the inaccessibility of both lovers one to another, circling around the same axis instead of turning and climbing, it's moving but so desperately sterile that the mind can only load itself with the happiest thoughts, by default.
That desperate reliance on deceptive hopes and uplifting illusions is the true universal tragedy of war, carried in a neo-romantic film-making rich of vivid emotions and penetrative sentiments, like so many great war movies involving star-crossed lovers. The film won the Golden Palm of 1957, the only Russian win so far but what a deserved triumph! It was made in the midst of the de-Stalinization and normalization of the relationships between the two US-acronym-named countries, from which many cultural agreements were signed, the perfect possible timing allowing Western cinema to realize that cinema wasn't so quiet in the Eastern front, that there was more than patriotic fervor and propagandist news, to remember that the flame ignited by a director called Sergei Eisenstein wasn't extinguished yet and that the power of images and a lyricism conveyed by a clever and original camera work was still persistent... with one exception, "The Cranes Are Flying" didn't need faces: one was enough.
And I shall never forget those haunting close-ups on Tatiana Samoilova, full of vulnerability, sensitivity and moral strength, a metaphor for broken hearts, wounded souls but unshakable spirits.
Tarzan Escapes (1936)
No need for Jane to go back to civilization, she brought civilization in Tarzan's life...
As incongruous as it may sound, I'm beginning to detect similar patterns between the "Tarzan" and the "Rocky" series, a hunch I'll use to structure my review of the misleadingly titled "Tarzan Escapes", directed by Richard Thorpe and an uncredited John Farrow.
While the first "Rocky" film is more celebrated, "Tarzan: the Ape Man" is a true American classic nonetheless; marked by the legendary encounter of Tarzan and Jane, Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan who'd form one of the most endearing and enduring couples of Hollywood history just like Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire with Rocky and Adrian. Their chemistry never inspired dubiousness and contributed to the film's best moments, which is saying a lot. And the second opus of both series marked a romantic culmination and "Tarzan and his Mate" featured some incredibly erotic shots, pinpointing the final breaths of creative freedom before the Hays Code would impose the most suffocating diktats of respectability.
So "Tarzan Escapes" is the "Rocky III" of the series, there's an obvious change of tone that betrays its obedience to the rampant puritanism that will slowly affect American celluloid. Jane has traded her sexy top halter for a more modest clothing item though we're conceded some generous shots on her legs every once in a while. Meanwhile, the plot is just a throwaway excuse to challenge her relationship with Tarzan, some vague cousins need her to come back to London for some financial issues, a rather bland William Henry is the young and well meaning Eric Parker and Rita (Benita Hume) is like a Jane Parker from the first film without the self-confidence, the humor and the perkiness. On the casting department, the cousins are only there to remind us one last (?) time about Jane's roots.
In a much showier role, there's the greedy explorer Captain Fry (John Buckley) who's so eager to help the Parkers to find Jane that we suspect his intentions might not be as pure as he pretends to, and to make the outsiders a tad more colorful and interesting, there's also Herbert Mundin playing Rawlins, the second in command in the comedy department... after Cheetah of course. I knew his face was familiar, he was the actor who flirted with Una O'Connor in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and was a nice addition to the film, a shame that he died in a car crash a few years later (sadly enough, even Buckley prematurely died in an accident). Finally, speaking of Cheetah, she's more and more present and is obviously the third wheel of the relationships' dynamics like Paulie in the "Rocky" franchise, though Cheetah was probably better-mannered.
That exhaustive description leaves us with Johnny Weissmuller who's as athletic and at the top of his game for what's perhaps the less demanding role for a top athlete; and yet within his limited range of facial expressions and vocabulary (he made some progresses and so did Jane) he's perfect. And the plot, while not exactly revolutionary, is a solid vehicle to the usual characterization of both Tarzan and Jane as the king (and queen) of the jungle... with an exception this time: they have built their castle. They don't live in a cave anymore but in a sort of Flintstones-like treehouse where all the furniture and necessary equipment are available. It's cute in an urbane way, but the way it's all mundanely treated destroys all the values Tarzan proudly stood for: the adaptation not the triumph over nature, the raw and animal manhood conquering the heart of a bourgeois woman who realizes the futility of the Western comfort. Obviously, Jane did to Tarzan what victories did to Rocky... he got civilized... you can tell he doesn't feel comfortable, less than Cheetah anyway who had already made her marks.
And speaking for myself, I had the uncomfortable feeling that the film was distancing itself too much from the original material and it wouldn't get any better. There were still a few reminiscences of the glowing romance between Tarzan and Jane, a magnificent kiss where Tarzan approaches his face and the camera zooms on Jane who, in a state of ecstatic self-abandonment, drops a lotus flowers on a lake. A moment like this makes the film worthy of its predecessor and it was so perfect that the film didn't even need another swimming session.
Another aspect that didn't change either was the usual colonial racism displayed against the Natives and the way their deaths never carry any emotional resonance. I'm waiting for the "Tarzan" film where an African would play a more substantial role. It's true that the villains in the film (so far) are greedy explorers, but this time there's a difference since the standards of life that Jane escaped from in the first, and rejected in the second (the gifts she was offered) have been exported into Tarzan's life, which is a concession from the ape man's part. I can understand that one of the Hays Code' requirements was to establish that the Western civilization is a good, for lack of a better word, but the new house turns it into a joke.
Another more serious "joke" is the misguided and disturbing moment where a lioness is shot because Rita, Jane's cousin cuddled one of her cubs, maybe it was self-defense but the mother was also reacting from instinct. It's very indicative of the attitude of a film wasn't exactly made with the idea that these images would chock in fifty years, just like Tintin's infamous adventures in Congo. And I guess within that naivety, only the romance between Tarzan and Jane emerges as the only reason to enjoy the series, that and a few thrills and comedic effect.
On that level, the ending is perfect and Cheetah's scream is a clever nod to the audience, not to mention one of the best parts of the film.
Irrational Man (2015)
A moral response to "Match Point" and a very high point in Allen's recent filmography...
Finally! A Woody Allen film with a linear plot and "what if" dilemmas disseminated all through a thought-provoking campus-set story, a symphony of thoughts and actions without any false note and that would catch any skeptical mind off-guard. Allen surely delivered on that one!
"Irrational Man" covers many philosophical questions about the rationality of individual "morality" and their possible interference with ethic. Abe, the newly hired philosophy teacher played by Joaquin Phoenix, doesn't believe the intellectual medicine he sells to his students, his dark and brooding attitude makes up for the lack of enthusiasm in his endeavor and is enough to earn admiration, if not fascination, but the man remains totally unsatisfied about himself and pretension isn't his strongest suit.
One day, he's given a test (not a taste) of his own medicine through an intellectual challenge that could only emerge from the creativity of Woody Allen: a situation that gives its full meaning to the word existentialism, a hackneyed word that only inspired vague interpretations of the word "accomplishment" but in the film, it's shown as a moral weapon, more specifically, a double-edged sword when confused with a sort of misguided sense of entitlement, a great illustration of the idea that hell is paved by good intentions... or maybe that quote from "Chinatown" that sums it up perfectly: "most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything." Abe won't be one of these.
And so Abe undergoes a smooth transition from one state of mind to another as if we had to understand what's eating him before understanding what could regenerate his lust for life. Phoenix feels like overplaying the intellectual malcontent in quest for a meaning in the beginning and it takes not one but two women to try to break the ice and finds what's under that depressed carapace of his, Parker Posey is Rita the lively and sensual teacher who instantly falls in love and Jill is the brilliant student who has the typical crush on her charismatic teacher. See, the film offers so many common tropes to better avert them. Abe looks like your typical alcoholic womanizer but he's impotent and his suicidal impulses turn everybody off... when eventually things go better, he's wise enough to keep it platonic with Jill, because she's engaged, and if you think Jill will abandon everything to follow her teacher and do the right thing by breaking up with the dull boyfriend, you've got another thing coming.
As usual with the best Allen films, you have a fine set-up that introduces to characters with clearly drawn personalities but unclear motives and then there's something that changes everything: the motives get clearer and the personalities reveal new depths. It's a simple conversation overheard in a café that changes the course of Abe's life, triggering a new vision with a tangible effect on Jill and Rita. It's a decision that calls for an act, one of heavy proportions but deemed necessary because wishing is useless and action is meaningful. And from that point, the film is like a great waltz under a tertiary tempo: one for the triangular love and the way Abe's charm works way too much not to be an omen for complications, one for the moral dilemmas over which I hesitated to give a definite judgment, telling myself "that better goes somewhere" and finally a response to "Match Point" where 'bad things' went unpunished, and not even suspected.
In fact, the film is so smooth and engaging that the ending feels a bit hasty in its execution, sometimes the right thing to happen isn't necessarily the right one when it comes to end with a final "wow", but obviously, "Match Point" had already made its point and "Irrational Man" needed to take us back to some sanity. Many movies provide cynical examples of characters succeeding while being morally corrupt, and it's refreshing to have films that bravely set the "boring" but necessary moral aspect of the problem. Abe is an interesting character indeed, he draws us toward his charismatic personality to the point that our own convictions are challenged... to a limit of course. And it's for movies like these that I've always admired Woody Allen and after the disappointing "You will Meet a Tall and Dark Stranger", here's one that succeeds in almost every department.
Not too many characters but what's there is three-dimensional, unpredictable yet consistent, a plot that goes through many fluctuations while attached to its spinal topics and that little zest of wit that tickles your intellect and makes you wonder what you'd do if you were in "their" place. The film saddened me when I thought of the director's recent downfall into persona non grata territory. I've taken his last movies like consolations, if he's lost his touch then there was no need to go further, maybe his creative juice had stopped to drain such clever and brilliant films but "Irrational Man" made me reconsider, Allen can still surprise you... and he does it so brilliantly that I would separate the art from the artist, and I wish enough actors in Hollywood would do it so the only true Hollywood auteur can make movies like this, disinterested and interesting, devoid of any calculation except for giving a shot to "it" actresses, like Emma Stone who delivers a terrific performance one year before her Oscar-winning role in "La La Land".
The film restored my faith in Woody Allen, his "Café Society" left me cold but I guess there's a patter, in his long filmography, every 2-3 years, he makes 'that' film that feels undeniably good, if not great. "Irrational Man" is the second highest point of the 2010s after "Midnight in Paris", I wish there's enough time for Allen to make one great film... might be his last from the way things are going.
If we're not worthy of God, let's make ourselves even more worthless...
Recently, it had occurred to me that the more some people try to reach God, the more it reflects their hatred on human nature, as if bigotry or misanthropy couldn't do without looking down on people. I know there are many real-life examples of sheer altruism displayed in God's name but does Mother Teresa's work amount to something on the scale of fanaticism's death toll.
This opening paragraph isn't much an attack on God but on his believers and the way they unconsciously live God's inaccessibility as a conditioning frustration... or frustrating condition, trying to model the world according to their vision because they're incapable to reach the original modeler. Indeed, how can you figure God? If he's the Creator, then he's whatever is left if you remove his creation. Remember that gag from "The Simpsons" where Kang and Kodos made time go so fast it sucked everything out the picture, planets, galaxies, the cosmos, even God... and then the screen went white.
This is just a gag but in Bergmanian language, it's silence and nothingness, whether the latter is in white or black is a matter of speculation, but both can be seen as two poles of perception, opposite and inaccessible so that you could only visualize semblances of truth in the black-and-white photography served by Sven Nikvyst. The monochrome format is the perfect embodiment of what can be regarded as God's 'indifference' to the pleas of human beings, subject of Bergman's "faith" trilogy, driving his most tormented subjects to craziness or alienation... that's for the common thread. Whether Bergman wanted us to pity or understand his characters is none of his concern, as long as we're not indifferent (an attitude that can only be feigned because only God is truly indifferent), we realize our own vulnerability.
So, in "Through the Glass Darkly", we had a widowed writer estranged to his daughter, whose dementia made her believe she was approached by God and carry some ambiguously incestuous feelings toward her brother. "Winter Sleep" was even darker in the depiction of a priest, also a widower, incapable to reach God and be a soothing voice of reason for people fearing the nuclear apocalypse and questioning the future of humanity. Ironically, the third opus of the trilogy (though I wonder if it was intended that way) is the less loaded but no less enigmatic, carrying the same ingredients such as death, Oedipal incest, carnal fantasies, triangular loves and existential dead-ends. If you hate head-scratchers, "The Silence" isn't for you.
The film's rich in puzzling imagery, groundbreaking shots of nudity and sex, a pivotal moment in Swedish cinema's history that disinhibited every director's impulse since then, and it also indulges to surrealistic moments à la Bunuel. It's not much pretentious as it has the personal resonance of a nightmare. It starts with two sisters suffocating in a train going to some foreign European country, Ingrid Thullin is the older one: Ester, her natural dignity is spoiled by blood coughing, whatever she represents, we gather it's not life. Anna is played by the breathtakingly beautiful Gunnel Lindblom, and the way the camera endlessly lusts on her leaves no doubt that she represents the basic desires. Her son Johan, played by Jörgen Lindström (he was the little boy in "Persona") swings back and forth between what seems to be two opposite mother figures... or two sides of the same persona, one of flesh and one of soul.
The little boy wanders through the film with the innocence that befits his age, until we start to suspect his continuous gazes on his mother's body to be representative of our voyeuristic position. Johan admires his mother because she's got the reassuring voluptuousness of the nurturing body and his aunt, a translator who can help him to understand the country's language, nurtures his intellect. Either he's a bridge between the two women estranged one to another or he's a plot necessity showing that their tragedy isn't on the conflict itself but the hopeless absence of any communication channel... although they speak the same 'language'.
Ironically, communication is never an issue with foreigners: the kid has fun with a bunch of Spanish dwarfs, there's an old hotel steward,played by Håkan Jahnberg, whose body and face language is so expressive that he always finds a way to amuse Johan and comfort Ester; meanwhile Anna has an affair with a waiter. Blaming Ester for being a Holier-than-thou individual, selfish and proud, rejecting her own pleas as if she was playing God herself, jealousy through sex is the only expression of Anna's resentment. God becomes the scapegoat of the tragicomedy, he's inspired that seemingly disdain of the things of life within Ester, and Anna who made herself even more worthless since she's not worthy of Ester, God... or both.
Ester could only have sex alone because she could never stand the smell of 'flesh' the original language between human beings... and ironically is left alone at the end with the kind of uncertain future that doesn't speak much of God's gratitude toward his firmest subjects. Approaching God is shown as a descent into alienation while the "terra ferma" of sensuality makes us feel alive among humans even if it means suffering... So are we suffering when we're close to God or suffering when we try to stay among humans we secretly despise? That Ester is still afraid to die alone is an indication that we need to stay in touch with our own humanity. Still...
Sven Nykvist's cinematography has the strange capability to show people so close and yet so far, lost in long hotel corridors, in the sweaty darkness of sordid rooms or scorching speeding trains... two faces can be separated by darkness or shadows as if each one was immersed in its own dimension. I guess "The Silence" tries to envision the way people our desperate attempts to reach each other as if the impossible communication with God had affected our own interactions.
Love as a bilateral illusion guided by one-sided motives...
Woody Allen's movies are so densely populated in protagonists, from level one to level four of importance, that it's merely impossible to remember all the names after a first viewing. After "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" I remembered none, except maybe for Cristal, the scam medium played by Pauline Collins. I think this says a lot about the main symptom that affects the film, people's motives are so unclear and their actions so selfish that viewers are more turned off than enthralled by the story and nothing is offered at the end to contradict any negative bias the beginning inspired. That's a shame.
Forget the beginning, the title alone announced what could have been one of these witty little Allen's comedies when a simple prediction could have been the starting point of a series of misunderstandings and random encounters leading to forced romances and hilarious awkwardness... just because some guy looks like that 'tall, dark, stranger'. I expected this and what I got was a rather bland and disenchanted (as much as disjointed) film from Allen who got so many stories and sub-stories to tell they all lost their focus and made the edifice fall apart before the ending credits. At the end, I didn't know exactly what to think, I didn't dislike the film but I found its statement of love inexistent, but as an Allen fan, I'll try to dig deeper.
I guess the film isn't exactly about love as a feeling but as the end-result of an idealization, love is never a starter but a follow-up that makes you highly anticipate a karmic reward... that in most cases reveals itself to be an illusion. Anthony Hopkins plays Alfie, an old man who's got a late epiphany about his mortality and decides to divorce from his wife Helena, played by Jemma Jones, so he can indulge to his wannabe young man's fantasies, including marrying the most blatant representation of a trophy wife (Lucy Punch) who can "give" him the son he 's always wanted after his first one's death. Desperate, Helena visits Cristal who knows exactly what she needs to hear and keeps on convincing her that everything will be all right.
Oddly enough, the therapy works and Helena is convinced she'll meet the dark and brooding stranger, she also believes in reincarnation and that she might have been Marie-Antoinette or Joan of Arc in a previous life, her obsession with reincarnation is her "illusion" that if that life doesn't go well, there's still an option on the next one. Needless to say that her opinion isn't unanimously shared. But better a comforting illusion than an infuriating truth, so Sally (Naomi Watts) rubs her the right way; after enduring her suicidal phase, she knows her mother needs positive words... and she also needs her mother's money to pay the rent. Sally's married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer (a euphemistic Hollywood term for a lazy unemployed bum with self-grandeur dreams). Roy met with success once so he believes in his talent, a comforting illusion (could've been the starter's luck) or an infuriating truth that erodes his couple.
Indeed, Sally's got all the reasons to fantasize about her boss played by Antonio Banderas, he could be the dark stranger but the romance is a false track, and could have been handled much better story-wise. I suspect it's because Allen was more focused on the other affair between Roy and Dia, a young music student played by Freida Pinto whose role is so chronologically close to her breakthrough performance in "Slumdog Millionnaire" that I kept thinking of Latika. I think the film could have worked better had it focused on the old couple, because the chemistry between Watts and Banderas wasn't enough to make the disappointment work and I couldn't buy one second that Dia would fall in love with a slob like Roy who admitted he kept peeking on her window, using his passion for art as 'pickup' lines the same way he got Sally, bragging about his medical talent. Dia falls too easily for Roy, which is indicative of the underwritten Allen's character who's just here because she's played by a pretty, young rising actress.
Pinto isn't given a role like Scarlett Johannsen in "Match Point" or "Scoop" and overall, there's not a single character treated in a way that invites for empathy. Only Hopkins and Jones had well-traced arcs and although her cockney accent was too distracting at times, I thought Lucy Punch turned into a more interesting character revealing a heart behind her 'adventurous' façade, as if she could use Hopkins' wealth as much as he used her to flatter his own ego. The film has a statement about the selfish roots of love as a mutual illusion that only serves to fulfill selfish dreams. It's just as if love could never be gratuitous or disinterested... such a disenchanted movie that deserved perhaps more rewriting because the material was good. But maybe Allen is too prolific for his own good and this is why he comes up with great films every 2-3 years and the in-between ones have the resonance of incomplete fillers.
At the end, the film is a rather depressing collection of subplots that doesn't reinvent the wheel, the 'Hopkins' story is a copy-paste of Sidney Pollack's affair in "Husbands and Wives" and the rest of the interactions are just ersatz of previous Allenian gems ... maybe the blandness of the film is a strong reflection of the evolution of our time as perceived by the director. It's as if, at the dawn of the 2010s, Allen could foreshadow the fading of his popularity at the awakening of old scandals and the way he was backstabbed by actors who worked with him. Popularity is as illusory as love and about those who're shaming Allen now, I'm just wondering whether they're sincere or simply driven by the preservation of their career?
On the Swedish Waterfront... an Early Bergman film and a little gem of Sweden's Neo-Realism...
For viewers born decades after the end of the second worldwide conflict, it's hard to imagine anything but joy and optimism in the hearts of the younger population that went through what was probably the hardest (and certainly darkest) part of their lives. We've all basked in stories, real and fictional, that knighted those who fathered the baby-boomers with the title of the greatest generation, one whose youth was sacrificed at history's altar ... but that's overlooking their ordinariness, how modest their aims were and thus how poignantly relatable their lives could be outside the epic scope of war and other life-and-death situations.
When Ingmar Bergman "Port of Call" starts, war is way over and there's no any indication of life-threatening situations yet the film opens with a startling suicide attempt: a girl takes a big dive from a dock and many people come to rescue her, including a war veteran who just settled in the port town. From what it looks like, the two protagonists didn't benefit from the kind of existential canvases that invite for optimism: the man is a sailor back from war, disillusioned and hiding his easy-going nature behind a mask of cynicism, his name is Gösta (Bengt Eklund), the woman is a young factory girl, depressed and insecure, with the kind of troubled past that makes any romance doomed from the start, and whose roots are to be found within a tense relationship with her overbearing mother. She's Berit (Nine-Chrstine Jönsson).
Those were the neo-realism days in Europe and the noir era in the U.S.A, the film, maybe unconsciously driven by these two influences, doesn't intend to paint a glamorous romance of any kind but rather a life capsule in a small seaside working-class town, a sort of Swedish "On the Waterfront" where we follow the lives of two loners as they converged one night at a dance. It's an immediate and mutual appreciation that never feels forced nor contrived, it IS believable that the two would find oasis of serenity within each other. To use fitting metaphors, Gösta has nothing but dreams of stability, he's a boat that wants to set ashore someplace, drop the anchor once and for all, he just doesn't have a compass, Berit on the other hand is a raft drifting in the ocean of her own guilt-ridden past and has no rows whatsoever to move on.
In a way the film is more about Berit's attempt to come to term with that past of hers, it's not much a character study but a psychological journey into a mindset that made happiness as improbable as the sight of land for a boat without any guidance. Gösta is an active and passive observer who acts as a lookout sometimes and some others becomes a true rower on Berit's frail embarkation. He knows she's as tormented as he is, he doesn't care much about her past though he's clearly displeased by the constant harassment she gets from men, raising suspicions of the ugliest sorts. So, as the film moves on and their relationship thickens, more obstacles come across their journey to the promised harbor, divulgated through flashbacks, revealed secrets and a subplot involving Berit's friend Gertrud, Bibi Nelson.
The flashbacks on Berit's life are depressing and bleak: marital fights, scandals, life in reformatory school that borders on prostitution and debauchery, a difficult mother-and-daughter relationship, it's a cocktail of lurid negativity that darkens an already heavy-loaded movie and the irony is that the friend Gertrud got an even worse deal. The contrast between Berit and Gertrud is interesting on two levels: it highlights the fact that Berit is abler to fight her own demons and maybe her real tragedy is that she can't handle happiness even when served on a silver platter, as if it was a dish best served cold. The second level is that the film is a powerful social commentary on the tormented lives of women with a 'bad rep' in a system that often pose as a judge of morality, driving them to the most extreme and sometimes macabre corners.
Bergman, in one of his breakthrough movies, displays the kind of sensitivities that made he glorious days of European neo-realism, his "Port of Call" is as powerful and introspective as the Italian classics of the late 1940s through this portrayal of two lost souls who come to find a true meaning to their lives after many years of unhappiness and resentment. For that, the director shows a predisposition for lengthy intimate scenes where two faces are close to each other and one speak alone without looking at the other, as if the act of talking was individual and solitary in essence. But when Berit confesses her past to Gösta, it looks like she's talking to us; from either point of view, ours or Gösta's, you can feel the emergence of a cinematic talent and a unique ability to paint human emotions with consideration to the viewers.
The film is rather simple but it's made in such a way we feel like belonging to the screen... and that's Bergman's power, every once in a while, "Port of Call" ceases to be that gripping drama and reaches an unexpected summit of film-making showing the early signs of the genius, small moments where souls are confronted one to another, talking, deciding and acting. The tension is real and makes the few moments of relief only more rewarding. And that's an adjective I'd use to describe the ending, one that such a movie called for, after so many questioning about life, it was only fair that the two young protagonists, directed under a then-young director could find one reason to two to see the future in brighter colors, almost spoiled by the poster.
Sommaren med Monika (1953)
The Edge of Seventeen... with a Catch...
Before I got to "Summer with Monika", a film I hadn't watched for almost ten years, I had just finished reviewing "Port of Call" and the contrast between the two romances is very evocative of the generation gap in the span of five years; between people who were in their early twenties after the war and teenagers of the early fifties.
That's the stuff that makes for a whole different kind of film, and even film-making, and it's not surprising that the latter gave its first international resonance to the second Bergman, after Ingrid. It was 1953 when "Summer with Monika" that launched the career of Harriett Anderson like a Swedish equivalent of Brigitte Bardot though it didn't do much for her co-star Lans Ekberg. It also made a name out of Ingmar Bergman who wasn't a newcomer but whose previous films didn't have that little edge that could transcend the frontier of Sweden, that edge belonged to Monika, let's call it, the edge of seventeen.
It's fascinating that the director who's the trope namer of intellectual cinema reached his first public by arousing the senses rather than challenging their thoughts, it just says something about the power of cinema as a visual medium. To his credit, Bergman, for all the intellectualism correlated to his legacy, always delighted his audiences with bautiful iconic shots, from the Chess Game in "The Seventh Seal" to the "two faces" in "Persona", not to mention the 'Pieta' with the two women in "Cries and Whispers", images almost spoke more words than actors with Bergman. Still, "Summer with Monika", is neither an erotic, nor an intellectual film.
However, it's a twice pivotal movie in the history of Swedish cinema, first by shining a light on its most emblematic director and to a lesser degree by establishing its reputation as a sexually free country. Whether it's true or undeserved is irrelevant to the story and is only due to some publicity stunts pulled by sleazy American producers in order to sell the film. In reality, this is a romance played as a straight drama where all the sensuality magnificently displayed by Anderson is only there as a component of her teenage carefree nature, she's just a girl who wants to escape from boredom and overbearing parents, the edge of being seventeen again.
That's what the film is about, two young persons who refuse the working-class burdens of their lives and decide that they're young enough to have all the fun and freedom they can afford so Harry quits his job in a porcelain shop and Monika leaves her home and quits her job where she was constantly harassed by co-workers. Still, no matter how tough their lives are, Bergman never overplays their ordeals, no adult or authority figure is abusive or severe without provocation. Bergman doesn't take sides with either the young lovers or their elders, he shows a sort of eternal gap between the teenage world and adults with what looks like detachment... until we get to the final act. But the neutrality he displays is still essential in the message the film sends about teenagers as if insouciance was a necessary step before adulthood.
Not so long ago in the past, with a few exceptions, people evolved directly from children to adulthood with romance as the obligatory bridge, it's only after the war that the 50s saw a rise of teenagers as a clearly shaped demographic category with its most emblematic figure: James Dean, the rebel without a cause. The 'silent generation' came to age after the war and because they were not confronted to any life-and-death situations could only let the steam off through freedom-seeking leisure and pseudo rebellions against adults. When Harry and Monika meet, it's not exactly a love at first sight, but an instant hormone-driven urge for transgression. Monika wants to leave town, and Harry does exactly what any guy his age would do with such a girl, and together they take a boat and spends a fine summer in a Swedish archipelago.
So we get to the film's most memorable moment, the idyllic island journey that probably inspired Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom". The part is a contemplative and transparent teen-romance like only a director approaching his forties and mourning the loss of his youth could make. Harry and Monika swim, kiss, dance, everything is played like a soft-core erotic movie and Anderson can pat her belly or eat an apple, she's just so obscenely gorgeous. It is important that the film paints a beautiful and straight-out vision of that romance, it transports us in heights of sensuality to make us fall even harder on the ground of reality.
Indeed, we get the summer with sex, sensuality and sun, and then comes the winter with its share of responsibilities, matrimony, baby and betrayal. The "conflict" part can strike as depressing and anticlimactic but once again, it's the perfect plot vehicle for Bergman's talent, showcased in previous films such as "Port of Call". Take the way Monika stares at the camera while Harry is listening to her selfish ode to freedom. This is a girl who challenges authority and that goes for Harry too even, he became an adult by accepting his responsibilities while Monika remained a teenager, the edge of seventeen with a catch.
Monika is a woman who didn't want to commit to adulthood, whose personality was of an eternal dreamer rocked by the lullabies sung by Hollywood movies, the same Hollywood movies that sealed their romance in the theater. The title was "Women's Dream", interestingly, Bergman would use it for a film he'd make 2 years after, but his career will always prove how detached he'll be from Hollywood conventions, no matter how dreamy they would be, the inevitability of the things life will be his greatest visual assets. Maybe it took a last glance on teenagers before he would reach that level of maturity.
Toying with the duplicity of the system, the erotic part was one reason to discover Bergman and the story one to get his genius, "Summer With Monika" marks his entrance as an international director approaching the life contemplation that would inspire the masterpieces of 1957.
A Night to Remember (1958)
An accurate depiction of the "Titanic" sinking, and a milestone in the 'disaster' genre...
Adapted from Walter Lord's acclaimed novel of the same name, "A Night to Remember" is a most interesting watch when you have a certain flute melody springing to mind whenever you think of a certain iconic ship that hit a certain iceberg back in 1912.
James Cameron did a lot of good in raising a worldwide interest around the fate of the RMS Titanic, but the film was so spectacular and abundant in CGI effects and iconic imagery (the 'King of the World', the flying scene...) that the factual tragedy turned into a beautiful Romeo and Juliet with the ship as a backdrop, and by doing so, the public conceded all the tears to fictional characters while the Titanic didn't carry one tragic story but hundreds of them.
To his credit, Cameron allowed a few characters to emerge (no pun intended) from anonymity, one of the most powerful images of the film is the old couple (Isidor and Ida Strauss) hugging each other on the bed as the water is flowing over the cabin, we have a shot at the classy behavior of first-class passengers Guggenheim or Astor (who died as true gentlemen). Still, it was about Leo and Kate, and a necklace that should have been dropped as an idea rather than an object. Cameron made a modern classic but when it comes to the facts, his baby was as much about the Titanic as "Gone With the Wind" about the Civil War, accessory but not central.
So the best thing about "A Night to Remember" is that it doesn't have any central character and thank heavens, no romantic lead. We're embarked in the doomed voyage to follow the path of various real-life passengers and witness the bravery of many and the cowardice of a few. The story of the baker who allegedly survived thanks to many shot of whiskey gets a fine coverage, a much sadder light is shone on the social strata that prevented many third passengers to realize that the ship was drowning until it was too late, and most lifeboats were gone. The film also adds more layers to the work of wireless operators, officers and Captain Smith. Finally, it also covers the involvement, and as a matter of fact, non-involvement of the Carpathia and the Californian, in that order, which are more than subplots in the scope of the tragedy.
So the British film, the most expensive of its time, really puts the story in "history" and it does something more: it anticipates the narrative format of many disaster movies and set the template that would be later used in "The Towering Inferno" or "Earthquake", with more modest special effects but no less groundbreaking. One would gather that water is easier to handle as fire or falling rocks but the real test of the film is how spectacular the sinking looks and it passes the test remarkably, just check the making-of clip and you can see how the inclination of the ship had to be respected for the sake of continuity. As the angle increases, what was previously suggested by sliding serving trays became a much shocking reality when people were shown rolling as object or making the big plunge, voluntarily or not.
The film has nothing to envy from the 1997 counterpart and it's got one edge worthy to be pointed: before the last thirty minutes; it's pretty peaceful and restrained. Even the collision with the iceberg didn't inspire any hurry or fear, so while the Titanic is slowly sinking, as viewers, we experience the escalation of fear from its early states to frenzy, from panic to "everyone for himself", and then sheer terror when Smith orders to abandon the ship. "A Night to Remember" offers a briefer but much more intense and emotionally compact emotionality as we follow all secondary characters till the end, their demise or survival equally intense.
The film has also a documentary value though it shares many interesting similarities with the 1997 blockbuster, among them: the depiction of ship designer Thomas Andrews as a gentleman hero who stayed till the end, he didn't make any attempt to save himself and was contemplating his "failure" while staring as a painting in the reception room. We also have the infamous Bruce Ismay shown in more sympathetic light but surrendering to the instinct of conservation at the last minute and avoiding the look of contempt on officer Murdoch's face... of course, Ismay feels guilt and remorse but there's no villain in the film. It's a credit to the film's intelligence and I guess it's for details like these that the story of Titanic fascinate us. We feel sorry for the passengers and somewhat we wonder: what if we were there? How would we behave?
Maybe the consolation behind this upper-class snobbishness and arrogance is that men who defended their pedigree to the core had to give it its fullest meaning, and face death with dignity, so something of a Golden Age, for better or worse, sunk with the ship. The dedication of the orchestra is also inspiring beyond any words, music can sooth the soul during the most horrific moments, but maybe their music was simply a way to pay farewell to humanity through one of its most noble inventions. And again some tried to get in the lifeboat because the prospect of death was simply too terrifying, are we to judge them?
"A Night to Remember" didn't get its due success for lack of the magic word in the title and a lack of stars for the American public (obviously Cameron didn't commit the same "faults") but although the ship doesn't break in that one (an unknown fact then that Cameron at least corrected), the film is perhaps the most accurate account of the fateful night. And the merit of Cameron's film is that it probably encouraged many viewers to give this one a try... and prevent it from sinking into oblivion. And that's a mathematical certainty!
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
Kiss Kiss and Bang Bang in the Jungle...
"Tarzan and His Mate" is a continuation to the original "Tarzan the Ape Man" (directed by W.S. Van Dike) but plot-wise, it can be regarded as a blatant remake of the first film with the same premise involving the elephants' graveyard. If the screenwriters didn't really kill themselves over the story, there's a main difference which is that Tarzan and Jane form a couple and well, here's their alibi.
Obviously, the only reason to watch a Tarzan picture is to see the hero and his beloved Jane in action -God forbid she loses her status as a damsel in distress, justifying his own as a hero- but that certainly doesn't mean that Jane is half the reason to watch this film. Forgive my male bias, but she really takes the lion, or I would say, the lioness-share of fun and thrills derived from Cedric Gibbons' adventure picture, and the rest doesn't belong to Tarzan alone but Cheetah carried out her role as sidekick and comic relief quite remarkably. Still, Jane makes the show.
Think about it, would the adventures of the dashing muscular King of the Jungle with the impeccable yodel (one he can even perform with his face above the water) be as interesting if he was acting in solo? Wouldn't Tarzan be a rather dull individual to follow, especially since the portrayal is far from the original book where he was much aware of his background? Jane was designed to be the perfect foil to Tarzan's heroism and eye candy to a fair portion of the spectators (not that the other is given reasons to complain, whether you melt for curves or muscles, you get it!) but don't get yourself fooled by her sexy halter top and loincloth ensemble, it's actually the pants she wears as far as both the film and "life with Tarzan" go. Without her, the film would have been rather dull and disappointing.
Not that you couldn't make interesting adventure movies but there's just too much displays of "dated interracial interaction" one mind can tolerate. I'm all for putting a movie into its proper context but the way the African indigenes are portrayed (I swear that 'Bwana' thing made me mad) and to see them being treated like beasts of burdens made me cringe, I guess it helped to establish the villainy of one of the two safari-hunters, the British aristocrat Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) who lost his money after the financial crash and invested every last dime in that ivory project, we see him killing a slave because of a slight disobedience and I didn't see animals treated that way. But are we supposed to feel more indulgent toward Harry Holt (Nail Hamilton) who protested that "a whip would have been enough".
"Tarzan and His Mate" is the wrong film if you were looking to British men at their most chivalrous though so let's credit it for the one aspect where no one will mind the datedness. The film is known as one of the last Pre-Code gem and the last 'Tarzan' picture made before the Hays Code, which makes it an instance where we can enjoy Tarzan and Jane enjoying a fine romance, frolicking and enjoying each one's company to the fullest and most sensual meaning. I just couldn't resist the way Jane said "Tarzan you big boy!" that's an actress who made the talkies earn some legitimacy. I could hear her over and over, from her screams of distress, to the way she talks to her big boy, not to mention her new signature scream, Jane made her jungle her domain and her couple as mundane as any other occupant of the jungle.
Of course, Gibbons doesn't spare his energy maximizing her sensuality and offer so many (intended?) glimpses on her body but it's interesting in the way it never seems to be done at the expenses of her character, as if seducing was part of her nature. She's not treated as a prize contestant but as a woman proudly and shamelessly embracing her womanhood. After she tries fancy dresses brought by the hunters (while one was sneakily peeking on her shadow), she enjoyed the interactions with civilized men and even volunteered to suck the poison out of Arlington's wound and you could tell from the lad's look that he'd seen worse. Yet all these elements never distract from the fact that Jane is in love with Tarzan and doesn't want anyone to convince her to leave the jungle.
So there's the idea of commitment that stick to a jungle-vision of marriage and there's no way the MGM studios wanted us to believe that the couple didn't consume it, not after such a magical interlude as the skinny-dipping scene, so charming and poetic in its obvious eroticism.. Jane is described as a mate, whether roommate and playmate, one has got to take mate in its rawest and most literary meaning. The rest of the film takes us back to the graveyard plot and a few interesting bits where Jane accepts to help her friends while for once, Tarzan is allowed to have an opinion of his own which triggers the chain of events culminating with what should be one of the noisiest and messiest action climaxes but weirdly enough full of thrills and entertainments. Cheetah is also given the opportunity to shine and the sight of her riding an ostrich was irresistible.
After this film, it's quite obvious the film's pattern and roles are established, only after the Code, Jane won't be exactly the same and from the attempts to sugarcoat the romance, something will be lost in that witty and naughty ambiance that made the first films so entertaining, especially the second one.
Tom Jones (1963)
Tally-Ho! Taking my hats off for "Tom Jones"!
"Tom Jones" is a Best Picture winner I unfairly mistook for one of these 'pretentious' and falsely sophisticated prestige movies indulging to the most old-fashioned forms of entertainment. My bias wasn't without a basis as the phenomenon was so typical of the 1960s especially the very year where the film competed with such distinguished illustrations of these symptoms as "Cleopatra" and "How the West Was Won". But with "Tom Jones", I embarked to a totally different ride, much to my greatest delight and let's use a not-too-fancy word: fun.
Yes, I had fun watching Tony Richardson's epic comedy. The film is a frantic, bawdy, irreverent, hilarious, self-conscious and entertaining costume drama and perhaps one of the most enjoyable I've ever seen recently, a non-stop series of gags and adventures with serious moments and charming romantic interlude that keep us anticipating imminent laughs, generally a little nod to the viewers comes at the right moment, just to tell us that this is not to be taken too seriously. It's all for the laughs just like a great cartoon, but it does take its intent to make us laugh seriously, and for that, I humbly take my hat off.
The film, adapted from the 18h novel written by Henry Fielding and adapted by John Osbourne, is the kind of material that might have suffered from a classic adaptation... unless your name is Stanley Kubrick. But Tom Jones is the antithesis of Barry Lyndon, he's the kind of larger-than-life character whose qualities call for an undetached directing in order to involve our empathy. And it starts in a rather promising way where he's described as a "bad hero" with many weaknesses, that, we're ready to believe. But when the narrator rather laconically adds that "But then, if Adam hadn't had such a weakness for apples, there would be nobody to tell Tom's story at all." The good old lad had already learned a few points of sympathy.
Indeed, swashbuckling and intrepid heroes can get rapidly boring so you've got to provide the character a little extra edge, a sense of self-awareness that commands the viewer to believe in the character and Tony Richardson has more than a sleeve in his tricks to make that work, starting with the first scene. Richardson makes a rather strategic choice by setting the tone of zany unpredictability before the opening credits start. Imagine how you can establish that your main character is a baseborn baby left in the bed of the rich Squire Allworthy, melodrama would be ridiculous but Richardson treats it like some old silent comedy with a silly piano theme and people acting like in some Vaudeville acts. It's perfect.
Richardson already shows that his priority in the film is the viewer and makes a film that look like a collection of sequences that work like these Benny Hill skits, all in color, fast-motion and a period piece of music, inspiring many moments from Woody Allen's "Love and Death". "Tom Jones" is perhaps the first movie that understood the secret appeal of costume dramas, movies set in at the crossroads between the contemporary world and the colorful and somewhat exotic ancient times, a period that can afford to be presented with modern visuals and tones without looking too incongruous. They are disconcerting to the eyes, but all the irises in the films, the fourth-wall breaking moments, the fast motions and all these madcap chases were inspired takes as the director relieved the material from its remains of pompousness.
And that semi-parodic tone, going as far as showing a character putting his cap on the lens of a camera, carries the same effect than what the narrator says about drinking "It is not true that drink alters a man's character. It may reveal it more fully." The film embraces with a charming and appealing confidence its material, without any holds barred, the more liberties and artistic licenses it takes, the more it frees itself from conventions that would have dated it considerably. The film remains incredibly modern and is only betrayed by the texture of the picture and of course a casting that showcases many great British talents of the time: Hugh Griffith always got a good word for a good laugh and can also do so with a simple gesture such as mimicking a goat or throwing a glass of wine on his bulldog, Susannah York is once again a perfect mix of juvenile beauty and maturity in acting, David Warmer makes a fine debut as the sly and hypocritically virtuous rival Blifil, and naturally you have the trio of Oscar-nominated actresses for Best Supporting Role; Joyce Reman as the luscious Mr. Waters, Edith Evans as the pushy and holier-than-thou aunt and Diane Cileto as the amoral Molly.
Naturally, the performance that carries the film is Albert Finney who also reinvents the role of the hero by looking so dashingly handsome and yet with his stocky frame, broad shoulders and slightly busted nose has the look of a pugnacious cockney you'd love to share a few pints with. Finney is complete, he manages to be poetic, tough, sensitive and romantic and always present when the call of heroism and bravery is made. What a great performance from the actor who had just left us a few months ago. His scene with Mrs. Evans in the inn remains one of the most memorable and sensual food eating moments, a school-case of suggestion in a time where everything relies on obsessive nudity (hear, hear, Kechiche!) there is so much eroticism and lust in this iconic moment that one should even question the need of graphic sex in movies.
The film is often remembered and parodied for that scene specifically, which is more than many movies can take pride from but that doesn't take anything from the other moments as "Tom Jones" is great from beginning to end, and perhaps one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of the 1960s, and beyond.