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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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Are you gonna vote and discuss the poll here or whistle Dixie?
The late critic was absolutely right about Wilder's talent for concluding movies (as well as making damn good ones) and he could have made his point by mentioning his two other masterpieces: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Apartment (1960). There are many other classic endings but for the sake of this poll, we've narrowed it down to the four black-and-white classics that made it in the two AFI's Top 100 Greatest American Movies.
Which of these four classic Billy Wilder's closing lines is the closest to perfection? (since nobody's perfect)
After voting, Mr. De Mille, shut up and deal... with fellow users here, yeah, closer than that...
Which of these villains who only appeared* during these palindromic years is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
*unless in a different form or played by an another actor
Which of these memorable naked masculine torso scenes is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the film here
(are excluded from the list movies featuring several scenes of that sort given their premise or genre: boxing, martial arts or fighting movies, erotic films etc.)
Which one of them is your personal favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
Which of these memorable scores that fit the description is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
OSCAR WINNER OSCAR NOMINEE
The exchange shouldn't exceed two sentences, otherwise we're not talking about quotes but about dialogue, so sorry for the Pulp Fiction (1994) fans but the iconic "What" sequence between Jules and Brett is ineligible for this poll.
Want to discuss it? -It's here my friend."
Roger Carel was the French Man of 1000 Voices, his incredible range of voices allowed him to dub some of the most iconic and memorable TV and movie characters of all the time. Indeed, he wasn't just the regular voice of Peter Sellers, Ustinov and Jack Lemmon, he was the voice of such icons as Charles Chaplin, Mickey Mouse, Kermit the Frog, Fred Flintstone and of course, the ultimate French icon: Asterix.
And the question is simple: which of these TV/movie characters dubbed by Roger Carel in the French versions is your favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
(and Reposez en Paix, Mr. Carel)
Things are moving real fast in the world of entertainment at a time where questions and issues regarding diversity, inclusion and equity can't be dodged anymore. This poll doesn't ask you about your opinion on the subject; whether you qualify it as "progress in march" or "triumph of Political Correctness" is beside the point, the question is simpler:
Regardless of how you perceive its activism, how much further do you think the Hollywood industry should go to keep consistent with it?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Ginger e Fred (1986)
Giuletta of the (sadly lost) Spirit...
Fellini is perhaps the only director whose movies could never be adapted into books. The Maestro has invented a purely cinematic language to speak his own heart and tell his stories no matter how disjointed and anarchic they were for the discoverer, I guess his unique style would simply suffocate inside the restrictive format of words. Sure, drawings can give glimpses on his extravagant visions but still too static to convey the sense of fun and buoyancy he injects in his material. They could make interesting comic strips though but would they work the same without Nino Rota or Nicola Piavani's music?
Fellini movies are made for either the stage or the screen, their delights are essentially visual and musical, their enjoyment works on a sensitive and emotional rather than intellectual level. This is the old magic formula that made glorious days of Hollywood and Broadway, providing the kind of entertainment books and radio couldn't, that era immortalized by Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Walt Disney cartoons and of course musicals, and one of the most emblematic moments of that long gone period is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing "Cheek to Cheek". That heavenly scene immortalized by countless homages, notably from "The Green Mile" and Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo".
Fellini's "Ginger and Fred" is impregnated with a similar dose of nostalgia although we never see the legends, we don't need their last names, we don't need the lyrics to remember "Top Hat", we don't need Giuletta Masina to look like Ginger Rogers and she doesn't even pretend to be a lookalike while Marcello Mastroianni isn't exactly the thin and slender Astaire type. Yet the two Hollywood stars bright through the sole passion of Amelia (Masina) and Pippo (Mastroianni). Listen to her describing the choreography or her days of glory during interviews or Pippo, in one of the film's most inspired scenes, explaining the origins of tap dancing. Their listeners aren't always captivated but we know they're not talking to them but to us movie lovers fascinated by these Last Mohicans of Hollywood Golden Age... Italian style.
The homage itself is pure Fellini style, any lesser director would have made this love letter to Hollywood a sort of solemn prosternation... watching "Ginger and Fred" made me realize how willing even good movies like "The Artist" or "La La Land" were to recreate the magic at the expense of their personal touch, sinning by moments of sentimental manipulation. "Ginger and Fred" is nostalgic all right, but it's exuberant and transgressive like any Fellini film. The director turns the couple into decoy protagonists in a crazy universe, an avalanche of debauchery that makes them totally outdated. Behind the nostalgia, there's a commentary on how far the art of entertainment went, becoming as decadent as his portrayal of Rome like in "Satyricon". Good directors flash the lost innocence before our eyes, Fellini focuses on the much groovier hell.
What is the place of a tap dancing couple in a world where TV and pop electronic music waters its audience with a keleidoscope of sex, games, ads and random images designed to ignite masses lowest instincts? When Amelia is approached by an unimpressed journalist and driven to the hotel before the studio representation, she is surrounded by so many characters her frailty is enhanced: has-been artists, lookalikes, impersonators, dwarves... what have they in common? They're just weird, bizarre-looking or entertaining in a non-traditional way. It's eerie how Fellini prophecized the reality shows and their exploitations of wannabe celebrities and pseudo artists treated like freaks. There's a scene where Amelia is asked whether she's married to Pippo, if she was, that would have interested the audience even more. There's no place anymore for genuine interest, people want to be shocked, dazzled, or surprised, it's a giant leap made in five decades.
Having a foot in each world and being a true ringmaster, Fellini reconciles these two schools of entertainment, allowing within that orgy of telegenic bizarreness a few breaks to Amelia and Pippo, I didn't mind these crazy vignettes as they're part of the Fellinian experience but sometimes they can be too exhausting and so I enjoyed these brief moments of truce where Amelia and Pippo shared a few memories. I loved their complicity all through their film and one of the masterstrokes was the blackout before the act, so we could breath a little and listen to them commenting the mess surrounding them. It's interesting to see that they're lucid about their status, but they are willing to give the audience what they want, for the sake of their art. For all its anarchical structure, carried by that catchy soundtrack, Fellini can't resist the temptation of sentimentalism and that's a wise choice, as he allows his two fetish actors to have a substantial role at the dawn of their career, he even recast Franco Fabrizi as the host show, he who starred in his early neo-realist films.
In its "final show before the curtain closes" undertones, "Ginger and Fred" reminded me of Chaplin's "Limelight". The film has its slower moments but it's surprisingly grabbing and never dull or boring, Amelia and Pippo gravitate around these bizarre figures of entertainments like a Greek chorus we can relate to. At the end, they become Ginger and Fred in our hearts. And the film ends as it started, but at night in a deserted train station, with the two actors paying the kind of goodbyes that resonate like poignant farewells. But at long as they saw each other, that mess was all worth it, and since there's no Fellini film without the "film in the film" element, at least Il Dottore gratified us with a last reunion with his fetish actors: Masina and Mastroianni ... if only for that, "Ginger and Fred" deserves to be watched and appreciated.
Last Tarantella in Cine Cita...
I concluded my "Ginger and Fred" review saying the experience was worth all the weirdness if only for that final reunion reunion between Fellini fetish actors Giuletta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni. After watching "Intervista", I can make exactly the same statement. The film isn't without flaws, Fellini's tendency to swing from one perspective to another can be frustratingly disorienting, even for viewers used to his anarchic style and who aspires from some semblance of coherence. The film also doesn't have the same pace than "Ginger and Fred" with two characters being like narrative backbones and making any kind of intermission useless (while "Intervista" is full of them) but for all these imperfections, "Intervista" was worth my time for one particular sequence.
Near the end of the film, there's a magnificent and emotional moment when Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni are watching sequences from "La Dolce Vita" on an improvised big screen and there was no way their emotion was acted or feigned, Anita's tears were those of a once beautiful woman who realizes how time passes and her smile and childish eyes still carry that joyful spirit and innocent lust that took her to that iconic midnight bath in the Trevi fountain. And her chemistry with Marcello "Come here" Mastroianni was still there; watching that scene where he asked for a grappa, I knew their complicity was genuine, the merit of great actors is to know when they don't need to act.
And the genius of Fellini is to know when he doesn't even need to direct, just reuse some footage from a previous classic and the magic operates. For that scene only, for these little five minutes, "Intervista" is certainly a movie I would recommend to a fan of Fellini, not a newbie for it takes a certain knowledge of his work to fully enjoy it. And I believe the Maestro knew only viewers familiar with his movies would appreciate it. Well, let's just say this is a film that cannot be watched before "La Dolce Vita", and it also feels as a continuation of Fellini's nostalgic trip started one year before with "Ginger and Fred". These are movies that couldn't come earlier in his work anyway, both carrying a mix of detachment and introspection that can't result from the mind of a young director.
And while "Ginger and Fred" was a love letter to Hollywood, "Intervista" is a back-to-the-roots journey that echoes Fellini's most puzzling masterpiece "8 ½", in a more accessible but no less eccentric way. The 1963 classic was more complex as it was dealing with autobiographical material combined with an exploration in the author's psyche revealing how his youth memories were the alphabet he wrote his language with. But as Fellini said in an interview, he gained too much weight and couldn't escape from a car hanging on a kite, more pragmatic in "Intervista", he simply shares his passion through an interview with Japanese journalists. An interview is a trigger, hence the title "Intervista".
The film focuses on Fellini's debut as a journalist visiting Cinecitta to interview a known diva, he's played by Sergio Rubini. But we couldn't see Fellini for no reason, so he inserts his trademark film-in-the-film plot, which is an adaptation of Kafka's "Amerika", and an excuse to see his cast and crew at work. And in between, actors from the "youth part" connect with the real world filmed in documentary (sometimes mockumentary) style. And then Mastroianni makes his entrance, dressed like Mandrake, a fitting disguise as once he pops up in the screen, we get to the most magical moment of the film, the one that allows it to proudly levitates above a material which, as rich and colorful as it is, is something we get a little bit used with -if not tired of- with Fellini. The problem with "Intervista" comes from the lack of a clearly defined perspective, unlike "Ginger and Fred", it can get too distracting for its own good.
There's one recurring theme though, quoting the Maestro, the film was conceived like a long private and friendly chat about film-making, it's Fellini talking about movies with his troop, his loyal friends and guiding the conversation and its vignette-like episodes the way he feels it. It's a passionate love letter to cinema and Cine Cita in its unveiling of the sideshow as essential a part as the show.In reality it's the sideshow of his own life we're plunged into. I guess the film has the most pretentious premise but maybe Fellini can get away with it, because he's got quite an eloquence when he talks about himself and such an aesthetic approach to life, such a smart use of circus-like or melancholic music that I enjoyed it to a certain degree. I'm not sure I was as enthralled as I expected to be, maybe the film drags too long on needless parts, and wrapped up in his own artistic creation, Fellini didn't feel the need to trim in the raw material. The part with the Natives attack for instance and the ensuing chaos kind of reminded me of the chaotic ending of Mel Brook's "Blazing Saddles", but I'm not sure it changed anything at all, after the Anita and Marcello part, the curtain would have found a perfect moment to close.
But I guess even the most unexpected moments speak for the way Fellini looked at his four-decade spanning career at that time, every movie could be his last and so he tried to push the envelope every time even further, not using inspiration to make movies but making movies about his inspiration. It's pretentious all right but if cinema was his life, there's no reason he couldn't regard his life as cinema, maybe his genius comes from his impossibility to dissociate cinema and reality, cinema was his reality, and to understand the reality of Fellini, the director, the artist and the man, watch his films, Fellini was also his best biographer.
Maigret voit rouge (1963)
The American Connection...
"Maigret Voit Rouge" is the last of the Gabin-Maigret trilogy, and unfortunately the least given how strong and memorable the first installements were. Gabin is still the same,:serene, confident, efficient, taking the shortcomings of his job like a pro and sometimes like the old wise man he became with age. I did enjoy the film to the degree that I became familiar with Maigret's routine, police procedurals and capability to handle new investigation techniques according to the situation. I liked the way the film confronted Maigret to American gangsters insisting that they belonged to a new breed of criminals to which French police shouldn't try to get mixed with... unfortunately, the villains don't live up to that reputation, and the film doesn't hold as well as the other despite a good third act.
Here's the problem with the film, unlike the first opuses, it doesn't follow the whodunit structure... though "Sets a Trap" didn't leave much suspense on the criminal's identity near the second act, there was some remaining shadows and clouds of uncertainty to clear and we were literally hooked to Maigret, driven by a stressful but enthralling interest. The second film was even more powerful as it featured a plot à la Agatha Chrisite and culminating with the gathering of all suspects before the big reveal, the soul of a mystery film is to keep the secret long enough to captivate, the audience, leaving enough latitude so we can process our own thoughts and wait for the big reveal that must come as a shocker no matter how prepared we are. It's a game played between the storyteller and the viewer and in the first two films, the third one doesn't have a shocker.
In fact, it couldn't afford one, as it's not a mystery film a simple gangster film, and an average one at that. It starts with a bunch of Americans first shooting a man and for some reason taking him to the car, with a witness consisting of a second-rate police officer named Lognon (Guy Decomble) the first immersion. I had a problem with that scene, I didn't think it was shot well. Did the gangsters intend to kill or kidnap? It's not very clear and given the number of bullets the target they got, either ways, they were incompetent. The second problem (and a big one) is the casting of Michel Constantin. He's a good actor and has a great screen presence, intimidating and effective for the villain, but dammit, was the budget so tight that they couldn't get an American actor? Having Constantin dubbed by an American with that typical nasal voices you hear in old newsreel or Looney Tunes parodues were awkward and never struck as natural.
The problem is that these gangster flicks aim for a minimum of realism and no matter how hard I try to overlook that problem, whenever he opened his mouth, I cringed... I don't think it was also fair to the actor who occasionally let a few French words slip through his mouth as if he was tired to move his lips without uttering a word. So the film is a decent thriller but there are many shortcomings in the execution, maybe because the villains weren't that interesting to begin with: one of them is the nicest guy and has an infatuation with a girl named Lili (Françoise Fabian) who hosted them after the kidnapping, and the other is a boxer who keeps opening his mouth to say nothing special. I didn't care for these Americans, too superficial or uninteresting, I guess they were intended as caricatures of masculinity made in Hollywood, but it's a rather superficial vision that doesn't male for a believable social comment.
But the film has a few characters who save the day, apart from maigret, Lognon makes for a great punching ball inspiring Maigret the kind of lines you never know if they're mockeries or compliments, he was touching in his ineptitude, there's the Sicilian bartended Pozzo (Vittorio Sanipoli) whose interactions with Maigret contained a great deal of lines that you never knew if they were threats or advice, and finally, the laconic and cynical doctor (Robert Armontel) who doesn't say much in the film, only to implode his Diogenian views at end, you never knew if he was serious or really pulling Maigret's leg. And honorable mention to the American Diplomat who allowed Gabin to speak English... and is it me or Gabin has a good English?
The film gets better at the end when things are explained and we can figure what happened and why but someway, the heart wasn't exactly the same, the film was made four years after the second, Gabin's age was starting to show and although he was good in this film, I could feel the fatigue behind his trademark detachment. How ironic that the film ends with him refusing to handle a case, leaving it to Lognon, so he would take a nap. Maybe there's some self-referential truth in that final line.
Tipat Mazal (1992)
A poignant father-and-daughter story that struck hard in my Moroccan heart...
Beyond its simplistic narrative and a directing that sometimes strikes for its underwhelming naivety, "A Bit of Luck" is a surprisingly touching film. Well, I was touched anyway. If I wanted to be specific, I would say that the performance of Ze'ev Arach as Jojo the jovial singer with a twice wounded heart is integral to the film's emotional power, I say twice because not every man loses both the woman of his life and his motherland in the span of the same day.
Jojo is Moroccan, a descendant of either the Sepharadic Jews exiled from Spain after the Inquisition or the indigenous Jews who cohabited with the Berbers many centuries before Arabs came. Jojo was born in that land, which is mine as well, and the place where his his father and grandfather are buried will forever be caressed by the salty breeze of the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect the town is Essaouira, known as Mogador, the neighbor to Agadir from which Jojo would sail en route to Israel. Essaouira welcomed most of the Jewish diaspora in Morocco during the eighteenth century, they quickly became pillars of Moroccan society, ensuring banking and trade activities, infulencing arts and crafts, enriching the cooking, and living peacefully with Muslims for the centuries to come. Their quarters were known as "Mellah" either because big stocks of salt ("Malh" in Arabic) were kept in their or for the kinship with the word "milh" meaning "pleasant". These mellahs still exist but have been deserted even since Moroccan jews emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s.
At that time, Morocco was under the French protectorat, none of the Jewish citizens were ever arrested or taken by the Nazis or the Vichy governement, they were subjects of the sultan, under his protection; but the call of the Aliah was the only thing that could even unroot them... among these Jewish emigrants, two would have a daughter who ended up marrying my uncle, together they have a little girl, of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, so history came full circle. And I mention this because my uncle got new insights from his father-in-law, telling them that the emigration to israel wasn't exactly what it's all cracked up to be, he told him about the struggles of Sepharadic Jews, regarded as "Arabs" in the derogatory meaning of the word by the Eureopans, who lived the war, who were part of the Intellegentsia. Less intellectual and more manual, it was hard for them to adapt and many of them returned back or left to other countries, "A Bit of Luck" shows such subtleties that are from the typical image of the "Exodus" odyssey, yes, the Israeli dream (Eretz Israel) carried that hymn for fraternity but I love the way the film treats this material with less lyrism than the singing parts, coming from Arach' own experience (he was born in Morocco and wrote and directed the film).
One of the film's saddest moments shows him weeping at his grandfather's tomb before leaving to Israel, we see him having a nice enchanted evening during a wedding where he's literally entranced by the party song (a Moroccan standard) while his spouse is belly dancing, before she would leave the house and force the husband to sign the "Guett" so she can divorce and lead a new life, leaving Jojo and Vivi alone before they would take the boat. The arrival to Israel and the adaptation are treated with realism without falling into pathos, we see people trying to get some intimacy in the transit camps, we see the barriers of language between Ashkenazi and Sepharads and what I loved the most is that I could get many jokes told in Arabic in the film, as if I was part of that circle. In a way, I could relate to Jojo. An attempt to sing a Moroccan folk song during a German ceremony turned into a hilarious disaster, leading Jojo to a place where he could find his audience among emigrants from North Africa, at that point Vivi becomes the centerpiece of the film and it loses a bit of its energy.
I loved Vivi's voice but she's never capable to steal her father's aura, the best part of her singing comes when she dedicates a song to his father and so he does in a powerful montage. Music takes an important part in the film, starting with the very first scene where Jojo, dressed in typical Moroccan clothes sings a serenade to his "belle", it's obviously a pre-recorded music (and it's the case for many other scenes) but it gives the film the vibrant energy à la Bollywood, as if it took some distance from reality for the sake of that joie de vivre incarnated in Jojo. He's the heart of the film, one of these characters you don't forget easily, and I didn't. Ever since I saw that film with my mother and our nanny and I could see them crying several times, that film for some reason stuck to my memory, resonating like a nostalgic ode to my country and now that I live far from my family and that, for the first time in my life, I didn't go there for summer, I could feel the pain vividly in my heart, even during happy songs.
Now, I wish Zahaven Ben who plays adult Vivi could exude the same kind of raw emotion and deliver more than an above average performance and occasionally flat performance, but what she lacks on screen presence, despite an extraordinary voice, she makes it up with that bond she forms with her father. Jojo and Vivi, two repetitive words that resonated twice in my heart, as a Moroccan and as a father of a little girl.
Problem Child 2 (1991)
Junior, the child Terminator...
It's funny how for a series that take such ironic stabs on the American way of life, "Problem Child" can seem rather conservative in its advocation of family values. In the first film, it took the whole movie to set the relationship between Junior (Michael Oliver) and his father Ben (John Ritter) and in the sequel, all naturally, what is left is to find a good mother. You might think that a film like that wouldn't be busy praising family values but it surely does, though in a twisted way. But if you expect the same good-heartedness than the first, you've got another thing coming.
"Problem Child 2", directed this time by Bryan Levant, has all the characters clearly established, there's the bad kid, his good father Ben, and there's Big ben the big bad grandfather (Jack Warden). After his marriage fiasco, Ben decides to take a new start in his life and moves on to Mortville, known as the Mecca for divorced people and new celibates. Ben's goal is to find a good mother for Junior, one who'd have the perfect iron fist in a velvet glove, or with enough perspective to minimize Junior's level of nuisance. This is also where Junior finds his match in Trixie, a pint-sized girl as equally mischevious as he is and the one who doesn't want to be messed with.
Naturally, the film turns into a war of the titans between the two pranksters and the pranks escalate from the kind of Bart Simpson-like malicious tricks to the level of sadism that made me feel guilty from laughing at them. Interestingly, the film never sugarcoats its material and takes the most outrageous gags to their extreme, when Junior is asked to fill a lemonade jug from two annoying twins, it doesn't take a master's degree to figure what goes on behind that smile, but the outcome of the gag is actually funnier than the one from "Dumb and Dumber" (you know, with the cop), a same gag occurs with a cherry bomb put in Junior's hand and being flushed away to the near toilet, freshly occupied by Junior's teacher (the Strickland actor), a lesser movie would have made the explosion the punchline, but not that one, and we even get a bonus gag later where we see the teacher wearing diapers the size of pillows in the school convention.
The film finds the right angle by overplaying the gag to the extreme and giving them a cartoonish à la Simpson way, (the main bully looks like a live-action Nelson Muntz), as if it existed in a parallel universe where explosions can make a man skyrocket and land on water, when electrocution can transform you into a crossover of Morticia Addams and Alice Cooper, where a dog can be turned into a statue and leave defecations twice his size and when the rabies virus looks like something borrowed from a cheap cartoon... and last, but not least when Trixie's mother is played by Amy Yasbeck, Ritter's wife, who played the wife in the first film.
It's ridiculous but that's why it ironically works, it asks us not to take the film seriously in case some twisted mind actually thought a kid could do one tenth what Junior and Trixie die and get away with it. The cartoonish way the pranks play leave more latitude to the viewers and we start enjoying the film for no other reason than its bizarre silliness, and the enduring chemistry between Ben and Junior and perhaps Laraine Newman's rendition as a Cruella-like figure named Lawanda Dumore, the woman who can see through Junior and for some reason, decided to make Ben her husband.
It's all played for laughs, the film isn't as efficient as the first, but I guess for kids who aren't too grossed out by vulgar humor, it'll go. Far before the Sandlot and after "Stand By me", we have the vomit scene that made us crack a lot as kids and even know it kinds of take a few chuckles from me, but I reckon I had to turn my eyes when the cockroaches salad started. I just hate cockroaches.
Now, is the film as good as the original? It doesn't matter, it's notable that this is one of John Ritter's most known roles and that if it wasn't for his gentleness and the way it irradiates on his child's behavior, the film wouldn't have aged as well.
And I still enjoying it with my a great deal of nostalgic indulence... see, in 1991, we had two film using of the "Bad to the Bone" riff, "Terminator 2" and "Problem Child 2". If you were a child in the early 90s, that was one tune you couldn't miss.
Problem Child (1990)
There's a heart in the film, its name is John Ritter...
With its eighty-minute runtime, Dennis Dugan's "Problem Child" is short enough not to exhaust all its material and become repetitive, miraculously avoiding the limit of gratuitous unpleasantness. Being a child of the early 90s, I'm still admirative of its singular guts, seven years before "South Park", when it comes to the use of profanity (kids say the dardenest things but talk about overplaying it), its iconoclast brutality and its incorrect take on what should be the blessing of any happy wedlock: having children.
Having kids can be quite an ordeal indeed, I've been confined for three months and spent a locked-down summer in the company of kids, and sometimes taking a nap, choosing your TV program or enjoying one of your usual darlings became luxuries. There comes a point where you realize that in every child, there is a spoiled little brat or a cash-eating machine always hungry for a game to buy, cotton candy when it's time for dinner, or french fries when it's time for a snack. And don't get me started on birthday time... With that mindset, I must say that for all his mischevious behavior, his vulgarity, his sheer sadism and his tendency to destroy everything around, little Junior (played by Michael Oliver) struck me for his honesty, this is a child who endorses all the unpleasantness of these kids but with boldness and honesty.
The film opens with a series of back-and-forth visits from various houses, where his craddle is delivered like an unwanted or non-working item, and it's only a matter of a few months before he served its purpose and is put to other hands, ultimately he lands in an orphan house guarded by nuns and managed by Gilbert 'nails-on-a-chalkboard voice' Gottfried and it's only there where we get a full appreciation of how of a nuisance he is. Junior would convert any nun into buddhism and would make Super Nanny enrole to the French legion. Meanwhile there's one of the first hilarious scenes of the film involving the late John Ritter as Ben the gentle wannabe father and Amy Yasbeck as the snobbish and stuck-up wife Flo.
Flo learns that her sterility tests results are positive. Good news? Not at all, the doctor ends up precizing that she's positively sterile and with a few props of his own, puts the final nail on the coffin of their dream of pregnancy. Scenes like that are necessary because they establish the parents' traits: the mother is a selfish socialite who wants a child to be admitted among the other mothers circles, the father wants a child in a totally disinterested way, he's the sanest and gentlest character in the film, which in "Problem Child" is a much needed role, to hook our empathy.
To make a long story short, they end up adopting little Junior who knew how to pass for a perfect child just the time it took to sign the papers, which leads to the second funny scene of the film: the celebration of Junior's departure and the beginning of the family troubles. Now, enumerating the gags that are driven by Junior's wicked creativity would be unnecessary, some are pure cruelty with a slight comical edge, some are predictable, but they're all consistent in the way they make Junior totally irredeemable in our eyes. Even his grandfather, Jack Warden as Big Ben sees right from the spot that the boy is trouble, but the man is so obnoxious himself, and so condescending with his own son that the film creates an interesting switch of feelings: it's not much little Junior we find atrocious but Ben who emerges as the living punching-ball, the man victim of his good nature, a running gag involves the reading of many books, from those "how to" parenting guides and ends with "The Exorcist".
So the film avoids the repetition of gags after the "It's my Birthday" birthday sequence that looks like the right culmination with Junior going all Mephisto on a girl that had it coming, it takes an interesting angle throughout the fatherhood theme, showing Junior not just an actively destructive child but as a lost kid with a need of a father model. In the beginning, he felt a genuine empathy for a thug known as the bow-tie killer, played by Seinfeld alumni Michael Richards. All through the film he wears a little bow tie as a tribute to the one soul who can understand him. Meanwhile, Ben gives him a little insignificant object with no value except that it was a token of his grandfather's love and so he wants Junior to keep him. It pushes Junior in the position of a child torn between two father figures and where the strongest has the upper hand for a start because he adopts the same destructive behavior only in an adult scale.
It's interesting that the coming of age aspect isn't just on Junior but Ben as well whose first reaction when Junior kidnapped is to shout "good riddance" only to realize (in a rather sweet scene) that Junior had feelings for him after all. He flies over the twon to find his son and his first moment of awesomeness is the rebellion against his own father as if he learned to be a man by confronting his own father and stop being the child he always was.
For all its sadism and wackiness, the film seems to have an underlyine theme about paternity, stating that it takes a good father to make a good boy, and that too much gentleness is leniency and too much strength is brutality, good authority lies in-between, and by showing that Junior could care for a human being who showed the right doses of both, humanized him enough not to make the film sink into silliness. It's funny, witty, not too subtle, but believe it or not, there is a heart in this film... and its name is John Ritter.
There's something rotten in the St Fiacre castle...
In Jean Delannoy's "Maigret and the St Fiacre Affair", second cinematic adaptation starring Jean Gabin as the iconic detective, we're taken from the shadowy and menacing streets of Montmartre by night to the more bucolic and colorful Provence, a change of scenery, but not of scenario.
St Fiacre is a fictional village basking in its monotonous routine, spared by the corruptive rollercoaster of modernity, a village where the local aristocrat or the priest are emblematic and influential figures and like the church or the city council, where every place goes by one: one grocery shop, one bank, one church, one nightclub. That's St Fiacre, hidden in the middle of France's hinterland, as ordinary as any small village in France, but not that insignificant a place in the heart of Maigret for this is where he spent his childhood, as the son of the castle steward.
Maigret in Saint Fiacre is like Uncle Scrooge revisiting the McDuck castle, without the family connection. Not a blue blood but a playful little lad whose blue eyes and blonde little face didn't get unnoticed by the then younger Countess. The woman, (Valentine Teissier) now a widow, requested Maigret to come visit her after receiving a threat letter, saying she will be dead before the end of Sunday's religious office. The tone of the letter is so definite that we know it will happen for the sake of a story and this is why the first scene plays like a soothing and comforting memory-recalling moment, a little slice of sunshine before the first breezes announcing the storm.
And so the older Jules is visiting the castle of his childhood that lost its past splendor, pretending to be a painting collector, a passable cover to identify the first cover. He notices the intriguing influence the priest (Michel Vitold) has on the chatelain, smelling something that goes beyond religious bigotry, he has a talk with Lucien (Robert Hirsch) the young secretary whose disastrous management indicates that he's either incompetent or malevolent; and there's also the gruff and disagreeable chauffeur (Jacques Marais), perhaps the closest to a comic relief with Dr. Bouchardon (Paul Frankeur), an old friend of good old Jules.
That little palette of personalities paints the first shades of doubt and defiance in the meticulous mind of Maigret and the atmosphere is quite heavy-loaded during that first night where he loses track of the number of guests and visits the Countess has (for medicine or something else). We can feel the Grim Reaper hovering around the head of the poor woman and it is so ominous that her death is actually a deliverance, the tone is set and the investigation can start.
And so the news spread very quickly, taking us to the next aisle of the characters gallery: the spoiled son, Maurice (Michel Auclair) a young and idle annuitant, a playboy who enjoys the status and the money and holds a grudge against Lucien. The circle widens to other players such as Gautier the new steward (Camille Guérini) and his son Emile (Serge Rousseau), a promising and cooperative bank clerk. Yes, it's that kind of movies where the performances of the supporting cast are as integral to the enjoyment as the lead. And as the interactions go on, we smell a potential suspect in everyone but there's never a clear hint given.
For instance, the three younger men are found in the same nightclub when Gabin goes for one of his introspective walks, the only place that could justify that one would leave the castle late provides three suspects. Another hint involves the real weapon of the crime, but anyone is in position to have pulled that kind of triggered. The film shows again Maigret at his finest, testing people, not only spotting their flaws and weaknesses but determine which weakness would make for the strongest motive.
Unlike the previous "Maigret Sets a Trap" where the suspects were given, this time we're taken in a waltz of interpretations and false tracks, in situations where everyone is partially responsible for the death of the Countess but as the representative of the Law, Maigret states very clearly that he's looking for instant guilt, not responsibility. And so the film takes us to a final climax where every suspect is reunited in the same dinner table and with the crime weapon, Maigret decides to trick the killer à la Columbo (forgive the anachronism).
It's not the twist that works but the way Maigret seems to handle the investigation as a pro although he was affected by the murder, but because it's personal, he knows he must lay his cards carefully or the suspect might slip under his net, he's toying with his instinct and his determination to find the killer. One strikes as the most potential suspect but he's too weak or too convenient a killer to be such a Macchiavellian mastermind.
And Gabin's performance is a masterstroke of sobriety, of contempt toward these corrupt little people hiding behind his down-to-earth façade. He realizes the same mediocrity and deterioration of moral values and principles in these last remains of the old order. But Gabin downplays his anger to better implode it once the killer is revealed. And ironically, his final rant is perhaps the second relief in the film, not only justice will be done, but he can finally drops the investigator's mask and let the man express his rage and avenge the honor and life of the Countess who meant so much.
365 dni (2020)
What Massimo wants, Massimo gets...
The extraordinary bodies of Michele Morrone and Anna Maria Sieklucka are perhaps the only forces that drive the ludicrous and somewhat silly "365 Days", the Polish production that generated such a hot buzz it ended in the Top 10 Netflix to-watch films.
I confess my male crush: the man, Massimo, is a towering and tanned Latin hunk with finely-traced abs and looks like he's always posing for a Giorgio Armani ad, the woman, Laura, has the kind of gorgeous face and tantalizing body that provoke an immediate urge for possession. Only a fool would have a woman like Laura and make no effort to keep her... only a fool woman wouldn't surrender to Massimo's charm.
But only a fool script would have a man like Massimo kidnap a woman like Laura and sequestrate her in a heavenly remote island and give her 365 days to love him... in fact, only a fool script would have Massimo say "you have 365 days" whoever says "365 days?" isn't saying "one year" a simpler formulation? What if it's a bissextile year (like 2020), are you willing to sacrifice the possibility to have her love you at the last minute? Or is "365 days" only a figure of speech and Massimo knew damn well it wouldn't take so long? Anyway, when he said "365 days" I could swear I head the voice from "CinemaSins" saying "Title Drop".
So Massimo takes Laura in his dungeon of wealth, luxuriance and... weird sexual practices, he promises not to hurt her, to let her go shopping but she's his prisoner before becoming his lover. All we know about the two is that Massimo is some kind of Mafia member who instantly fell in love with Laura and Laura is a tough businesswoman with a husband who doesn't know how lucky he is. Massimo had his father killed in front of him and Laura is in need. Massimo as a man of possession and Laura as a woman in desire of possession.
The expositional part goes even further, it also shows Massimo forcing a flight attendant to make him happy, she's reluctant at first but at the end, she's smiling. What we have in that scene is the film in microcosm, Massimo is the new Leo, what we want, he gets, and apparently, the director is stingy on shocking moments that would normally be followed by instant uproars and calls for censorhip in these post-Weinstein days. Seems that the confinement context helped a little. The problem with "365 Days" is that the film tries too hard to make a sensation: so many scenes are filled with useless pop music that we're not left one instant with an opportunity to get into the depths of these characters, basically, they're all characterized by their needs.
It's a sort of psychological arm-wrestling that would be fine if the film wasn't just going up and down between moments where both go along and others where violence ensues. The film intelligently avoids the point of no return, Massimo never treats Laura like the fligth attendant but then again, it doesn't play fair with its own premise. If days are numbered, how come we never know how many days have passed? How come Laura seems quickly aroused by Massimo? Why couldn't she go through the different stages: fear, anger, hunger strikes, you know the drift.
The reason is because the film's sole purpose is to show sex scenes as heated and torrid as the sun we were missing during the confinement, I guess people were in need of that. The film doesn't care much for the feelings as long as they can be expressed within the spectrum of sexual desire: anger is physical need, defiance is sexual tension, gentlness is a preliminary, joy is orgasm etc. What's left at the end is something silly but also unpleasant in the sense that we never exactly understand why Laura surrenders to Massimo: is it Stockholm syndrome? Is it his looks? Or is it because he's stinking rich?
But I dare not torture myself with such questions because ultimately, it unveils the biggest flaw of the film which is the premise. Was Laura that hard to get to begin with? Couldn't Massimo just attract her attention? Court her? Didn't he have enough to offer instead of entrapping her in his gilded cage? Did it have to be so damn complicated? Laura was already an unsatisfied wife... The 'kidnapping' part doesn't work because it's a wrong premise but because it's treated like a gimmick, a word to put on the summary and allow the film to have its little edge other over soft core productions, this is what it's all about, and when it culminates with the long-awaited sex scene, I was aroused but didn't feel rewarde I thought "it was about time".
If you take off the sex material and the awful pop music, there's nothing left from the film... it's dry empty... but near the end the film got more interesting, Laura was given back her freedom and went to her home and met Massimo again, she confronted him, threw her anger at him and then I was following the scene with full attention, finally, a scene with depth, with true emotions, something totally unrelated to body fluids but no it had to switch to a sort of angry sex scene with (you get it) an awful pop music... that's when I abandoned any hope for this film.
I take "365 Days" at face value as a little more elaborate soft core film with a silly script, and two gorgeous bodies... a wannabe "Fifty Shades of Grey", which isn't saying much.
Razzia sur la chnouf (1955)
Solid noir film but a big reveal that weakens the film more than transcends it...
Henri Decoin's "Razzia sur la Chnouf", translated as "raid on the drugs" or more simply known as "Razzia" has one merit: it's certainly the first French movie to show all the inner workings of drug traffic like a "French Connection" of its time: getting the stuff, cutting it, supplying, delivering etc. For that, the film succeeds in its immersion into a world that was still fresh in a genre more concerned in heists and bank robberies. The problem with "Razzia" isn't muchion its theme than its treatment: the film depends on a plot twist that weakens its effect more than transcend it.
Jean Gabin plays Henri Ferré aka the Nantais, a man preceded by his reputation as a powerful drug operator who's just come back from America after a successful mission. His arrival in Paris doesn't go unnoticed by the Police so we have an idea on his pedigree. He meets his correspondent Paul Liski (Marcel Dalio) in a comfy Parisian hotel where he's entrusted with the mission of supervising the operations in Paris: from the fabrication to the distribution and dealing with the little shortcomings that affect the chain of supply that decrease the profitability. Two subordinates assist him in his work, among them Roger le Catalan, played by Lino Ventura, still a newcomer in 1955 but quite a forceful presence.
In its penchant for filmic exactitude, the adaptation of Auguste Le Breton's novel doesn't sugarcoat the effects of drugs and we have a few glimpses on the ravages it causes, including a rather disturbing visit in a local jazz-club. But the most spectacular effect can be contained within the performance of Lila Kedrova as a heroin-addict, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was the first portrayal of addiction in French cinema. She brings a dimension of pathos rather unexpected in the kind of movies where women are reduced to either treacherous molls or disillusioned experienced insiders. And watching the character of Lea, it's even harder to accept Gabin as a man linked to drugs, his aura is more of a Vito Corleone-like figure who wouldn't want to get mixed in such a dirty business.
But there's something about Gabin that would make us accept even the worst endeavor given that he shoots someone who's had it coming or with the right amount of buffers between his personal ruling and the dirtiest side of his business. In "Razzia", he doesn't kill for a good portion of the story and if the drug business is covered with a documentary-like realism, Henri is shown more as a pragmatic boss than a psychopath with brutish impulses. While Roger doesn't hesitate to brutalize the wife of the chemist in charge of cutting the heroin, Henri's manners are worthy of a not-so-bad antihero as the film contains a sweet and tender subplot with Magali Noël as Lilia, the counter-girl in The Troquet, the restaurant used as a cover for all the operations.
The problem with "Razzia" is that it makes such an effort to make Gabin look as a gangster with a noble heart so when the big reveal comes, he comes the closest to a treacherous figure, what could have worked in "White Heat" because the lead was the bad guy doesn't quite work here. The film is almost victim of Gabin's performance and magnetism, begging us to appreciate him as a leader with flaws only to show him as a clean-cut cop. Of course, he's the hero and main protagonist but the problems of film-noir is that it invites us to embrace the world of criminals and so the twist at the end left me with puzzlement.
The film is still a solid noir with a few exquisite scenes and bits of dialogues in pure French slang delight but maybe Gabin is such a straight and no-nonsense figure that it's better to lay the cards first to let us know if we have gangster Gabin or cop Gabin, of course Gabin's performance was consistent with his status as a cop but the audience was left outside and speaking for myself, I felt a little cheated.
The Little Man who was too big even for a biopic...
Chaplin the man was such a defining figure of the last century that "Chaplin" the film was doomed from the start, this is not a comment on Richard Attenborough's directing but on the cinematic format itself. How do you capture the cultural significance of the Little Tramp, the historical magnitude of the Great Dictator, the essence of the comedic genius or the much darker sides of a man with troubling infatuations in a two-and-half hour runtime.
From what I read the original footage was four-hour long and Attenborough stated that the cuts had damaged the film and I'm sure he's right. I can't imagine how many precious bits could have enriched the experience or emphasized the weight of some names in the life of Chaplin, or Chaplin's own weight in the life of America. Unfortunately, for all its good intentions, "Chaplin" is a frustratingly lackluster recalling of episodes in Chaplin's life, key moments that never seem to open any door. The film is told in straight-forward Wikipedia style with roles that have the briefness of cameos, no matter how big the star is.
The film opens with the poor childhood in Victorian London where Charlie was raised by a depressed mother (played by Geraldine Chaplin). That first act already indicates what doesn't go right in the film, it's always on the rush. Childhood is obviously a pivotal moment: we see the mother being booed by the audience and it's her own son that makes up for her failed performance and makes his first steps in the music-hall. We get it: talented kid, troubled mother. When she's sent to the mental asylum, the film offers its first inspired moment where little Chaplin is chased Keystone-style by officers to be put in a workhouse. The childhood part isn't badly made but the Dickensian feel of Charlie's beginnings deserved a little more, Chaplin's most celebrated movies were about poverty, you can't dissociate it from Chaplin. Poverty is only a parenthesis in that film.
Even a gangster epic like "Once Upon a Time in America" couldn't have worked emotionally and narratively if it wasn't for the beautiful 'youth' sequence, if only Attenborough took inspiration from Leone, we could have felt the absence of a father or the loss of his mother as sources of inspiration for "The Kid", something about a lost childhood or an artistry born too early that affected artists like Michael Jackson. Since the childhood part doesn't exceed fifteen minutes, we lose the connection with Chaplin's "Kid", which explains why the film is barely present... until the finale. A film like "Chaplin" doesn't trust its audience, it provides the fictional character of Haydn (an autobiographer played by Anthony Hopkins) whose only purpose is to allow Chaplin to verbalize his thoughts. Even the character of Sidney Chaplin, the brother who always disagrees, seems to exist for the same reasons.
And since the film is in a hurry to cover all the episodes of Charlie's life, we get to the first contract signed with Mac Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) after Chaplin reprised his drunk act. This is probably the finest part of the film where Robert Downey Jr. morphs into the Little Tramp and I just love how the film first treat the birth of the iconic costume as if the Gods of cinema were guiding his hands only to reveal that it was in the heat of the moment. Later, we see the little Tramp being funny and flirting with Mabel Normand (Marisa Tomei) and before we know it, Chaplin is leaving to make his own movies after a feud with Mabel (whose influence on Chaplin is left uncovered). I suspect there were more scenes of the Mac Sennett era but it couldn't get in the way of Chaplin's career, quite the irony!
Fair enough, so we follow the directing of "The Immigrant" where the scene where an emigration officer is kicked stirs the earliest suspicions of Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), the chapter of his life that covers his best hits "The Circus", "The Gold Rush" are used to show his rise to stardom, his earliest relationship and scandals, and the film is densely populated, Kevin Kline is Douglas Fairbanks, Penelop Ann Mirren is Edna Purviance, Milla Jovovich one of Chaplin's conquests but for a movie dedicated to a film-maker, the film work is left totally off-side and the film feels more like a chronological exposé on Chaplin.
The real problem is that by doing this, we never get insights other than what a real documentary would have provided, and maybe figures like Chaplin, too big to be just called artists, are what documentary were made for. Or maybe we should have gotten a director's cut that followed Attenborough's initial idea, I'm still perplex though whether an additional hour and half would have saved the film anyway, maybe focusing on one part of his life could have been more inspired.
Anyway, a few positive notes: the film plunges us in the atmosphere of the silent film era, the costume design, the mood, John Barry's score is sweet, melancholic and captures the heart of Chaplin's film and Robert Downey Jr. does justice to the legacy of Chaplin though I prefer his performance during the comedic moments, I wonder whether the real Chaplin was that somber and introspective. Downey plays it sometimes as if he himself didn't exactly know what to think about him.
The film concludes with a great montage of Chaplin's best scenes (à la "Cinema Paradisio") and this was certainly one of the film's best moments. I realized at that point that maybe they were intended for the big ending and in a way, the scenes were perfectly picked, the Kid part especially, I could feel the pain in his eyes looking at the screen, but such emotional moments were deeply needed, in fact, maybe having real footage is the best way to understand Chaplin.
Maigret tend un piège (1958)
M like Maigret...
It's a hot summer in Paris while a mysterious killer is plaguing the serene joie de vivre of Montmartre district making victims out of women who have in common (besides the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong moment of the night) to be young and plump brunettes. The film opens with a murder that recalls the beginning of the mother of all psychological thrillers: "M" and there's more that justifies the comparison.
Jean Delannoy's "Maigret Sets a Trap" is a fine example of a police procedural film that gets three things right: first, it perfectly conveys the atmosphere of an impending danger whose motivations -we rapidly suspect- are rooted in the mire of human psyche, secondly, the villain isn't just an antagonist but the subject of a character study that unveils the sleaziest and most sordid expressions of hubris and finally, the film lies on the broad shoulders of a great and iconic protagonist in the person of Jules Maigret, the 'French' Sherlock Holmes, created by Belgian writer George Simenon.
A few words about Maigret: the Chief Inspector is a robust-looking, well-built man with a reassuring physique and a sort of detached attitude that allows him to be more perceptive of little details surrounding him, he's a man who takes his time, follows his instinct, and tries to identify hints about the assassin's profile as insistently as if they were tangible evidence. He's a man who can nonchalantly wonders across a busy street to test the waters and gather clues from the mere sight of playful kids or noisy vendors. He's not alone in this job, he has various subordinates (one is played by Lino Venture) whose mission can consist of walking in the screen and fishing potential suspects out of shoals of onlookers.
I make his approach methodical but it isn't, Maigret built enough experience not to let himself distracted by bureaucracy, he can enter a house without a warrant considering it's up to the suspect to know the rules. He handles information as if they're no big deal, encouraging the suspect to go on without arousing any suspicion on his side, "may I see your wardrobe?" "did you have a key?" innocent questions whose purpose is to grab facts that can eventually be contradicted by subtle cross-examinations. There's something fascinating in the way Maigret handles the investigation, even when we suspect he's not fooled by the criminal's identity, let alone his psychological profile, he still acts with the potential killer as a simple civil servant concerned by red tape issues.
There's no doubt in my mind that Gabin was born to play Maigret, the actor, in the second part of his career, had the quiet strength of the experienced man, who knows when to speak, when to listen and when to let his authoritarian voice erupt in a few occasions. Gabin was perfect to play characters who didn't need to rise their voice to obtain what they wanted and knew when to use it to finally get the confession, a man in total control of the situation even when it could get out of control. Gabin trusts his competence and knows that his instinct would only half fool him and half the way to the killer goes through the fatal weakness he'll be able to spot. He can tell from an anonymous letter that there's a big ego behind the assassin, one that would bite on the right bait.
Basically, the film is composed of three acts: Maigret sets the trap that fulfills its purpose in extremis, then there's the investigation where Maigret asks questions between Montmartre and Les Rosiers and the film's climax consists of interrogation scenes that are as riveting and absorbing as the classic "Garde à Vue" by Claude Miller: Maigret in his office, Maigret outside and Maigret in the interrogation room. And at that point of the review I must mention that, in her earliest roles, Annie Girardot delivers a great subdued performance as a bourgeois woman bored by her effeminate husband Jean Desailly, equally superb as the Mama's boy who's been so pampered by her mother he developed a strong aversion to the female persuasion. Both actors would be nominated for the BAFTA Awards.
There's a great study of French manhood in that early urban setting of the 50s that might echo the post-war atmosphere film noir. France was a country that was both defeated at the end of the war and yet had its honor saved by the great De Gaulle, a country whose citizens accepted the patronizing and infantilizing tone of Pétain telling them to surrender to Germany for their own good and yet where a handful of fighters decided to maintain the fight. It's one of France's tragic ironies to have invented the world 'Resistance' and be forever associated with 'surrendering'. In that confrontation between Maigret and the suspect, there's the collision of these two sides of French manhood, the old-school and principled citizen and the wimp who accepts defeat and yet doesn't have the guts to assume it. This is why you can't totally disconnect the film from a certain view of France and the way social classes can condition ethical choices, that the killer is highly educated says a lot about a certain defiance toward the upper class man.
There's more in "Maigret" than a formulaic police movie: behind the investigation, there's a study on mores of its time, it's a rather disenchanting and heavy-loaded portrait of a moral decadence and the way men have lost their way, and when the film ends with that sudden rain, we feel as relieved as Maigret who chooses to walk alone on the street as if he felt even the police couldn't triumph over all the filth and evil that eat away the people and maybe a good rain will watch some of it.
The first opus of the "Maigret" saga is a gem of French popular cinema... with an assumed populist undertone.
The boy with the golden-heart, the mother with the steel character...
'Persona' is the Latin word for 'mask', conveying the paradox that what we are hides something about us more than it shows: this couldn't have been truer for anyone but Roy Dennis aka Rocky.
"Mask" is loosely based on the real-life story of a young boy affected by a face deformity coined by a complicated medical term while "I look like a lion" is the way he'd put it. But the film isn't much about the handicap than the way a teenager learns to deal with it at a time where boys his age think of having fun, discovering the world and meeting girls. The film is directed by Peter Bogdanovich and stars Eric Stolz and Cher as the central protagonists in performances so touching and authentic that I was wondering why the film only got a nomination for Best Make-up (that it won). "Mask", if anything, is a heart-warming, moving and absorbing story about a boy and his mother.
Now I don't want to reduce Rocky Dennis to his handicap, but it is only too visible to sugarcoat it or pretend it doesn't exist, and that's what elevates his romance in the summer camp with the only person who could genuinely fall in love with him: a blind girl, played by a young Laura Dern. The romance gives its full meaning to the mother's words "you're the most beautiful person inside". Any mother would say that but from the interactions between Rocky and Helen, we know it's true and also because we know the mother isn't the right-way rubbing type. On that level, Cher doesn't go for the melodrama made-for-TV tearjerkers as Eleonor aka "Rusty" Dennis, she has her personal issues and an addiction with drugs that cause a few tantrums, in fact, she has a life of her own.
Her character-establishing moment is a 'Mama Bear' rant right after the school principal objects to the admission of Rocky Dennis in junior high school suggesting one that would meet his 'special' needs'. In one brief but punchy little monologue, she says she knows her rights, insisting that her son is a good student and she has a good lawyer. But notice that the scene doesn't end here, the point isn't to inspire comments like "yeah, way to go" "take that, principal". The scene goes on with Rocky gently telling him that that he knows he looks weird but it'll be all right, and politely says goodbye. So, we know the stuff Rusty is made of and we realize that Rocky is not your typical rebellious teenager who'd answer to rejection in fatalistic misanthropia. And you can tell the principal sensed that immediately.
And that simple moment sets a pattern that governs most encounters and interactions, people get quickly used to Rocky's looks. Some don't and they get 'rewarded' by Rusty's hangout friends, a group of bike-riding and rock-and-roll loving bikers, among them Gar, played by a charismatic Sam Elliott, the closest to a father figure to Rocky, and to a husband to Rusty. It gives a sweet irony that people who are regarded as hoodlums give Rocky that affection he needs, as it could only come from social outsiders. But the film is beyond the social comment and the leather-and-bike element is just to show the environment where he grew up, far from the suburban comfy lifestyle but certainly the protective shield he needed,
We first see Rusty's friends kicking out one of her lovers after he couldn't hide his shock when he discovered Rocky's face. Later, the biggest biker (who never speaks ... until the emotional outcome) hears some students leaving a few wisecracks on Rocky's back and give them the walk of scare. Later, Gar gives a death glare to a carny who didn't want to give Rocky his ticket for the bumper cars. These moments show that for all the defense mechanisms Rocky built over the years like 'pretending to be an alien, self-derision, making his students laugh, there are people over there who won't miss an opportunity to reduce him to his face, and the worst part is that it doesn't just come from immature bullies but well-educated citizens.
Indeed, one of the saddest moments of the film occurs when Rocky meets Helen's parents and has a direct taste of the rejection his condition immediately inspires, especially from upper people. Later, where he's got one joke too many, he grabs a student by the collar, pushes him on his locker saying "I will take my masks off if you tell yours", even his good nature can't endure more than what it can take. "Mask" doesn't preach a hymn for tolerance but invites us to appreciate people beneath their façade. It's a film that deeply resonated in my mind as a kid because I used to be scared by abnormality, burnt faces, handicaps, I couldn't stand images of suffering and watching "Mask" was quite a challenge.
After the first five minutes I stopped watching Rocky as the face but as the kid who collects baseball cards, listen to rock music, studies well in school and plans a road trip in Europe. But I remember the TV teaser that only showed pictures and his voice in voice-over, I didn't know what the film was about and I think that Ebert and Siskel were right in criticizing the attitudes of the studios that advertised the film without showing the face, making it an object of curiosity à la "Elephant Man", they almost defeated the purpose of the film: to see the mask first only to realize that personality is what matters.
Because that's the power of the story, once you get to know Rocky, his face ceases to get in the way of your personal appreciation, he's just a brilliant, smart, easy-going, good-mannered and sweet kid with one hell of a mother.
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)
A new thrill running down French cinema...
In his pre-war career, Jean Gabin was the greatest French actor of his generation, the living incarnation of a youthful but not immature ardor, a tough and no-nonsense approach to life, a hardened tenacity à la French, all combined with a "Lady Killer" face. With directors such as Duvivier and Carné, he became the figurehead of the poetic realism genre, perhaps French cinema's finest hour, from 1935 to 1939.
But war broke up and Gabin took part to the war effort along the Allies (the right side). When he was back, his hair became grayer, and he looked much older than his actual age. And then started a long slump in his career where he lost his way in forgettable dramas and tear-jerkers. Meanwhile, audiences were thrilled by Jean Marais and laughing with Fernandel. It took Jacques Becker to finally understand the new appeal of Gabin and by adapting Antoine Simonin's level, started his second career as the aging leader (after the romantic antihero and before the white-haired patriarch). The film was "Touchez pas au Grisbi" (Don't Touch the Loot).
And Max is the perfect alter-ego to Gabin, an world-weary hoodlum who just committed his greatest crime before retirement, stealing eight golden ingots from Orly with his friend and partner Riton (René Dary); That Gabin is still a Ladies' Man, attracting voluptuous burlesque dancers and sexy secretaries, tough enough to distribute a few slaps here and principled enough not to abandon his friend. Still, the film doesn't overplay these traits. Max is blasé about his sex-appeal, not quite obsessed with women, only his job and his friends matter.
The film features a long sequence when we seem him opening a bottle, pouring a good wine to him and Riton, cracking a toast, smearing the pâté as meticulously as if they were cracking a safe. And then we see him putting on his pajamas and brushing his teeth. It's not meant to make him look ordinary but to insist that he doesn't let himself distracted by girls, unlike Riton, his total opposite. Riton blabbed to his girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) about the heist, an information she gave to her new boyfriend Angelo (Lino Ventura), and last time I saw such an epic slap, it was between Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in "The Getaway". Anyway, Riton is the square one, the softie, not even able to see when he's lured into a trap and in a way, there's something of the slipping Gabin in that Riton, his streak of failing melodramas might have killed his career if Becker didn't find him a tailor-made role.
But Becker did more than putting Gabin's career in the right track, he started a new one and not the least. Lino Ventura was a wrestling matches organizer when he was offered the role of the heavy Angelo. He never pictured himself as an actor and turned down the offer first. He hadn't made up his mind when he came to meet Jean Gabin in the set, it took Becker's son to take him to Gabin's dressing room. When the two men met, Gabin said "How are you?" Ventura said "fine" and Gabin concluded with "well, see you later". That was it. That's all it took for Ventura to accept the role that would instantly put him in the bandwagon of male icon, Gabin's straightforward humility was the perfect trigger to Ventura's motivation. He understood that he was dealing with pros and no-nonsense guys, not stars.
Like Gabin, Ventura never faked, he was a natural, and that showed on the screen. The two men were often rival in the movies but good friends in real life, sharing their passion for good restaurants and values such as friendship and family. So before its own making "Touchez pas au Grisbi" was already blessed by the charisma of two actors and the predestination classic. At a time filled with colorful costume dramas and big-budgeted swashbucklers to counter-attack the rise of TV, Becker opted for a minimalist subject but with a great casting. The format of "Grisbi" is linear and simple, the plot is so accessible that it's secondary, the real thrills is to rediscover Gabin inhabiting a new and see him with deal with people who are as smart and professional as he is.
Angelo is actually a perfect foil for Max while the good friend Riton Is so inept Max contemplated the idea of abandoning him. But Gabin could play greedy thugs but not without honor, and no one would have imagined him being something else. Same with Ventura. And "Grisbi" would open the way to noir classics as "Razzia" "Rififi" or Melville's "Bob le Flambeur", featuring stories mostly set at night when honest people are sleeping, movies centering on men with values and guts, and women whose main purpose is to drive the plot and not in the right direction as the catalysts of men's weaknesses. The female ally was often an aging woman herself, but these movies never held youth in high esteem, we didn't see many kids, young criminals were the most gullible and young women not trustworthy.,
These movies reminded me of that Godfather quote "women and children can be careless, but not men" and perhaps in this line lies the big shift between the old school popular cinema of the 50s 60s and the New Wave that featured many movie centering on youth and women: "400 Blows", "Jules and Jim" with Brigitte Bardot as the new sensation. Belmondo and Delon would later co-star with Gabin and Ventura and then portray in solo, cops or gangsters, like the old men, to prove that macho heroes could still surf the New Wave, and over it.
So, behind his minimalist but efficient approach to the crime genre, "Touchez pas au Grisbi" is a triple milestone in French cinema: restoring Jean Gabin's career, starting Lino Ventura's one and bringing a second breath to French noir cinema.
Yedinci Kogustaki Mucize (2019)
The Turkish marvel we didn't see coming in our confined days...
One movie was quite the buzz on these long days of confinement and you know which one I'm talking about. You might not be familiar with a director named Mehmet Ada Öztekin or actor Aras Bulut Iynemli, but you've probably heard of a Turkish movie that moved people to tears and through a viral word-of-mouth, ended up reaching you. It's called "7. Kogustaki Mucize but for a better readability, we'll call it "Miracle in Cell. 7". It's a remake of the South-Korean movie of the same name; but while the original was a comedy-drama, "Miracle" (as we'll call it) is straight drama, sometimes even melodrama but I'm not going to take it as a criticism. Some movies manipulate their audiences, "Miracle" is just good at making you feel sad.
Speaking for myself, I became aware of this movie existence one month ago, from friends and relatives. I heard that the film was extremely emotional, the story was about a mentally-ill father wrongly accused for a murder and whose imprisonment put him away from his beloved daughter. Yes, it's the kind of film that had everything to put even the most hardened or cynical of us into tears, but being confined was tough enough to need another reminder of the cruelty of life. Recently, I asked my students to write reviews about movies that impacted them and three of them wrote about "Miracle" and I couldn't rate them if I didn't see the film. Watching it wasn't just a matter of curiosity but a professional necessity.
And so I watched it and I'd better warn those who didn't: it's a difficult film. Memo is what we would call the "village idiot", he might be mentally challenged but his heart if full of an undying love for his bright and lovely daughter Ova. The mother died when giving her birth. It seems obvious that Memo's grandmother raised Ova while taking care of him. When asked by Ova why his father behaves like that, her answer says it all "he's the same age than you" and that's the point: Memo is a child trapped in the body of a man, he's innocent in the purest meaning of the word, he can't harm, wouldn't harm. And that very handicap put him in situations where he can be perceived as a threat by "normal" people. When he wants to take the Heidi backpack from a girl, it's not against her but for the love of Ova.
On that level, the performance of Iynemil as Memo is incredible but painful to watch, we can always see he's ill but never dangerous except for himself. And it's difficult enough to see a man suffering for something he didn't do but even more difficult to realize that he'll never be able to claim his innocence. Who'd believe him anyway? So Memo is twice a victim, of his handicap and his bad luck. And that's the tragic irony of Memo: his handicap indirectly causes the accident but it's not even taken into consideration when he's accused of a murder. Memo is insane but can't even plead insanity. And as if karma wasn't cruel enough, the girl he "supposedly" killed is the daughter of a commander. This is Turkey in the early 80s, and one can imagine the hell a man accused of killing a child would go through in a Turkish prison (or any prison) but the commander wants Memo executed and orders that no harm should be done against him until his execution.
But the film is less about Memo (who can't do much in his position) than the people around him: Ova, her teacher, the grandmother and the prisoners from cell 7 who become like Memo's new family. And as times goes by, the cellmates start to wonder whether such a man, a father of a child, would really kill a little girl. Meanwhile, Ova is doing her investigation in order to find the only possible witness to the accident, to prove her father's innocence. Many things happen so we never get the impression of watching a quiet drama, there are many surprises and twists hidden beneath that simple plot. There even comes a point where the commander commits an action that shows he would rather have Memo executed than acquitted. It could be for political reasons or maybe he would better accept his daughter's death if someone was punished. As the plot progresses, we see men who only think in terms of crimes and punishments and had better not judge Memo so quickly and criminals who rediscover the humanity they thought had vanished and believe in redemption.
Maybe that's the ultimate message of "Miracle" if there's ever one, we should learn to respect a handicap and we're not good until we can see it, maybe "being good" is about the capability to see the good in everyone, it's called empathy or humanity.That's how Memo was from the start, seeing the good in every person and situation, he could be sad or angry but he would never harm anyone because he could still differentiate between the good and the evil. But the film is also a simply wonderful love story between a father and his daughter and the way their complicity (whose leitmotif was that "Lingo! Lingo!" game) illuminated the hearts of people and inspired their generosity.
Shall I say something about the ending? I'd rather not spoil it because the story has so many depths and secrets that maybe one viewing won't be enough to get the whole picture (especially if we're watching the original version with subtitles). Anyway, after the opening scene, you wouldn't expect a happy ending but I won't tell you if the ending is sad or happy or both, I will just tell you that it's a very satisfying ending and you won't forget this movie once you see it.
Out for Justice (1991)
Gino vs. Richie, they belong to the same world, they don't share the same philosophy...
Can you think of one movie with a totally (and I mean totally) despicable, worthless, rotten to the bone and unredeemable villain? Annie Wilkes? Burke from "Aliens"? You're not there yet. Imagine a bad guy who's so twisted, psychopathic, unpredictable, violent, hateful, ugly that there's not a single spot of likability or colorfulness left; in fact, someone who's not even so-evil or so-bad he's good. There is a movie with such a bad guy, his name is Richie Madano, he's played by the so-underrated William Forsythe, the film is "Out for Justice", it's directed by John Flynn, it stars Steven Seagal (as Gino, the cop) and it's extremely brutal.
To call Richie a thug or a bully would be like calling Amon Goeth a delinquent. Physically, the man's got the look of a dandy who's been puffed up to resemble a walrus, inside, he's a product of the underworld of the underground with a bunch of goons sticking around him like hyenas behind Scar, maybe because leaving him would be like signing your own death warrant. Indeed, he's so high on cocaine or any drugs that he lost every common sense even by criminal standards and keeping a low profile isn't exactly his strongest suit as shown by his character-establishing moment, two actually.
First, he executes in cold blood a cop in broad daylight in front of his wife and kids, spits on his corpse and after that that kills an innocent woman who had the misfortune to be blocked by his car, wrong place at the wrong moment. And for some reason, the second murder shocked me even more: as gruesome as the former was, it had a "reason" if you can call it so, something of a rage that grew inside Richie and lead him to the trigger, but when that woman started beeping and he gave her that look from his car, I knew I had to deal with another type of villain, the unpredictable type, the kind of guy who makes you look at your shoes when you cross his eyes in a train. He doesn't need a reason to kill, only a circumstance, he shoots first and spits on the consequences.
And the merit of such a villain is to free the film from any kind of twist that could get in the way between him and the hero. There's no plot actually, only two characters, the film is basically Richie making an enemy out of Gino, Gino looking for Richie and Gino killing Richie, but what is essential to appreciate the film is the way the two men are totally opposite and yet connected one to another, displaying the same hardened determination to pursue a goal that goes beyond rationality. In fact, Richie's a dead man already and he knows it, only he wishes to die in a blaze of glory, venting out all his anger toward his enemies and those who have the misfortune to have one word too many or to cross his path, he's got nothing to lose and that makes him even more dangerous.
Gino who grew up in the same neighborhood, followed a totally different path and decided to be a cop. Why? Because he knows a man like him would do a great disservice to the community if he didn't use his strength or his skills to protect the little creatures. There's a little subplot with a puppy he found on the street and we see Gino taking care of him. Richie might have flattened him first and reversed the car with a manic laugh. Richie and Gino. These two men represent a collision of morality against savagery: strength against brutality, chaos and order. When Rickie kills a man, it's ugly and detestable, when Gino neutralizes one, it's neat, clean and deserved. Both are equally lethal and both belong to a world where violence has its codes.
Interestingly, if Richie rejects the rules of the mob (he kills a cop in front and his kids) and might even be a threat for his parents and sister (Gina Gershon), Gino also despises the mob, tells what he thinks to the local boss, comforts Richie's parents and his methods aren't all procedural. Gino has his rules too, and in a way Richie is the perfect archenemy. And yet the climactic fight consists on a gruesome one-sided massacre in the most ordinary and anticlimactic place: a kitchen. And there's something grotesque in the way Richie tries to turn common culinary objects into weapons, thinking he stands a chance against Gino who respond to every attack with enough blows to beat Richie's face into pulp. The climax is the right culmination of the cat-and-mouse chase that prevailed: it takes place in a private place, making the beating not just personal but almost intimate. When Gino tells Richie he should have kept his gun, Richie says he likes pain which sounds like an odd invitation when taken out of context.
It's the collision between two guys who belong to the same world but don't share the same philosophy, the beast and the superhuman, the savage and the noble. Through a simple action flick formula mostly set at night, "Out for Justice" illustrates the striking contrast between these two universes, showing people who are totally helpless in that rotten world and in need of invincible heroes like Steven Seagal. Seagal is never as good as when the villains are bad, they were fun in "Under Siege" but extremely disturbing in "Out for Justice" maybe because it shows one thing: heroes today must have the skills of their enemies to overpower them and yet remain deeply good inside. That's Gino, a man who can plug a corkscrew on a face and save a little puppy.
"Out for Justice" is a solid B-movie but with philosophical undertones that reminded me of Cronenberg's "History of Violence".
Under Siege (1992)
On the menu: mercenaries, hostages, torpedoes, missiles... and the Chef's surprise!
If I could single out one moment that makes Andrew Davis' "Under Siege" such an underrated classic, I'd take Gary Busey dressed in drag, removing his wig and asking Tommy Lee Jones "do I look like someone who needs psychological evaluation?", which line finds a priceless echo in Jones' reaction: his eyes hiding behind shady sunglasses, after three seconds of a magistral poker face, he delivers a totally deadpan "not at all". This is the film's villainous duo and since a movie is as good as the bad guy, that's telling how delightful the film is. That it inspired an enthusiastic review from Roger Ebert (who enjoyed it more than "Die Hard") and made Gene Siskel's Top 10 movies of the year should tell you that this is not your average action flick.
It's time to mention Steven Seagal. The film belongs to the early 90s when he hadn't sunk into B-territory yet but the bad guys are so good that the film didn't even need a good hero, which is the ideal situation for Steven Seagal. In 41 minutes of screen-time, he gives one of his best shots as Casey Ryback, the ship's cook (but former Navy SEAL) who saves the day. After Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, there have always been remaining sloths for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal but these actors, especially Seagal, never got the credit they deserved. Watching "Under Siege", I felt the urge to rewatch "Out for Justice" and now, I believe the Seagal of the 90s deserves more respect.
He might not have something as iconic as Arnie's accent, or Sly's slurred speech, or the Average Joe appeal of Willis, but there's something about Seagal. It might be his Aikido skills that are as instantly identifiable as Van Damme's swift moves and splits, it might be his high stature, his pony tail, his seeming invincibility or all these factors put together. Seagal looks like the guy you simply can't beat so it's never a matter of outfighting him but on him never reaching you, once he comes, it's over. The trick isn't how hard it'll be to beat him but how ingenuously he'll beat the hell out of every one who dares to fight. With the inventiveness of a McGyver, he can turn every banal object into a deadly weapon (a rope, a poll ball in an apron or a credit card) and without a scratch. Bruce Willis was McClane, Seagal is the Mr. Clean of action films.
Of course a review of "Under Siege" had a few references to "Die Hard" coming, the film was literally taglined "Die Hard on a battleship" and it's a good summary as far as advertizing goes, but the great thing about director Andrew Davis is that he never totally sets the story apart from the 'die hard' format and yet never makes it obvious that he was duplicating a model. It's not any battleship but the USS Missouri, the one that avenged Pearl Harbor, the hostages are military and the villains mercenaries and the 'pebble in the shoe" isn't an average guy, definitely not the standard of hero created by McClane, Ryback has all the makings of a one-man army, making hims closer to Arnie's Matrix, so much that his sidekick, former playmate Jordan Tate (played by Erika Eleniak) said it best "the safest place in this boat is three feet behind you". And that a former Playmate ends up in the celebration set in one of the most iconic battleships of America is one of these delightful oddities that make the film.
So "Under Siege" borrows from many serious thrillers such as "The Hunt for Red October", with an attention to every detail that reveals Davis' professionalism, but dares to shows a commander dressed as a woman or mercenaries passing as a rock band or waiters. This is a script with a capability to be enjoyable even during the life and death situations, avoiding the nightmarish feel of "Die Hard 2" for instance. You never trivialize what happens but you never forget that you're being entertained. To give you an idea, it's not about whatever Jones and his crew want to do with their torpedoes, but the way they deal with the big shots in the war room, the way Jones handle his contractors and chews the scenery enough to make you doubt about his sanity. Obviously he has fun playing the bad guy and that's the perfect angle, "Under Siege" respects the codes of action movies but it has a sharp delightful edge that makes it more than a version of "Die Hard", much more.
So I liked many things, I loved the bad guys, I loved Jones, he was so good that he paired with Davis again in 1993 with "The Fugitive" and won the Oscar for his performance. I also loved the way Eleniak started from being the laod to a worthwhile adjuvant. I liked that just when I thought the film was venturing in the same territory than "Die Hard" when the officials doubted Ryback's intentions, he proved them wrong and the Admiral believed every word he said. I loved that moment where in the middle of a gunfight, Jordan asked if they wanted to leave a message. And I loved when Busey (once again) decided to drown his own crew trapped in the forecastle saying "they never liked me anyway", that line was good enough but it had to be followed by a hilarious "I bet they love you know".
And I could tell Jones' cracking up was genuine.
There's something about "Emmanuelle"...and Emmanuelle...
Recently, I found a new interest in a kind of movies I thought was locked in the most obscure basements of my memories, belonging to a time where Internet didn't reign, nor pornography, but that's saying the same. Those were erotic movies, they didn't show much but what they hid was enough to arouse our beginning masculine senses, the female body was a total mystery for most of us and these movies handled it with the delicacy of a precious and thoughtful gift that had to preserve some of its mystery.
And I learned to be part of that show-a-little-and-enjoy-a-lot little game and appreciate the silly magic of these mindless stories set in ridiculously grandiose places, where love scenes were choreographed in slow motion under the smooth sound of a saxophone, allowing butlers or maids to break their routine through a session of window shopping. The love scenes could take place on the canopy of some Henry VIII room, in the vicinity of a vast swimming pool or under a chestnut tree not too far from the vineyard, the setting counted.
When the same thing happened over and over, the softcore film had to delight the eyes on another level than eroticism, if you don't admire nature of furniture at some point, something is missing. And it's not that "Emmanuelle" is a great erotic film because it set all these patterns but it's a classic because its French 'new look' treated a minor genre as if it was a major one.And "Emmanuelle" has everything: the candid heroin with an unexplainable thirst for sexual discovery, boredom and ennui making sex the only possible palliative, the exotic luxuriant setting adding to the luxurious places and a sweet little tone that poetically captures the spirit of the heroine if you have the chance to understand French.
There's something about the way the film looks, the way it sounds and the way director Just Jaeckin elevate it as close to a character study as an erotic film can get and whether its take on eroticism should make us laugh or cringe or think, it does, there comes a point where you cease to look at it as "just an erotic film". And it has to do with the the magnetic and enigmatic performance of Sylvia Kristel (who sadly left us in 2012), Emmanuelle is a young woman married to a French diplomat based in Bangkok. The husband is an enthusiast of free love and allows Emmanuelle to have other encounters. Despite her free-pass, Emmanuelle never cheated on him and yet when she's on the plane taking her to her man, she serves herself on a silver platter to two passengers.
Interestingly, the plane scene is put as a flashback after we saw her making love with her husband. This is a woman who knows about love but handles sex as a mystery, when she teases these two travelers, is she testing her sex-appeal or is she too much aware of it? That she literally donates her body to the first newcomer makes tempting to classify as an easy woman but in reality, she's too conscious of the complexity of sexual attraction, she enjoys the tension implied by the desire rather than the ephemeral pleasure and the stream of emptiness that comes after. Desire should be more than a quest for pleasure.
And that might explain the choice of the director to shoot the marital sex scene under the veil of a mosquito net directing our attention to the interplay between the two Thai servants and culminating with certainly the film's first shock. That moment gets us prepared, announcing the kind of dirty stuff contained in that vast spectrum of sexual games, and our hypocrisy toward them. Since there's an inner transgressive quality in sex, how does that combine itself with good behavior? And can eroticism be a philosophy of the body that set itself apart from ethics or another philosophy, hedonism to name it? Maybe there's more than pleasure in that erotic initiation.
And baking under the sun and melancholy, Emmanuelle wanders from one place to another, being verbally hazed by bourgeois housewives bragging about their sexual exploits, expecting to find a mentor. Her curiosity is raised by the youngest one who enjoys teasing older men with a lollipop then she has a sensual relationship with her squash partner, the blasé Ariane. Her initiation goes on with Bee, a beautiful blonde, who unlike the others, has a job: she's an archaeologist, and maybe because she's got a life of her own, she doesn't beat around the bush and after an idyllic episode, lets Emmanuelle go. She doesn't love her but like her enough not to hurt her. The "Bee" sequence proves the bias of the director, he doesn't show them having sex because he cares for passionate sex and believes that this passion had to be driven by transgression.
And this is where Alain Cuny's character makes his entrance as the pygmalion. At that point, I won't spoil the rest of the film, I will only say that the final act of "Emmanuelle" marks the climax of the heroine's coming of age and seals the film's legacy. She learns (the hard way) the layers of eroticism according to her mentor and some are petty shocking. However, no matter how far it goes, we had to time to relate to Emmanuelle and to accept that she would go that far for the sake of discovery, one that goes beyond the judgmental barriers because of its transgressive nature. It is a character study after all, but where love itself and sex are treated as characters.
And "Emmanuelle" treats its material with dazzling imagery, beautifying our ugliest impulses, and making a real landmark of the erotic film, one that spanned many sequels and that made this one the most successful film of 1974. It's beautiful to look at this film, sometimes disturbing, but it always finds a way to be fascinating.
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
Technically good but Carpenter's "heart" wasn't in it...
"After a freak accident, a yuppie turns invisible and runs from a treacherous CIA official, while trying to cope with his new life."
The yuppie is Nick Holloway, played by Chevy Chase. Now, this is the plot summary you can find IMDb, and I'm asking you: if you had to pick one part, which one do you think is the most interesting? The new life of course.
There haven't been many movies about invisible people and yet it's been one of men's biggest fantaisies. Personally, I have always been fascinated by stories of invisibility and my first encounter with that kind was from a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. I was mesmerized by the atmosphere and the way the cartoon remained consistent and logical in its treatment of invisibility. I enjoyed the sight of the truffles being eaten by an invisible Jerry, vanishing in two or three "crunches" and I especially loved how Tom could finally spot Jerry by watching his shadow. And then a few years later when I studied the basic laws of optic, I realized it didn't made sense: if you're invisible, your body shouldn't prevent light from going trhough it, so any invisible man shouldn't have a shadow. And if Jerry was invisible, we should have seen the chewed truffle in his body.
Yes I sound like a geek obsessed with technicality, but that's the merit of sci-fi: it starts with a ludicrous premise but it plays with it straight, and what "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" does marvelously is to confront these "technical" aspects of invisibility. When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Tom and Jerry and I realized everything made sense in that film: yes, we should see the food going through Nick's stomach, or inhaled cigarettes smokes filling his lungs. It's for moments of brilliance like these that I wished Carpenter could have gone further with the 'invisibility' material. Take another scene where Nickis listening to a private conversation involving him and his reaction proves that saying true: whoever could listen to what is said in his back would feel totally miserable and worthless in the face of the Earth.
I loved the way invisibility could be in that movie more than a plot device but the mark of a true existential dilemma. Unfortunately, the premise is lost in a plot involving a CIA bad guy, played by Sam Neill and trying to get a hold on the most precious human weapon they could have. I don't think even in 1992, the man being chased down by government officials was fresh material and it's a pity that a film that had so much to offer in terms of "heart" and special effects had to surrender to the kind of stuff we've seen in other movies. Granted it makes sense that bad CIA guys would look for a man who had just turned invisible but the problem with such a plot is that we have to go through the same scenes we've seen over and over: foot chases, disguised threats, kidnappings, interrogations.
Carpenter doesn't handle these moments badly but it's obviously not his zone of comfort and we can feel it. Besides, the parts where we see Nick questioning the meaning of his existence are so well done that I wish the film would have extended its premise to that aspect instead or at least leave enough room to install the love story. On that level, there's something about Daryl Hannah and unusual romances ("Splash", "Roxanne" and this one), maybe because Hannah carries the beauty and aura of a totally inaccessible blonde beauty but something in her eyes, in her shyness, reveals a more profund vulnerability and a wish to end up with a decent guy instead of some jock who'd treat her like a brainless bimbo. I liked her a lot in the film but she appears way too late, the romance didn't have time to be properly built up and it's a shame because the chemistry between Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah is palpable.
And in the scene where she puts on some make up and we finally see his face without the teeth and the eyeballs, the imagery has both an eerie and hypnotic feel. Obviously, it was meant as a gratifying moment like the reunion in "Ghost" and I felt satisfied but the emotion came mostly from finally seeing Nick being seen, but not necessarily by the woman he loved. Maybe that scene would have worked better if Chase was really invisible (it's not like he was Patrick Swayze's Ghost) but I understand it served a purpose to show him, for the plot and of course for the gags. I also understand there had to be a third part filling for the villainous role, but movies like "The incredible Shrinking Man" proved that there was enough trouble with some conditions not to give us more.
I guess it's a problem of angle taken by Carpenter, he makes a Sci-fi movie and a romance à la "Starman" and turns it into something à la "Enemy of State" or these thrillers where the hero must get that floppy disc to prove he wasn't the KGB spy... and the problem is that it doesn't leave much comedy, making you wonder why Chevy Chase was cast in the first place. He was actually good in the film, but Hannah played the 'straight love interest' with so many funny guys, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Dudley Moore that "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" should have invested a little more on the comedy too. Anything but the CIA plot.
And now that I think about it, shouldn't an invisible man be incapable to see since light doesn't go through his eyeballs? The film actually followed the same logic than "Tom and Jerry" by ignoring the transparency. I guess the real tragedy of the story if that if we were invisible, we'd be blind, that's a technicality we'd rather close our eyes on.
It's not much that "Incontrolable" is a bad film, but it's a film begging us to laugh for a premise it carelessly cheats with.
Not to make a whole lecture on the intellectual processes of a comedy but "Incontrolable" misses an important rule: laughs don't depend much on funny actions but rather the reactions they cause. Remember the classic French comedy "The Visitors", the gags worked because everyone behaved normally, the sequel failed because characters became caricatures. Now, in "The 11 Commandments" (starring Michaël and his gang of immature friends) the pranks weren't all funny but the delight was to carefully observe reactions from normal people. When they started throwing ketchup at each other in a supermarket I didn't care but when the guards ran after them and slipped on the floor, it was basic and primitive but I laughed.
The point of comedy is to start with an absurd premise and extend its logic to the limit of hilarity, as long as the chain of events remains logical. When "Incontrolable" begins, we have a film that seems inhabited by normal people, George Pal is a wannabe writer whose constant rejections pushed him into a depressive and socially vegetative state. His girlfriend (Helene de Fougerolles) left him, his diet consists of kebab and junk food, fitting the lifestyle of the fallen celibate and misunderstood artist whose only chance is to linger on a dream of celebrity. It's all clichés but Youn plays his character as if he belonged to a drama and it's the right tone. I felt sorry for him, especially since I had my share of dreams crushed on the rocky ground of reality.
It takes a little time before fantasy makes its intrusion in George's life and when it does, I had so much time to relate to George that I almost wished the story had went for another direction, the result couldn't have been worse anyway. So George is suddenly possessed by a "voice". It belongs to the late Med Hondo who's for French audiences forever associated to Eddie Murphy and Shrek's donkey. The voice controls George's body, forcing him to accomplish the worst possible stuff against his will: it goes from folding his legs to throwing mustard on his buddy and it goes on and on. At that point, the film could have followed many interesting directions: maybe the voice could have pushed George to do things he didn't use to, to awaken his inner persona, to raise his voice... but it all falls apart after thirty minutes when you realize the premise is just an excuse to see Youn acting crazy.
It was fresh and original in "La Beuze" ("The Dope") because the film was a subtle parody of stoner comedies, it made sense in "The 11 Commandments" because the film was a French "Jackass" but here is Youn's first attempt at playing solo in a movie and it's a massive flop because of a lazy script full of cheap gags. The principal problem is that the film wraps its main character in a situation that itself should be a source of gags but then it goes the easy way by populating the film with characters so eccentric and caricatural they cancel out Youn's own weirdness. I wanted to believe that the film was going somewhere but when the vertically-challenged policeman popped in, I lost it. And when George kicked him as if he was Kyle with his brother Ike, I knew my time was being wasted and yet I wanted to see how far in the bad taste it would go.
I wasn't disappointed. Seriously, how desperate is a movie that indulges its script to kicking short people to generate a few laughs? The tone was not only bad but mean-spirited and even that could have been okay if the characters behaved reasonably and logically. In one scene, George lifts a woman's skirt, she screams, the next shot, she's in the same hotel lodge behaving as if nothing happened. How about a jealous husband? How about just a simple slap? In what world can a man do that and get away with it for the sake of laughs? I'm not polarizing my judgment on details because these are not details, the whole movie stops to rely on George's situation and becomes a pot of messiness where everything is thrown for the sake of a gag. The culmination is a funeral ceremony with African people and all of sudden, George starts singing a Gospel song and the crowd joins him in the rhythm, priest included. Is that a parody? The script didn't bother to come with an inspired speech before the song.
I guess it's useless to get on the whole story, the visit to the straight and stuck-up family lead by a conservative father (Thierry Lhermitte) had almost restored my hopes, I could even accept the crazy grandma but then the swimmig pool part reminded me that the film wasn't here to make any sense, it's as if the writer was possessed by a voice that whispered to him the kind of stuff a young audience would want. At one point, it went so downhill I was wondering if there wasn't a meta-referential statement about the decline of screenwriting, George wants to write a masterpiece but they only accept mediocre scripts with names on it. But that's what to mean? That Youn is a name and he can get away with the worst? If that was the intended move, I applauded the guts, but I'm not sure this is a movie Youn would proudly show in his resume.
The Upside (2017)
The story didn't change, but our times did...
When IMDb came out with the news about Amazon remaking the French box-office hit and universally acclaimed "Untouchables", the response it immediately elicited was "what for?". Now that the film's done, the answer still carries the same tone of puzzlement.
Now I'm not the kind to cringe over the idea of Americanizing a French film, many remakes proved to be, if not successful, interesting retakes on pre-known stories with new outlines or insights. But then again, "Untouchables" was so recent, so big, and so popular (being the most successful French film in worldwide box-office) that I couldn't think of a single reason that could justify the remake, but maybe the interest lies precisely in its status as a remake and the fact that it stars two talents such as Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart (with Nicole Kidman as the third-billed name). Speaking for myself, it was good enough a reason to grab my interest.
But from the start the film was doomed, its production was delayed due to the Weinstein scandal (the film was produced by Miramax at the time it ceased to be an Awards-magnet) and it took two years to be finally released. It was an honorable box-office success but met with mostly negative critics. To be quite honest, I don't find any aspect to criticize nor that I have any reason to praise the film, the two actors inhabit their characters with confidence and humility and their chemistry comes out as believable and never overplayed. Cranston delivers a fine performance as Phlip LaCasse from New York's upper class and Kevin Hart, while not having the towering charisma or the catchy smile of Omar Sy, has a presence of his own as the man from the Bronx. Neither of the two actors go for easy pathos of laugh, like their French counterparts.
Script-wise, the story is a carbon-copy of the original, minus some elements: Philip is the same widower, victim of a paragliding accident but has no daughter. However, Dell is divorced and has a son whose constant frowning insists a bit too much that he wasn't exactly a Chris Gardner. Dell's flirting with one of Phillip's caretakers doesn't end with the 'obvious' twist (as if there hadn't to be a reason not to succumb to his charm, unlike for Sy) while the other romantic subplot involving the epistolary relationship ends in a negative note unlike the original. Apart from that, we've got the obsession with the Opera, the painting, the dancing and the shaving sequence though the reference to Chaplin seemed to imply the change of mentalities from 2011 to 2019.
The "Chaplin" moustache isn't just a detail, I wanted to blame the film for sugarcoating the gag but then I realized that maybe times have changed from 2011 to 2019, and the contextualization isn't a detail either. Indeed, it's rather interesting to see that the critics the film met didn't accuse the performances but elements such as the predictability of the plot: how could Opera soothe a street-smart thug? (well, didn't a simple exchange about basketball in the laundry room changed Ed Norton in "American History X"?), the critics also pinpointed the use of clichés regarding the depiction of minorities but I was wondering whether these faults were also brought up against the original. In all fairness, the late Roger Ebert did and I could get his point though I disagreed.
In fact, I think the film is an easy scapegoat, and its biggest fault wasn't much to be a remake but to allow a material that got away with many handicaps thanks to its status as a foreign production to be immediately put under the firing squad of political correctness. What was tolerable a few years earlier became in the post-"Moonlight" days pure manipulative melodrama. In an ironic way, "Untouchables" did carry its own title and was immune to critics while "The Upside" down could be flipped all over the place. It goes even further as the film was criticized for not starring a real handicapped person, a criticism the original escaped from. And while I can understand the reaction, is the blame to be put on Cranston?
Right now, I'm puzzled because I did enjoy the film to the degree that it kept reminding me of the original while still being a new experience, and I believe the two lead actors did justice to their roles. So, I'm tempted to say that the film reveals the real hypocrisy of our times and the way what was still acceptable in the early 2010s became taboo, and the way American cinema can be more criticized for the kind of stuff most foreign productions get away with . At least Ebert had the guts to go against the stream with the first "Untouchables" but it seems like critics are choosing the wrong target because "The Upside" is such a copy of the first that any critic directed at it is a critic against the original. And I'm not exactly dismissing the 'handicap' argument because that might have allowed the film to open a new breach but the film was so doomed from the start that critics might have call it hypocritical or publicity stunt.
It's sad because on its own, it's a solid drama served with good performances, nothing changed much in the story, but our times have changed, and political correctness doesn't make them better. So, in a way, the remake does belong to another era and reveals the upside of our own mentalities. So I guess the film served a purpose after all.
La beuze (2003)
Not a bad trip at all...
"La Beuze" is a French production emulating "The Blues Brothers", Cheech-and-Chong comedies, "Scarface", "Wayne's World" and 70s Blaxploitation flicks. On this cult referential level, the film aims so high (no pun intended) that even its shortcomings manage to bring a fair dose of laughter, revealing a consistent plot (while not a first prize of originality). It's a credit to Michael Youn and his sidekick Vincent Desagnat not to have gone for what could have easily been a vehicle for their TV antics but instead a story that went somewhere... even if it wasn't that special.
I used up a whole paragraph about Youn's debuts on TV in my review of "The 11 Commandments" so I'll get right to the point with "La Beuze", the film directed by Desagnat's father and written by a team whose merit isn't to feature Youn. This is not a comment on his talent (he's a fairly good comedic actor and he sure has an instinct for jokes) but it's interesting that the directing and writing were left to professionals. Many comedians taking their skills for granted decide to cover every artistic department, which generally ends with disastrous results, not necessarily box office flops but movies all flash and no substance forgotten as soon as they're seen.
To give you an example: there's a film from the same year titled "Who Shot Pamela Rose?" and written by comedic duo Kad and Olivier. They proved to be hilarious for the parody format à la SNL, but I said about their film: "nothing tries to elevate it above its TV skit format, it's an unambitious project that tried to capitalize on two comedians' popularity instead of their talent, which they have." "La Beuze" doesn't fall into that trap and deserves to be commended for that, it even succeeds by making a parody of every common trope of the stoner comedy (and the references are numerous) but not by relying the entire script on it.
Take the cop played by Lionel Abelanski who's obviously a nod to Dirty Harry. The film gratifies us with as many scenes as it takes to relate to him, even a flashback. Now that flashback explaining his personal record with drugs might not work for everyone, but highlight a certain effort from writers to bring elements of three-dimensionality outside the leading pair. The catch is that the more subtle and interesting some characters are, the more underdeveloped others look: Zoe Felix plays the trophy girl whose purpose is to look sexy and taunt our heroes but the script wastes the opportunity of a twist about her. Former rapper Kool Shen makes a brief and memorable cameo.
Anyway, "La Beuze" is mostly about Alphonse Brown and his buddy Scotch Bitman, names that have been designed to be easily remembered. Brown is back from jail after covering one of his dim-witted friend's mistakes and we learn that he believes he's the son of James Brown and like Tony Montana, he's got hands made for gold. It doesn't matter whether the kinship is true but the film starts almost immediately with its hit song whose refrain is "his name is Alphone Brown". The song that establishes the birth of a new style of music, named "Frunkmp" '(a mix of Rap and Funk) became a top-charter in 2003. It's downright silly and stupid but the clip adds a small air of credibility in Youn's attempt to pass as a singer; at the very least he's an entertainer.
So this Brown is quite an interesting character and Youn knows it enough not to play it in an over-the-top way, and when he tries too hard with girls or fails to impress the local drug lords, I didn't feel sorry for him as much as I was reminded me of these lyrics from "Pretty Fly" - written right for a character like Alphonse- "He may not have a clue and he may not have style, but everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial". And that's Brown and seeing him transitioning from that lunatic to a guy with the ambition of Tony Montana except is oddly delightful.
So what we get with "La Beuze" is two buddies who've discovered the best 'beuze' in the world (needless to say what this word means) and try to find the most lucrative demand. Alphonse even obeys the golden rule of not getting high on his own supply (lollipops will help) but he eventually underestimates the greed of the enemy and ends up chased by the police, the descendant of the Nazi officer who made up that very 'beuze' by way of a secret weapon against the Allies, a West Indies drug lord, and an All-Black rugby player who keep popping up when the film needs its fantasy or musical interlude.
It's a crazy plot and that the film doesn't end with a reference to "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and a Mexican stand-off à la "True Romance" is rather admirable, just when you think it's going the easy way, it finds the one that surprises you. And that's because, unlike his character, Youn who does have a clue (of the audience he's targeting) and he sure has style while not trying to pass a new comic genius. The film takes itself not too seriously but seriously enough to satisfy the fans and appease the skeptics. And it doesn't promote any illegal consumption, the closest thing to a promotion is the wannabe hit clips from the beginning and the ending.
And the craziest thing about the film is that they never feel out of context, they reminded me of the product placement scene in "Wayne's World", efficient and consistent with the plot, to the point it can be deemed as a French "Wayne's World". Anyway, the film works because it aims so high (no pun intended) that it never totally fails...
Natural Born Killers (1994)
I have no doubt about Stone's intent but sometimes, the film's too showy for its own good...
"Natural Born Killers" provides the kind of intellectual challenge no critic, amateur or pro, can refuse. It has so much to tell, so much to show and (oh yeah) so much to comment on that it's almost impossible to cover every ground without missing a few spots. So any attempt to condensate a reaction into a 1000-word review, either to praise it or to tear it into pieces, will be partial and unsatisfying, which is already a credit to Oliver Stone's thought-provoking script. I honestly don't know how much of Tarantino's original draft survived the adaptation but since he disowned the story, it's only "fair" to treat Stone as the sole author.
And yet even Stone complained that the released version was butchered and the parts that landed on the cutting room floor could have enhanced his personal statement against media frenzy. So while I'm aware that one missing minute can deconstruct the meaning, I'll still base my review on the shown rather than the intended; starting with the obvious: the film is about Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallaury Knox (Juliette Lewis), a couple of killers. They love each other fiercely, madly, insanely with the same level of demonic passion inhabiting them during their killing spree across America's Midwest.
But they're no Bonnie and Clyde and certainly no modern Robin Hoods. They kill and they enjoy killing, it's almost an artistic endeavor with their "works" carrying the same signature: killing first and leaving one witness to tell the cops, then the media, then the people. They have no redeemable value whatsoever but they have "style" and their screen chemistry is so palpable that it seems to catch the eye of the camera. Or are the lenses so enamored with them they make them look so stylish... or cool? To any scholar protesting against Hollywood glorification of violence, a film like "Natural Born Killers" is the perfect target.
How dare Stone edit gruesome and merciless killings as if they were to MTV clips! What a nerve intercutting them with images borrowed from random images: excerpts from ads, from Stone's scripted films like "Midnight Express" or "Scarface", animal documentaries, World War II footage or sometimes the same image shot in every possible format (black and white, amateur, seen from TV, 8 or 16mm and so forth) even the vertiginous editing of "JFK" feels boringly linear in comparison with "Natural Born Killers".
Aesthetically, the film is so visually extravagant that it feels like Stone felt intoxicated with the whole madness surrounding him, recalling three key characters who know one thing or two about maniacs: Tom Sizemore as the man who arrest them, Tommy Lee Jones the man who keeps them behind bars and Robert Downey Jr. who's dedicated a whole TV show to them. Apparently, you can't deal with maniacs without embracing their insanity but unlike cops and wardens, journalists are agents of transmission, they have more responsibility and their handling of criminals contribute to our desensitization, trivialization or our "sensationalization" of the worst, for the sake of entertainment.
It was a French TV Channel CEO who said: "our mission is to provide Coca Cola enough brain availability". In the middle of a shocking interview, Stone gratifies us with the Christmas polar bear ad that illustrates the statement, reminding us of the way images of death and hunger are sometimes mixed with indecent calls for consumerism. The power of TV is to be an attention-seeker, a meaning-giver and a fascination-builder, camera provides -if not a meaning- an access to posterity, the Knoxs know it just as Manson, Whitman the perpetrators of high-school or mass shootings knew. In his diatribe against media, Stone doesn't go for nuance and strikes very hard, galvanized by the very power of imagery he condemns. The catch is that his attempt to question the 'natural' aspect of violence isn't as strong and insightful as the cultural one.
Mickey Knox believes that within the demon that inhabits us, there's a call for murder, like for the wolf or the rattlesnake. In the end, it's debatable whether civilization is the poison that endorses violence (totalitarian regimes are examples) or the antidote. After all, the rattlesnake is used by an old Native to explain the nature of deadly animals but it's also the symbol of the medical world. Nature, like the media according to Stone, seems like the easy scapegoat for the Knox couple, they never take full responsibility for their actions, they're just true to the purest and deepest expression of human form and that's where I feel the film sins a little.
To put it simply, the film's showy when it accuses the media, too subtle when it comes to accuse the Knoxs. It's indeed convenient that Mickey invokes the laws of nature when he insisted on having a wedding ceremony, a staple of human civilization. Take also one of the most applauded scenes in the film: the sitcom parody where Rodney Dangerfield steals the show as the abusive father who sowed the first seeds of violence through his behavior. Didn't Mickey deliver meat with clothes all covered with beef blood. How evocative of Mother Nature are meat factories?
The sitcom part is here to highlight the way media are literally brainwashing the audience and sugarcoating the material but the blood in Mickey's is also indicative of his own hypocrisy. But that's a detail easily overlooked in a film where the whole media-driven civilization is being accused. And that's the problem with the film: there's always. a fine line of what the film shows and what it tells. Stone shows the way society becomes a catalyst for violence, the media helping, the problem is that all his editing and stylish directing ironically uses the same tricks than TV, and creating such a maze of a film that the responsibility of Knoxs and the fallacious nature of their so-called obedience to the laws of Nature, is easily missed.
School Ties (1992)
In a normal world, David Greene would be the perfect guy...
In a normal world, a young athlete like David Greene (Brendan Fraser) would have no problems reaching the top of any school popularity pyramid. First, he's an outstanding quaterback, enough to be handed an almost free-ticket to Harvard. Secondly, his blue-collar background taught him respect and humility, virtues he applies to his own social interactions. And not to make things worse, he's handsome enough to catch girls' eyes and educated enough to please their mothers. Quoting a man impressed by David's talent: "a strong arm and a sense of humor, not a bad combination".
In a normal world, David Greene's future would be a sure-win on every level. Only this isn't a normal world, we're in America in the late 50s, in Saint-Mathews, a prestigious preparatory school where students are generally identified by pedigrees rather than names, being the fourth or fifth generations of prestigious families. They're rich, spoiled, living incarnations of the elite social reproduction and WASP mentalities, they might have accepted David coming from a town named Cranston in Pennsylvania but not that he's Jewish. These kids carry in their cultural heritage so many prejudices that David's forced to lie about his identity, covered by the headmaster (Robert Donat), and for a little -peaceful- while, he enjoys what his life should've been like in a normal world.
So for almost half the film, David is not just totally accepted by his friends but he's immediately reached the height of popularity, stealing in the process the so-cherished quaterback position from Charlie Dillon and his girlfriend. Dillon (Matt Damon) embodies the existential dilemma of the kid who's a 'pure product' of his family, who must follow the steps of his big brother, whose life must pass the 'Harvard' case and in a way, lives a situation that's not enviable: if he succeeds, it's not much his merit than his connections but failure's not an option. Dillon knows he's not in total control of his life and can't determine whether he's got friends because they genuinely like him or because it's the smart move career-wise. Inevitably Dillon envies David because he knows the guys like him for what he is, and if it wasn't for the reveal about his origins, Dillon might have swallowed his pride and let the Alpha guy steal his thunder, his position and his girl. But then there would be no movie. What's interesting though is that the "big reveal", while being about David, isn't ON him. As Dillon says "the joke's on us".
Indeed the merit of Robert Mandel's "School Ties" is not to make us feel sorry for David but for his schoolmates. Some harbor the worst kind of anti-semitic behaviour, some are just unconsciously uttering the same crap they heard in their own circles, some are just having their scapegoats to nourish their sense of belonging and some are too shaken by David's normality to ever consider contradicting their beliefs. It's interesting that the "friends" cover a wide spectrum of reactions culminating with the nazi sign incident and starting maybe with the roommate, played by Chris O'Donnell (he was in another prep school movie that year "Scent of a Woman") who blames David from hiding his religion. Naturally David asks him why he didn't tell him either, but the argument doesn't hold up since he's a Methodist, answering his own question by implying that David's origin is the issue.
"School Ties" is a thought-provoking film, raising many interrogations about America's upper classes in the same way that Elia Kazan's "Gentleman's Agreement" did with Peck pretending to be a Jew (changing his name 'Greene' to Greenberg) and realizing the extent of post-war Antisemitism, rather ironic that the same America fought Nazism while holding the same ugly prejudices. It also shows the twisted application of meritocracy where doors are opened to you on the basis on your talent while mentalities are very much closed. David's handed Harvard on a silver plate and accept to cope with the possibility of antisemitism in the same way that he's being instrumentalized for his football skills, David's dealt like a trade and it takes the whole journey in the stinky WASP underworld to embrace it with dignity. David sees how the system works and plays by the rules.
The performance of Fraser is crucial because he doesn't overplay the heroic side and the script doesn't make him a sort of martyr: he can be as vulnerable and immature as his friends. What elevates him though above the others is the consistency of his character, he's the moral pillar, whatever opinion he's got on someone is based on facts and not on prejudices. After everyone rejects him, he's willing to believe his sweetheart still love him, giving her the benefit of doubt. In a way, the climax involving the cheating incident only puts the others in the same ethical choice: when it comes down to decide who cheated between Dillon and David, will they base their choice on facts or on their own biases? But by the time the test happens, the film had already succeeded to unveil the ugly side of these pertisgious schools, something I could relate to being in the top business school in France and I could see that there was an inclination for people to bond according to their origins or connections and that was the early 2000s.
The film doesn't try to preach a hymn for tolerance because there's no need to, we know who's the good guy and the bad guys are those struggling to overcome their prejudices, some do it and redeem themselves and some will always be pricks. The final exchange between Damon and Fraser perfectly ties the story and I could remember it almost 25 years after watching "School Ties" for the first time, as long as the "Cowards!" moment... it's very telling that I remembered these two scenes more than any other, because they feature the two words that best sum up bigotry.
Dumb and Dumber (1994)
I laughed a lot ... I face-palmed a lot more...
At least the title is honest. "Dumb and Dumber" says what it says about the film, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) are grown-ups with the brains of sixth graders and are so incomparably stupid that there's no need to scratch your head to determine who's supposed to be dumber. Still, I'm partial to Harry being the lesser one because unlike Carrey, Daniels adds a subtle level of likability while Carrey is channelling the obnoxiousness of his Ace Ventura and the troll-attitude of the Mask. However, that Harry seems the most sensitive doesn't say much, he didn't invent hot water either.
What the title also indicates is that there's no need to look for a plot, just plug yourself in the mind of an immature teenager and let the magic of stupid laughs operate. It takes time until we're embarked in that cross-country road trip to Aspen, and their stupidity gets more tolerable. So we get the usual halts in shabby motels, gas stations, altercations with blasé waitresses and hunky truck drivers, a stolen briefcase that reveals its secret at the right moment, later, we have a trip in one of Aspen's finest hotel, a dead owl, and one of the delights of the film is the way the bad guys (especially Mike Starr as Mental) believe they must be pros because no one can be that dumb.
What the Farrelly brothers do is take very familiar material and use it as a clothesline to hang on it the dumbest stuff they could find. It's not much a plot than a pot where every improvisation is thrown into, an excuse for the lamest possible gag, reminding you of that kid who went as far as asking the prettiest girl in class to pull his finger and make his buddies laugh (even if it meant losing any possible chance with girls). It takes some guts to be that dumb and an extra level to base an entire movie premise on two irremediably stupid characters but that was a risk the brothers (in their film debut) were willing to take.
Maybe it was a safe calculation after all, if you've got the best comedian of his generation who already proved to be bankable, how about letting him going in total control and see where it goes and if 60% of the gags must work, then throw as many gags as you can. They say quality matters more than quantity but not when you have that quantity : Harry and his mountain sheperd clad dog, Lloyd playing a lousy casanova as a limo driver, urinations on beer bottles, pranks involving mustard on burgers, fart jokes, toilet jokes, Bruce Lee imitations and so forth.
There are so also many moments of gratuitous and unbearable noises that I felt like Mental being trapped between Harry and Lloyd, and started wondering who was the bad guy. These moments, as funny as they were, made me genuinely appreciate the quieter parts where they seemed to pull themselves together and stop acting like prankish children. But these moments never lasted long and I think it's fair to say that there's not one minute going in the film without at least three gags and three stupid things done, and at the very least, you get a grimace from Carrey's rubber-made face.
But then again, Harry and Lloyd reach such heights of manic stupidity that I started to appreciate Jeff Daniels a little more not because I prefer him, but because Carrey is such an induspated talent who had nothing to prove after his "Mask" and "Ace Ventura" that it's a remarkable achievement to steal his thunder. Some of the funniest moments involve Daniels and I don't think he got the credit he deserves. And that might be the reason he tried to bring some sensitivity to the plot, as if it was the only way to compete with Carrey, being stupid in a touching way. And let's face it, the film is designed as a platform to let the machine Carrey go in total free style mode with as much imprvosation as he can afford but being touching wasn't his strongest suit, not yet, wait for "Liar, Liar" and "The Truman Show", for that.
Indeed, it was still 1994 and Carrey's acting needed more polishing or better scripts. The problem with the 'stupid' angle is that it's so overplayed that I found myself facepalming more than laughing, chuckling more than laughing and some bits are so hilarious that other appear as totally uninspired. I wasn't too sure that Lauren Holly needed her skirt to be lifted by Jim Carrey. I'm not sure that the second appearance of Sea Bass was the Karmic comeback we expected. I'm not sure the urination gag had the best outcome. And I think the ending with the top models left me cringing more than laughing. The film relied too much on Carrey being carried away and Daniels following him that it didn't suspect that a little less could have been a little more, that a few reliefs were needed and that some of the best gags didn't involve any of the dumb and the dumber one.
Ebert said he almost got hospitalized with the dead bird gag, I felt the same with the phone booth 'falcon' punch.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
A great courtroom comedy movie, in fact a great courtroom movie period
Two students are accused of murdering a store clerk in a small Alabama town. Being stereotypical New Yorkers, they react with all the worst clichés about the South, fearing some lynching driven by an ancestral hatred against Yankees, making them even more stereotypical. One of them (Ralph Macchio) calls his Brooklyn lawyer cousin Vincent Gambini aka Vinny for help. Vinny (Joe Pesci) comes to the rescue along with his sexy and beautiful fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei).
So we get the flashy city slickers dealing with the humbler but no less peculiar mentalities of a small Southern town. There's more, Vinny's also a small-time lawyer who passed the bar exam in extremis after a sixth attempt and kept chasing ambulances after. Vinny must make his bones and learn from scratch in a case where his cousin's life is at stakes, the judge doesn't seem to like him, so the pressure is big... and as patient and helpful as Lisa tries to be, she doesn't help when she kindly reminds him that she's also submitted to pressures of her own (on a biological level).
A new viewer might get the feeling that the botched investigation and the trial are just excuses to generate stereotype-ridden laughs based on the fish-out-the-water element. But as you let the film grow on you, you realize it's actually the other way round.
I actually believe the comedy is the starting point of a rigorous and insightful exploration of the subtleties of the legal system in general and Alabama in particular. It might be an open-and-shut case for an experienced lawyer but then there would be no movie; no, it's crucial to have a lawyer who still has to learn the ropes so we learn with him. When Mona Lisa tells him that he's got nothing to brag about getting files from the prosecutor since it's the latter's job, there would be a vice of form otherwise. It's funny but at least that won't be forgotten, not by Vinny, not by us. And that's one example.
"My Cousin Vinny" shows how to deal with an expert witness, how to make a cross examination, how to create a reasonable doubt, how to psychologically handle witnesses and experts, but you know that comes rather late in the film and I guess watching the first part fills the first-time viewer with an urge to see Vinny taking off his amateur clothes and Mona Lisa Vito eventually shine and outshine everyone. But before, we've got to come through the two kids indirectly confessing their crime, thinking they've been caught for a non-paid tuna can, we get a series of running gags involving Vinny's impossibility to get a good nightsleep, his procedural interplays with Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) who takes his job so seriously he holds him in contempt because he can't even say "guilty" or "not guilty" and many other subplots.
So what we get in the first part is pure comedy routine. Yes, it's funny but in a predictable way. But director Jonathan Lynn who had a law degree insisted that the film would be the most accurate in its depiction of trial strategy, with its share of attacks and counter-attacks. He knows what he's doing and prepares us for a big finale. So we laugh with Joe Pesci being his usual loud and annoyingly raucous guy, Gwynne the 'straight man' whose facial reactions make for one good third of the laughs and we even get the lousy yet hilarious gag of a stuttering lawyer, (which still serves to make a point: never ask a witness a question if you're not prepared for the answer). By the time we get to the climax, the film at least reassures us that it didn't care much for stereotypes, they're downplayed to nihil, Vinny stops being a clown and accomplishes his job fairly decently, with growing confidence, using his street smarts and proving that he has the makings of a great lawyer. Pesci is truly given one of his best roles for three reasons: he's the lead for once, he's as loud and foul-mouthed as his usual roles, but he's smart and he's a good guy who wants to do his job. And yet, that's not even the film's secret weapon, in a nutshell, it's a bombshell.
Anyone who didn't see the film knows it earned Marisa Tomei an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and "supporting" is the word considering her man. But the way she saves the day at the end through her car expertise (pointed out early enough so it doesn't come down as a Deus Ex Machina) is brilliant, intelligent, insightful, funny and even romantic (Pesci and Tomei had quite a chemistry). And it's beautiful acting from Marisa Tomei whose reaction shots were already gold during the trial but look at her after she answers the trick question leaving the prosecutor, as deflated as a tire, the look she gives the judge was enough for the Oscar.
The film was the third of 25 legal films voted the best by the American Bar Association, which says a lot about its accuracy. According to experts, it not only shows what they teach you in school but what they don't, which is where Vinny is the best, being wise, charming, funny but sharp and cutting when it comes to counterattack feeble testimonies, using mathematical precision and pure logic to turn eyewitnesses' own arguments against them, and teach the jury not to judge on appearances.
And if there's anything to learn from that movie is not to judge on appearances. Indeed, behind seemingly hostile Southerners, there are decents folks doing their jobs and eager to cooperate, behind a loudmouthed crook-like New Yorker, there can be a great lawyer, behind a sexy gal dressed like Fran Fine, there's a car expert. And maybe behind a great courtoom comedy, there is one of the best films about... cars.