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Badlands (1973)
"In Cold Blood" with a Romance...
20 October 2019
"Badlands" marks Terrence Malick's film debut and most certainly one of the many peaks of artistic creation during that glorious era referred to now as "New Hollywood", that started with another romance on the run in 1967, the groundbreaking "Bonnie and Clyde".

But that's where the comparison ends for "Badlands" is embedded in a vision that goes beyond the pretension of entertainment Arthur Penn could be accused of, it's filled with such a dazzling imagery and hypnotic amazement toward the world of nature that it has created an experience that stands above the usual tropes of the criminal romance, it's not much the story of Kit and Holly we follow but a sort of nihilistic escape from common morality as if even the troubles of two little people wouldn't amount to much in a world that has so much beauty, and poetry, to offer.

It doesn't make the experience any easier because there's something disturbing in the way Kit, played by a James Dean-like Martin Sheen, embraces violence, it's not a form of expression, it's not rebellion, in a marginal way, he can eventually invoke a twisted interpretation of self-defense and it's not even sadistic enjoyment because he seems like a rather emotionless man and when he does display emotions, he becomes an easily relatable fellow. One of the key moments in the film shows him going along very well with the cops who arrested him, "Good luck, Kit", says the younger of them, "I mean it", he needs to add. At the end, everyone grows a liking on Kit. Should we as well?

How about Holly then? She's played by Sissy Spacek who's nine-year older than her character, foreshadowing her following iconic role as Carrie. Holly is a sweet freckle-faced teenager who should venerate Paul Anka and Pat Boon but she chose that greaser named Kit, she never tried to stop Kit, and never showed any remorse. This is not your usual crush on a bad boy, in her total dedication to Kit, there's something even more disturbing, more sociopathic about her psyche. As a matter of fact, she's the one providing the narration, and it sounds like some bucolic description of a summer romance, something a dreamy teenage girl would write in her diary. The ambivalence in Kit and Holly, 25 and 15 respectively is in the way they seem capable to express feelings toward each other but never uses their heart one second to feel for their victims, including her own father.

The film was loosely based on the real-life case of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate but I found a kinship with another masterpiece of 1967, Richard Brook's "In Cold Blood", the recollection of a family massacre committed by two young hoodlums who never looked like they could pull such a horrific crime. Scott Wilson played Dick Hicock, the most easy-going one and yet during the fateful night, he wanted to rape the daughter while Peter Blake's Perry Smith "prevented" the act, but to dramatic results anyway. Truman Capote came to the conclusion that the two alone couldn't have killed anyone but together they formed a third personality that did. I endorse that diagnosis to the point I would consider "Badlands" an "In Cold Blood" with a romance, it's just as horrific but with a detached cynicism that disguises powerfully as a poetry of evil.

I guess the key is in that opening scene in a small town of South Dakota, Kit just left his garbage job and meets Holly who's practicing baton twirling in the front lawn. What she found in him: a boy who found her pretty enough to exchange a few words, which is more than what her estranged widower father, played by Warren Oates, ever did. What he found was a mature person who spoke more and better than girls her age and she could listen. They weren't special to the world, but special to each other. In another universe they might have spent a romance together and lived happily ever after in that cabin in the wood, just like Tarzan and Jane, masters of their own territory and destiny. Man is a wolf to man and so became Kit and by association, Holly. It just took the opposition of her father and Kit had no other choice than kill him, set the house in fire and take a toaster with him. Interfering with either their territory or destiny meant death, those who escaped could praise their good stars.

The rest is a classical road movie taking us in places where a girl like Holly would never have dreamed to visit, from the Montana landscapes to some exotic countries in her father's Stereopticon. Malick nourishes his film with lyrical photography showing plants, flowers and insects, what became his trademark (to a point I criticized in "Tree of Life") but there might be a statement, a sort of alibi to the whole amorality. Maybe there's so much beauty in this world, that the actions of Kit and Holly become incidental, even beyond their own conception of evil. In a crucial scene, Holly talks to man who's just been shot in the guts and is living his last moment, she doesn't realize death perhaps maybe because she doesn't even grasp the essence of life. Maybe the only solution is to hang on nature and accept it as the overarching force of the film, the true canvas of whatever goodness can make this world worth living.

Of course one can't ignore the beautiful piece of music from Carl Off and George Delerue, one of the melancholic ballads inspired Hans Zimmer"s "True Romance", but in comparison, Alabama and Clarence are boy scouts. The real mystery of "Badlands" is how could we make a film so beautiful about such despicable characters but how can such a beautiful place be ever called "Badlands", that belongs to cinematic metaphysics.
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Twins (1988)
Danny and Arnie... or when comedies had warmth and innocence.
20 October 2019
1953, a super-secret scientific experiment aims to make a perfect man out of six "contributors" who include Nobel Prize winners and athletes and a beautiful woman to be inoculated with the seminal milkshake. But as usual when men play sorcerer apprentices, science finds its way to trick them and when the super-baby raises his cute little nose, it's revealed a few seconds later that Mommy carried a clandestine passenger all along.

Life found a way in a little boy who's nothing like his big brother is (literally) and there comes another comedy relying on science and the mysteries of life from Ivan Reitman, after "Ghosbusters" and before "Junior". The title shot says it all, the big blonde baby is Arnold Schwarzenegger and the little one who kicks him in the leg is Danny De Vito, such a cute and tender moment for a blockbuster comedy... because it's a comedy. Boys separated at birth and reuniting for a vengeance has been an excuse for lousy action pictures but who needs action when characters are driven by family love.

What "Twins" accomplishes is remarkable in its simplicity, it takes the established comedic persona of Danny De Vito and associates it to one no viewer would have anticipated in 1988. Consider that in '87, Arnie had played one of his ultimate action roles in "Predator" and it was right after "Terminator", "Commando" and the "Conan" series. Just when he was about to be typecast, Arnie takes a 180° turn and plays a man who's strong and muscular all right but never at the expenses of his good nature, his endless love for his brother and his nerdy attributes. Remember that McBain gag in "The Simpsons" where he played a nerd, it's a credit for Arnie to never make his Julius Benedict a similar subject of ridicule, he's genuinely funny because he never means to. For the same reason, even the preposterous premise of having him pregnant in "Junior" worked beautifully.

But "Twins" accomplishes something more, it pairs up the most two different possible actors, body and personality-wise to make it part of the plot, it's one thing to make them brothers, but talk about suspension of disbelief when we're asked to believe they're twins. That's the stuff comedic gold can be made of and in the crucial moment where Julius reveals his identity to Vincent, from each sides of a visiting room, Vincent's reaction is priceless: "it was like looking in the mirror", "we're not identical twins" retorts Julius and Vincent's face is another credit to De Vito's talent, it says "oh that explains it all" with a hint of "no kidding?". And apart from a few moments that insist on their telepathic connections (scratching their bottom in the same time, Vincent naming his cat Julius and Julius naming his computer Vincent) the film never overplays it to the point it becomes a cheap gimmick, and in the 80s, it's quite an achievement.

I guess that's the third accomplishment of "Twins", it has a deep and touching warmth of its own that plays like a wonderful tribute to brotherhood that transcends the differences. Danny and Arnie share the screen literally as they never try to steal one scene from another. And when Julius tries to follow his brothers' steps: how to make up with girls, how to flirt, to dance, to prepare for the big night (because Julius is a virgin) it's funny and goofy but it's played with balance by Arnie who's got a lot of comedic potential, certainly more than his rival Stallone. I criticized Sly for being too "straight" even in comedic roles such as "Demolition Man", but that same year, Arnie delivered a great self-parodic performance in "Last Action Hero" and hints of that truetalent is displayed in "Twins". Take that scene when he's teased by the beautiful Kelly Preston, he knows he is but he plays his Julius as an embarrassed man, never embarrassing. Naturally, she stops playing with him and takes full rein.

"Twins" contains two romances, Arnie and Preston while De Vito is with the more jovial and ordinary-looking Chloe Webb and together they have a great chemistry. Heart is something that never deserts the film and contributes to some weirdly effective serious moments, Julius' childish joy meeting the athletic dad, Vincent learning that he was the undeserved one by the doctor prick followed by the heartwarming moment when Julius comforts him by reminding him that it's not just a matter of nature but nurture as well, he lived in a Pacific Island surrounded by love while he grew up in an orphanage thinking his mom abandoned him.

It's all natural that one brother would learn the tricks of modern life and the other to be a little less rough when it comes to handle the sweet aspects of life. Isolated they were alone and marginal, together they form a great duo immortalized by that iconic moment where they cockily walk across the street with the same suit, certainly one of the 80's most instantly identifiable moments. Of course, the crime plot is here to give some spice to the narrative but it never indulges to the basic clichés, no chase, no shootouts, and Arnie is only strong when necessary but despises violence. It all comes down to the real climax of the film not being about action or money but a magical reunion between a mother and her lost sons.

"Twins" takes me back to the early 90s when Saturdays evening featured comedies and comedies of that era had such an innocence I truly miss them (though Kelly Preston awakened one of my earliest pre-teen impulses and her presence is one of the things I most cherish about the film).

(and for the first time, I post the 100th review of a film)
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Flight (I) (2012)
A Matter of Responsibility...
16 October 2019
"Flight" is one of these experiences so intense and dramatic that you both the movie to be over soon and can't get enough of it in the same time, like the immediate effect on some invigorating drug.

Denzel Washington is "Whip" Withaker, an experienced and respected pilot but also an alcoholic man who depends on cocaine-boosts to get back on the track. The first contradiction he embodies is how he's in total control of himself and fully confident about his skills while his whole life is a wreck, to say the least. He's divorced, hardly sees his son, doesn't even care about calling, definitely no father of the year material, and he's a party animal enjoying the side pleasures of his professions, including sleepovers in luxurious hotels and with the sexiest flight attendant.

When we first see him, he's lying around on a bed, visibly hung-over, while his night playmate gets up, in all frontal nudity and puts on a sexy G-string, there' something sleazy about this man and yet when he pulls on his sunglasses and uniform, we're reminded that it takes a lot to make Denzel Washington 'pathetic', he looks like the man of the job. He might be a prick, but he sure is a pro. And so the film embarks to its most gripping part and what must be one of the most spectacular crashing sequences ever, the one I feared the most as someone who takes the bus since the last couple of years, dreading the take-off and turbulences more than anything in the world.

Right now, I'm ready to kill three days of my next holiday to travel by bus just to avoid a few minutes of turbulence. "Planes are safer than road transportations" say everybody, well, I give a chance to the road anyway. I'm not mentioning my personal phobia to make myself interesting but to highlight how the crash part operated in my mind and body. I was shaking like the passengers; I could sense the nervousness of the co-pilot each time Whip was acting weird. And like many people who fear flying, I'm drawn into crash stories and I couldn't get my eyes off the screen during the take-off and "landing" sequence, one where Whip assembled all his skills to allow the plan to slide on the ground while a few minutes earlier, it was simply nose-diving.

I expected some investigation-thriller whose climax would be in the reveal that Whip's condition didn't cause the crash or maybe a more slowly-driven study in guilt and trauma with Whip trying to make amends for his actions. When we see him throwing all his alcohol and drugs and getting sober in the trashcan, I was kind of disappointed to see that 'persona' leaving, I felt I didn't get enough of the real Whip, but it takes Whip a lot more to change, especially since the investigations' result come off quite early. It's a mechanical malfunction in the gear that didn't get repaired and caused the nosedive and if it wasn't for Whip's instinctive decision to cancel the fall by turning the plane upside down, a move that required three actions from Whip, the co-pilot and the chief flight attendant and a lot of guts and self-control, the plane would have crashed and killed 102 souls. As a matter of fact, ten pilots tried to prevent the same crash on simulator tests, all have failed.

Whip is the hero of the day, saving all but six people, including two flight attendants, one of them he got up with in that fateful day and who, he doesn't know it then, might work as a cover for the investigation on Whip's intoxication during the flight. The irony in Whip's state is that it didn't cause the mechanical problem, and might have given enough resistance to the pressure to bring out the best of him, it either had a positive effect or no effect whatsoever with Whip simply being an ace pilot. But it's not about responsibilities but about principles. The whole film doesn't involve the investigation but Whip's own introspection, just because he's not guilty, and he's not, doesn't make him any less accountable for his actions.

He could dodge criticism while he had a job but after the disaster, he couldn't prevent the convergence of his professional and private life and it's ironic that till the end, he could maintain a cool façade, being hailed as a hero while destroying himself with booze. The second act is a character study of self-questioning and the aspects of our persona we refuse to confront because they undermine our path to success, how far we can go by disdaining the values we should proudly stand for. It doesn't do that with patronizing speeches or heavy sentiment but under the psychological endurance of Whip, who seems full or resentment but resists and vent his anger on his ex-wife, his son and Nicole (Kelly Reilly) drug-addict with enough guts to fight her inner demons and empathy to help her lover... Whip insists that drinking is his choice, he's got nothing to blame himself for and that goes until he's driven to the one extreme that could compromise his self-esteem, when he must answer for one little action during that ill-fated flight.

And when it does happen, we finally see the edifice crash, and not through tear-jerking artifices because Washington is such a charismatic presence he doesn't need that. His character is a rock of man who seems to resist the eroding effect of his own insecurities, until he found out that admitting your weaknesses is the liberating force and the ending couldn't have been more satisfying.

Robert Zemeckis is back at form with this "Flight", honorable mention to Don Cheadle as a sleazy lawyer capable to toy with the bureaucratic intricacies to save a client he actually hates, and John Goodman as a fixer that gives a little edge to the film. Not that the film needed any.
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Ich bin ein Billy Wilder...
16 October 2019
In 1959, Billy Wilder painted the Mona Lisa of screwball comedy with "Some Like it Hot". He outdid himself again in 1960 with "The Apartment", a witty romantic comedy and sharp satire against office mentalities and lust-driven careerism, the film took home the Best Picture Oscar. If all good things went in three, the appropriately titled "One, Two, Three", third comedy in a consecutive year, from the Wilder-Diamond partnership should have been a masterpiece. In fact, it has the more modestly-designed set of a little dessert, after two copious meals.

But for a dessert, it's still 'rich' enough to be enjoyed with its machine-gun dialogues worthy of Hawks and Cukor' classics that makes you wonder if you didn't accidentally fast-forward the film at 1.5 speed. And there is such vaudevillian streak of incongruous events and improbable coincidence that it provides the right canvas for safe hilarity, in other words so many things happen in the film that even the lousiest gag doesn't have time to fall flat, another comes at the rescue. And as Coca-Cola executive McNamara, James Cagney delivers a painstakingly energetic performance that exhausted him so much he retired from acting for 20 years until his cameo in "Ragtime", that's how demanding his role was... and you can feel it in the screen.

Cagney didn't get along with Horst Bucholz who plays Otto the young idealist communist who marries the Coca Cola's top man's daughter (Pamela Tiffin) and wished he could kick his ass to calm down his scene-stealing impulses. These incidences reminded me of Fonda not getting along with Ford during the shooting of "Mister Roberts", starring Cagney as well, but that didn't affect the film since it's all meant to be a big joke and in the scenery-chewing contest, Cagney and Bucholz are equally hammy and funny if you look at the film with indulgent eyes. Maybe Cagney was too old and Jack Lemmon would have been a more fitting choice as a middle-aged executive in one of the most emblematic American brands. We'll never know.

The real problem in "One, Two, Three" is that it starts brilliantly, the whole first act where we see "Mac" handling Germans' manners and double-edged efficiency draws a pattern of cultural clashes' gags that found an echo in both the Cold War context and the difference of mentalities between America and the European world, as if there was a second curtain behind the infamous iron one (though much lighter). But even if if the non-existence of the Berlin wall (only mentioned at the beginning) dates the film, made ironically the exact year of its building, the film also managed to be ahead of its time prophesizing the missiles crisis with a Russian executive saying about Cuban, "they give us cigars, we give them missiles".

The dialogues with the Soviet representatives are nothing short of brilliant writing, reminding us of the wit that Wilder displayed when he wrote "Ninothcka", a film whose comedic efficiency also depend on a funny Soviet trio. The comment about the Swiss cheese being rejected because it had holes had me in tears, to name that one. The plot thickens to the point of convolution when it adds the romantic subplot but it makes up for the blandness of the two lovers (no matter how colorful they're made to be) when it adds another dimension of cultural shift between Southerners and Yankees, the flimsy Southern belle didn't realize the political meaning of "Yankee, go home" slogan nor what a house "with a short walk to the bathroom" implied.

But the best asset the film has to offer is its slice of life from both sides of the Iron curtain or the soon-to-be Berlin wall. For all the antagonism directed against US capitalism, there might be one thing no one can resist which is a bottle of Coca-Cola, the brand that perhaps sold the American dream more than any political operation. So watching Cagney playing diplomacy with the Russian provided the film's best moments culminating with that unforgettable Sabre Dance and barefeet Fraulein Ingebörg frenetically shaking her voluptuous body on a restaurant table in front of executives getting an exciting taste of the Western dream. That musical sequence might be one of my favorite from any Wilder films and it's crucially set at mid-point just when the plot started to drag.

As I said, Horst Bucholz was hammy only to the degree that it was the only possible way to go the distance with Cagney and I enjoyed watching the lovable Arlene Francis playing his resigned but not discouraged wife. Yet the film is so busy providing one liners right after another that it takes the safe side and injects lousy wedding-and-divorce segments where so much could have been done in the area of politics. But maybe Wilder was getting too old-fashioned leaving sharper tones to a certain Cold-War comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick, interestingly a movie that also pays a tribute to Coca Cola through one of its most memorable scenes. That level of wit is missing in the film already dated by its own context. One thing to its defense though, it offers the perfect response to Joan Crawford's complain of product placement and the perfect punchline with Pepsi Cola having the last word.

And to give a last word, if the film isn't in the same league that "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment" and marks the decline of Wilder's prestige and awards pretensions, it still works and maybe it does so because somewhere I could feel it didn't pretend to be anything but a farce and comedy of manners with the Cold War as the backdrop. A "Dr. Strangelove" it isn't but either you don't find it funny or you do. I did find it funny many times and brilliant in a few scenes.
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Joker (I) (2019)
Joaquin's no joke as the Joker...
14 October 2019
Todd Philips' "Joker" has spread so many comments and controversy that I don't know exactly where to stand. The film reminded critics of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and while Joaquin Phoenix' performance channeled the inner angst and alienation that drove the driver Bickle to an extreme -and bloody- corner, I found so many other sources of inspiration that if anything, "Joker" is the best tribute to the New Hollywood period.

I found "Network" in the film, "Death Wish", references to "The King of Comedy", Marty's underrated movie about a man who wished to exist through the only talent he felt being endowed with... and naturally, there's something of "A Clockwork Orange" in the obscene stylishness the Joker embraces his new persona with. In a way, that the film met with controversy is logical, you can't make a social comment about violence and its dangerous appeal by sugarcoating it, violence like its enemies, use symbols and slogan, in fact, revolt is a mask that violence uses to operate undercover or is it the opposite? "Joker" is the slap today's audiences needed and that it used the Joker mask in our superhero era makes it even more relevant and accessible. But truth be said, any controversy the film should stir mustn't distract from the real deal.

Indeed, any viewer familiar with one tenth of Phoenix' filmography knows the actor's ability to portray enigmatic and troubled characters with a dark side barely hidden, but even with that in mind it's impossible not to be blown away by his performance and compelled by his suffering. He shouldn't be the dark horse of the awards season but the frontrunner because his performance is so rich, so powerful, so intense and so bizarre and grotesque in a captivating way that it's almost like watching a movie within a movie, as if his distortable face was the operation theatre to his acting force, as if his nervous smile slowly turning into cries made a true symphony of pathos and anger. That actor is a treasure to Hollywood and here he's given the kind of rangy performances that can't do without earning awards. His snubbing would be controversy material if you asked me.

Now, to the film. The first act immerses us in the life of Arthur Fleck, a clown and wannabe stand-up comedian. At first, I was afraid that the manic laughter scenes would be too redundant and turn themselves to cheap gimmicks, to remind us that we're dealing with the Joker, but no, Phoenix plays his Arthur as a man who's not a bad person. Raised by an over-protective and sickly mother, brutalized by kids who sees in a clown a living sign saying "kick me", humiliated by people who can't understand his medical condition, the point isn't to portray Joker as a martyr but a product of a specific environment and education, or lack thereof. Like anyone, he's got dreams, projects, but he's entrapped in a condition that makes it impossible to communicate or connect with the others except through hallucinations and would-happen moments, he's a misfit with a fragile condition that keeps worsening until it offers a platform for his dark psyche to perform.

Does the film excuse him? No. Does it justify his actions? Hell, no. It just clarifies the need to perform that way. There's a point of no return reached in that psychological journey, when one humiliation too many triggers a strong desire to express itself through a sort of showmanship, something relevant in our days where people seek any ways to reach posterity. Set in what seems to be the early 80s, it puts Arthur in the same urban alienation context than Travis Bickle but with a passion shared with Rupert Pumpkin's and a "mad-as-hell" prophetic rage with Howard Beale's role. Near the end, there's a shot that follows one of the film's most shocking moment and it's an obvious nod to the anticlimactic finale of Lumet's masterpiece.

But I can't insist too much on how good Phoenix his, one could see a few impersonations of Malcolm McDowell's dance when he "punished" his fellow droogs or get vibes from the two only performances that earned a posthumous Oscar, Peter Finch and Heath Ledger, still, there's something unique in that tormented role he inhabits with such a soul dedication that it makes Nicholon's Joker worse than the cartoon counterpart. ,

"Joker" isn't dangerous but brave enough to question violence in the way it seems like the only plausible answer, it might titillate a few demagogue instincts but that's an unfair trial in the light of the recent events all over the world and that preceded the film. I walk often at night and see homeless people living in impoverished conditions, drowning their sorrows in alcohol and losing their manners once there's nothing to lose... and perhaps that's leaders' responsibility, praising democratic values while its application contradicts its own ideal. Anything is allowed when nothing is possible, is perhaps the biggest joke of all, and that it goes all downhill when the social budget is cut is perhaps the film's boldest stance against the shift between leaders and people.

And that it used Bruce's father Thomas Wayne to connect the final act with a canon we're all familiar with is one of the many narrative delights of that character study and psychological thriller à la "Woman Under the Influence" where suspense doesn't come from a bomb but a ticking bomb of a soul. If De Niro's presence ties the plot with its chief inspirations, the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix who gave a performance for ages, and a character who's relevant in the way he pits democratic ideals against urban reality. And my wish is to see another connection with De Niro with Phoenix winning an Oscar, it would be the second time for a character who already won one after De Niro with "The Godfather Part II".

As for the glorifying violence trial... we've been there already.
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When Lao Tseu meets Macchiavelli...
14 October 2019
It's a cliché that many important business decisions are taken during lunchtime, and it's probably true. 'Charlie Wilson's War" is about a series of decisions, deals and agreements that didn't do much except change the course of history through phone calls, parties and improbable yet successful bargains, as if the trivialities of the world provided the best canvas to history-making decisions.

And who'd have thought that this man we see bathing in a Jacuzzi, holding a glass of champagne and surrounded by giggling strippers would do more for his country than what invasions in Cuba, a decade-spanning war in Vietnam and political coups couldn't? I guess this speaks volumes on the way a man's importance can be measured by the effect his decisions have on a geographical area and certain span of time rather than any so-called title. On that level, Charlie Wilson is more historically important than Ronald Reagan and if it wasn't for Mike Nichols' film, his role in the fall of the Soviet regime would have escaped our attention and made his work covert to the end.

French politician from the turn of century George Clemenceau said "war is too important a job to be given to military men", after watching that diplomatic satire, I couldn't agree more. It seems like the art of winning can pit Lao Tseu's warfare art against the intricate subtleties of diplomacy and make Machiavelli's teachings more relevant. Cynical much? No. Pragmatic, an epithet often been used by historians to describe Lenin's own economical policy and which applies for Wilson. This is a humble congressman who reigns over a Texan district and learned to be friendly and helpful, he doesn't keep a low profile but has no pretension whatsoever to be President material.

He knows one thing though, something like the Godfather: the value of friendship, and the way any help pays off sooner or later. What characterizes Charlie Wilson, despite his interest for politics is the way he's totally dispassionate yet professional, it's an interesting departure from Tom Hanks' usually goody-to-shoes roles to see him playing a man who's not an idealist but eager to succeed because that's how he built his reputation on. Of course he's sincerely moved when he visits a refugee camp, but he's a party animal, a womanizer, renown for pretty-looking secretaries with tight corsets and his philosophy of a job is to be able to mix pleasure in it, the kind of man who'd ask Pakistani generals if he could get a glass of whisky; but even when he puts his foot in his mouth, he lands on both.

Charlie's talent wouldn't be complete without the help of his assistant (Amy Adams) a rich Christian socialite and romantic interest named Joanne (Julia Roberts) and a CIA agent named Gust played by the so missed scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gust is the kind of guy who's extremely competent but seems condemned to never get the credit he deserves, maybe it's the rough blue-collar looks, the outspoken manners or a certain attitude but it's for these flaws that he gets an instant liking on Charlie. "You're not James Bond", says Charlie "And you're not Thomas Jefferson so call it even" retorts Gust. Both are outcasts but accessible enough one to another to seal a partnership whose challenge would be to push the Russians out of Afghanistan.

The goal is crucial because it would give the Russians their own Vietnam war at a time where the balance was in favor of the West, it would be the overdue deathblow under the Reagan doctrine. But the art of warfare must obey a few principles and in order to make a "clean" war, the issue is to destroy the Russian helicopter gunship with a weaponry that couldn't be taken from Americans, which means Russian weapons themseves. Weapon is the key and the found shortcut involves an unlikely partnership between Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, one of these magic tricks that make you wonder if you should applaud the ingenuousness or cry at the tragedy.

Sure it's all handled in a lighthearted way and more than the explosion of a Soviet helicopter, the bewildered expression of the missile launchers makes it funny, but behind the laughs, there's a tragedy in march. We all know that the Russian defeat, followed by the fall of the Berlin wall, marked the victory of the liberal world but it's not only near the end that we realize the film was played like a joke without a punchline, but a catch. The mission was clandestine to the point that even the Mujahedeens didn't know who got them the weapons, they'll get back to poverty, cattle and illiteracy. It took billions to give weapons, but a few millions were needed to build schools and hospitals but no one cared about the Afghanistan or any -istan country for that matter, and so the final exchange between Gust and Charlie with the Zen master story foreshadows what would be the Karmic response to the administration's cynicism.

Indeed, they were cynical while Wilson and Gust were pragmatic, and it's for attitudes like that that the US policy has often been criticized. The film is like a delicious cake but without the cherry at the end. And what makes so tragic is that none of these lessons have been learned. In 2011, NATO bombed and destroyed Libya through a plan orchestrated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and philosopher Bernard-Henry Levi, a worse kind of Charlie Wilson. Today, a country is destroyed launching an immigration wave of dramatic results and allowing ISIS to take on the Maghreb.

"Charlie Wilson's War" might be a lighthearted comedy à la "Wag the Dog" but It's not that funny watching diplomats playing with matches as they can either burn their fingers or set the whole world in fire. I even hesitate calling it a comedy and that's how brilliant it is.
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Atlantic City (1980)
A fine twist on the "life giving lemons" saying set in Atlantic City...
13 October 2019
An old Victorian building where croupiers use to throne and has-been stars to perform is majestically standing above the boardwalk, before being reduced to ruins. This is Atlantic City at the turn of the 80s, a poor man's Vegas for some, a forgotten Mecca for gangsters during the Prohibition, a town past its glorious days and whose inhabitants, for the most of them, can find contentment in cherishing that very past because they simply have nowhere else to go, nothing else to dream of.

There are two central protagonists in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City", three decades separate them and with that difference two totally different views of life. Sally (Susan Sarandon) is in her mid-thirties and dreams of being the first female croupier in Monte-Carlo, she's learning the ropes of the job while working as a seafood waitress, Atlantic City is a mean to an end and never would she consider spending her life in that ghost of a town. And Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a man in his late sixties, one we learn used to be a big shot in the old days, frequenting such illustrious names as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, a man past his prime who can only mourn his youthful days.

Things aren't as schematic as they seem, Sally is obviously looking forward to a better future but Lou isn't much turned toward the past from my reading of the opening sequence. The scene is so sensually and smoothly handled that there's more than sheer voyeurism in it, Lou watches with stunned yes the beautiful Sally opening her shirt, cutting lemons and cleaning her arms with each halves, it looks like some ritual but the explanation is rather trivial, she's only getting rid of the clam smell. But it doesn't matter, it's all in the expression in Lou's face, something is fascinating him in this woman and somewhat his gazing is indirectly turned to the present she represents.

Lou, as it happens, is in a relationship with Grace (Kate Reid), an old bed-ridden woman who came to the city in the 40s for a Betty Grable lookalike contest, and got stuck there. It's very telling when even the star that changed your life is rather unknown at the time being, and looking at the furniture of Kate's apartment, all full of picturesque bibelots, she's a woman who's rooted in the to the point of becoming its own past relics, broken down ornamental, but still there. Lou and Kate form a rather unconventional couple, she berates him, belittles his manhood and yet both seem to need each other for a reason: they each represent the other's past, they're their own existential landmark.

Lou and Kate are neighbors to Sally and all live in a building waiting for demolition, they're all in suspended sentences fully aware of the collapse of their living, only Sally nurture hopes while Kate is resigned and Lou seems to desperately hang on any occasion to prove his value, a final one at least. That opportunity comes with a rather bizarre sight (but plausible in the film's context), a man and a pregnant woman, dressed like immigrants who'd just embarked on Ellis Island come to visit Sally. The man (Robert Joy) happens to be her husband and he's impregnated her own sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren). Chrissie is a flower-child who believes in Karma and reincarnation and seems to live in the same bubble of peaceful naivety than Kate, no wonder that the two women get along together

The brother, however, had other goals in mind, involving a heroin sample he stole in Philadelphia, which he's planning to sell... for dramatic results. The turn of events all leads up to Lou handling the drug deals and getting more and more money, enough to buy a brand new suit, to seduce Sally, passing as a man of the same caliber than those he used to serve, until he encounters the killers who came to get their stuff back. I stop here because the plot, not intricate or complex but captivating in its linear format, is instrumental to the evolution of characters. The drug plot doesn't matter to the degree that it works as a social leverage for a man, Burt Lancaster in his best role, and a gateway for Sally. How it works is all handled by Louis Malle's distant and detached directing.

There's no fancy narrative in the film, no particular use of music, except for a fine cameo by Robert Goulet. What John Guare's screenplay accomplishes is simply to tell a story of a city from the perspective of people who want to escape from it, a woman who wants to find a true future and not just be pampered or pimped by a suave manager (Michael Piccoli) and a man who's constantly reminded by his girlfriend that he's a nobody who can only brag about approaching legendary men, if sharing an elevator can ever be called approaching. The end of the film gives a deep and emotionally satisfying feeling of closure to what can be considered a fascinating character study served by two tremendous and nuanced performances.

And Atlantic City, the city itself, belongs to that breed of places that are so peculiar that they offer a unique operation theatre for protagonists no matter how ordinary and harmless they are. I don't think there could ever be another masterpiece set in Atlantic City just like there could never be a movie like "In Bruges": the town, with its particular texture and old-fashioned charm, insufflates its spirit to the protagonists and gives an existential weight to their most benign actions while attenuating what could be spectacular but cheap plot tricks.

To put it simply, set elsewhere, the film, Best Picture nominee of 1981, would have lost half of its impact, but Malle proved two things: if you get the right casting, half the movie works and if you get the right setting, the other half works all the same.
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Frank Lucas, the gangster who means business... literally.
11 October 2019
"Every gangster's downfall will be his false sense of invincibility"

I found that quote in a Youtube comment from the clip showing Frank Lucas' arrest and that it belongs to notorious mobster Carmine Galante who ended up shot in his favorite restaurant, gives it such an eerily prophetic dimension it can work as a mantra of the gangster genre.

They all start with a fascination for the gangster-figure and end with the realization that sooner or later, wings get burned."Goodfellas", "Scarface", "Casino" etc. all follow that arc and even "The Godfather" if you consider the sequels, providing the perfect canvas for a captivating character studies. And as Lucas, Denzel Washington, intimidating in all calculated smoothness, encapsulates the 'initial reaction', exuding the kind of macho appeal we secretly long for in our boring and compromising lives like Pacino, De Niro or from the old days Cagney and Robinson.

It's a timeless story rooted in any decade of America's contemporary history, a gangster makes his bones, expands his territory, earning many friends, a few enemies and the dreamgirl. Gangster films are the antithesis of fairy tales for they have a happy beginning and all build up for the downfall that might come from greed, human mistakes, ambition, betrayal, sometimes even principles... there's always a price to pay. Lucas could keep his fortune and quit drug business while he was at the top, he chose to move on, ego was his downfall but he had understandable motives that show that gangsters storylines aren't schematic for the sake of it.

The genre is perhaps the best social commentator to the American dream, the irony that a man had to use capitalistic methods to reign over Harlem and restore order. He might be a killer and a heroin dealer, Lucas is a visionary businessman who learned from the 'best'. While Scorsese's films feature flawed characters, "American Gangster" is closer to "The Godfather" in its depiction of a brilliant man who took the wrong direction: a good manager whose "my man" catchphrase resonates as Brando's offer one can't refuse, so when it's time to get off the cover and pull the trigger, he won't hesitate. One of the most memorable scenes have him kill a rival in broad daylight and it's not much the boldness of the move than the certitude that no one will snitch on him.

Ridley Scott's biography of Frank Lucas' life accomplishes something I didn't think was possible, combining many elements of the gangster genre that, taken alone, would've been enough to make a great film. First mention to the organizational aspect: the death of Bumpy Johnson left Harlem chaotic and comforted the Italian mafia couldn't keep control. Lucas understands the necessity of leadership and in all admirable pragmatism, decides to sell a better product at a lower price, and the Vietnam war offers a perfect cover to smuggle heroin directly from the main source. On its own, his success is a marketing school-case enhanced by a memorable moment where he lectures a big customer (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on the value of brand and merchandising.

Another value that plays a key role in the film is family. Lucas isn't a womanizer, he believes in family ties, gives jobs to his relatives, buys a house for his mother (Ruby Dee), gets married and shares a Happy Thanksgiving dinner with everyone. But ike in "The Godfather", family is a double-edged sword as Lucas owes the most of his troubles to screw-ups from his relatives, including his nephew (Chewitel Ejiofor) and to counterbalance these effects, the crowning moment belongs to little Mama Lucas who prevents Frank from killing a corrupt cop (played by Josh Brolin) because even she knew it was personal and her angst toward her son spoke in subtext: "this has nothing to do with business!" Dee deserved her Oscar nomination for that scene alone.

And I guess Washington (who was perfect) was snubbed because we've seen a lot of that before, "The Departed" was still fresh in memories and other titles keep popping when you watch one scene or another: Lucas asking his nephew to keep a low-profile and not to be too loud fashion-wise channeled De Niro's warning after the Lufthansa heist in "Goodfellas", Lucas' shooting a man on the forehead being his "defining" moment echoed the restaurant scene when Michael shoots Sollozo. Still, the most significant parallel is the climax, set in a church where Lucas is sitting with his wife and mother intercut with shots where cops arrest the family members. The baptism was Michael's rise, the mass isn't much Lucas' downfall but the cops' triumph as the film isn't just about criminals but about the law. The film is both "The Godfather" and "The French Connection".

Though it occupies one tenth of this review, half the film belongs to the investigation lead by Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe as a cop who ostracized himself after refusing to keep a million dollar found in a car. It's only fair for a gangster reminding of Michael Corleone to have a "Serpico" against him. And I loved the way the film patiently waited for their two paths to converge at the conclusion and have them talk about a simple concept: "the right thing". A brilliant man did horrific things and lead a happy life (though briefly), a man acted straight and lived miserable. Lucas was a criminal but a self-made man, Richie served the law but without any reward whatsoever.

Washington and Crowe magnificently embody the contradictions of the American dream, making for a multilayered story of men acting according to their beliefs for right or wrong. It's easy of course to root for Roberts, as for Lucas, I guess all you've got to do is listen carefully to the lyrics of "Across the 110th Street", the song says everything, speaking from Harlem's heart of darkness, from the 'soul' before passing the torch to rap music at the end of the film... when Lucas was history already.
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The Natural (1984)
Well, Mr. Redford has done it, the New York Knights have won it...
11 October 2019
It all starts with the idyllic postcard-picture of an Iowa or a Nebraska farm, a kid named Roy Hobbs is playing baseball with Daddy, he pitches the ball in the same spot drawn by his father, he's a natural we get it, but that's not enough. I thought what was missing was something from the heart: guts or determination, how wrong I was: it's all about the elements. The lightning struck the mighty oak tree under which his father collapsed to death, splitting it in two (the tree, not the father) then Roy took a piece of wood and carved it out into a baseball bat, calling it "Wonderboy" with a lightning bolt à la AC/DC, at that moment, I kept hearing that name being whispered in my head: Home...r... no, not home-run but Homer like Homer Simpson.

The 'Wonderboy' sequence inspired the first act of the legendary "Homer at the Bat", the one that started the Golden Age, and the music was used in another episode where Homer fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams by scoring a perfect 300 at the bowling game. Yes, there's something magical about that story and that Randy Newman's triumphant Wagnerian score, something that inspired the highest point of the life of all American hero: Homer. There's a catch though (no pun intended), "The Simpsons" is made for laughs. I'm not too sure bout "The Natural", Barry Levinson's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel of the same name.

In many aspects, the film is similar to "Field of Dreams" and I must applaud its daringness. it embraces a sort of metaphysical vision of base-ball, revisiting America's favorite pastime through an almost mythological hero, a man with a gift for baseball and for troubles in the same time, a man whose aura carries some fantasy chosen-one element and yet for some reason, never seems to get even with Karma. Indeed, when we first see him at 19, striking the Babe-Ruth lookalike Whammer (Joe Don Baker) out on three pitches, it's like nothing can stop him, except maybe a silver bullet, cutting through his stomach and his promising career. I was caught off-guard by that moment and I thought the film had succeeded in its opening part... though it asks us a lot in terms of suspension of disbelief to make a 48-year old Redford pass for a young man, and it doesn't get better after.

For instance, when 16 year after the incident, he's hired to play for the New York Knights, the coach Pop (Wilford Brimley) never gives him a chance to show his talent and keeps him on the bench all the time. Granted he's the boss but when your club is sitting in last place, what can you lose? Roy could have pitched himself (so to speak), told the Whammer story, but no, we have to wait for the right moment so he can knock the cover off the baseball. Yes, it's spectacular, it's rewarding to some degree, but that's the film's problem: it always waits for the convenient moment, and even when it is effective and overwhelming but there's something a bit artificial about the pacing, and maybe worse, the characterization.

Robert Redford is heaven to look at and I'm straight like an "I" but Ebert is right in his assumption that the film is more enamored with the figure of Hobbs and his glowing blondish halo than it is with baseball, it's never Hobbs who's instrumental to the beauty of the sport but rather the opposite. And everyone around Hobbs is corrupt and malicious to a degree it gets ridiculous, the manager (Robert Prosky) uses bets against his own team (has anyone learned the lesson from 1919?), a beautiful woman (Kim Basinger) sees the best interests for her in a relationship with Hobbs and so does a manipulative bookie (Darren McGavin), and finally a cynical journalist (Robert Duvall) makes or breaks careers without any scruple as long as it makes good money.

In that microcosm, where the odds and the Gods are against him, Hobbs can only count on a few supporters: Farnsworth as the bench coach with a benevolent smile, Glenn Close as his sweetheart and lady-in-white Iris with a mysterious angel-like aura, enough to earn her an Oscar nomination, and don't get me started on the constantly smiling bat boy who looks like a picture you'd find in a peanut butter jar smile, that kid almost gave me ulcers. So for all its love letter to baseball, the bad guys have absolutely no redeeming qualities, the good guys believe in Hobbs in some saintly way, they're all as two-dimensional as an ad poster, and in that flood of good sentiment, somewhat I wished baseball could find a way and provide something a more intellectually challenging.

I read that the original novel was darker and had a more complex ending but "The Natural" seems to follow Hobbs' journey without even caring to explain anything. And many things do happen for no specific reason, there's a character played by Michael Madsen as star outfielder whose exit comes totally out of nowhere so I was wondering whether it was to be taken humorously or not, but of the many points that compromises the film's enjoyment and credibility, the worst is perhaps the ending. Say what you want, the deal was clear between Hobbs' choice to play... and the alternative and the final shot made me wonder if it was intended as a fantasy or reality, in both ways, it was a spectacular concession for fireworks but a bad move that contradicted the film's message. If there ever was.
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Il Sorpasso (1962)
At a crossroad between "La Dolce Vita" and "Easy Rider" ...
11 October 2019
We all have these moments where we want to pull a Garbo and be alone at home, working, cooking pasta, watching a movie, having a Bud, whatever. Then the phone rings, a friend is calling "what you gonna do tonight?" "nothing special" you say and then you regret it, but even a good friend doesn't take "I'm busy" for an answer. It won't take too long, one hour or two, you go for a drink or a pool game and before you know it, you've spent the whole night drifting from one bar to another, making several encounters and perhaps having one of the time of your life.

That life can depend on small impromptu moment, that's what makes it so great I guess and "Il Sorpasso", a film that made these memories resurface, is driven by such a mood: trivial and care-free but with so many understandings about life at the end. The title has been translated in French to "The Braggart" which sums up the character of Bruno, played by a flamboyant Vittorio Gassman, but not much the film's spirit. In English, "The Easy Life" is a more interesting choice, made more relevant by another trippy road trip classic it obviously influenced: "Easy Rider".

Indeed, as I was following the adventure aboard the iconic convertible Lancia Aurelia with Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant, I immediately spotted the influence on "Easy Rider" and I found fascinating that a gritty social commentary on the American dream could be influenced by a gem that became such an emblematic symbol of the lighthearted comedia dell'arte, but then again most of New Hollywood owed to the European cinema of the late 50's and early 60s. Still, "Il Sorpasso" is less heavy-handed and politically driven (no pun intended) than its influences, however within its seemingly unpretentiousness and apparent lack of storyline, the linear adventure of both Bruno and Roberto is a a narrative clothesline on which Dino Risi hung all the flashiest and most endearing symbols of la dolce vita but also its excesses and shortcomings.

The film starts with an unfamiliar sight for an Italian movie: deserted streets under a broad daylight, the Ferragosta national holiday in the middle of August was one of the few holidays Italians could get in the 50s, such a high point of summer that the roads are deserted and give the eerie feeling of a ghost town. That might be another point of comparison with "Easy Rider", the vastness of the place offers a great operation theatre to Bruno who's like a lone cowboy in Monument Valley. But if Gassman is convincing as the Italian hunk, open shirt, driving his car at full speed, tailgating and honking, it's only when he meets Roberto by chance that we realize what was missing to make his character's larger-than-life personality bloom. What's the point of bragging if no one's listening?

And if anything, "Il Sorpasso" is the result of an excellent casting, Gassman is loud, talkative, easy-going, charismatic and Roberto is younger, a more taciturn type of man with a boyish ivy-league charm. Roberto is the kind of guy who can't say "no" and Bruno is the type to make quick decisions, so it's a matter of a a few minutes and a phone call that he decides not to join his friends and finds finds in Roberto the perfect foil to his personality, he proposes an 'aperitivo' and the rest is history. Roberto accepts as if he was drawn by Bruno's magnetism or as if he secretly wished some stranger would cut through the boring pattern of his life. There's something reluctant in Roberto at first but his icy façade slowly melts under the mellow and warm personality of Bruno.

And so we follow the two men in various places across the coasts of Lazio and Tuscany, during a first act establishing Bruno as the epitome of a certain manliness Italian-style: free-wheeling, negotiating with road patrolmen, shouting, picking up girls etc. but the film doesn't portray this as a mask to hide some deep wounds, as much as it comforts us in a vision so stereotypical that even Bruno seems trapped inside, turning his life into a constant nihilist escape... with the honk sound. And during the trip, there are two important halts, in Roberto's relatives house, where Bruno hints at what might be a troubled past regarding Roberto's uncle and aunt, something his innocent eyes couldn't catch. But things aren't any better when they visit Bruno's wife where Roberto sees the limit of Bruno's carefree personality, his daughter (Samantha Spaak) grew up without his presence and ended up marrying a man three times older.

The merit of Risi's direction is not to depict the destruction of family values in an overly dramatic way but casually, almost comically, so the audience could better grasp the troubled soul of Italy awakening to a modernity built by the generation who grew up with the war at the benefit of the baby boomers who keep twisting and idly basking under the sun. Both Bruno and Roberto realize the emptiness in their lives when they're forced to compromise to the fun. The film is full of pretty images but they don't have the eccentric feeling of Fellini's movies, they show a reality of Italy, young and careless, maybe foreshadowing that this is an end of an era... for a generation that got it harder than any other.

Of course, one can't go that far and not mention the abrupt downer ending but it's integral to the film's legacy, a way to tell that one who doesn't look straight or without a proper view is likely to fall sooner or later. Another comparison with the bleak ending of "Easy Rider" and the first (and last) opportunity to see Bruno with a sad face ad realizing how far he's gone... and for what? "The Bicycle Thief" was a sad film ending with a light of hope, "Il Sorpasso" is the opposite.
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Now this is a sitcom all about how taboos got flipped turned upside down...
7 October 2019
In the early 1990s, the "Cosby Show" was losing steam and its final rap intro was ridiculous to say the least. The show designed to give parents the upper hand came to a natural closure with the kids embarking on their new lives and no one cared for the cutesy interactions between Cliff and Olivia. The show left a gap... that was certainly filled by "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air".

On the surface, it is "another" upper-class Black family sitcom, but one with a twist named Will Smith and a spirit tailor-made for the 90s, starting with the opening credits theme that anyone born in the 70's/80s can recite line by line. The opening is a TV standard that mixes up rap and humor one year after a brilliant director named Spike Lee used his "Fight the Power" in 'Do the Right Thing' to remind that the world ain't like a 'Cosby Show' episode.

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" also opens with a 1989 hit whose title couldn't have been more fitting, 'Back to Life, Back to Reality', sung by the Will, the boy from Philly who starts his 'new life' in Bel-Air and set his relatives back to a certain 'reality' they might have missed. A wealthy family with a big mansion, a pool-house and an English butler is a perfect foil for Will's shenanigans but since the Banks were the new Huxtables, even Will will be taught one lesson or two, even about race issues.

And while "The Cosby Show" made a few mentions of race, most notably in the episode where Clair protests against her status as a token black woman in a talk-show, "Bel-Air" counts many episodes that deal with racial issues from the very first season: a naive and idealistic Carlton s (Alfonso Ribeiro) ends in total denial after his first arrest, Will reminded by Aunt Vy (Janet Hubert then) that it takes more than wearing T-shirts of Malcolm X or reading his bios three times to embrace the messages, as a matter of fact, the pilot sets the tone pretty quickly to one of the overarching themes of the series.

Indeed, in one of the first heartfelt interactions between Will and Uncle Phil (the late James Avery), the young, cocky and street-smart West Philadelphia born and raised will learn that he shouldn't judge people too early. The pilot introduces us to the goofy personality of Will, Phil being the 'straight man' in every possible meaning and displays its spinal attachment to values like decency, honesty, strong family ties and judging people in the light of their actions, not their backgrounds, like that episode when Carlton is called a sell-out or when Will refuses a bribe.

That's perhaps one of the show's greatest achievements: to have so many serious episodes that WatchMojo could make a Top 10 (with honorable mentions). I won't mention them all not to make the show more dramatic than what it was, but the "Father" episode has certainly the most heart-breaking conclusion of any sitcom (served by two terrific performances from Avery and Smith), unveiling the scars behind the goofiness, the lack of a father presence, finally closed with the so-satisfying and heart-warming "you're my son" in the show's finale.

But send in the clowns now, and let's not forget that the show was a vehicle for the flamboyant and charismatic personality of Will Smith, whose gift for showmanship proved to be indispensable. His crazy mimics and sexy moves could enhance even the lesser episodes (and not all of them were classics). But if it's fair to give Will the lion-share of applauses, the casting is a masterstroke because it wasn't just based on talent but on physicality. Can you imagine Philip Banks being a thin man? Can you imagine Will speaking eyes-to-eyes with Carlton? Can you imagine Hilary Banks with a brain?

The film was pure old 'Yo Mama' school where it's all about turning your physical defaults into jokes: fat jokes, height jokes, even Will got a few about his ears. These jokes were such parts of the show that they became real terms of endearment and they too could boost the weaker episodes, along with a crack from seemingly stuck-up Geoffrey Buttler (Joseph Marcell), Hillary bossing him around or comically missing the jokes about her, Jazz being thrown out from the house (a running-gag used with many variants) Uncle Phil having that little vein thumping in the head and of course any dancing moment involving good old Carlton.

Now I mentioned weaknesses, the show wasn't perfect and kind of lost it at the end, Carlton being goofier than usual, a certain overuse of the fourth wall, many arcs closing rather abruptly like the marriage with Lisa (Nia Long), Nicky Banks pulling a Rocky Balboa Jr. and getting old enough to be the show's 'Olivia' (a sign of its decline) But the most obvious issue is Janet Hubert. I thought she had great chemistry with both Will and Phil, though many episodes focused too much on her as if she was competing for co-lead status. Daphne Reid obviously didn't get that far but while she was likable and sweet, she relegated Aunt Viv to a tertiary level, even under Ashely (Tatyana Ali) who just grew up too quickly, going from a Rudy-like girl to a Vanessa in the span of two or three seasons.

I mention "The Cosby Show" a lot and perhaps there's one thing it got a little better: the treatment of women, I'm not sure all of Will's behavior would have been 100% approved by Clair, and by today's standard, the show flirted sometimes with sexism but what it left us was pure gold: besides Will Smith's career, so many great moments, dance sequences, great cameos and double cameos, and strong relationships allowing the film to sit on the throne of 90s live-action sitcom.
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Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee toying with the conventions and non-conventions of an overly codified genre... for our greatest delight and excitement!
6 October 2019
If a movie deals with a crisis, it better offers a proper resolution. This is why hostage movies have always been unnerving experiences to me. I'm not too brave whether in a good or a bad way, so I'm more likely to emphasize with the hostages and one victim can be one too many.

"Inside Man" is a heist film whose perfectionist tone is set from the start and so is its kinship with "Dog Day Afternoon" (Lee even included a hostage named Miriam, played by the same actress three decades before and the same actor playing the pizza delivery-man). But while in Lumet's classic, Pacino stumbled with the gift box to get the rifle out and one of the accomplices chickened out foreshadowing the disaster to be- here we have four robbers fully masked, deactivating the cameras, undressing the hostages, giving them the same uniforms they wear and proving organization-wise that the comparison with "Dog Day" will only extend to the frantic media coverage.

One of the robbers, named Russell, is played by Clive Owen. He introduces us to the story with the premise that he's made a perfect heist. I was wondering what he meant by 'perfect' but I assumed it had to be clean and that caught my attention. Indeed, while there's a general consensus that we must know the villains mean business and won't take any chances (security guards are always the first victims and over the course of the robbery you have a smart guy who wants to be the hero), "Inside Man" made me decide that there shall not be any civilian death. Why? Because a/I took Russell at his word and believed there would be no civilian deaths b/ even the security guard wasn't killed (a rarity) and c/ the most significant defiance to the robbers' authority went unpunished.

So there's clearly a sense of misleading that emerges from the first operational minutiae, which it's not surprising from a Spike Lee film. While the director is mostly known for his racism-themed and originally crafted films, here he shows his talent in toying with the viewers' expectations and subvert many tropes of a genre that has been codified to the point of dogmatic requirements. Besides, isn't it more thrilling to have protagonists as competent as their counterparts? On that level, "Inside Man" is still closer to "Dog Day Afternoon" than "Die Hard" (which I love).

And as Frazier, the man in charge, Washington plays a focused and rather relaxed cop who understands quickly that there's something unusual about the robbery... so unusual that he's got to understand the robbery to better stop it, he doesn't need men or weaponry, what he needs is time.And that's one of the first hints that the heist has been engineered with the smallest detail in mind, because time is precisely what Russell and his team needs but it shouldn't be their call but the cops'. And since we deal with smart men, it doesn't take time long for Frazier to realize how convenient it is that Russell gives him the time he needs, whether through false tracks involving a recorded foreign language or a riddle à la Simon Gruber that the team (including Chewitel Ejiofor and Willem Dafoe) still debate after the phone call.

Therefore, Frazier's issue is the following: is Russell stalling or bluffing? The robbery turns out an exciting poker-game where the cards are finally laid at the end. The catch is that the robbery is so captivating that I was wondering about the purpose of the Christopher Plummer part. Ebert kept criticizing it because of the suspension of disbelief regarding his age, I could forgo that element. What bothered me was the importance given to that plot device at a moment where the focus was the hostages, and such a big deal was made about the involvement of the fixer, played by Jodie Foster and some mysterious case she got to take back from the safe that. Naturally, that had to be more than a detail and the script ties the plot together at the end and allows the subplot to give the big one its overdue pay-off... and if the level of excitement is nowhere close to the cops vs. robbers, Plummer and Foster are as pivotal to the story as Washington and Owen.

Once again, Lee is some trickster because he seems to have made the film like Owen orchestrated his plan, anticipating the reactions and questionings from the viewers. When Frazier believes Russell's stalling and provokes Owen, the scene is followed by its biggest shock, one that could almost ruin my enjoyment, except for the fact that it served its purpose whether you think of the film's plot or the robbers, which are quit the same. The film's ending reveals the final details of the robbery and justifies the use of a clever editing that consisted of hostages' post-robbery. Over the course of the film, I was wondering why they were all asked whether thy took part to the heist, and then something hit me, why shouldn't they? How about that being part of the plan?

The editing might be the film's masterstroke (which is saying a lot) because we've seen heist movies before, some made great dramas, other great action pictures, but how many robberies are told like a 'mystery' film? At the end, we're not just impressed by the genius of the plan, but the way Lee reinvented the genre using unconventional elements and yet relying on conventions. Not your typical Spike Lee joint but a terrific thriller, served by a fine performance from Denzel Washington.
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Bittersweet sixteen...
6 October 2019
"Sixteen Candles" plunges us in the hearts of darkness according to John Hughes: the troubled and tormented mind of Samantha Baker, a young woman at a junction of her life where all the lights seem against her. She's celebrating her sixteenth birthday and it's all quiet on the upper front: no growth spurt in the right parts, no significant revolution. As far as Sam Baker's sexual life is concerned, it's 'Apocalypse Now', still in Saigon, living the ride of hormonal 'valkyries'.

And it didn't help that her parents forgot her birthday and that Jake, the boy that tickles her hormones, played by a poor man's Matt Dillon; doesn't even notice her. To her parents' defense, they were preparing her sister's wedding, to Jake's defense, he was already engaged with Caroline, the popular girl who can get any guy by a snap of her fingers and makes the likes of Sam totally invisible in the pyramidal hierarchy. Sam owes her misery to two women, one who's got the bod to attract the charming princes and another who's used it purposefully.

Woman is a wolf to woman and in that unforgiving microcosm, Samantha Baker can only hope to attract other kind of predators, they're called geeks and there's a certain truth within the correlation between geeks and sex obsession. Still, Ted (Anthony Michael Hall) plays in another league and he's isn't much into sex than a certain knowledge allowing him to brag in front of his chums (one of them played by a young John Cusack). Being a virgin isn't a big deal if you can get close enough to steal a kiss or harbor a trophy like a picture or an underwear.

Sex is the alpha and omega, literally, it opens the gates of heaven while marking a certain closure, a coming-of-age. Not just boys as Hughes show girls as desperate, pushy or needy as men and that might be the one alibi the film can get from any accusation of degrading women or condescending. However, there seems to be a fundamental difference: girls want to experience love to have sex or at the very least love through sex to the point that it almost plays like a placebo, the illusion of love can be enough, guys don't need 'love' but sex isn't more accessible.

Samantha Baker evokes Jake through a question about sex but there's never a moment we'd believe she'd have sex for the sake of it. What Hughes and Ringwald beautifully convey is the idea of a girl who needs reason to like herself. In the film's most infamous scene, she meets her grand-parents and they shockingly grope her to test how diminutive her chest is, the treatment is twice horrible: she's reduced to her body, her sexual body at that; and yet her adult pride is rejected, they don't see her as an adult and they do treat her like a child.

That scene echoes the previous moment where she and her friend were gazing at the naked body of Caroline, wishing they could be like her. Now that moment makes the distinction rather blurry between "Sixteen Candles" and misogynistic films à la "Porky" where guys are peeking at women in showers, that 'female gaze' seems to acknowledge that the body makes the rule and so does the size of the chest, as if they agreed to go by the men's rules. And previously Jake was talking about how interesting Samantha was, but his friend called her 'void', the choice of word is interesting, what's the vacuity exactly? In spirit? In interest? What makes a woman interesting... maybe being a woman is enough. And Sam feels not being woman enough.

Fair enough, so the struggle of Samantha is to reach womanhood in a family where her siblings don't respect, her grandparents treat her like a child and her parents don't even remember her birthday, as if she was symbolically kept in a suffocating infancy. In a bad movie, Sam would compromise and become a 'woman' by laying the cards or playing against age; but the film immerses us in the existential journey of a girl who wants to be attractive without changing much, this is not "She's Out of Control" and Molly Ringwald never finds a false note, it's just a shame that she's got to go through episodic moments that reveal the ugliest sides of Ted and Jake and to some extent even the film.

Because the logic is rather flawed, if Jake is the right person for Sam, he's then right to ditch Caroline, then we've got to assume that she had it coming, but does that included being left drunk and half-naked to a bunch of saliva-drooling geeks. Hughes makes great film with important messages but they have a tendency to fall apart near the end, contradicting themselves, like in "The Breakfast Club" when Molly ended up with the bad boy who looked at her panties and the Gothic girl put on make up. In "Sixteen Candles", it all comes down to Jakes' success by allying with Ted, not a nice guy even if his mean-spiritedness is played for laughs.

So just when I thought "Temple of Doom" set the feminist fight step backs and made fun of Asian people, "Breakfast Club" proved me that a certain sexism and racism still prevailed. 1984 was also the same year than "Karate Kid", and in comparison, Gedde Wanabe (who plays the Chinese student) is a retread of Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast for Tiffany", everything about him (even the romance) is played for laughs. That aspect hasn't aged well.

So Hughes asked good questions but the answers are not satisfying. Should I be happy because Sam has found love? I would have been much happier if she could love herself without the help of anyone... that would have made the romance more secondary but no less impactful, so as charming as the ending was, it left me with a taste of bittersweet sixteen.
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Is "The Big Country" superior to a Ford classic? Maybe not, but it's different.
30 September 2019
"The Big Country", the title alone evokes an epic high-scaled Western with breathtaking panoramic shots, Gregory Peck's portrayal of a civilized Eastern dude who refuses violence makes us expect a 180° turn at some point of the film but if anything, this is a William Wyler's drama whose overarching idea is that no one or nothing is what he or she seems. In fact, the film's statement about gentleman's codes is the antithesis of John Wayne's Fordian posture, its insistence that the country is big plays more like an overlong running gag and its ode to peace is an odd addition to a genre where most conflicts are solved through the use of violence.

And Gregory Peck embodies all these contradictions in once. AsJim McKay, the Eastern dude who comes to the 'big country' to marry Patricia (Carrol Baker), daughter of a rich rancher Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). At first, McKay strikes like your typical tenderfoot, wearing civilized clothes and an incongruous hat for eyes used to the good old Stetson. His appearance provokes the hilarity of the locals and an instant dislike from Terrill's ranch foreman Steve Leech, played by Charlton Heston. And so we have polar opposites in the two men: an old-fashioned cowboy who knows the ropes and a New Englander oblivious to the codes of masculinity.

The gap deepens when they meet the fiancée Patricia, she's happy to see her sea Captain back but from Leech's face, we get the vibes of a romantic rivalry not deprived of sexual tension. But that's not what Wyler intends for us. Shortly after, McKay and Patricia meet her friend Julie Marigon (Jean Simmons) who's the schoolmarm and owner of a patch of land named Big Muddy. Her absence while they kiss makes McKay comment "I think I like this girl", it's for little touches like that that this film should be watched twice.

En route to the ranch, McKay is harassed by the Hanassey brothers, lead by Buck, played by Chuck Connors. They go for a series of incredible stunts that amuse McKay but not Patricia, the whole carriage-chasing seems to anticipate a certain chariot race in a certain Wyler's film made the following year but that's one of the few moments where the film indulges to showiness. McKay stops the carriage and prevents Patricia from shooting, I thought it's not often in a Western that we see a woman being trigger-happy and the man the voice of reason but Wyler had always for women more than damsels in distress or weeping wives' roles.

Anyway, the incident creates the first breech in the marriage edifice and it all goes all downhill after many episodes making McKay look like a coward. To be fair, it insists a bit too much on it, we get it he's a man who doesn't need to prove himself. He resists all the provocations from Leech, never tries to give Patricia satisfaction and go as far as hurting the locals' pride about their 'big country' by mentioning how bigger the oceans were, but that's what it's all about: changing your perspective. Which Wyler does when he leaves McKay in the ranch while we see the punitive expedition lead by Terrill's men at Hannassey's White Canyon farm, and their not so chivalrous methods.

The next day, McKay visits the Big Muddy and understands the place it occupies in the feud between the two clans, a matter of watering the cattle where Terrill wouldn't hesitate one second to let Hanassey's cattle die of thirst if he owned the land. The first act closes when Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) interrupts a celebration at Terrill's house to give him an unforgettable "Reason You Suck" monologue... and McKay starts looking at 'Daddy' differently, he might look more gentlemanly, less crude and untidy than Rufus, but if anyone should not judge a book by its cover, it's him.

Burl Ives won an Oscar for his role and I knew his performance could only be superlative if it had to be that nomination over his unforgettable Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Rufus is a man as capable as Terrill for hatred and violence but he's got a certain instinct to spot the decency in McKay. What's interesting in the film is that it's mostly an area of gray morality where the only decent people are McKay, Julie and the dim-witted Ramon, Alfonso "Badges" Bedaya in his final role. And so once we see McKay as a man of integrity who doesn't despise violence but its use to prove a man's worth, it becomes clearer that Patricia isn't the woman he needs; spoiled and self-centered and as Julie asks her "how many times does he have to win you".

McKay isn't exactly a peacemaker or the conscience objector Gary Cooper was in "Friendly Persuasion" but a man who acts according to his own rules. And as a behind-the-camera counterpart, Wyler becomes the McKay of directors. The long fist-fight between Peck and Heston is shot from a long range, without sound or close-ups as to make the place bigger, the men smaller, the fight less spectacular, less Fordian, accentuating its pointlessness when at the end both are exhausted and McKay says "what did we prove?". And maybe that's the talent of Wyler that he doesn't need to imitate Ford to prove he can direct Western movies.

Of course, he can't totally reject all the tropes, for all his pretensions to make something new, we still have the typical triumphant scoring popping here and there (sometimes during incongruous moments) and the stance about keeping everything under control is such an overarching theme that I was disappointed during some stereotyped shootouts, or maybe it's the irony of non-violence, you can't highlight the need for peace without showing the effects of blind violence.

Still, "The Big Country" is as satisfying as a conventional than a different Western.
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Hancock (2008)
A 'kick-ass' film and the film "Kick-Ass" should have been...
30 September 2019
Peter Berg's "Hancock" really took me off-guard, I avoided it for many years expecting some spoof of the superhero movie genre, which I'm not even a fan to begin with. And the beginning almost fooled me, a spectacular car chase intercut with a hung-over Hancock (Will Smith) sleeping on a bench and awaken by that kid from "The Middle". It takes him a while to get up, which is plausible for someone who still got the bottle in his hand, and when he took off, it just reminded me of Woody's comment about Buzz: he doesn't fly, he falls in style. And for some strange reason, despite all the obvious CGI, the flying stunts looked realistic and that's one of the delights of "Hancock".

Indeed, there's no reason to have a superhero flying like some torpedo, missile or rocket, Hancock's flying consist of high jumping and trying to fall on the right spot, which doesn't go without costing a few bucks to the community. And when he stops the criminals by impaling their car over a tower after a ride that had its share of collateral damages, Hancock's not exactly acclaimed like a hero but booed and insulted. It's so fun and refreshing to see movies questioning the consequences of a superhero's action, "The Incredibles" did that in 2004 but "Hancock" takes that element seriously and it's the right tone. If it wasn't serious, it would have made his character a major goofball we would have instantly liked, but the point isn't to like Hancock.

Precisely, he's a bitter, ill-mannered man who couldn't care less but for some reason, still cares. So when PR executive Ray (Jason Bateman) is stuck on the railroad Hancock saves him from the train collision by throwing his car backwards (instead of taking it away) and causes a train wreck by blocking it. After that, Ray sees the man who's just saved his life being insulted by an angry crowd, and naturally, decides to help him back by restoring his heroic public image. He invites Hancock to his house where he meets his son Aaron and his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) who obviously looks at him just like Jean Arthur looked at Alan Ladd in "Shane". We haven't seen enough movies if we don't guess there's history between them, but whatever expectation we have, it'll be a big surprise.

Another surprise is in the interesting shift of genres, from comedy to drama, with an intermediary section set in a jail. The sequence shows all the efforts to rehabilitate Hancock, we see him handling the prisoners, sometimes it contributes to hilarious sight gags that remind us not to take the material too seriously, and sometimes we see the 'Will Smith' of "Happyness" and "Seven Pounds" trying to change, to be a better man. His presence in the jail is vital to the development of his character since he can go out at any time but he's ready to play the game, to accept the rules, except maybe when it comes to "shooting some b-ball" outside the court. After serving part of his sentence, learning a few lessons about how to congratulate the police force, how to fly and land without causing major damages and learning to be nice, the test comes.

Hancock's called for an emergency, he shaves his beard, puts on a tight uniform with an eagle logo and go meet his destiny. He stops the robbery in all professionalism and efficiency, earning him finally the cheers of the by-standers, the police and the journalists. This is where the choice to have a serious action picture instead of a comedy pays off, if Hancock was comical, his ovation at the bank would have been a triumphant and happy moment, instead, it's a moving and emotional epiphany for him, and a fine transition to the third act that finally reveals the deal between Mary and Hancock. And it's such a particular story that it could have been handled in a sequel but the Mary storyline with a revenge from a few villains tie up the plot together in a heart-pounding finale.

And I was surprised Roger Ebert didn't mention it in his review, because the climax reminded me totally of the bond between Elliott and E.T the Extra-Terrestrial and it might even reveal what the film is ultimately about: energy. There is a positive energy and a negative one, Hancock had the same forces and skills but before he turned into a decent guy, he was full of negative vibrations that impacted his actions. He couldn't stand people calling him a certain name maybe because he used that same insult against himself. By interiorizing his doubts, his wounds, his questions about his past for years and years, he turned himself into that bitter jerk. Ray could finally unveil the good side of him and allow him to ope to people, it's an interesting metamorphosis from one energy to another.

And naturally there's the energetic connection between Hancock and Mary whose respective backstories are finally revealed and make the final confrontations not just spectacular but incredibly poignant. "Hancock" is a good movie because it's about a superhero who's a good man surrounded by good persons and learn how to be even better not just by being brave or polite but also selfless. And in the way Berg mixes between genres, from action-packed comedy to emotional drama, I will say that "Hancock" kicks ass and is the film "Kick-Ass" should have been.
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Seven Pounds (2008)
Will Smith as Ben Thomas, the man who cares for people and for reasons...
28 September 2019
... but not selfish reasons. In fact, "Seven Pounds" might feature one of the most selfless movie characters ever, magnificently portrayed by Will Smith.

And the film is one of these cinematic rarities where adult and reasonable people act in a strange manner but without it feeling too contrived or worse, unbelievable. At the very least, it's frustrating to be constantly one step behind the protagonists and incapable to figure what they are up to, but better to be behind them than ahead especially when the film doesn't wait till the last minute to unveil its secrets. I don't mind a patience-demanding film if my patience is rewarded.

The film was directed by Gabrielle Mucchini, who made in 2006 "Pursuit of Happyness". In a similar fashion, this is a story that works as a wonderful vehicle to Will Smith's dramatic talent, there's a lot of shouting, crying, anger, deception, even flirting but all diluted in a storyline where the most showcased emotion is subdued, nuanced, and doesn't take a wide range of facial expressions to be conveyed. "Caring", to name it, all in the eyes, in the way you address someone, in the way you force yourself to be brutal for his or her own good. Ben Thomas, IRS agent is a man who not just cares for people but takes his caring very seriously, almost a matter of life-and-death.

Still, what characterizes him first is a very erratic and enigmatic behavior, he yells at a poor blind operator played by Woody Harrelson, causing him to hang on and after that, he bites his first and weeps intently as if he wasn't exactly himself at that moment. He visits his best friend (Barry Pepper) and his brother (Michael Ealy) and their conversations evoke owed favors, given organs and needed helps. He visits an elderly woman in a care home and discovers that the administrator doesn't treat her well. He sees an immigration woman abused by her husband and offers his help. In this strange back-and-forth journey, we desperately try to understand the common thread beyond the medical setting, which might make the first viewing a tough experience.

Actually, the film works better once you see it a second time, and it fits that it takes a second viewing, because if anything, "Seven Pounds" is about second chances, and if you don't like it... give it a second shot. I didn't think much of it the first viewing but then I figured that there was no way the director who pulled a simple straightforward film like "Pursuit of Happyness" would indulge to pretentious sentimentality in the next project, no matter the motivation to earn Smith an Oscar. Roger Ebert said "I find this more interesting than a movie about a man whose nature and objectives are made clear in the first five minutes, in a plot that simply points him straight ahead."

Though I agree with his statement, I found even more interesting that he had just described the kind of experience "Pursuit of Happyness" was, and it didn't make it any less good than "Seven Pounds". I think it all comes down to one thing, whether you know the objective or not, you trust the script and the protagonist, there's no effect without a cause and if the motivations feel vague and unclear, it's only because the effect is getting the top priority. The film opens with Ben calling 911 and his coming suicide, a hint that the engine that drives his goodness is fueled by guilt, trauma and/or tragedy.

Some viewers will also guess from the title, the reference to the "Merchant of Venice" and the way each pounds given can atone for one life, but the merit of Mucchini is to know when to make a pause and get to the heart of the story which (no pun intended) lies in the most poignant relationship in the film and I will use my words carefully not to spoil anything. Let's call it a romance, which is as good as a romance can get, Rosario Dawson plays a young girl affected by a severe and rare heart condition that limits her chances of survival without a transplant and yet she finds in Ben someone who cares so much he doesn't care for that suspended sentence, maybe because he's in a similar position.

Their relationship grows and culminates with a heartfelt kiss and a passionate love scene and leaves Ben with a final decision to take. And that's when the film takes us for the emotionally satisfying third act when all the answers are given and much more, where everything starts to make sense in both a rational and emotional way. It doesn't necessarily make Ben a realistic character, but an extraordinary human being whose actions could be understood, a man who handled guilt and grief in a way that honors humanity, and that Mucchini translated into heartwarming cinematic poetry.
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The Letter (1940)
A fine cocktail of money and honor, of Orient and Occident values, turning sour at the last minute... because of the Code!
28 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
There's a little game I love to play with myself when I watch a movie a second time after a very long period: trying to spot the residual bits, whatever can emerge from memory when the rest drowned into oblivion. And so I could remember three key moments from William Wyler's "The Letter".

First, the opening killing in some tropical colony, gunshots heard off screen, a man stumbling to his death and Bette Davis standing behind a gun pointed at him. Then there was that nightmarishly stone-faced Asian woman, played by Gale Sondergaard. And finally, maybe the moment I was looking forward the most to, when a suave Occidentalized Asian man disappears between two luxurious cars; the sound of a closing door makes us expect to see him driving one of them, but it's actually a jalopy half their size that emerges between, leaving a thick dust of smoke.

That gag worthy of a Warner cartoon and yet coming from Wyler, speaks as eloquently as the other images I just described: yhey're all about the Asian setting, the plantation the plantation where indigenous manservants witness the death of a White men killed by a rich White women, the man's widow wearing traditional clothes as to assert her rejection of the Occident and whose hurt pride is engraved in her face like a death threat on a tombstone, and finally the clerk who speaks perfect English, does his best to accommodate and yet whose car is hilariously dwarfed by the others.

There's such a good mixture of patronizing respect and colonial contempt that forges the intercultural relationships within the film that if anything, the ending, while tying the plot together, should have tied both these cultural issues as well. The problem is that the film was made in 1940, one year shy away from a double revolution: "Citizen Kane" and "The Maltese Falcon". What have these movies got in common? They had flawed protagonists who get a moral comeuppance that still, didn't moralize the audience. These narrative patterns made possible by the noir-genre and the rise of antiheroic figures could challenge the Hays Code.

Unfortunately, movies like "The Letter", for all the competence of director William Wyler, actors Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson, composer Max Steiner and a hypnotic black-and-white cinematography, couldn't get away with the ending that made the original play written by Sommerset Maughan a critical success. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the ending "weak", blaming it on the Code and I couldn't have said it better, the film had all the makings of a pre-noir masterpiece but it failed at the last minute, after ninety made of sheer greatness.

It opens with what seems to be a "what have I done moment?" when we see Leslie Crosby (Davis) standing with a shock and bewildered face behind her victim. Then husband Robert (Marshall) comes with his lawyer and friend Howard (Stephenson). Leslie explains that the man tried to abuse her and she defended herself. Still, there's something very matter-of-factly in her narration, she doesn't even try. She's twice confident about her husband's blind and having law on her side to get off the hook in both matters. The lady is a paradox, unconscious and calculating, good enough an actress to memorize a perfect alibi but not so good that it doesn't raise Stephenson's suspicion.

The lawyer smells something fishy in that self-defense story and Crosby's casualness didn't help not to mention the way she emptied her gun as if she was more trying to silence him than avenging her offended honor. Wyler isn't oblivious to our doubts and without further waiting, the next scene, a charming and scene-stealing clerk tells Howard about the existence of a a letter that might incriminate Leslie, proving that Hammond's visit wasn't unexpected. The letter is in Hammond's Eurasian wife's hands and she won't sell it cheaply. The plot isn't a masterstroke of complexity but Wyler can unveil characters' most complex emotional struggles just by the use of a camera.

Wyler's use of silences, of lights and shadows can say al lot more than Howard Koch's screenplay, in Bette Davis' eyes, we can sense the moments where her confidence is cornered by a too inquisitive question, in Stephenson's pauses and hesitations we witness the moral dilemma of a man compromising his own ethics to protect a murderess. Even in the crucial letter's exchange, Wyler heightens the tension with long close up on knives, chimes, on the Asian woman's threatening glare that might say she's not taking the bargain as an end, the action lingers on small and seemingly meaningless details but it does so with a powerful intensity. So from a simple and straightforward plot, Wyler provides deep understandings of the gap between the Occidental and the Oriental world.

We have silence being bought like a commercial deal, honor and money mixing up in a cocktail that turn sour. Indeed, the methods aren't satisfying for any of the two parties, the Oriental woman still gets her revenge, as if being deprived from external territory was still les hurtful than the internal ne. And ironically, the bargain will cost Robert's fortune, preventing him from buying a new land after the acquittal. Orient triumphs and Occident fails, which is a moral ending, but not the cynical "happy" conclusion of the play. The problem with "The Letter" is that its ending doesn't feel much like a moral victory of the Orient but a rather weak surrendering to the Code.

Because, even by admitting that Leslie would still love the man she killed (then why did she kill him?), and by accepting that she let herself being killed by the widow, as a sort of redeeming arc-closing act, then was it necessary to have the killers being arrested? Crimes and adultery shouldn't get unpunished according to the Code but not when ruining an ending becomes a case of cinematic offense.
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Closing the Bogie-Hostage trilogy after "Petrified Forest" and "Key Largo"...
26 September 2019
It's a good old-fashioned suburban house of Indianapolis, typical of the glorious 50s. Daniel Hilliard (Fredric March) is the hard-working taxpayer in gray-flannel suit, reading his newspaper and grumbling about that 'Chuck' guy his daughter Cindy (Mary Murphy) keeps raving about, waiting for the marriage proposal. Martha Scott is the apron-wielding caring housewife, and Junior the softball player with a soft spot for Daddy and nasty words for the sister.

The film almost starts like "Father of the Bride" in a house whose exteriors will be used for "Leave it to Beaver". Each character plays his role all too well, the daughter wants to become the mother and the son the father, the family is already engulfed is a circle of life, driven by a serene patriarchy and nothing is bound to interrupt or compromise the harmony, the war is over and the American way of life prevails. Amen. Such a sight might disconcert today's viewers, in its alienating vision of prefabricated happiness that recycles role models more than making them genuinely distinctive. We're almost waiting for whatever will disrupt this boring routine... maybe for the family's sake.

Indeed, when the family is held hostage by three convicts, it is a life-and-death situation, a crisis, but in cinematic terms, it might also be an opportunity for the Hillards to consolidate their unity in a life-threatening danger and ultimately value their relationships under tormenting and suffocating "desperate hours" where any false move, any word too many, any incident or hazard can destroy all the foundations patiently built over twenty years of marital comfort. And the three men who invaded the house did it precisely because it represented the kind of happy spot where the Police won't take any chance, in other words: the perfect refuge.

Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) is the leader of the three fugitives, the brains of the operation, with a follower in his little brother Hal (Dewey Martin) while the intimidating savage brute Kobish (Robert Middleton) is the muscle. In fact, Kobish, who's remarkably scary and disturbing, is to the film what John Cazale was to "Dog Day Afternoon", the one that makes us keep our guard up, a necessity because we instinctively feel that never Bogart would embody a character capable to hurt a kid or a woman, not the Bogart of the mid-50s.

Still, Bogart never passes as a boy-scout either and while he waits for money from his girlfriend to escape, we know the clock is ticking, neighbors get too wary and collateral damages are to be expected. If it means saving his skins, he's a man who means business, and the film is the clash between two worlds that are madeto never interfere one with another; a respectable father and a criminal. Bogart is the man who's got nothing to lose and March the one who can lose everything. Obviously the odds are against Hilliard. Aware of that, Hillard tries to act the most reasonable way, knowing his limitations, and the lives of his family members as the only lines not to cross.

But it works the other way around, Griffin understands Hilliard and exploits his pragmatism for his own success. He knows he's got a smart man to play with, a worthy opponent, whose mind works so constantly he can hear the clickety-sounds. So the more Griffin waits, the riskier it gets but he's willing to take this chance, it's for the money but maybe hubris is his own flaw. When the film stay focused on the psychological arm-wrestling between the two Hollywood monsters and under Wyler's precise directing, the film is nothing short of a film-noir masterpiece.

And interestingly, hostage movies occupy a very special place in Humphrey Bogart's filmography. In "The Petrified Forest", He was Duke Mantee, a notorious criminal who turned a diner into a similar powder keg and indirectly traced the path of a hobo and a waitress played by Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, both were hostages of their own lives and ironically set free by a real hostage taker. The film didn't make Bogart a star but gave a second boost until "High Sierra" turned the tide in his favor, but it was his breakthrough role.

12 years later, Bogart was a name when he starred in "Key Largo", a film directed by the man who best understood his antiheroic appeal: John Huston, and starring the woman who made him the most attractive from the reflection of her own loving eyes: Lauren Bacall. The film marks one of the pinnacles of his career, and carries many similarities with "Forest". As Frank McLoud, Bogart is the veteran who realizes that he survived a war meant to eradicate the worst of humanity, only to see it existing in his own country. The victory that cost his friend's life wasn't to be taken for granted but he couldn't afford to be disillusioned: enemies are to be fought, it's not heroism but pragmatism.

And then he played a "grown-up version Duke Mantee" in his penultimate film, a fitting come-back to his roots, for the man who played so many ungrateful treacherous sidekicks to James Cagney and who owes his career to bad guys, not just Duke Mantee but also 'Baby Face' Martin In "Dead End" by the same William Wyler. The loop is looped with Wyler and Bogie collaborating again for a final villainous role where Bogart, like his Duke Mantee or Johnny Rocco, is the one who gives an existential boost to his hostages.

One regret though: the film mixes a competent police manhunt lead by Arthur Kennedy making the few permissions to leave the house hard to believe. Not saying it's a stretch to think Hillard wouldn't trust the Police but so many contrived situations occur undermining the impact of the initial act. Wyler would display more maturity in a similar hostage film of 1965: "The Collector" but "Desperate Hours" is great for the most part and there's just something about villainous Bogie...
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A 1993 companion piece of "Last Action Hero" (starring the "other one")...
23 September 2019
I'm currently binging "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and I lost track on the times my mind was like "now that couldn't be made today!". The way the show makes women easy targets for Will Smith' heated pick-up lines or Will's reluctance to show his 'feminine' side reflect the mentalities of the era. Three decades have passed and the Weinstein scandal allowed many women to speak up about the treatment they got in the past with men's excuse being "that's the way it used to be".

There are three truths behind this: mentalities evolve with time, which is good, political correctness can be driven by good intentions, however it can also take advantage of its own power and make life totally unbearable for those who lived in freedom. Many kids who've grown up in the 2000s might be shocked by some old shows and TV programs, and that's exactly the premise of "Demolition Man", the debut of a still unknown director: Marco Brambilla. What if a hardened cop and a psychopathic killer came to a world inhabited and governed by the likes of that female clerk who slapped Homer Simpson because he smoked in a public area, calling him "worse than Hitler!". What if?

But it takes a little time before "Demolition Man" reveals its subtler touches. When the film opens, we're like "oh brother, here we are again", the tough cop vs. the psycho, Stallone is Joe Spartan and Wesley Snipes is Simon Phoenix. Stallone has his straight 'no-nonsense' face as the legal dude who means business and Phoenix is like an on-steroid version of Carlton-Banks-disguised-as-Macaulay Culkin (yes, the effects of my current binge). Stallone plays it like Rocky with his Apollo-mourning face while Snipes finds the right note, he's over-the-top and enjoys his role as the entertaining super villain. How did I know I liked Snipes better than Sly? I didn't exactly cheer when the hostages were announced dead, but I didn't feel the tragedy. And rightfully so, because that wasn't the point.

The point was that the two men were sentenced to be put in cryogenic prisons, postponing their rendezvous for a few decades. They meet again in 2032, after the Great Earthquake had turned Los Angeles into San Angeles (L.A. merged with San Diego and San Francisco) where order and harmony prevail. But the problem with movies like "Demolition Man" is that the conventional poster and the casting make for half the trailer, such movies have their box-office resting on premise of breath-taking stunts, abundant fights and spectacular explosions, punctuated by catchy one-liners. That and the cool-sounding resonance of its title, wouldn't exactly make you expect children sons sing-along moments... yet it's got them!

The film is far beyond that simplistic premise and surprises by its satirical tone that even confines to self-parody. Critics noticed it more evidently than another movie released the same year, another seemingly formulaic action movie starring Sly's lifelong rival Arnold Schwarzenneger (who gets a clever little nod in the film, prophesized as President of the United States). "Last Action Hero" left fans and audiences puzzled for a reason that still escapes me. Maybe "Demolition Man" was better welcomed because it established a clear plotline and had a charming utopia that contrasted with the bleak future the "Terminator" franchise got us used to.

The screenplay, adapted from Peter Lenkov's story, anticipates a future where people pay amends for profanity, where sex is prohibited, where even the sight of death shock cops, in other words: the over-sensitization of people through the reign of political correctness. People didn't take PC that seriously in '93 but "Demolition Man" warns us against a time when any word said can take you to jail, when joking is no joking matter. When it shows that with humor, it works; when it makes everything too easy for Phoenix, allowing him to be even more surprised that he's the one-eyed king in a kingdom of blinded people, it's even better. So when does it stop to work? Maybe when Stallone takes his role too seriously.

Everyone in the film seems to be in the joke, especially Sandra Bullock who's just irresistible as the all-time fan of the 90s just like the kid in "Last Action Hero" and who idolizes that ultra-violence days without daring to experience them... she kind of incarnates the fascination and revulsion of a population that basked too much in the idle comfort of PC-ness toward any nasty fellow from the dark abysses of the prehistoric nineties. But when Phoenix came to give a wake up call, they had to bring someone of the same caliber, there's no escape.

The film makes several in-jokes about the action movies stereotypes that we can't accept it as straight action movie either, so it's always frustrating when Stallone plays it straight without trying to give his character a little edgy attitude (except for the "Ar-nod", the sex scene and the rat burger) Maybe a hip actor such as Jean-Claude Van Damme (who turned down the role) could have fitted better but the rest of the cast did well and honorable mention to Nigel Hawtharne as some wolf-in-sheep-clothing guru.

"Demolition Man" doesn't reinvent the wheel on the scale of super-effects, it's a big machine that knows what to deliver but its recreation of San Angeles, as a new Metropolis, with two coexisting classes, the "Scraps" who refuse the new order provide a fine balance of judgment on the future of civilization and interesting prospects on the way to cure hunger. Now, had it gone a bit further in its critic (that's what QT would deliver in his movies) or with a better actor (and I love Stallone) it could have been one of these cult-classics, but I guess the film aged well and if it's not something attractive, it tastes better than what's supposed to be... just like that burger.
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The Collector (1965)
A fine crossover between "Misery" and "Peeping Tom" ...
23 September 2019
At first, I wasn't too impressed by Terence Stamp's portrayal of Freddie, the young, creepy withdrawn butterfly catcher, something in his attraction to the beautiful insect reminded me of Norman Bates' fascination with stuffed birds and his obsession with the beautiful Miranda (Samantha Eggar) channeled the performance of Carl Boehm as "Peeping Tom"... and also Norman Bates for that matter. It's an unfair trial because Stamp brings something new and personal in the depiction of a troubled mind who uses his own self-absorption as a trigger to an improbable quest for love, he looks benevolent and stoic and yet can use force when needed, he's like a mannequin whose lifeless blue eyes are ocean of perversion any innocent soul can drown in.

But I wasn't impressed first because I saw enough movies about creeps hunting young and beautiful women and two of them were before that movie so it's not like the material was fresh. But it didn't take long before I felt immersed into the claustrophobic atmosphere of that mansion, as if I was jailed along with Miranda. It's one thing to be trapped in the cellar of an old house, an ancient priest hole where there's no window and no possible way to escape, it's one thing to be tied, bound and gagged or being unable to cry for help when a stranger comes. Those are "ordinary" situations within that context; however, the real thrills of the film rest on the total unpredictability of Freddie, the kidnapper. For one thing, he promises his hostage she'll be released after four weeks, giving her hopes, and the moment it happens, we're incapable to speculate whether they're true or false hopes.... And if we ever do, we can't see what's going through Miranda's mind.

But then the second act does something interesting, it transfers the perpective from Freddie to Miranda, the voice-over stops and we see Miranda trying to figure out what to say and what to do with that strange fellow. He's obviously infatuated with her but what does that mean? Out of love, he could either free her or keep her for himself? He wouldn't harm her but should that encourage her to try to escape or cry for help? To what extent is he harmless? There are occasional uses of brutality but they never totally change Miranda or Freddies' outlooks. Like ordinary characters, once the storm is off, they're able to make peace, which is comforting on the short term and scarier in the longer. We really get to one relationship where a woman tries to figure out how to give the right answer, even for a book, agreeing too fast is patronizing, a sudden disagreement is a lie. Maybe sex can appease him or would he stop respecting her? Miranda is less trapped in the house than in Freddies's mind, which doesn't leave the prospects of leaving it quite bright.

Still, the story doesn't keep its material too psychological, there's a key scene that connects between Freddie's passion for butterflies and his attraction to Miranda. Basically, he's a collector, his passion consists on taking beauty out of their environment and keeping it for him, a butterfly is a beautiful insect but in Freddie's mansion, it's dead and ornamental, something to be admired and exposed. That scene asks many disturbing questions: Freddie seems incapable to be loved by Miranda, much more to be loved by her, he despises the "la-di-da" "posh" superficial world she belongs to, that makes ordinary clerks like him invisible; and yet he loves her because she's beautiful, and he wants her because he loves her. But he can't have a talk with her, joke with her, marry her, not even have sex in her, she's totally useless except when it comes to be admired ("Miranda" in latin means 'the one to be admired') or to belong to him, she's his butterfly... another disturbing question can be conveyed by the title but that's an area there's no need to cover.

We don't know much about the reasons of Freddie's behviour, unlike for Bates or Tom, there are a few flashbacks but I don't think it matters, we can feel the psychological terror in the puzzled or scared eyes or Miranda (Eggar gives a terrific Oscar-worthy performance). It also doesn't matter because such creepy behavior exist and the world is full of unresolved disappearances or women's corpses found raped, burned or buried; we live in a twisted world where madness can be expressed in many ways, even the most morbidly creative ones. "The Collector" is man who seeks beauty for his own use, a man so self-absorbed that if he can't get satisfaction, he will never blame it on his behavior. This is a rather creepy villain and the irony of Miranda is that she never really grasps how dangerous he is, until the end. And Eggar is so good she needn't talk, I could read sometimes in her face: "what should I say?". In another scene, Freddie says he didn't take advantage of her while she was asleep, I thought that would be the lesser of her concerns if it could mean freedom.

The relationship between Freddie and Miranda is all the more unbearable because we can feel it's doomed and yet we can figure out how it will end. I didn't expect Wyler to deliver such a vivid thriller but he succeeds magnificently in an exercise that seems more suited for Hitchcock; the screenplay is well-written, especially with the switching of perspectives that allow us to feel and anticipate the actions and reactions of each protagonist, the film I rather minimalist but it's an interesting character study of the kind of individuals no one should ever cross his path.
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Hitch (I) (2005)
A Rom-Com where the Rom is all a matter of Comm'...
20 September 2019
It was my 37th birthday party, I was leaving the restaurant, my friend saw the girl I used to be in love with from the third grade, I left the place Roadrunner style. My friend approached her, so I went back, we talked for what was the most magical half-hour since my divorce, and I left the place on a cloud of happiness I never thought I would experience again. I would love to contact her again, but how to? She's been so inaccessible that I feel like I've reached the limit and trying more would spoil that triumphant taste. So I guess what "Hitch" got right was that dizziness you feel where you're in love and the devouring desperation that ensues.

The film gets more cinematic when the seduction involves the kind of tricks and planning that would have made Paul Newman's Gondorff jealous. Alex Hitchens' methods involve a lot of scheming, programming and digging private data about the target, so that the slogan might be "do the stalking before the talking" but in all good spirit as the whole process is wrapped up in the sheer conviction that any man can get any woman once he puts his mind into it, with the only concession to romanticism is that the man must truly love the woman. In other words, Alex Tennant's "Hitch" is a splendid example of the kind of movies Hollywood could never make again.

The film doesn't insult women but it kind of belittles their involvement in the romantic process, or underlines a certain passiveness status-wise: the man has got to be in love (that's Hitch' creed as he doesn't let a prick get a woman for sex) and the man's got to do the job, to masquerade as someone as smooth as a cat and as cool as ice when in fact, he's at the verge of having a seizure, it's a harrowing journey but it's all worth it. And the girl's job is to notice the man and gets interested enough to accept a date, then she's got to validate the good feelings, and then she's got to be conquered.

So, on the surface, "Hitch" belongs to the second school of romances when one of the two protagonists must conquer the other and let's admit it, it generally happens to be the guy. The other school involves more mutual attractions such as "When Harry Met Sally..." when only one of the two is a small step behind the other, but it's a collaborative job, interestingly we're talking of a movie written by a woman. Guess what? "Hitch" is not, but the fact that it is male-centric doesn't invalidate one theory or two it's got about the laws of attraction.

Let assume for the sake of argument that it's not a man's job to get the girl, that ever since the dawn of history, the desire of possession has never been a matter of gender, then Hitch only points out that some guys don't have the right packaging to fulfill their goals. They represent the silent majority, they're overweight, bespectacled, sometimes both, they're short, nerdish, dorks, bald, and dream of women who play in total different leagues. That's the angle taken by Hitch, their consultant, a man who knows all the do's and don't of the art of seduction, a street-smart upper-class version of Cupid or the Charming Prince of Bel-Air.

And Will Smith is not only the perfect choice for such a role but what he accomplishes is interesting, obviously his competence as a matchmaker can't do without a fair deal of manipulation, but it's never played out at the expenses of women's image. It's more of an end justifying the means, with the means never interfering with the likability Hitch' clients. On that level, Kevin James is always adorable as Alber, the dorky accountant who catches the eye of the beautiful Allegra (Amber Valleta) after one hell of a rant against his boss, and against her own passiveness too when it comes to business.

And no matter how Allegra is genuinely in love with Albert, there's no way it could happen if Hitch hadn't paved the road to that realization. But that would be too easy, and the plot threatens his perfect streak with a big challenge, his own. Sara Melas, played by the sensual and smart Eva Mendes, is the tough nut to crack, a gossip columnist who doesn't fall for any man but seems interested in Hitch. Many of their dates turn sour, forcing him to revise his theories, but while he makes loser get the girl by succeeding, it's through the little incidents (some comical and some played from drama) that he touches Sara's heart.

Still, we've seen enough rom-com to know it's a matter of time before the schemes must backfire so we get to the rule that every school of romance must respect: there's no true love without the truth. That might be love's dirtiest trick, covering your weaknesses long enough to finally unveil them once the heart is conquered. The irony is that's how the film works as well, it starts as a witty little crossover between "The Sting" and "The Graduate" but then ventures in the 'idiot' plot when Sara believes Hitch coached the playboy prick. She could at least give him the benefit of the doubt and hear his version before doing such a big thing as spreading it on her columns?

The last part was a bit far-fetched but for its overall sensibility, its tendency to make men appear as lovable fools and women as not-so easily fooled individuals, after all, communication can't do without a little pinch of manipulation. But anyway, for a man's film, "Hitch" finds a fair balance between the old and new school of romance, it can appeal to any group, any sex and it carris a sweet, tender and almost nostalgic resonance in our "battle of the sexes" driven era.
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Youth Must Have Its Fling...
17 September 2019
"Dazed and Confused" might not leave you dazed not even confused on what Richard Linklater wanted to express in his recollection of his 1976 youth memories with the last day of high school as a backdrop in some Texan town. What he wanted to show is obvious: a slice of teenagers' and young adults' life at the eve of the summer holidays, when those who leave are at the top of the hierarchy and the future newcomers going through a rite of passage... literally. The cult-classic highlights a reality that only someone still in touch with kids (like a teacher) can truly see, they do need a social hierarchy and a "system" as much as adults.

Indeed, in that pivotal period between childhood and adulthood, there's a need to be part of "it", that "it" Grandpa Simpson used to be with, until he didn't know what "it" was. Think of it, why do we call them the "best years of our lives"? Why is fashion or music generally made by and for it? Because there's one thing the young knows, he must distance himself from his childhood, which means from the parents, the parents stop being the perspective, they become objects of the kids' perspective. Now, all it takes is to extend the parents to any semblance of authority and you got it, kids refuse the authority or discipline not because they feel they don't need it, but because they feel a more urgent need to challenge it, because that's how they structure their identity.

All these elements of rebellion are essential aspect of youth, whether it's against your football coach calling your buddies a loser, a teenager breaking the curfew, drinking beer before legal age, smoking pot or whatever, or simply questioning the learnings from school, rebellion is essential... many of these kids aren't armed to face the world, not yet, their views are confused indeed, but the idea of creating that social microcosm where they can be themselves is all worth it. Like fashion, from the black leather jackets in the 50s to the hippies in the 60s, punk or the new wave, fashion is what outdates the adults, what makes them out of touch, belonging to the past while fashion is the expression of the moment, no past, no consequences then no future, "Dazed and Confused" has long hair, afros, flared trousers high heels, while it's only long hair and maybe sideburns for the parents.

Notice that even the 14-15 kids dress like them but their momentum hasn't come yet, compromised by their age, by the fact that they can barely drink without falling asleep, by the fact that some are still not interested in girls and would take kissing and making out as enough an achievement. That's the irony of the young adults, with teenagers, they feel like adults, with adults, they can enjoy them being careless. As a matter of fact, a great line can speak a thousand word, it comes from Matthew McConaughey and has become the signature : "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I grow older, they stay the same age". These guys enjoy the idea of having grown up, of being at the peak of their youth and big enough to act like parent figures, the rebellion isn't complete if you didn't take the role of the parents and here's why the hazing scenes are important.

When the girls put pacifiers in their "victims"' mouths, it's a subconscious maternal instinct working, when the boys are spanked, it's not much humiliation than relegating them to a childhood that is their only perceptible status among the almighty elders. But these coming-of-age rites are less meant as regressions for the teenagers than consecrations to the adults. For instance, when the girls are soiled literally with mustard and ketchup and then symbolically when they're forced to say dirty words, it's still all part of a game actually, if that wasn't unsuitable it wouldn't be fun, they're like little girls putting on mommy's heel shoes, in a later scene, when young Sabrina is caught flirting with an older guy, the drunk Darla (Parker Posey) throws one hell of a tantrum and promises to make her life a living hell, similarly with Ben Aflleck's O'Bannon when he gets his comeuppance and can't accept it, spanking kids is okay but being splattered by painting is a blow to his dominating ego.

Both Darla and O'Bannon take their status so seriously that it's not even a game anymore and they cross a sort of terrorist/fascist line in the way they alienate people according to their status. And when you have a nice guy like Adam Goldberg's character assaulted just one word too many, you get the catch of the whole game, Mommy and Daddy not here to protect you. Preparing us to the harsh realities of the world, with its tyrants, injustices and victims, youth is a required passage. As a teacher, I know my authority is challenged more than often and then I see them acting together in the school yard and I realize their paradoxes : they reject authority but they have their hierarchies : those who get the girls, those who can fight, they reject their parents but enjoy acting like parent figures.

Now, I don't think the relevance is in the historical context despite its terrific soundtrack, the film screams "young" more than "seventies"... but I think what Linklater's coming-of-age film proposes is a real sociology of youth, even more effective than "American Graffiti" because there's no plot, not even subplots..... but if we were to draw some parallels with today's pre-2020 years, now that we have cellphones, Internet, social networks... when you can't see where the hits come from and can't totally separate yourself from the world, let alone the authority figures... maybe today is even more dazing and confusing
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Requiem for an American Dream...
17 September 2019
Warning: Spoilers
  • How do you live?
  • I steal.

As a movie quote buff, I've been familiar with that brief exchange for almost ten years, ten entire years where I kept wondering what made these lines so memorable. If the protagonist was a fugitive from a chain gang, then what's the big deal about him stealing? Was he seducing a girl? Confessing to a cop? Whatever, there might have been something quite impacting about it, and all through the movie, I was looking forward to hearing that quote, I was anticipating it maybe even more than the film itself, which -you guessed it- took me right till the end and I say it's certainly one of the most haunting and unforgettable endings I've ever watched.

That's why I love watching movies, every once in a while, you have something that blows your mind, that keeps you speechless. I think the last time a similar experience left me that way was Richard Brooks' "I Want to Live!" with Susan Hayward. I think it's interesting that the two movies center on the flaws of the judicial system and on the harrowing journey of not-so innocent (but not plain guilty) protagonists, both victim of unfortunate circumstances and believing till the very end that the system works. Paul Muni is simply extraordinary as James Allen, the man whose soul is literally crashed by the chain gang routine and the barbarian conditions prisoners lived under..

When Allen has his first taste of whatever greasy excuse for a meal they served him, from his facial expressions, I could almost taste the awfulness. And the film is full of small little touches that makes it genuinely effective, notice that even when he's informed that food won't get any better so he better gets used to it, he tries a second bite and he gives up again, it's not as easy as it looks. Allen is like Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express" but this is no Turkish prisons, this is America, it's a shame that a civilized country had such awful places, but it's to its credit to allow the artistic expression to denounce it, and Melvin Leroy does it with the gripping and stark boldness of a neo-Realistic director and Warner Bros must be commanded for making one of the early prison movies with a social soul.

And the film has all the common tropes of the genre: nasty guards, friendly inmates, nightmarish first night, punishments, dying prisoners, and it's all wrapped up in a realism twice courageous since it addresses an audience who's most likely to react with "these guys are no angels, they had it coming". This is a prison movie destined to audiences who're not used to root for prisoners. Of course, it helps to know that Allen is innocent and was once a war hero and idealistic would-be engineer, but it doesn't change anything for the second act shows a man whose rehabilitation is complete and what goes in the last third act is the part that fills your mind with a cool and icy rage, when Allen decides to trust the system and give ninety days of his life to get the governor's pardon and then nine more months, before realizing it's hopeless, so hopeless Allen can't even react.

I'll repeat myself but that's because I'm truly a fan of "Midnight Express", Muni reminded me of Brad Davis' harrowing breakdown when he learned that his four years were extended to perpetuity, nine years wouldn't feel as perpetuity but what tortures Allen is the way he's taken to hell for a crime he didn't technically commit while the so-called representatives of the government can't even honor a promise, that's the real pain, the sense of betrayal. It's seldom that 30s movies would be so defiant toward the system, I said there's something neo-realistic in Melvyn Leroy's atmospheric and documentary-like take on the system but there are also moments of ironic poetry that recall Ford of French pre-war cinema. Paul Muni gives the kind of performance à la Gabin but with something even more detached and cynical at the end.

The film has a few 'naive' moments but when you know where this is leading up to, you just can't dismiss such a gem of the pre-Code era. Anyway, I regretted that Paul Muni, as "Scarface" was reduced to a double-crossing coward at the end not to make gangsters look sympathetic, and here he is the same year, being double-crossed by the system. And watching civilized countries turning good and innocent people into shadows of their former selves was quite a gutsy premise. Speaking of shadow, like I said found one of the most haunting endings ever, the last minute of the film is forever stuck in my memory, especially with Paul Muni's eyes, the way he slips into the darkness and say "I steal". Now, that's how you end a film with pure poetic perfection in an anticlimax that reflects the way a promising life was cut short because of a misplaced judicial zeal.

The film ends abruptly, with the darkness suddenly filling the screen and leaving us unaware of Muni's destination, wherever he's gone, we know he won't be back, but he'll never leave our memories.
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Crazy Heart (2009)
The "Bad" and the Beautiful...
15 September 2019
"Crazy Heart" made me realize how full of narrative clichés the "music" genre is. Here we have the run-down alcoholic singer, the struggling mother, the romantic subplot, the musical performance that turns sour, the rehab sequence and so on and so forth. "Crazy Heart" has all of these... and yet it never falls in the caricature, it features situations we're familiar with but thanks to Scott Cooper's low-key and non-sensational directing, to the nuanced Oscar-nominated performances from Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhall, "Crazy Heart" goes on smoothly and fluidly like a sweet Country ballad, without any false note.

Low-key is the word, the film and Bridges' acting never insist on making the faded star Bad Blake an object of pathos, only his situation is, which isn't the same. This is a man entering his sixties, he's twice past his prime: country music appeals to blue-collar folks of his generation while his momentum is compromised by the rise of "hip" stars like Tommy Sweet (Collin Farrell) whose fans never heard of Blake. He understands he's a relic from the past and not à la Hank Williams. And so he spends his time making tours from one small town to another, in places where he can't even put the whisky on his tab, the days of glory are over and the present ones are spent in the company of bottles of whisky in shabby motels. His routine is eventually broken by phone calls from his manager, sending him to another contract in another town in the middle of nowhere.

Now, describing this routine isn't just to fill paragraphs, the film's plot (if we can call it so) doesn't break the routine but is diluted in, just like Blake isn't a pathetic guy but a good person and a talented artist bogged down in a pathetic routine. And the film does work like a routine, preparing us for something "big" that never happens, it's slow-paced but so confident over its material that it doesn't try to go for the easy way, which would be convenient since Blake is a fictional character. His first concert for instance, is a disaster, he spends most of his time taking breaks and go puke in a trash-bin -I liked the touch where his glasses fall inside and got spilled over- but we never get any aftermath of that concert: no argument with his manager, no cancelled concert, no one giving him a bad press, all we see is an old groupie sharing his bed (not exactly a bimbo, she was the nasty pageant official in "Little Miss Sunshine"). We get it, his contracts are so punctual that the incidents have no consequences, a reason why he's probably drowning his sorrow in alcohol.

Maybe Blake's waiting unconsciously for the incident with the gravest consequence, maybe this is a man in need for help who doesn't want to admit it. We suspect something might happen when he meets Jean, a wannabe journalist who comes interviewing him; the interview allows us to learn a little more about the man less from the answers but the way he delivers them. Blake doesn't want to talk about his real name, neither about his son but he keeps his smile on and even asks Jean private questions. Any lesser film would have made an expositional excuse out of the interview, in fact it's a very tender scene, never pressed too hard, where we can see some mutual attraction between the two. Both have made mistakes in their lives, both wish to trust the future and both see in each other a light of hope they were desperately waiting for, the chemistry is inevitable. The romance, like pretty much the rest of the film, is made of quiet and genuinely sweet moments until the one episode that will make Blake realize his life was going downhill.

I'm not spoiling here since there's a good deal of incidents throughout the film, a life pattern that can't be a matter of bad luck. Is Blake suicidal? It's more complex than that, the man has troubles but his troubles inspire him. And that's something I've noticed with country music and even country-related movies, music is the storyteller, country music expresses the struggle of small-town blue-collar men, maybe like the soul music of white people, taking its roots in the old folks' repertoire. Blake's music is basically his sordid life translated into poetry, the more he suffers, the better he sings, and the opposite is true. But there's too much suffering a man can take and even if he's got a lot of fans, people who like him, and forgive him, through Jean, Blake realizes his need to be loved again and forgiven. In a poignant scene, he tries to call his lost son and makes amends but doesn't get nothing from him. Blake's friend (Robert Duvall) points out that he made the right step, and at least he can forgive himself.

And I'm glad the film never went to spectacular emotional stunts. Watching the deleted scenes in the DVD, I was shocked by one where Bad ended up thrown in the mud and have a breakdown, shouting his real name, this is the kind of scenes the film didn't need and I'm glad it was removed, Bridges is the kind of actor who doesn't need such artifices to win an Oscar. His well-meaning average-Joe aura is enough to make Blake the object of a fascinating character study, as a man going through a double rehabilitation, one against his addiction and another to earn self-respect, to forgive himself before those he love forgive him.

This is a sober but meaningful music drama and maybe the reason why country films works despite so many familiar situations Is because the contemplation of life, not rebellion, is the essence of country music, a genre about simple people with complex problems, but that know how to tell their stories with simplicity and sensibility.
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An insult to our intelligence (but not to make us angry)...
15 September 2019
And here comes the final opus of the "Naked Gun" trilogy, certainly not the best but not the naked emperor I expected it to be. Anyway without further delay I'd like to retract two wrong statements I've made in my review of the second film "Smell of Fear", the inspiration was still on in the final opus though not on par with the original, and this is not a ZAZ comedy but only David Zucker took part of the project... and that might be why the film isn't as hilarious as the first. And I mean quantitatively.

What made the first film such a classic is that you couldn't keep tracks on the gags, visual, verbal, slapstick, they were thrown at our faces like custard pies and just when we wiped the cream out of our face, we had a second service. Gags were delivered at such a rhythm the film asked for at least a second watching, the sequel was almost as prolific, but "The Final Insult" is more dietetic so to speak and allows us to catch our breath so many times it gets frustrating. For instance, there's a whole sequence where Frank and Jane talk about their couple problems with a psychiatric (played by the inevitable Earl Boen) Frank admits both his impotence and frigidity, it's quite funny actually but the line is something that would belong to a Woody Allen film.

So, if you set yourself for belly laughs, get ready for a hilarious spoof of the iconic Potemkin-homage stairs scene from "The Untouchables" where the number of baby carriages having to be taken up or down just defies the odds. There is also a funny flashback where we see Frank, Ed and Nordberg as middle-aged men in the 70s with hilarious hairstyles, also a long prison sequence spoofing "Escape from Alcatraz" and various prison movies where you might enjoy the shower sequence or the riot (though that part gets a tad too long). These moments all deliver the laughs we long for, but it's only once the film gets to the Oscar sequences that it surpasses "Smell of Fear" and equals the baseball climax of the 1988 original.

The Oscar sequence gives its full meaning to the "final insult" title and is the logical conclusion of a movie series that kept on mocking clichés and tropes made in Hollywood. The Zucker team is back and with a vengeance, mocking the prestige movies that begs for Oscars, biopics, musicals, or both (with a Mother Teresa hilarious singing sequence) and movies about inspiring and courageous women overcoming adversity in the backdrop of historical disasters (including sports seasons) it's quite a deserved blow against these so-called dramas that end up for the most part forgotten by the general public or remembered for what they were: Oscar baits... and only by geeks. Watching these parts and the real-life actors who made cameos (Pia Zadora, Dukakis, Jones etc.) and kept straight faces at Drebin's shenanigans made the film. Honorable mention to Raquel Welsh, 1994 was quite a year for her, and you know which other shining moment I'm referring to.

Anyway, I wish a movie today would make of Hollywood's pompous tendencies like "Final Insult" did. But the film isn't without its flaws though, O.J. Simpson as Nordberg is too goofy it breaks the continuity and Anna Nicole Smith never goes beyond the over-played sexiness she's relegated to, for a film that makes a nod to "Thelma and Louise", the shallow treatment of Smth's role is puzzling... both Smith and Simpson won Razzies for their roles, and their infamous fates give an eerie taste to the film. I also thought the anti-Arab jokes were getting a bit old, it's one thing to have an Arab terrorist looking like Arafat and ululating when he's shot, but what was the point of the secondary antagonist? Oh well, I guess he film is a product of its time, not that things have changed much...

By the way, I just realized it's not even Zucker who made the film but Peter Segal, that too doesn't change my opinion toward the film... and the film features the most epic face-palm in the history of cinema...
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