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Simply awful
30 January 2005
This film is hailed by fans and critics as the "best" in French director Max Pécas' career. Be that as it may, it is still shockingly far from even the lowest cinematographic standards - those of the later episodes in the POLICE ACADEMY series, for instance.

It should be noted that the film does not contain the regular quota of Pécas nudity which may come as something of disappointment for some people; however the usual revolting display of vulgarity, misogyny, homophobia and sheer visual ugliness is indeed present and even flamboyant.

Quite unusual in the Pécas tradition, the exotic setting of Tunisia for the second half of the movie does not provide enlightening insights into local culture or even pretty landscape shots, which does not really come as a surprise. The whole thing is simply pointless, actors are astonishingly bad throughout (even young Victoria Abril's efforts amount to nil), and there is not a single joke which is even remotely funny. Words fail to convey the full extent of this film's abysmal nullity.
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Possibly the worst film of all time
29 January 2005
This film is an utter pile of turd. it contains nothing worth viewing apart from young women's breasts, the filming of which amounts to about 1/3 of the footage. If you are interested in seeing half-naked girls with early 80's hairdos, this film is for you, provided you turn off the sound. if not, you will listen to such a display of vulgarity and meaningless junk as to want to throw up. Fans will be pleased to recognize French porn star Brigitte Lahaie in as insignificant a part as has ever been cast. The dialogue is pointless and the image ugly throughout, and there is indeed little else to say. To think that from time to time Max Pécas is hailed as a counter-culture genius by alienated critics only underlines their own abasement, as anyone who sees this piece of junk will recognize.
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Three Sellers in a minor Cold war buff
26 January 2005
Even my severe Peter Sellers bias cannot force me into liking this tiny film more than it deserves. A ludicrous tale of international politics and disarmament, it mostly fails to be funny, despite Sellers' triple performance as the duchess of Grand Fenwick, her prime minister "Bobo" and hereditary field-marshal and game-keeper Tully Bascombe. The humor is quite predictable, as the rhythm is much too slow, and based mostly on idiotic visual gags (such as having men in arrows dressed in medieval chain-mail walking the streets of New York, the comic of which soon fades).

The film main's interest probably lies in its Cold war relevance: allusions to the Marshall plan, Korea, Berlin, NATO, etc, abound. But one only needs to see DR STRANGELOVE or, even better in my opinion, Billy Wilder's ONE, TWO, THREE (the ultimate Cold war comedy, contrasting hilarious stereotypes in a gloomy Berlin setting) to regret this picture's limitations. If the titles are amusing, if a gorgeous Jean Seberg and a below-average Sellers do their best, the film is utterly forgettable.
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Gladiator (2000)
Crowe can't save voyeuristic and incoherent film
24 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Russell Crowe's fine performance as an ex-general turned into a slave and then a gladiator cannot save this picture from its utter absurdity, as the ending stages a pathetic duel between him and (no kidding) the Emperor of Rome in the Coliseum!!! There are some impressive scenes in the film, and Crowe has a beautiful screen presence; his friendship with a fellow Numidian gladiator is nicely conveyed, as is his attachment to amulets representing his family; the revelation of his identity is aptly charged with tension; and the preparation of the first battle is superb. Alas, it then turns into an orgy of gore.

Being an ancient Greek (Theban to be precise) general, I'm bound to have qualms about this film's treatment of antiquity. As many reviewers have noted, the sole idea of a roman citizen (let alone a general) being turned into a slave is absurd, as is the trip from Germania to Spain during which Crowe seems to pass through some sort of rocky desert before entering the hills of Tuscany... How familiar is the filmmaker with the geography of Europe I wonder? Depictions of power relations in Rome are also quite laughable.

But it is the voyeuristic stance and contemporary political relevance of the film which I find most disturbing. The despisal/fascination for the 'mob' which runs through the film has a distinctly fascist tinge. The violence is in some places unbearable, all the more so as it is gratuitous (the slaughter of Maximus' son)... My deep rejection and indeed contempt for the film really developed from listening to Ridley Scott's commentary on the DVD, in which he avows, among other depressing platitudes, that he would really have liked to live in Roman times, granted he was among the wealthy ruling classes... Probably in order to enjoy the spectacle of death and violence he in turn successfully inflicts on his twentieth-century teenage audience. The implications of such a fascination for slavery and violence are frightening, and make one want to watch SPARTACUS over and over again, as a reminder of the times in which Hollywood stood for humanist values, and not their despisal. It is also an opportunity to find where many seemingly novel ideas in GLADIATOR actually originate...

All in all, despite how much we want to believe in Crowe, the film is far from the historical and psychological complexity (and visual clarity in battle scenes) of the much-underrated Alexander. Indeed, Crowe would have been perfect in the part, and would probably have had the guts to oppose to the wearing of Colin Farrell's ridiculous blonde wig!
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Nice moral tale, full of youthful energy
4 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This film, while obviously not a major work of art, is more than a Beatles biopic or a time piece for the mid-60's. Its sheer energy, the ease with which we can relate with the characters (even for those of us who have ever played in a band), the beauty of Liv Tyler and the natural flow of music bring it to a highly enjoyable level.

Most of all, what makes it interesting is the quite subtle way it handles the themes of hope and disillusion: Guy's hopes for a session in a studio, Lenny's hopes of stardom, Faye's hopes of everlasting love. But as characters shake away their illusions, they are not left bitter or empty: on the contrary, this film shows that to work through this (and it is clearly a piece of work) enables them to build stronger and truer desires.

Despite its agreeable lightness, this film can thus be seen as a moral fable going somewhat deeper than the classic 'from success to failure' story. The acting and reproduction of 60's sets are flawless throughout. And two moments of the film strike me as unforgettable, which is more than you can say for many movies:

When the Oneders's tune goes on the radio for the first time, Hanks films first of all the bass player trying to adjust to the right channel, then Faye losing it as she hears it in the street as well. They both meet and go berserk with joy, running and shouting in an exhilarating - thanks to the youthful grace of Liv Tyler - moment, ending up in Guy's store where everybody just dances madly with joy. Rarely has a moment of accomplishment and sheer happiness been captured with such apparent spontaneity on film.

Finally, Hanks delivers one of the most devastating lines I've heard, when he answers the egoistic lead singer after his breakup with Faye.

Jimmy: I should have dumped you in Pittsburgh! Which one of you butts said we were engaged?

Hanks: Same one who said you had class, Jimmy.

That's what you get, and deserve, from 'dumping' Liv Tyler - poor move if I ever saw one!
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High Noon (1952)
Vastly overrated western lookalike
3 January 2005
This is one the most overrated films of all time.

Not unlike Hitchcock's ROPE, it uses a gimmick: so-called real-time shooting, as we follow Cooper through each and every attempt at finding a deputy in his little town. Unfortunately for the film, quite simply, everything that occurs is predictable. Therefore the tension which is supposed to build up is inexistent. And the 'real-time shooting' supposed to lend pace and suspense ends up dragging on an on as Cooper performs one weak speech after the other. Not surprisingly, considering how inefficient this structure has been, the climax/showdown is flat and uninteresting.

I will admit the photography is quite beautiful, but to consider this film a classic, let alone one of the greatest movies of all time, on the grounds of its alleged political relevance (by the way much as I loathe Mccarthyism, I find this 'metaphor' much too formal and tedious) is preposterous. As a movie, as a work of art, it simply does not work.
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Rio Bravo (1959)
3 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This film is perfection.

I hesitate in calling it the "greatest western of all time", as so many defining elements of the genre are lacking (for one thing, all the action takes place within city limits – so much for horse riding across western landscapes). More importantly, it transcends genre barriers and stands in a world of its own. A world of pure and simple correspondence between ends and means of the film-making process, that is, of classic perfection.

As many have noted, the starting point is simple: a sheriff needs to keep an outlaw in custody, other outlaws try to spring him. The ease and grace with which Hawks creates a two-hour long narrative from this, both elaborate and always radiantly clear, at the same time fast-paced and seemingly immobile, would be overwhelming if the result were not of such classic evidence.

This he does by perfectly balancing the characters, whose common point is the need for redemption or fulfillment, whether they are too old (Stumpy), too weak (Dude), too young (Colorado) or even too desirable (Feathers). Sheriff Chance is both unwilling to relate to them and unable to do without them – thus conferring a constant ambiguity to his behavior, balancing between pardon and anger, an ambiguity instantly redeemed by the righteousness and the physical grace with which he moves among them – "Sorry don't get it done, Dude" must be my favorite quote from any movie.

The same balance can be found between the few action scenes and the more gentle episodes. The action is scarce, but then all the more intense as it comes both inevitably and at unexpected moments. It is climactic and beautifully shot and choreographed. There are few gunshots (excepting the ending), but always to the point (if not always on target). To illustrate this, let us examine the episode in which Dude shoots an outlaw he and Chance are pursuing. He is unsure of whether he has hit him: this uncertainty is at once transmitted to his whole character, and to a characteristically sceptical as well as sympathetic Chance. In this sense, not a shot is wasted, as they define so powerfully the essence of characters and relations between them. The same could be said of young Colorado's ascension, materialized through his gun fighting ability. This is a classic feature of westerns, brought to unseen heights by Hawks.

These action scenes contrast beautifully with three other kind of scenes: the romantic seduction scenes in which Angie Dickinson shines; the comedy scenes taking place in the hotel, and the alternately anguishing and joyful scenes in the prison – culminating, as a reviewer has noted, in the songs shared by Dude, Stumpy, Colorado and an appreciative and silent Chance, a blissful moment in which time, the plot, the suspense are cast aside and all is left is an exceptional complicity between the characters, the director and the spectator.

Many defects can be found here and there, yet as a whole, the movie is perfect, as it creates with seemingly effortless grace a world – complete with strong and weak characters, a sense of time and space, right and wrong, necessity and chance (not a meaningless name for Wayne's character) – we at once recognize and love as our own.
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As Noir as it gets
3 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
MURDER, MY SWEET (why on earth was the title changed? FAREWELL, MY LOVELY is so much stronger!) is a powerful Chandler adaptation. A very likable feature of the film is the way in which it captures the atmosphere of Chandler's L.A.

With the use of voice-over, many typical Marlowe remarks from his narrative in the novel are included (listed in the "memorable quotes" section). Needless to say, this lends the film sheer Noir brilliance. The streets of LA at night are filmed in an adequate wandering and dark style.

Dmytryk's direction can be deemed erratic or brilliant, depending on your mood: the flashback may seem unnecessary, as well as many of the twists in the plot (but then what would a Chandler plot be if it was straightforward?), and the final showdown is particularly inconsistent. But the dream sequences are inventive and masterful (the 'black pool' opening at Marlowe's feet was later used ironically in the Coen Bros' BIG LEBOWSKI), the black and white photography is both neatly framed and scary. The atmosphere is thus perfectly rendered.

However I beg to differ from other reviewers who consider Bud Powell the best ever Marlowe on screen. I thought his performance quite lame, lacking in physical presence (the scene where he is visited in his undies by dangerous blonde Helen Grayle is indeed pathetic in this regard), in toughness, above all in irony - he delivers those powerful one-liners with a dull, blank expression, far from Bogey's sharp grin or Gould's sarcastic glance.

This diminishes somewhat the beauty of the film, which fails to match THE MALTESE FALCON or DOUBLE INDEMNITY in my opinion. Yet it is without doubt among the best 'Film Noir' ever.
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Frida (2002)
Not a flawless film, but visually and musically moving
2 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This film retraces the life and art of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, along with her intense love story with fellow painter Diego de Rivera. The film has major flaws, among which an endless repetition of breaking up/reconciliation scenes between the lovers, and most of all a hilarious episode where Frida and Leon Trotski become romantically entangled on the top of an Aztec pyramid. Though accurate enough in historical terms, the performance of Geoffrey Rush as the great-intellectual-revolutionary-in-exile is so poor, and the filming is so ludicrous as to make these twenty or so minutes utterly laughable.

All that said, the film is definitely worth viewing, for the following reasons:

-It has one of the most beautiful scores composed for the screen since the death of Georges Delerue. Elliot Goldenthal has created a fascinating, enthralling series of themes that constantly underline and accompany Frida's art and interior state of mind, opening up realms of emotion and reflection for the spectator. He blends Mexican folk music with metaphysical interrogations and flamboyant, radiant sparks of happiness to create an unforgettable music. It should also be mentioned that Caetano Veloso sings the superb 'Burn it Blue' as title song, and that the great Mexican artist Chavela Vargas makes a moving appearance as la Llorona - the crying woman.

-Director Julie Taymor does a fine job of presenting Frida's art by shifting from real-life sequences to paintings and back effortlessly and with great visual grace. The film is the best possible introduction to F and Diego's paintings. Moreover, some sequences, as that of the bus wreck (which would leave Frida lame), are of a great formal beauty. In this crucial scene the flying gold flakes, broken glass, and contorted anguished face of Frida create a scintillating shot of true emotional depth. It announces that Frida's life will be marked by pain and beauty forever blended.

-The performance of Salma Hayek is superb. One can feel her investment in his project, and she manages both to lend the historical Frida an added bodily beauty that captures viewers's minds; and to act the more difficult scenes of sickness, agony and despair with restrained grace and talent.

Thus, despite its serious defects, this movie contains very strong emotional, visual and musical experiences, scarce seen on today's screens.
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Sleuth (1972)
Too much of a mind game, visually horrid.
30 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Despite good acting performances (though Olivier becomes tedious after 1h30), this film is too much of an intellectual game to be enthralling. It is visually horrendous, set in an English country house filled with automatons and games of all kinds - the continuous close-up shots of these games between plot twists are extremely boring and show poor film-making. But then visual beauty was never an aim of Mankiewicz's, vide THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN's ugliness. It is also quite hard to believe the underlying 'social' antagonism between Andrew and Milo: the film would have been better off, for me, as a pure trick, without a somewhat artificial reference to class and race divides. They are not really necessary as the principles of humiliation, rather than the reasons for it, are brilliantly exposed.

Still, if you like mind games and huis clos this film is for you. A small but not altogether unimportant detail: Michael Caine as a second-generation Italian immigrant is simply not credible, especially as he chews out "non è oro tutto che scintilla" in a cockney accent...
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Best historical film ever?
27 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Battle of Algiers might well be the best historical film ever. It stands out as a splendid work of art, as an extremely accurate depiction of a specific time and place, as a political hymn to independence, and as a thought-provoking philosophical reflection on violence, and on the relationship between ends and means.

It depicts the crucial years 1956-1957 in the Algerian war of independence from French colonial rule: the leaders of the independentist FLN decide to make Algiers a battlefield through strikes and terrorism in order to shake colonialism and to unite Algerians. The French respond to this urban guerilla with a ruthless control of space, separating European and Arab (the 'casbah') parts of the city, and with a brutal hunt of the FLN leaders through the torture of lesser militants. The French paratroops under gen. Massu, col. Bigeard and cdt. Aussaresses (blended in the film into a synthetic and fictitious character, col. Mathieu) eventually 'win' the battle of Algiers, but they end up 'losing' Algeria, as their repression has only fueled nationalism. The film therefore ends with the vision of Algerian crowds demanding independence ('Istiqlâl') as they march through the streets of Algiers in 1960.

While this is an accurate enough analysis of such a complex war (even though interestingly de Gaulle is absent from the film as it intends to show how independence was conquered, not handed from above by French authorities) it is also a metaphor, as the film works on many different levels.

It is a masterpiece of editing and cinematography. The combined use of space and music is stunning: when the french paratroops take possession of the Casbah, literally filling up the frame, gaining control of the streets, rooftops, hallways, courtyards, their superbly choreographed movements are underlined by a haunting theme by Morricone & director Pontecorvo. In these sequences he rivals not only Rossellini but Eisenstein.

It is also strongly influenced by the New Wave in its manner of filming faces of protagonists. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film (as the beginning in Ali's hiding hole, or the scenes before the explosions in the bars) consist of protagonists' faces, victims, perpetrators, bystanders, shot in close up, in a beautiful black and white, without comment or voice-over: their common humanity is shown as well as the determination, the inner flame of those fighting for independence.

I would disagree with other reviewers saying the movie is is unbiased: the film was commissioned and encouraged by the new-born Algerian state, and Yacef Saadi, a leader in the war of independence appears in prominent role. While the violence of both sides is coolly examined, the film justifies that of the Algerians, if only by showing (in a slightly dishonest way) that it always responds to the violence of the French. This question of precedence (who started to be inhuman?), though in the end quite pointless, has long poisoned mutual understanding between French and Algerian memories of the war. Another bias, explained by the FLN financing and staging, is the almost complete absence in the film of the middle ground, those neither in the terrorist FLN or in the paratroops, desiring to live in peace. They have existed, in both sides, as the examples of writer Albert Camus and his friend Mouloud Ferraoun show. This is quite understandable as it might not fit in the epic text depicted in realistic manner by Pontecorvo. However, in the film, the Algerians that are not committed to war are shown to be gangsters and pimps: this is a minor flaw of the film and its only touch of propaganda.

All that said, the film is a stunning visual, historical and ethical masterpiece. Sadly and ironically, it capture a fiery desire for liberty at the very time (1965) a military coup by Boumediene overthrew Ben Bella in Algeria, repressing liberties for the decades to come. Most of all, it is one of the most potent depictions of and reflections on violence (in the twin and extreme forms of terrorism and torture) to be seen on screen.

The most powerful image of the film remains the vision of a FLN militant broken by torture and forced to confess the hiding place of his chief. His haunted look, exhausted stance, empty eyes, grotesquely dressed in a paratroops' uniform, stand as an indictment of colonialism.
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Lighthearted and innocent
26 December 2004
In director Philippe de Broca's vast production this is probably the most underrated effort: almost fallen into oblivion (no DVD out) this movie is a gem of wit and innocence. You have to accept the utter futility of the plot and the impossibility to believe the twists, to enjoy the grace of youth displayed by Marthe Keller (the films constantly captures her long, naked, legs as she runs or rides a bike in the French countryside), the wonderful comic performances by Marielle and Rochefort, the consummate acting of Madeleine Renaud and the serene charm of Montand.

Though extremely lighthearted and quick-paced, the film manages to be poignant thanks to the superb score by Delerue (De Broca said that he would like the piano theme he composed to be played at his own funeral). What makes this film so special for me is the feeling of freedom that radiates from the characters as they move about in this tale, completely separated from social or political issues (remember the film was made in 1968). They manage to convey innocence while frantically pursuing love, happiness and enjoying themselves.
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Slow-paced, laid-back, smart-mouthed, but so good!
26 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This film is a superb illustration of Altman's skills as a writer and director. Taking Chandler's Long Goodbye into the 1970's, he makes a film which is at the same time an homage to the novel, and a travesty of the film noir conventions. Gould's Marlowe, with his characteristic lazy phrasing (a lot of voice-over is used) intent on feeding his cat falls into a twisted case of missing money, adultery and murder - only it all takes place in Malibu, where everything is fake: the guard at the entrance keeps impersonating movie stars (from James Stewart to Walter Brennan), a nice reminder that the people to be met inside will not be who they pretend to be.

Gould beautifully creates a private eye completely opposite to all the genre's clichés: not interested in seduction (either of the beautiful Nina Van Pallandt or in his pot-smoking naked neighbors), not particularly virile (he takes an awful lot of beating, is scared to death of a dog, while an other dog blocks his car, in a scene that sums up the character), not overly astute in facing the police or understanding the case, he nevertheless stands for certain values: the strength of humor and irony in the face of brutality, faithfulness to his idea of friendship - to the bitter end.

While extremely funny, the film does have some violent reality checks: the psychopathic gangster in a brutal fit of anger smashes a coke bottle into his girlfriend's face, as shocking a scene as I've ever seen in a movie; the portrayal of local corruption in Mexico is humorous but filmed in an unusually realistic way. The photography, and above all the editing is superb throughout. The use of music in the film is stunning: a single musical theme (by John Williams) accompanies all scenes, in a different orchestration each time: as Mexican music, supermarket music, piano-jazz.

This film was clearly an inspiration for the Coen bros' Big Lebowski: same laid-back, lazy, unprofessional investigator tying to figure out the odds an evens of a case that is evidently out of his reach, same ferocious portrayal of a 'beach community', same encounters with strange characters, mad artists (Roger Wade/Maude Lebowski), crooks, doctors, hapless policemen... Some scenes in Long G-B border on the burlesque, as when Marlowe in hospital receives a tiny harmonica as a present from a man all wrapped in bandages.

In short, a masterpiece of irony, beautifully filmed and constructed.
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