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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these memorable police procedural movies is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
All the following blockbusters, indie movies, remakes and reboots have one thing in common: their three principal genre-tags include sci-fi, they're rated at least 7.5 and they were all released at a time where E.T. could iPhone Home, in other words:
Which of these 2010s sci-fi movies is your favorite?
After voting, discuss the list here
Pathetic or poignant in a dignified way, conclusive or enigmatic in an overarching way, all the following lines have been uttered by these baddies the last time we saw them on the screen. Which of these exit-lines is the most memorable?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(To make the list, the villains were all nominated for the AFI's Top 50, some of the lines were also nominated for the AFI's Top 100, sometimes making the final list)
... which of these fictional or real-life movie characters named George is your personal favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
OSCAR WINNER Oscar Nominee
Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5", reprising Cuban musician Dámaso Pérez Prado's mambo/jazz song of 1949, became one of the best selling singles of 1999, hitting the top spots in many countries' charts and the third in Billboard Hot 100 in the US.
Celebrating the 70th and 20th anniversaries of both versions, here's according to IMDb Starmeter the top actresses whose name pop up three times in the song during the annoyingly catchy "a little bit of" chorus.
Which of these actresses is (movie-wise) all you need, what you see, in the sun, here you are... well, which one is your favorite?
After a little bit of voting, have a little bit of discussion here
Many romantic comedies culminate with a kiss that means love forever and... if not marriage, we can at least bet on long-term commitment.
And this is why Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), one of the biggest hits of the glorious 1994 -two nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Picture- was such a refreshing 'romantic comedy': a cheerful celebration of that magical day that sets a 'before' and an 'after' in our lives, starts in all pompous solemnity and ends with fun, laugh, booze... and maybe a few years later regrets.
Still, even unsuccessful marriages end up being more insightful than the others (if only because they do 'end up') and the film also puts the notion of commitment into perspective even questioning its compatibility with real love. How many "rom-coms" dared to ask whether love could really last forever.
If not definite answers, the film provides some hints through four marital experiences and one funeral with the perfect balance between humor, slapstick and wit, in pure British fashion... with some American spice on it. Since the five titular events and their direct aftermaths occupy almost 95% of the screen-time, the question is quite simple:
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the classic British comedy, which of the four titular weddings and funeral was your favorite sequence?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(the term "group" either mean that the protagonists can be considered as friends, co-workers, teammates, bandmates or a specific unit or that they're put together under a circumstance that drives the whole film's narrative)
We tend to forget that many great movies set in Italian-American neighborhoods or featuring Italian-American protagonists have no connection whatsoever with the Mafia or any crime-related entity and deserve a tribute of their own.
So, which of these Italian-American non-Mafia movies is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
The Pawn who impersonated the Mountain...
As a symbol, people are willing to sacrifice their lives for him, he's the Lord, the mountain, the Supreme Leader but as himself, he's nothing but a commoner, a pawn, a property the Lord's advisers can dispose of anytime. He's the Kagemusha, the Shadow Warrior, the pawn who impersonated the mountain.
And only Akira Kurosawa, the director who can literally move mountains could make such a magnificent-looking and once again thought-provoking film, his only Golden Palm winner; the story of a thief impersonating a lord, a lord so cautious about the eventual demise of the Takeda clan that he demanded his death to be hidden for three years, it is more dangerous to waste a death than a life precisely because life is valuable, his is too valuable to be exposed.
"Kagemusha" is Kurosawa back to his Samurai roots, that forged his international legacy. Only this time, the use of colors and a four-decade experience provide a whole new experience, foreshadowing "Ran", another masterpiece with a no less bright palettes of colors and shades of red. Kurosawa provide such beautiful shots of warfare in 16th century Japan that it might distract from the main story. Because a war never starts with arms but a mind set.
Lord Shingen's death might encourage the enemy to attack his unexperienced heir. This is how crucial the Kagemusha is, so vital that he escaped from crucifixion because of his uncanny resemblance to the Lord. But while a lesser director would have turned this into a gimmick, Kurosawa makes it a source of questioning for the enemy and a burden on the shoulders of every protagonist, including the Kagemusha himself played by Tatsuya Nakadai, the handsome gun-owner from "Yojimbo".
The actor plays both the double and the original and in both cases, he finds the perfect note. As Shingen Takeda he doesn't give an exceptional performance but provides the perspective enabling us to judge how authentic the double is in the following scenes, the point isn't to judge the actor's acting but his acting as an actor and in the most thrilling moments as himself, and sometimes being himself makes him realer than his own model.
These scenes work because the film makes his impersonation problematic from the start, will he convince his men? His crew? His grandson? His concubines? His generals? His army? His horse? And with the meticulous patience, Kurosawa turns each interaction into a heart-pounding moment where we can contemplate the nervousness of the double and spot the sign of nervousness that slips through his austere façade. It's like watching a Cassavetes movie, you fear the improvisation but you know it's inevitable.
It's all in the eyes, one glimpse on Kagemusha's face and we can read every single thought "what do I do now?" "was I good?", every time he's looking for some encouragement, compliment, he tries, sometimes tries too hard, sometimes pushes his luck, and we wonder how far is he going to get? What we have is a war epic where thrills are mainly contained in these quiet scenes. Never have been things as banal as encounters and conversations so intense.
This is not to diminish the epic value of the fighting sequences, which are as beautifully directed, designed and choreographed as one would expect from Kurosawa. But they almost play like aesthetic interludes or at least that's how I appreciated them because maybe I couldn't tell which side was fighting. But I could appreciate them in their intimate moments, seen from the viewer's position. Kagemusha doesn't fight but he sees soldiers dying for him or at least the man he impersonates. He contemplates the piles of corpses that were defending him and something tilts in his mind.
Ever since "Rashomon" and then "Yojimbo", the viewer's position was crucial to a story. One would always watch before acting or understanding, there's no such thing as passiveness with Kurosawa's characters and maybe there lies the essence of Asian cinema where even in misleading quietness are sowed the seeds of action. Kagemusha isn't just a character study but a study of a character studying another into a spellbinding "mise en abyme", the more Kagemusha understands Shingen, the better he values his responsibility as a Kagemusha, it's an existential epiphany.
What an irony that in reality, he's disrespected and is immediately disregarded once he fulfilled his purpose. He's a pawn that can be moved, even destroyed, with no regards whatsoever for his accomplishment. The Shingen is called a Mountain and his motto was the status quo, a mountain doesn't move. What an irony that a pawn is impersonating a mountain, and the ending shows that nothing is immovable, no one can stay static forever but it's precisely for his desire to get off his father's shadow and move that the Takeda heir will accelerate the downfall.
Not to spoil the ending, I would say that it does close the arc of the Kagemusha in the most powerful way, one that makes the war and the character study converge into a point of existential meaningfulness only to be swept off by the march of history and that even mountains can move, they move slowly yet they move. Whatever the Kagemusha did to provide the haunting final shot is to give a meaning to his life and to his own death, which is after all what his master did. A Kagemuha till the end. And the greatest lesson which is that you can find a meaning to your life in the shadow of another. And Kurosawa's legacy proves it as well.
Indeed, if there will never be any director to equal Kurosawa in talent or historical significance, a Kagemusha director so to speak, I guess living in his shadow would be enough an honor. Think of "Star Wars", "Pulp Fiction", "The Magnificent Seven" or Leone's Westerns, they're all classics... that live in the shadow of "The Hidden Fortress", "Rashomon", "Seven Samurai" or "Yojinbo".
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
How the Coens Won the West
The title is "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and it does sound like something the Coen brothers would come up with. But this is the limit of predictability. Whatever you expect, you ought to be surprised. And you know why? Because I think they surprise themselves in the first place.
Indeed, Hitchcock had said style is self-plagiarism, Tarantino has style in that specific sense, "Django" was a Western version of "Basterds" which was a WWII version of "Kill Bill". But the Coens have style in the opposite way with tracks coverted. So I knew I wouldn't have to expect a new "True Grit" and for that I was right... and wrong, too. Which makes my point.
So the film starts like a Disney animated classic with the "book of the same title" opening... only there's a subtitle that says "and Other Tales of the American Frontier". I foolishly thought it was an adaptation of preexisting tales but it only has one, from Jack London, the rest plays like a splendid and authentic looking tribute to the Western genre that would have made the Holy Trinity of Ford, Leone and Peckinpah go all "yee-haw" from beyond the grave.
All the colorful, enduring and endearing archetypes from Western movies and Lucky Luke adventures are there: gunslingers, duels, bar brawls, prospectors, desperados, wagon trains, "Indians vs. cowboys", stagecoaches, bounty hunters etc. and all displayed in various storytelling textures: humor, tragedy, action ... and served by an impeccable cast. In the comedic parts or those that lean toward absurdity, you can tell actors are having fun, in the 'serious' parts, you're being haunted before the story ever finishes.
Indeed, as colorful and catchy as the title sounds, once you get near the end of the third segment starting with an unforgettable Harry Melling (boy, Dudley Dursley sure grew up!) and Liam Neeson, you have totally forgotten Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). I just loved Nelson in his goofy impersonation of "Shane" in a live action version of a Tex Avery cartoon and I loved the more cynical but no less comedic tale of a bank robber down on his luck played by James Franco (glad to see him back) but the film is never as riveting in its drama parts, and heart-pounding too.
The third segment is about a crippled comedian, with no arms and no legs, being fed by who appears to be a generous theater owner (Liam Neeson) until 'hunger' strikes and with it, and one lesson about the unlimited extent of greed. The following story could be about greed as well, a prospector (Tom Waits) tries to find a pocket of gold near a river, you can tell the man' experienced, talking with nature, addressing respectfully the pocket as Mr., it takes time but we'r mesmerized by the beauty of the shots (some of the finest I ever saw in a Western). I won't dare reveal what happens but it's got something to do with greed too.
And it makes you understand that prospection isn't just a matter of gold, it's not the destination that matters but the journey. Not that it applies for all the following story, the most exciting one set in the wagon train. Now, when you have an anthology made, you're tempted to find a common thread and besides the frontier setting, I guess the overarching idea might come from the final tale, set in a stagecoach, which makes it interestingly both dynamic and static, the passengers, among them Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly try to figure out what is the main distinction between men: weak and strong, upright and sinning etc.
I guess in the Old West, it was about fit and unfit. Some die because they found their nemesis or their match, some because bad luck will have the last word no matter wat and some because it's not fair that they live, there seems to be some Karma of the Old West that determines with an implacable Darwinism who'll be able to survive or not and whether through comedy or drama or action, those who survive leave us with the certitude that the Old West inspired so many myths because it was a catalysis of a nation's identity.
And I enjoyed the film because of the format as well as the content, each story had the perfect timing, it's more than an exercise in style but in precision, and I'm glad there's no recurring character as it's often the case with the Tarantino and Rodrigues films: once a story ends, it ends and there's a feeling of total completeness, just as satisfying as closing a book, the film doesn't cheat or try to over play it... and paint with a documentary-like artistry the fauna and flora of the old west with its sheep, wolves, coyotes, rattlesnakes, skunks through stories where the animal world has a role to play, and not jut metaphorically.
And I can't believe this movie hasn't been in more awards talk (is it a Netflix issue?), this film would have deserved many nominations or at least a spot in the AFI Top 10. Now, we're in mid-January, in the midst of the awards season and all the Oscar yacking and yet the title haven't popped up many times as far as I can remember, which seems to point out that we'd be lucky if Bruno Delbonnel gets a nomination, if there is a nod for costumes and boy, count me among the first to be cheering if Zoe Kazan gets noticed for her supporting performance.
But the Gold prospect seems rather dry and for some reason, that gem of a Western from the Coen brothers didn't find the right pocket... but I'm not sure the film tried to dig any gold, for there's one certitude in my heart, the film IS gold and gold doesn't dig itself, does it?
Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man... who's on first?
Freight handlers Orville (Lou Costello) and Chuck (Bud Abbott) must deliver the remains of the Frankenstein monster and Count Dracula, coming from Europe, to the house of horrors where they belong. Orville gets a phone call from a London resident named Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) but he turns into the Wolf Man before he could emit any warning about the mysterious freight. It's only a matter of time before Abbott and Costello, especially Costello, realize this is the kind of delivery they won't handle easily... as long as we handle the laughs they'd deliver to us.
Now, as a crossover between two Universal superlatives: the then-most successful comedic duo and the most iconic horror creatures, "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" provide the required laughs with a timing that never fails. There are a few gags that aim high but miss but they rarely keep your face in that expression as if you had just experienced Bela Lugosi's hypnotic stare. The film is funny, it inspired other installments where the tall straight man and the funny short guy met with horror milestones (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Invisible Man...) but it's the encounter with Dracula, the Frankenstein monster played by Glenn Strange (we'll call him Frankenstein for practicality's sake) and the Wolf Man that they signed one of their greatest hit, listed in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Comedies.
That said, one of the rampant ironies in the film is that is works as well as a horror movie as it does as a comedy, at least for the third act when the action escalates quickly and we find out that even comedy isn't immune to the rules of death. When the female scientist -who pretended to be in love with Wilbur in order to get his brain- is carried by the Monster and defenestrated without any summation, I was totally caught off guard, this was one death I didn't see coming, not to mention her horrific scream. As a matter of fact, I didn't even think death could be possible in a movie that laid the card of goofiness and slapstick so many times. Maybe it was the animated opening credits or the fact that I had just seen "Road to Morocco"(which coincidentally had an 'Orville') but I didn't think death could be played so straight. Yet it was, and maybe I just used the key word of what makes the film so good.
Indeed, it plays fair with the game it sets up. Every single character doesn't go the easy way with what could have been an exercise in hamming it up because it's "all played for laughs". Lugosi plays for the second time his iconic Dracula (he played vampires before but not THE vampire) and it's like age or the passing of time had no effect whatsoever on his menacing suavity. Lon Chaney Jr. play the Wolf Man in the perfect tonality, which is one of an anxious man trying to protect society from himself but incapable to be understood or believed, he's just like an average Joe struck with a curse. There wouldn't be much to say about Strange as Frankenstein, if he could resist breaking into laughter when Costello sat on him, he was good enough, but I wish Karloff played that part, paraphrasing both Chandler and Barney, could have it been more legen-dary?
So the villains play their part the right way for a simple reason, they know viewers don't expect laughs from them but from the comedic duo. But this is where the charm operates, I only knew the duo from their "Who's on first?" routine, I didn't know how it worked though I suspected Bud Abbott would play the white clown part and I wasn't disappointed. It's obviously Costello who's the center of all the attention as the chubby little guy who suddenly becomes as attractive as Cary Grant and a perfect target for three monsters, ignoring that the two forms of attractions are connected. The way he reacts to each encounter hits the perfect balance between over-the-top hilarity and subdued realism, it's goofy but never ridiculous, it works like a cartoon yet Costello keeps it real. How does it work? I guess that's what comedic talent is about.
I don't know if I enjoyed the film to the point I would watch it several times but I think it hooked me a little to Abbott and Costello and got me interested in the story of that poor comedian with the most interesting face (a mix of Benny Hill, Chaplin and a scream that would have made Goofy jealous) but whose sad story moved me a lot, as a father. I read about the 'Frankenstein' picture that it was one of Tarantino's favorite and I guess I can see why... there's something in the incongruous mix of comedy and horror that surprises in a positive way, especially since the film ends on a rather macabre note yet it finds a perfect punchline with a last minute cameo no one could see coming. Literally. And while a great twist has no price, this one had one with a major P.
Another milestone from the Sensei of modern cinema...
Wandering in a desolated pre-Meiji Japan, a samurai entrusts a piece of wood thrown in the air to guide him once it hits the ground.
He finds himself in a town where two clans fight over political and economical control: there's Seibei, a ruler dependent on the silk commerce and his domineering wife's judgment, and the greedier Ushitora, in the sake brewing business, who wants his share on the silk. "The Godfather" had five families, in "Yojimbo" we get only two, it's more economical but still calls for the same Machiavellian skills Michael Corleone demonstrated, he who learned "to think as the people around. and on that basis, anything is possible".
The rivalry is exposed like a chess game where the Samurai moves the pieces. It means there's more time for thought than action and action must be quick and efficient. Inertia is a power never to be underestimated, being strong from a misleading passiveness. Look at Mifune in his first scenes, moving his shoulders, scratching his cheek. I read Kurosawa told Mifune to play his Samurai like an errand dog, maybe that explains the next startling shot of the dog trotting over the main street with a hand in his mouth, maybe it's only a matter of time before the Samurai starts the biting.
And when the thinking stops, a few shots of sake helping, he says "I'll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die." There's profit for him and peace for innocent villagers, it's a fair trade meaning every move has to be carefully prepared. So when he's taunted by three Ushitora's thugs, he knows he's being observed after having been the observer for a long expositional sequence, he's got to prove he means business. He kills two and chops one's arm, then order two coffins to the undertaker before retracting himself and asking for two, a scene reprised in Sergio Leone's remake "A Firstful of Dollars".
This is "Yojimbo" character-establishing moment, from that point, each Family will want to hire him as bodyguard (the title's meaning). Unbeknownst to them, he'll work for both sides and for neither and he's far a better poker-player than sword-wielder, which is saying a lot. And these poker/chess games exemplify something remarkable in Kurosawa's filmmaking, his films are rooted in the present, whether in dilatation or acceleration. Think of "Rashomon" where the same scene is repeated over and over to accentuate the changes of body languages and emotions in each version, in "Ikiru", the present is the only thing a man can hook his life to and so does it in "Yojinbo".
Even the name given by the Samurai: Kuwabatake Sanjuro is a throwaway alias inspired by the mulberry fields he was just seeing. Like Eastwood, Mifune has no name because a name has a past and he's a man of the present. And Kurosawa's directing is the embodiment of Sanjoru's skills, it's a total control of every moment, a slow ballet between inertia and movement, observation and action. Look at how messy and awkward the fights are until Sanjuro intervenes, and the fight is over as soon as it begun.
The violent moments make for less than a minute in the whole film and the reason why they go so quick is because Kurosawa wants us to focus on something else. When Sanjuro's betrayal is exposed, an immediate ellipse shows him at an inch of life, no need to see the beating, the story must go on, but when he's beaten again by Kannuki the giant, the fight serves a purpose. To focus in "Yojimbo" is to try to give every detail a purpose.
And this is why many scenes show characters in viewing position: the most emblematic one is Sanjuro amusingly watching from above the two clans getting ready to fight before it's cancelled by the arrival of a government official, a "bugyo" (a small role for Takashi Shimura). Later, a long close-up on Sanjuro's disfigured face reveals in the next shot the key to an escape he had just spotted. And that's the key literally with the film, the more you focus, the more you find. Sanjuro understands Ushitora is planning a murder to make the bugyo leave the town, he knows this is an innocent death he won't prevent. Hiding behind a stoic façade some self-loathing feelings, he moves forward by bargaining the price of his collaboration and asking for more sake. That's a subtle detail in Mifune's body language I couldn't see the first time.
There are so many areas to praise I wouldn't know where to begin, it's extraordinary how a movie that feels so effortless became so influential, showing for the first time bad guys against other bad guys, and Mifune giving quite an underrated performance as an antihero who redeems himself a little when he loses a few battles, meeting his match in Ushi-Tori's brother, Usonoke, the young and handsome Tatsuya Nakadai who proudly harbors a gun, the only element that added more unpredictability. At the end, there's one moment where Sanjuro doesn't keep his guard up as if he was ready to die like a Samurai or or because you can't cheat death so many times without giving it a free shot.
Maybe that's why the present is so present, it's haunted by the fear of death; maybe the common denominator of Kurosawa's movies, the Damocles sword that force characters to move forward. That might also explain why the soundtrack is so incongruously modern, unlike the pompous gravity of epic scores, Kurosawa dares the synthetic sound and even something a little pop, allowing the film to free itself from genre conventions, foreshadowing the indispensability of music in the Western genre, thanks to a maestro named Morricone.
Kurosawa trusted his instinct with a Samurai flair, he didn't just make movies, he defied conventions and became a perpetual re-inventor, or the true Sensei of modern cinema.
Road to Morocco (1942)
A hilarious movie that would have made Tex Avery proud!
Funny. There are so many classic comedies, deemed as hilarious in enthusiastic (and certainly sincere) reviews but when I watch them, they fail to elicit more than a few occasional laugh-out-loud moments for me, and it happened so many times I learned to set my mind in a sort of 'magnanimous' mindset, ready to drop the 'dating' excuse to forgive the failing jokes.
I guess I'm more confident with the Marx Brothers except when the romantic subplot pops up but my enthusiasm is certainly more restrained with screwball comedies. I'm not that sophisticated in my taste: the lousiest pun, the dirtiest joke, the silliest gag can make me laugh, and maybe I like silliness and this is why I loved "Road to Morocco" I didn't know exactly what to expect from "Road to Morocco" but I didn't expect I would laugh so much at a 1942 film. Boy, was that film funny. You'd told me Tex Avery directed the film, I would have believed it.
And I'm not just a Tex Avery fan, I'm a Moroccan and I'm glad my country could serve again as a setting to such a delightful comedy gem the same year it inspired one of the greatest American movies ever. Of course the 'Morocco' in the movie is closer to the cartoonish version of "Thousands Nights and One" or one of these Popeye cartoons where Popeye beat up Ali Baba and his gang (I bet Paramount studios couldn't hire some Moroccan counselor) but how accurate was "Casablanca" the film that implied the Mediterranean town was in the desert?
Anyway, how am I going to lay the purist card to a movie that is precisely meant to be a spoof to all these desert-melodramas and casbah-rocking adventures that pullulated in the big screen during the 30s. Indeed, do you really expect a film where a snobbish camel says "this is the screwiest picture I was ever in" to allow a serious critic? What can I say anyway except pick up the best moments and throw them in the reviews like readers' baits?
David Butler's "Road to Morocco" is just one big gag after another, the whole thing wrapped up is the endearingly love-and-hate complicity between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (and Dorothy Lamour as the love and laughs interest). And don't worry if you've missed the first part, halfway through the film Orville gives up a convenient summary to what happened before they ended up in jail "in case some viewers missed it", "you mean they miss my song?" says a bewildered Crosby. And in these five minutes in jail, the film contains more gags than many so-called fundamental comedies of the era.
I saw old movies breaking the fourth wall but the way it's done in the film reminded me of another comedy I absolutely adore: "Wayne's World". There's something of Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar in that buddy couple and a sense of daffy self-awareness. Bob Hope even lets himself go for a heartbreaking tirade at the end, wishing it would earn him an Academy Award. It's funny because I've never laughed much to his shticks as an Oscar host but here, he really bluffed me, the man is hilarious and Crosby is the perfect straight-but-not-so-straight man, he's just too devilishly handsome to be mistaken for a clown but he might be worse than Orville. And even Anthony Quinn as the impetuous Mulay Kasem becomes the butt of the joke instead of the villain. Quinn is so restrained in a rather ungrateful role that we'd almost feel sorry for him.
Because the film is driven by these two carefree trolls who care only for themselves, lust, money and the way they would sell their mothers to get the beautiful Lamour, who's actually the most luscious of all as Princess Shalimar. Ah L'amour. And for this total lack of nobility in gags and characters, I applaud the film. I love the way there's absolutely no holds barred between the two castaways who form the type of accidental pairs you wonder how they ended up together in the first place. "You promised Aunt Lucy to take care of me" "She died before I agreed", that says a lot about the core of their friendship. Jeff (Crosby) doesn't hesitate to sell his old friend to pay for a restaurant, before being summoned by the ghost of Aunt Lucy (an unmistakable Bob Hope) who promise to haunt him if he doesn't help his friend and leaves because "here comes Mr. Jordan".
Everything is an excuse for a throwaway joke, even the lamest one and I like that. The film is so oblivious to any sense of sane and rational behavior even within the silliness that it's remarkably fresh and relevant for its age, it might have been a great inspiration for the Zuckers or the Simpson writers but it's the closest film to the Tex Avery style. I didn't see the previous movies but I guess I'd give them a look now, I saw that one for its inclusion in "AFI Top 100 Comedies", maybe I should have went in chronological order to get the few references... but seriously, who cares about order?
12 Angry Men (1997)
12 Angry, A Few Good and Some Grumpy Old Men...
William Friedkin thrilled the 70s with "The French Connection", "The Exorcist" and the criminally underrated "Sorcerer". His starlight had faded a little when he remade in 1997 the iconic "one-room" drama that made a name out of Sidney Lumet and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that you could thrill without dangers, and inspire without any fanfare.
You don't necessarily make a second masterpiece by remaking one, but "12 Angry Men" is a good remake of a great film, which makes it a great made-for-TV program by proxy. Or it's much simpler: the original film was also a version made after the play and the TV program, and there always was Reginald Rose's brilliant study of justice through characters handling, questioning and applying it with all their differences, biases and personalities.
Because that's what the story is about: characters, the reason why the big screen provided the best version is because of the casting. Not many stars, Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb... many character actors, different magnitudes that enhanced the demographic and opinion-driven divergences within the group. Still there were no women, no ethnic people (the accused was), it was a "typical" jury room of the 50s that could have inspired a Portman-line introduction going like: "and the 12 Angry WHITE Men are..."
Of course, the remake escapes from the initial "bias" since it features four black actors (Courtney B. Vance, Dorian Herewood, Mykelty Williamson and Ossie Davis) and a Hispanic actor (Edward James Olmos). I guess Natalie Portman would still ironize and say: "and the 12 angry male jurors are..." but that's what the title says. You can sense a wish for compensation with the casting of Mary McDonnell as the judge, a remake from today would probably include six women, an Asian-American and a homosexual.
Does these considerations matter? You bet they do. And it's remarkable how in twenty years, even the remake, which was a reflection of its time, could be judged irrelevant or even politically incorrect. Speaking for myself, the major problem I had was with the tenth juror. Williamson did a terrific job, making him so hateful and racist I was wondering why he had to be a Muslim. He's obviously a member of the Black Nation brotherhood, not an Arab but it's eerie how the one hateful character was representing a culture that wouldn't be much appreciated four years later.
I wish I could blame it on the casting choice but by intellectual honesty and given how powerful was Williamson's performance (his angry mumbling at "facts" would almost be funny if it wasn't so scary), I will blame it on the people who gave the negative images through actions. And by the way, it was quite a masterstroke to have the "villain" be played by an African actor as to show that the film doesn't try to please sensitivities. That I liked.
But the film isn't beyond criticism either and one of them is that the casting is way too old. If you check the trivia section, you'll find a comment from a math geek (that's me) about the average juror's age and the comparison is startling: the average 1957 juror's age is 45, in 1997, it's 56. I have no bias whatsoever against old people but in some cases, it was just plain weird. Ossie Davis who was 48 years older than his counterpart looked rather disoriented while Fiendler was supposed to be meek and submissive.
Another time, Juror #6, a rather underused James Gandolfini, threatens Juror 3 because he disrespected #10 (Hume Cronin), but but I doubt Gandolfini would have dared anything against him the then 72-year old George C. Scott. Now, would the film be the same without Scott's intense performance? I doubt so. Would it be the same without Jack Lemmon? I don't think so either. It's incredible how two miscasts made up for terrific performances but even when Lemmon tried to comfort Cronin, he felt like he could be easily shaken himself.
They were so old that they had to cast a 86-uear old actor to play the "wise old man". Even Lemmon was only five years older than Juror #4, but the main problem with Armin Mueller-Stahl is how distracting his accent was (not to mention his "ow yes!") I think he would have been more suitable for for the Swiss watchmaker part. Olmos could have been an interesting foreman while I could see Vance in the stockbroker part (his sad nod at the end of the football game monologue was way too overdone in what should have been his shining moment). Did I drop all the actors' names?
Oh and I can say that #12 (William Petersen) did his best with the least colorful role and Tony Danza gives his best performance after Tony Miccelli, if there was anyone to play a baseball fan, I'm glad it was him. A user pointed out that his body language (looking at his tickets when confronted by #11) was another useless emotional overkill, I thought it gave a nice touch to the film as it tried to distance itself from the original, even #10 doesn't realize his bigotry, he just ends up being indifferent. Why not?
So for all the differences with the original, it's remarkable how the film maintains its flow throughout the hour and half, and again, the performance of Scott is so intense, so stirring he even manages to outdo Lee J. Cobb who was great. Scott would win the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a TV Production, Lemmon lost to Ving Rhames who gave him the award and contributed to what Lemmon called "the sweetest moment of his life".
I wish I could find an interesting correlation with the overall racial content of the film, but if only for that beautiful gesture coming a few years before Lemmon's death, I'm glad Friedkin remade "12 Angry Men" and cast the great Jack Lemmon.
Dark Victory (1939)
A laudable effort... but that victory is still a surrendering to Hollywood glamour and melodrama conventions...
Cancer in "Dark Victory" is treated like Mafia in "The Godfather": a plot-driving 'entity' whose concrete and negative existence is ignored in favor of abstract and positive values. "The Godfather" had family, loyalty, Marlon Brando while "Dark Victory" has dignity and Bette Davis. But while the former was wrongly accused of romanticizing criminals, "Dark Victory" did glamorize cancer, in Hollywood's A-class melodramatic fashion.
Still, there's something puzzling and paradoxical in that seminal cancer tearjerker from Edmund Goulding, a director who didn't leave an indelible mark in Hollywood Pantheon since you can't write his name from memory. The paradox is that it has the merit to treat a new subject for its time and the way it can cut short a promising life, but its treatment of cancer (so to speak) is Hollywood kitsch only redeemed by the acting. In other words: the form is a product of its time while the content is ahead of it.
Based on a 1934 play, "Dark Victory" is about a young, carefree and free-spirited socialite played by Bette Davis (at the epitome of her youthful beauty) who's diagnosed with a brain condition that expresses itself through dizziness, blurred vision and whose first dramatic signal is a spill during horse-riding. One year after "Jezebel" that earned her her second Oscar, Davis plays once again a passionate woman who wouldn't let adversity get the best of her.
Now, it' all fine and inspiring on the paper and I wish we could all face cancer the way she does... but once a screenplay decides to treat cancer as too ugly a thing to affect a woman like Judith "Judy" Traheme, the character becomes as improbable as the Wicked Witch of the West. It's one thing for someone like Scarlett O'Hara to be larger-than-life but "Dark Victory" was begging for more modesty in its approach to cancer and more humility in the lead performance.
Not to diminish her acting, Oscar-worthy and all that, but there was something too grand in it, not one false note in Davis' resistance to the rollercoaster of destiny, not a single tear ruining her eyeliner, nothing to compromise her certitude that she shall overcome. The trouble with such performances is that they're too good for their own good, they seem to prevent the film from falling into the emotional goo many cancers movies got stuck into, but they sink into it anyway, through reverse emotion.
Davis' smile, her energy, her childish stubbornness, the way she keeps her sense of humor and never let the disease interfere with her social priorities become the indirect indicators of the saccharine moments. I wanted to feel sorry, I wanted to cry but I wished the film could play fair with cancer at least once. What saves it though for total unbearableness is the peripheral performances. Indeed, if you pay attention to the quiet little moments where Davis doesn't steal every inch of celluloid and chew the scenery, you might let a sight of genuine sadness slip out of your mouth.
I felt sad when Henry Travers was already mourning that girl he "brought to the world", I totally empathized with the tears painfully repressed in Geraldine Fitzgerald's eyes, containing a waterfall of grief in her heart while witnessing the downfall of her best friend. I loved George Brent's devotion to the clinical case until the man replaced the doctor and ends up admiring that soul whose will didn't match the health (once again, there's a great chemistry between George Brent and Bette Davis).
My feelings also went for Humphrey Bogart who was still relegated to forgettable character-actor roles but who had only two years to go before becoming undeniable, and Ronald Reagan who wouldn't make it as a Hollywood legend but whose destiny had other plans for him. But let's get back to the core of the film: cancer. It is relegated to nuisance, somewhat similar to one drop of martini too many, and an operation whose outcome is a coquettish hat to cover the scars. The film doesn't downplay the terminal effects but treat them as if the Hays Code made a taboo out of it.
And while we're gratified with fancy terms like "prognosis" or "glioma", the film either treats cancer with so much gravitas it's below us or so casually it's above, either as a Damocles sword or a pebble in a shoe. But Judy should have been a martyr, not a heroine, a heroine triumphs and the title says it all "Dark Victory" but a martyr faces death, challenges it, but doesn't ignore the pain or the suffering and cancer is too serious to be treated like something to battle like a shining knight, we battle it because we have no choice.
The film was one of the first to treat cancer and for that significance, it deserves to be seen and appreciated but it also shows how remote Hollywood was from reality, going as far as reducing a brain tumor to something that would announce death in the few minutes after full blindness as if death had the common decency to announce itself when knocking at the door and leaving you with enough time to pave goodbye to the beloved ones. Speaking of which, wherever were Judy's parents and family all that time?
The ending of "Dark Victory" is memorable and haunting even if you dared to watch it with cynical eyes but it's too cinematic for its own good, too staged even in its naturalness. The film was listed in both AFI's Inspiring Movies and Romance, but the romance was needless glamorization of a rather painful material. There would come times where Davis would shave her head, make herself look uglier or lament about her age, but it was 1939, the climax of the Golden Age and one of the Best Picture of the years needed a grand finale.
It's just a shame that "Dark Victory" had to surrender to Hollywood conventions.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Saving Mr. Banks again...
The mark of a good musical is when you leave the theater humming a song or two. The mark of a great one is when you can remember a few after you put on your pajamas.
On that basis, Rob Marshall's "Mary Poppins Returns" is a good musical and I wouldn't be surprised if the "bath" song is nominated for an Oscar. However, I felt that the songwriters were so busy with the messages that they forgot to have a tune, a catchy little tune to stick in your mind like lettuce in your teeth.
Now I remember the 'beware the appearances' song, the 'you never lose someone/something' song, the 'awaken your inner child' song etc. and these are all positive messages no consideration whatsoever of gender, which in itself is refreshing, but one of the merits of the original "Mary Poppins" is to have provided songs that are still remembered by many generations.
The Sherman Brothers could come up with positive messages but never at the expenses of the fine little tune you can hum, those were their bare necessities. So "Mary Poppins Returns" isn't a great musical by Disney standards but there was more than music at stakes. How about the story? How faithful was it to P.T. Travers' spirit? To the 1964 classic? To Disney Studios?
Well, it does its best and avoids a few traps (not all of them though). It takes place in London during the Great Depression with a Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) raising his three children alone after the death of their mother. At first, he strikes like the usual bumbling father so typical of today's productions but not to the point of being laughed at, the fact that he's a widower adds some considerable gravitas to his character.
It's also a smart move plot-wise as it allows Emily Mortimer to play a sort of surrogate mother's role in Jane Banks and mark a second connection to the original film. I'm not too fond on the "kids with a deceased parent" tropes, overused by Disney but this time, it served a purpose which was to justify how mature they were for their age, and not immediately amazed by Mary Poppins' antics and even be able to be parenting their own father, which was sweet.
Overall, there's a fine balanced mix of pathos and comedy. But the plot thickens when they face a risk of expulsion because Daddy forgot the last payments and must pay the house's entire loan price. What can save them is one certificate justifying shares bought by Mr. Banks Sr. Will they find it before the five days of delay, will the Big Boss (Colin Firth) wait till Big Ben's final bell?
I'm being ironic in purpose because it seems the writer David Magee was in need of a villain and it's one of the things that didn't ring a perfect note in the film. The original didn't have a villain, it was about relationships, about a man finding his child's soul, the troubles were within the Banks. By introducing a clear antagonist, the film extends the plot to needless ramifications.
Even on a practical level, the theater was full of children who were ready to embrace the magic. During the China Bowl segment, the scene following the action sequence was needless, "Mary Poppins" should be beyond forced chases. Granted it was necessary to alert the kids about the hidden side of Wilkins' character but their incapability to articulate their suspicion (after the incident) is so baffling it falls into the idiotic plot.
In fact, the real problem is the "real problem" (so to speak): when you venture in fantasy realms, anything is possible. Surely a woman who can take children 'under the sea' for a bathing moment or visit a cartoon could turn pieces of paper into real money? There's an interesting moment in the climax that I won't spoil and that sums up this: "Mary Poppins doesn't need to help anyone to find a solution, she IS the solution".
Somewhat, the original avoided that trap because the issue wasn't money. That doesn't diminish the successor's value but at the end, it sets up a family in need of reconstruction and a sense of wonder but it turns out that what really saves them is material, it's like all the positive messages delivered by the songs didn't help as much as a spoonful of money.
Again, this is a film for children, it lasts for two hours and ten which is too long. Cut the chase, one of the bank scene, rearrange the editing and you have a good family fantasy film. The most difficult part was over since they had the right casting with Emily Blunt. I spoke about Oscar chances for songs but I wouldn't be surprised if she was nominated, Blunt is very good in it, quite a convincing Poppins and she played it a bit like De Niro did with "The Godfather", it's a faithful continuation but not an impression.
Honorable mention to Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jack the lamplighter; though the romantic subplot was a bit gratuitous, he was a fun counterpart to Dick Van Dyke. Speaking of which, it's a pity Andrews didn't make a cameo, I didn't mind first but when I saw Van Dyke, I was hoping to see Andrews' face in the end (Angela Lansbury could have had any other cameo) but I was disappointed by Andrews' absence, not that I would blame it on the producers but they should have tried more. I felt something was missing.
Andrews said she didn't want to steal Blunt's thunder, it would have been a beautiful ending and left a bittersweet taste in my mind. I just loved most of the film except for the needless villain, the sad absentee and a lack of memorable songs.
The rest I can say was faithful to the original, had a touch of wonder of its own and was just irresistible to watch.
The Fascinating Clash between (not so young) Ringo Kid and Mr. Smith
"We've got to start thinking beyond our guns. Those days are closing fast." (William Holden in "The Wild Bunch")
While it's not in the Western Orthodoxy to introduce John Ford through Sam Peckinpah, the quote at least demonstrates that the revisionist spirit that deconstructed all archetypes of the Western myth fittingly started with the director that shaped them all.
Indeed, for many decades, John Ford has been building the foundations of a culturally significant genre. Figures that belonged to yellowed pages from dusty books came to life: homesteaders, cattlemen (and not cowboys), marshals, desperadoes etc. Meanwhile, the big screen magnified an iconic imagery such as Monument Valley, a cavalry charge or the more colorful bar brawl in the saloon while "Oh Dem Gold Slippers" is playing.
Whether it was lassitude, self-questioning or just that he loved Dorothy Jonson's novel, Ford drew the limits of the very frontier spirit his earlier movies exuded in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". And the tension that inhabits the film, all in atmospheric black-and-white, derives from that opening quote. "The Wild Bunch" was about old-school outlaws who became sort of romantic misfits after the turn of the century, Ford' movie starts at the same period with a powerful senator Ransom Stroddes (James Stewart) who used to be a law-abiding tenderfoot, an Old West misfit.
Stroddes is married to Hallie (Vera Miles) and came back to Shinbone to bury an old friend: Tom Doniphon. And from the very start, even before the flashback, it's all contrast between the two men. One has become an important and influent political figure, beloved and admired, the other has sunk into oblivion and landed in pine box that couldn't have contained the man he was 25 years ago, only mourned by two relics of that past: friend Pompey (Woody Strode) and cowardly former sherif Link Appleyard (Andy Devine).
Whatever connection between Senator Stroddes and long forgotten Doniphon was, it awakens the curiosity of the local press editor, there's got to be something so important it's not to be asked nicely. And looking ready to relieve some big weight from his conscience, Stroddes takes everyone (viewers included) 25 years earlier as if Ford himself was reminiscing over his seminal Western classic and Wayne's breakthrough role...through the emblematic stagecoach.
And like a second nod to 1939, we have James Stewart as a young (suspension of disbelief aiding) idealistic newcomer having a foretaste of the law of the West served in full sociopathic mode by the leather whip of local terror Liberty Valance, played by a scene-stealing Lee Marvin, and his two goons, the taciturn Lee Van Cleef and giggling Strother Martin. Valance represents violence in its most Darwinian, reminding of movies like "Shane" where cattlemen resorted to bullying and intimidation to coerce farmers into leaving.
This conflict is the main backdrop, it shows that the worst thing about men like Valance is that the Old West made them relevant as well as the ineptitude of the good townspeople of Shinbone, from the easily-scared sheriff to the braver but inefficient press editor played by Edmund O'Brien. Stroddes could measure how much progress civilization had to make when the only remedy to the disease named Valance could only be the same use of violence and gun, only as legitimate self-defense. Needless to say that the embodiment of the noblest side of the coin is represented by Duke.
Doniphon calls Stroddes 'pilgrim', initiating his iconic catchphrase, seeing him as nothing but a crusader who needs to conform because the West surely won't. Interestingly, the film doesn't side with any of them but allows each to make his point. There's something worthy of admiration in Stroddes' determination and while there's no doubt that Doniphon is the fittest to survive physically, Stroddes' ideals and values get the upper hand on the long term. But the film is more than the clash between two schools of thought, the two men are only the visible tips of the iceberg.
Indeed, there's more at stakes on a macrocosmic level: a campaign for statehood in order to get the town out of the grip of cattle barons (and their enforcers) one of them being played by John Carradine. And at the risk of being heavy loaded, there's also a triangular romance centering on Hallie, the woman Doniphon loves but who seems to grow an infatuation toward Stroddes. She couldn't have more opposite men to love, an old-fashioned cowboy who compliments her looks when she's mad, offers her cactus blossoms and builds her a cottage... and a man of ideals who can build a future which means laws and education for everybody, including her.
Ideals vs. Nostalgia. All these elements contribute to make the climactic shooting of Liberty Valance a pivotal and interesting moment in the film. One can notice how the rules of the duel are totally subverted when it comes to the shooting, it's not "played fair", it doesn't seem like something Duke or the Ford of "My Darling Clementine" might have permitted. One can also notice that the shooting doesn't even play like the climax and is followed by twenty minutes where an existential downfall coincide with a career rise.
Finally, the classic line "When the legend becomes fact, print the Legend" seals the idea that legend can serve the future at the expenses of the truth, with the help of the press building itself as the fourth power and deciding what to publish or not. It's extraordinary how relevant the film is, politically speaking, showing powers in action: both legal and executive while the intricacies between the executive and the press haven't changed a bit.
But Ford, in that Western that resonates as the sum of all wisdoms, is still the boss, and remains faithful to the Western spirit. After all, people might not remember or cheer for Doniphon, but we do, and that's enough to cancel the underlying pessimism of a fascinatingly meditative and thought-provoking film.
Cat Ballou (1965)
A helluva performance from Lee Marvin makes "Cat Ballou" a must-see Western comedy!
Maybe the best compliment I'd give to "Cat Ballou" is that I enjoyed it better than Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles (both films made it in American Film Institute Top 100 Comedies) but unlike Mel Brooks, Elliott Silverstein (a forgotten name) never gets carried away to the point he forgets to tell a story.
The film has a straightforwardness in the narrative that retrospectively betrays a lack of inspiration but it provides a reasonable amount of laughs and some hilarious gags (the "Happy Birthday To You" one killed me), setting the tone quickly and by quickly, I mean immediately. When you have the Columbia Lady turning into a cartoon pin-up, tossing her robe to reveal a sexy cowgirl shooting all over the screen in pure 60s animation, you know this is a movie that is aiming rather high in terms of laughs.
Then our eyes are gratified with the irresistible sight of Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole as official minstrels and officious Greek Chorus introducing us to the Ballad of Cat Ballou, played by a youthful Jane Fonda. Sadly, Cole would die a few months later of cancer and would never see the film be released, but he couldn't have a better ending role, he and Kaye form a wonderful matched couple.
So we discover the beautiful Cat Ballou waiting for the rope like Marie-Antoinette the guillotine and the film tells her story in flashback. We discover her as Catherine, a shy and prude soon-to-be teacher whose supporter leaves in a train next to the most respectable figure: a priest (Dwayne Hickman). 'Cat' had just caught the eye of a handsome escorted criminal Clay Boone (Michael Callan) and she's not indifferent to his charm.
There's something in Fonda's performance that is full of juvenile vulnerability and a repressed appetite for thrills of any sorts. In fact, no one is what he seems to be, the first time the priest opens his mouth, it sets the tone of unpredictability that drives every major supporting character, all deconstructing the myths of the Western in the funniest way. Even Frankie Ballou, the no-nonsense father played by John Marley mistakes his Native hand Jackson Two-Bears (Tom Nardini) from one of the "chosen people".
The Native mistaken for a Jew and played by an Italian is perhaps the sanest character of male persuasion in the whole film. The priest is a scam, Boone a coward and the father who should take the threats of Wolf Fort's people seriously (he refuses to sell his ranch for the railroad company) doesn't care. This is all played for laughs, and Cat Ballou is both the woman and straight man of the film.
But even the best oiled comedy machinery wouldn't have worked too long if it wasn't for the genius casting of Lee Marvin. It takes more than half-an-a hour but it's all worth it. I wouldn't call it a dual performance as we don't see much of Tim Strawn, the man who gives a reason to Cat to seek revenge, but as Kid Shellein, he's simply a constant delight.
It's one thing to play drunk, but Kid isn't any drunkard, he's a gunslinger who can't do with and without the liquor: if he's too drunk, he's ineffective, if he's sober, he's shaking and the way he expresses his need is borderline drama, he needs to have a few drops to get on his feet and not drop his pants, and for a brief amount of time, he's the best shot of the west, the rest of the time, he's hilarious as well and provides most the laugh.
Marvin was responsible for the good and jovial atmosphere during the shooting and Silverstein credited him for that. Interestingly, Fonda didn't get along with him, maybe she resented having the less juicy role despite being the titular, but it's true that those who're looking for the equivalent of our "girl power" movies will be disappointed, "Cat Ballou" is bad ass all right but her incredible good looks and soft sexiness are the best assets she exhibits... the script doesn't give her much to value, even the crime that brings her to jail is rather played in an anticlimactic way.
In fact, Lee Marvin is the star and that the film isn't titled "The Legend of Kid Shellen" is because he's a supporting role, which brings me to a point: he should have shared with the horse his Oscar for Bet Supporting Actor. The year after, Mathau would win in Supporting for "The Fortune Cookie" where he was clearly the co-lead, got to wonder how the Academy works sometimes. But that doesn't diminish the film's merit, it's a classic Western comedy, bu is it a classic Western?
To be honest, I've held an unfair grudge against "Cat Ballou" and I blame it on the AFI. When it unveiled its Top 10 Westerns, two titles rang like abnormalities to me: "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Cat Ballou". Never heard of any, saw each, and I thought Altman's film wasn't just one of the best Western but one of the best movies, period. But "Cat Ballou" kept me more skeptical.
I just rewatched two films that could have made decent tenth entries: John Ford's classics "My Darling Clementine" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". "Rio Bravo" or "The Magnificent Seven" would have been relevant. Or "The Ox-Bow Incident", "True Grit", "Little Big Man". "Cat Ballou" is an entertaining Western, but Top 10? Not sure it's Top 50 material.
These considerations put a considerable weight on my initial judgment and made me look at the film as something that stole a lousy spot in a list, instead of a fun, daring, sometimes hilarious parody of the Western genre, and had it dared a little more, perhaps its reputation would have equaled "Blazing Saddles", a film I found a tad overrated.
But if a comedy had to make it in the Top 10, I'm glad it was "Cat Ballou".
The Informer (1935)
You'll never forget Gypo Nolan!
I didn't expect it and yet it came. I found one of my favorite acting performances and it's in a 1935 film, and not a Hollywood heavyweight, though the actor is one in every meaning of every syllabus of the word: Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan, the titular "Informer" in John Ford's unforgettable character study.
And what a fascinating character! The 1930s often featured boring heroes and unredeemable villains (as monsters or gangsters), which didn't leave much room for antiheros, especially of the feeble and cowardly sort. And it's one thing to expect it from a film like "M", but even Peter Lorre played a traditional villain for the most part until he blossomed as a three-dimensional person who had a comment or two against his own accusers.
But "The Informer" is the accused one and has nothing to blame the others about, he's solely responsible for his actions but then why does he earn our sympathy so easily? Maybe because he's also "not responsible" for his actions, too dumb, too bitter or his mind too soaked with alcohol to be capable of lucidity. We would forgive him if he's capable at least once to realize his mistakes, that ounce of lucidity might redeem him. Hey, maybe that's the film's point.
But let's have a look at that man, what a man! Gypo! Gypo! Even the name has quite an echo to it, like some Greek king (as he's called during his drunken journey) or a giant from a tale, a name that resonates like bang drums on the top of a mountain... and that's exactly how the character dominates his entourage, by being Gypo. But before we see that Gypo, we meet the down-on-his-luck schmuck who used to part of the IRA muscle, he's best fit for the brawns than the brains and he'd be smart enough to admit it himself. He was fired after refusing to fire. He wondered in Dublin streets and poverty, full of bitterness and resentment.
Gypo might not have the usual build of traitors, you know mousy little sneak fellows. His gigantic presence is enough to draw any attention on him while it's the opposite of the usual traitors' requirements. However, he had the motives symbolized by two posters on wall, an ad for travels to America at 10£ (a fortune in 1920 Ireland) and the crucial "Wanted" of his friend Frankie McPhilip, dead or alive by the infamous "Tans", 20£ for anyone who knows his whereabouts. Gypo was hesitant first but when your sweet-heart (Heather Angel) is street-walking after having called you a loser, and you can get enough money to sail together to America. What else can you do?
Having watched "The Wind That Shakes the Barley", I was aware enough of the Tans' reputation and the treatment IRA reserved to traitors to understand the stakes as soon as Gypo gets the money. But while I expected the film to venture in the realms of guilt and feature a cat-and-mouse chase, Gypo metamorphosed himself into a whole new character, that carried the film alone for one hour. The man was at an inch of liberty, he could have kept the money and waited for the first boat to travel to America but no! Gypo would better be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime and the exhilaration of having a fortune in his pockets burn him with a passion that makes he phoenix resurrect from the ashes.
And one can't review the film without praising the elements that make it so great. First McLaglen's performance, only a superficial view would make it look over-the-top. This is a man who's been worn-down for such a long time he became incapable to discern whatever is morally good or right, when he betrays his friend, it's a generous act for the woman he loves, he didn't look at the negative side of it, he's blind. At first, he's blind anyway. And he was expelled because he couldn't kill, this is a man who can knock you out with a pinch but can't terminate a life. He's a man of guts and hearts, not of reason and his tragedy is doubled as his lack of reason also prevents him from keeping a low profile.
Of course, that's what makes for such a spectacular yet complex performance, the man can be as jovial and friendly as a big bear but as sneaky and vicious as a rat, going as far as accusing another man to take the blame. Nor the film or the performance tones down the fact that he is dangerous and that the IRA is right to be concerned but McLaglen is just impossible to dislike. He delivers a performance in the same vein than Lorre, as a man who can't help but act the way he does because it's eating him. Some men are like that, uncontrollable, think of poor Fredo Corleone who betrayed himself because he was too drunk to realize his brother was listening, he was enjoying this time he was leading the show.
And John Ford realizes a real tour de force, as an expressionist masterpiece showing the lowest depths of a flawed man through a haunting imagery, juxtapositions of images reflecting Gypo's thinking and the use of the money and the sum of 20£ as a Checkov gun that ends up shining the light on Gypo. And he was a character with light inside, even as a traitor, an informer, he couldn't hide in the dark. It's only fitting that the last time we saw it, it's under a light, and it was the perfect one to close his arc.
And I couldn't care less that the film didn't win Best Picture, Ford and McLaglen get the Oscars and so did Max Steiner for an atmospheric tune that could have made Hitchcock proud and Dudley Nichols for a screenplay that made street-language sound as punchy as Gypo's fists and as tormented as his soul.
It just lacks some spice but it's still good, it's still good...
It's always difficult to judge a sequel on objective terms as the original always carries the edge of being "unprecedented" in a way or another.
Sure "The Mansion of Gods" wasn't a newcomer as the eight animated Asterix film but it was preceded by adaptations that belonged to the lesser category and movies that -despite their success- sowed incertitude over Asterix' adaptability in the minds of many fans... until Astier came.
And I loved his film because unlike its predecessors, it didn't try to emulate Disney or Pixar trends and that was the first credit I gave to the director and writer Alexandre Astier, a comedian who proved to be as much a fan of the little Gaul as Alain Chabat and a worthy successor. And it also helped that the film was a faithful adaptation of one of the best comic-book adventures, a sedentary one with an interesting commentary on deforestation, urbanism and its effect on environment, to put it simply an ecological and social view on the march of progress from the village's perspective.
While I was hoping a second Astier movie, I didn't know there was one in preparation so it caught me totally off guard. I came, I saw the trailer and then two fears conquered me.
First, the title "The Secret of the Magic Potion" gave the first major hint: it wasn't an adaptation, while this didn't prevent "The Twelve Tasks" to be a masterpiece, I was afraid Astier would get too carried away by the previous success and go a little overboard, making the kind of stories similar to the recent albums from Uderzo. Of course, one won't expect 100% realism for a series whose narrative is driven by a magic potion but it's pretty much handled like a McGuffin and only Uderzo is blamable for having gone as far as showing people getting bigger, turned into granite and worse, cows flying in the Atlantis or Alien invasion.
The second trouble was with the voices, for non-French speakers, Roger Carel is to Asterix what Mel Blanc was to many Looney Tunes characters, that he could voice the little Gaul during a time span of 47 years was a credit to his longevity and irreplaceability. But the lone survivor of a generation of voice-actors who shaped the childhoods of millions of children retired before the release, which prompted Astier to cast Christian Clavier. It wasn't the most unwise choice as Clavier is still the best live-action version of Asterix. I didn't have any problem with his voicing especially since Astérix isn't given a central role, the real focus is Getafix who must find a heir to transmit the secret of his most famous recipe, the magic potion that give a superhuman power to its drinker, except Obelix who "fell inside where he was little".
While indispensable in the series, the magic potion has catalyzed a few adventures such as "The Golden Sickle", "The Great Crossing" and "The Black Gold" which allows many fans to know a few ingredients, beside the mistletoe and the lobster (for the flavor) there must be some fish (reasonably fresh), some black oil, ultimately replaced by beetroot juice, for a better taste and the rest lies on Getafix' unique knowledge and can only be transmitted from druid's mouth to druid's ear.
The magic potion has always been a popular trope like the French equivalent of Popeye's spinach and the expression "to fall into something as a child" (meaning being good at it from the start) or "magic potion" (meaning a secret) has entered common language in French (like so many expressions coined by Goscinny). So the initial idea was good, though the fact that it was a broken ankle that pushed Getafix to contemplate his decline was rather far-fetched. Didn't he fall after saving a bird and making stunts that could have made Disney's Tarzan yodel with jealousy? He did act like a prima-donna that was so unlike his usual venerability.
Anyway, what Getafix wants, Getafix gets. So he is escorted by Asterix and Obelix to the quest for the right successor, he sends a small herd of boars to call his 'fellow druids' for a special meeting at the Carnutes forest. And the druids part restored my confidence in Astier's humor, except for one tiny detail, not so tiny but the size of a child actually.
The first film had a cute relationship between Obelix and a Roman child, one that wasn't overplayed and didn't make an underdog hero out of the child. Of course, once the little girl pops up in a school scene, my intuition anticipated everything and accurately so, I was afraid it would another of these Moana-Frozen "chosen one" things again. First of all, she doesn't belong to the film's canon. Not that it matters but who are their parents anyway? Aren't they worried over her disappearance? It doesn't take an Asterix fan to understand what she was doing, only being aware of most family-friendly movies trends. I suspect some marketing behind that choice, it didn't have the Astier zest in it.
Overall, the film provides a nice backstory of Getafix and an interesting rival in Sulfurix, the druid who's clearly more powerful and whose only flaw is not to have invented the magic potion, his alliance with the Romans and the fact that the Gauls left the village to pick before the journey, made the climax rather predictable but I guess it was spectacular enough to make for a positive impact, maybe because there's always that self-awareness in Astier that has a certain ring to it.
So I liked it in the sense that it stayed faithful to the first film's spirit and didn't take any major deviation, I only wish it could have deviated more for some stuff we've seen in so many animated movies, especially coming from Astier...ix.
The Quiet Man (1952)
There's Something in the Eire...
In 1941, John Ford directed one of his best and most personal movies: "How Green Was My Valley" it was also his only Best Picture.
The film was a nostalgic ride over a Welsh mining town shot in all black-and-white so both of the titular green and Maureen O'Hara fiery red hair were left to our imagination. The monochrome choice had also the merit to camouflage the Californian setting, as war made any overseas shooting impossible.
Interestingly, despite the 'Welsh' cultural mark, the film was also a tribute to Ford's Irish ancestry. He even challenged purists by having many Irish actors play Welsh characters. It is possible that Ford thought this was the closest he would get to his roots so he let his sentimental self take the command of the camera. In 1951, he finally had the opportunity to honor Eire by adapting short story by Maurice Walsh, whose rights were bought in the early 30s.
But how can one possibly imagine a tribute to Ireland in black-and-white or devoid of that so particular green? The Emerald Isle was a jewelry box out of which John Ford had to forge a gem... and it was "The Quiet Man", a film of temper and tenderness... and for once, a really green valley! You just can't cheat with the old country especially since no war has raised its ugly head to prevent Ford from taking a long vacation and bring his long-time partner John Wayne and the beautiful Maureen O'Hara for what would be one of his signature films.
With "The Quiet Man", John Ford finally proves his statement right as he said: "None of my so called better pictures are westerns." I've enjoyed many of his Westerns but I admired the non-Western ones for the temperament they deployed without any fancy directing or elaborate storytelling, Ford just knew how to get the right effects. And "The Quiet Man" for that matter puts you immediately at ease, like the first sips of a pint of Guinness.
Though the opening credits use a beautiful coastal view under a bright sunset, the film doesn't lay the green color at first but starts with the stranger's homecoming. Sean Thornton, the American coming back to his native Ireland and asking for a village named Insfree, a simple question that sets the tone and invite the first chuckles. So we'll deal with the colorful and sentimental Ireland and John Wayne didn't come to kick some ass or start some quarrel. In this appeasing mood, we appreciate his welcoming by the elfin-like Michaeleen played by the irresistible Barry Fitzgerald.
The town's matchmaker (and occasional bookmaker) discovers that the big hunk of a man (one foot taller) is the little Sean he saw grow up and move to Pittsburgh, back to claim the land that belonged to his deceased parents, determined to start a new life in the green cradle. The exposition allows us to encounter in once all the players of that farcical melodrama. Ward Bond is the town priest. Catching Sean's eye is Maureen O'Hara as Mary Kate Danaher, the turbulent sister of Squire Will Danaher, a loud-mouthed self-centered bully (a scene-stealing over-the-top,Victor McLaglen) who won't have any outsider stepping on his territory, let alone the land he intends to buy from the rich Widow Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick).
This will obviously complicate the love story going between Sean and Mary Kate, till marriage and even beyond. There might be bar brawls and big fistfights but maybe because there's always something worth all these shenanigans and deep inside, the Irish people are all proud of their traditions. Sean Thornton will learn at his expenses why America might have some roots in Ireland but is not Ireland. And it takes some great deal of courage from Wayne to play the part of a man branded as coward because in this cultural immersion.
Of course he has his reasons and we know it's only a matter of time before the two distinguished gentlemen let the fists talk but "The Quiet Man" hides behind its comedic and romantic façade a great deal of knowledge about Ireland's traditions and the way they forged the temperament of many Americans whether born in the country or in America. There are many parts in the film that would be considered politically incorrect by our standards, but who would dare to call Wayne abusive or O'Hara submissive? The couple is certainly not mismatched when it comes to principles.
Some would take a dowry as a symbol of oppressive patriarchy but Mary Kate isn't concerned with the money but what it represents, her emancipation, she's unchained by an institution like everyone else but not her free will. It's actually the men who learn humbling lessons in the film as if sometimes, one should consider the value of traditions before embracing everything from the modernity. Well, it's possible that the film has a few chauvinistic undertones but they never to be taken seriously, and well, sometimes the old-fashioned ways have their charm, and d it's precisely because a movie like "The Quiet Man" aged a lot that it feels so new and exhilarating.
Ever since I discovered Ireland, I had a soft spot for that country and I envy those who have that tradition pumping in their blood, not denying mine of course, but it's a credit to John Ford to have made such a beautiful tribute to Ireland, visually and musically (that Victor Young's theme) that it probably made a few viewers, secretly wish they would be Irish.
And just because nothing dramatic affects the film doesn't mean it's not entertaining and even thrilling in its own way, it's as quiet as its hero, calm and comprehensive on the surface but has with a few tricks under its sleeve... and knows how to make your heart pound, your jaw drop and your belly laugh!
A slice of Life... with a major "L"...
The story of Cleo and her 'family' might hit a sensitive chord for many viewers who grew up not just in Mexico but in any Third-World country, maybe not just in the 70s but probably the 80s or early 90s.
By no means am I depriving the story from its cultural core but it was Roger Ebert who said: "The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone." Still, it's not just about the characters, I could relate to the context as well on a superficial but still deeply personal level.
Coming from a middle-class family of Morocco, we also had these girls who came from poorer backgrounds (generally rural areas) and whose treatment would look a bit like slavery from a European/"Western" standpoint. The term wouldn't be appropriate though as they were paid, certainly not mistreated and in most cases were considered like members of the family. Not all the ladies of the house treated them with respect but they were often loved by the kids as sister-figures or even surrogate mothers. I was practically raised by the same 'dada' from the age of 4, she dressed me, woke me up, cleaned me till I was 8 (my daughter does it alone since she's 3) and well, she was part of my life and I miss her a lot.
I could relate to the story of Cleo and I was glad that the film didn't take the predictable "clash of the classes" path: having her fired, being rejected or ending as a prostitute in some brothel of Mexico City... Cuaron is above these tiresome archetypes and his intention is clearly to take the opportunity of a nostalgic voyage through his childhood to show people with a strong capability of caring and being empathetic regardless of their origins or social backgrounds. And Cleo, played with mesmerizing naturalness by Yalitza Aparicio, is obviously a girl to inspire the very feelings she exudes: she loves the children she saw growing up since the cradle, she's devoted to her "Signora" Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, and she values her luck to be part of that world... she knows she could have been unluckier.
It's also interesting that Cleo isn't conventionally good-looking, not in a glamorous Hollywood sense anyway, and her petite frame and youthful face illuminated with a wide smile accentuate her vulnerability. She incarnates a sort of third world within the third world, like an extra layer of fragility making her the perfect target for the kind of troubles no upper class European looking girl would get herself into. Though the film is overarched by the social and political context of Mexico circa 1970-71, I didn't feel like Cuaron tried to make some social commentary, maybe it's just a character study of a woman who could only depend on the kindness of strangers, like Blanche Dubois, but is able to find some inner strength to overcome a blind (but not malicious) adversity if not triumph over it.
And indeed, in her harrowing journey (that doesn't follow any pattern of cinematic predictability), it's less in what happens to her than the reactions it inspires. The film is less driven by plot points but the way people react and reactions to their reactions... or non-reactions for that matter. There is an interesting scene where a Karate master shows a trick that looks extremely easy until it's done with closed eyes, I don't know if it was supposed to symbolize one of the film's underlying messages, but it's true that many things that happen are due to people's obliviousness, carelessness or lack of empathy. And near the end, both Cleo and Sofia realize they had more in common than they would have thought, adversity strikes everyone... only in different ways. Blind again, but not malicious.
What I liked in "Roma", besides its realism, is the fact that it doesn't just try to depict a slice of life but Life with a major L, providing sights often suggested but rarely shown in the movies. Indeed, the film contains many graphic sequences including a naked male body (and I'm sorry to say that it's more distracting for me than a woman's... maybe because the thing "moves"... chuckles) and one that shouldn't be spoiled but that had me almost gasping with tears because it was the moment where many aspects of an editing that demanded some patience from us finally paid off, and I knew I had to expect a high spot of emotionality sometime in the film. Cuaron's "Roma" (whatever the title means) is truly daring by showing life and death with the same clinical detachment from his lenses, one that also shows in the climactic scene, hinted by the poster.
Now, I wanted to give he film a 10 because it has reached a cinematic level of perfection I rarely found in a movie but sometimes its beauty just feels so deliberate it becomes sophisticated. The film benefits from Alfonso Cuaron's perfect command of the camera (we're obviously talking of the Oscar-winner for Best Cinematography and maybe Best Director) but the cinematography tends to steal the story's thunder and compromises the film's attempt to be a realistic portrait of a Mexican's slice of life in the 70s in an atmosphere of love devoid of the cynicism we get from today's dysfunctional families. The children in the film are not only adorable but played with an authentic simplicity and since so many directors said it was a nightmare to direct children, Cuaron deserves a credit for that too.
So It's precisely because the story is so well told and well acted that I wished it wouldn't be so well directed... though I approve the choice of the black-and-white for no other reason that it gives the film a sort of dreamy aura fitting its nostalgia.
Overall, "Roma" is a great film with a few haunting moments.
Le chagrin et la pitié (1969)
Recollecting the Truths and Deconstructing the Myths...
Recently, a friend told me that her grand-aunt had 'horizontally' collaborated with the Germans during the war and so she was submitted to the soul-shaming head-shaving treatment. But when asked many years after why she slept with the enemy, she revealed she wanted to help her brother to escape from a camp... he was a resistant.
Had the story ended there, it would be too tragic, in fact the old woman admitted having fallen in love with the German. See, humanity is as complex as history and to understand both is to admit that we can never obtain absolute truth but rather retrieve from facts a few cognitive fragments allowing us to understand things within the realm of their inherent complexity.
And all the historical books in the world, all the documentaries will never reach that crucial dimension of a simple face-to-face conversation. For instance, a resistant will always be regarded as a hero but he could admit during a friendly chat not to have cared about causes, having more banal if not selfish reasons.
Released by Marcel Ophüls a quarter of century after the end of WW2, when many protagonists were still alive, memories intact and scars unconcealed, "The Sorrow and the Pity" unveils slices of peoples' lives in Clermont-Ferrand during the occupation, occupants included, it's specific enough so their motives, their choices and eventually their feelings speak statements of universal and timeless reach... on an intellectual level.
Indeed, feelings are not exactly the priority of the four-hour documentary, but rather the cold and clinical examination of both a state and a state of mind. The state is German-occupied France, also known as the Vichy regime, the only to have firmly and zealously collaborated with the Nazis and the minds are of people confronted to circumstances they'd rather not have to deal with. It was France's destiny to be overpowered and face a moral dilemma so painful none of us is allowed to judge.
That's the first mindset in order to appreciate the historical value of Marcel Ophüls' groundbreaking documentary: let's not judge. If anything, this is a humbling experience. There is something in the intimacy provided by the interview format that allows everyone to speak in total transparency, even the silent pauses are more eloquent that speeches in the way they confront the action from the past to a present devoid of any pressure and obligation. That's a luxury we have and they didn't.
When asked about collaborators, a resistant admits that it takes to be a misfit, anyone afraid to lose or jeopardize something couldn't be a resistant. A British diplomat admits that no country can't judge another if it's not been under an occupying force. A former collaborator with a bourgeois background explains all casually that he couldn't embrace communism but fascism by natural choice, he doesn't dodge the interviewer's question about making the easiest and least risky one. Still, he never expected the horrors of barbarity reached by the Nazis in the camps.
The film naturally dedicates a long chapter to the Jews' persecutions and the key role the government of Vichy played through the infamous Laval, the second in charge of the country who was responsible for sending thousands of Jews to the camps after the "Vel d'Hiv" raid and pushing the darkest zeal by sending children the Germans didn't even ask. His former son-in-law plays the devil's advocate, invoking the fact that he sent the foreign Jews to save the French ones. To which Ophüls (son of director Max, a German Jew) dismisses the argument by mentioning the many French Jews who had lost their citizenship prior to these actions.
The question creates a malaise immediately swept off by Mendes France (a French Jewish politician and resistant) and other witnesses who say that no respectable country can abandon people to the enemy, whether citizens or foreigners. One can understand the responsibility of the French government and why it deserves such a moral condemnation especially since it was Marshal Pétain, a then-Verdun hero, who "donated his life" to France like some respectable patriarch. Context is important and most citizens weren't misfits, they had family, businesses and like the hairdresser (one of the few female interviewees) said, she admired Pétain like many did... and still does.
One should ask himself, looking at these pictures all in black and white, all in stark contrast but wrapped in mundane normality (people smoke, drink, are interviewed in their job clothes), where the noble values or the heroes were. The only feelings that are vividly recalled in these interviews were fear, hunger, and quoting one of the resistant pharmacists, "sorrow" and "pity". A few of them were prone to join the "fight against Bolshevism", some of the German interviewees didn't hide their pride, and one even harbored his Iron Cross during his daughter's wedding.
The daughter of one resistant admits anti-Semitism still exists in France and some interviewees didn't seem too focused on the crimes against the Jews. A pharmacist protested that he was victim of persecution while his name Klein had nothing to do with a Jewish background, he reminded me of a scene in "Gentleman's Agreement" where Peck's son cried because he was victim of an anti-Semitic remark and Peck's friend consoled him by saying he wasn't Jewish, totally missing the point.
Just like war revealed souls' content, the documentary revealed the opposite human inclinations during crucial times... in a masterpiece of storytelling confronting real footage to testimonies, some even paralleled to be either belied or attested, and many musical songs from Maurice Chevalier to provide the ironic tone of an era where 'good' people acted badly or looked the other way, an era even De Gaulle overlooked to seal the national reconciliation and forge the resistance myth the film is deconstructing.
So if there's another adjective the film deserves, it's clearly "eye-opening".
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Oh yes, Mr. Ford was a romantic...
Released in 1946, "My Darling Clementine" introduced one of the most famous chapters of Western history: the feud between the Earps and the Clantons culminating with the shooting at O.K. Corrall and whose description will inevitably drop a few others names forever associated to Western mythology: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Tombstone etc. And if you're a movie buff, the reputation of John Ford's classic Western certainly preceded your viewing like Wyatt Earp's own when he set his foot in Tombstone.
And like Earp, the film deserves such reputation, seven years after "Stagecoach", it marks the director's return to the setting that overarched his body of work: Monument Valley. And in more than one way, the film marks a return to his roots, starting with the most identifiable characters of Western: cowboys or as Earp would state it himself: cattlemen. "Cowboys" would be more integral to the appeal of another post-war Western: "Red River" but while I reproached Hawks' classic to have been undermined by weak romantic subplots, "My Darling Clementine" is a Western that is actually driven by romances in a more effective though subtle way.
I'll get back to it, but one shouldn't be surprised about the romantic vibes since the title is "My Darling Clementine". One decade before Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster would team up as Doc and Earp in 1956, and before 1993 "Tombstone", the most fascinating traits of "My Darling Clementine" are precisely the products of the story's fictionalization, starting with the titular character and her effect on Wyatt Earp, played by a magnificent Henry Fonda. I'm no historian but it's easy to imagine that Clementine played by the lovable but forgettable Cathy Downs is only a foil to let a standard Western theme invite itself and bring a wave of nostalgic tenderness.
Indeed, "My Darling Clementine" is one of the melodies anyone immediately associate with the Western genre and if that was enough to justify the introduction of a fictional character, well, I'm glad Ford did it. It seems that the director was still expressing his sentimental self instead of doing a standard Western, the film is never as interesting as when it deals with love, more than anything remotely connected with the history. The film has often been considered as an attempt to mix Western with the rising noir genre, I can see a few "noir" stylistic choices but the film isn't "Liberty Valance", for me, it's a love story, love to be taken in a loose way.
It's fraternal love that prompts Wyatt Earp to accept the offer as a Marshal in order to find out who killed his brother and stole the cattle. It's Doc Holliday's lack of self-esteem that makes him spiral down in alcoholism and self-pity aggravating a triangular love between Clem and Chihuahua, the saloon girl played by a dazzling Linda Darnell that also moves the plot to its climactic confrontation. And it's also love that inspires Earp have a total switch of persona, played beautifully by Fonda. Imagine a man whose simple mention of his name makes everyone pause and stare at him with admiration, a reputation he humbly rejects, well, Clem is the woman who makes such a man stand up and actin like a young unexperienced bachelor, going as far as improving his look and putting a own fragrances so strong they inspire another running gag involving the barber.
The romance is played for a few smiles but it turns Earp into a wonderful and subtly written character. Notice the scene where you can sense his hesitation to take her to dance, the moment where he's being insulted by Chihuahua and all he does is practice a few moves on his chair, indifferent to her pleas, only trying to figure out how he can avoid his complicity with Holliday to turn into rivalry. There's something of a quiet strength in Fonda's performance that steals Victor Mature's thunder as the passionate doctor. Mature tries too hard but Fonda's performance is perfect, within the kind of remarkable simplicity that wouldn't have worked with John Wayne either (too charismatic for his own good).
So everything is governed by love, and although it's more anecdotic, love also inspires one of the greatest lines ever where good old Mac is asked "Have you ever been in love?" and he says "I've been a bartender all my life". Maybe that line says more than that, it speaks about dedication, maybe Earp is too good a Marshall to ever find love, maybe he's the type of knight on a shining armor that can only 'save' a girl, avenge a friend but can't expect from love more than a few dancing steps and a gentle kiss on the face. The more I watch Fords' movies, the more I appreciate their softer side and how they never overplay the expected tropes.
Of course, the Western is still full of many archetypes but they're rather subdued as if Ford was already recognizing the march of civilization. Mourning his brother, Earp wishes people his age would enjoy peaceful life in the future. During the film, a church was constructed, an actor introduced Shakespeare to the townspeople, and men from the old days like Old Man Clanton who'd whip his own sons was meant to disappear... still, chivalry was still running and Earp would always be there to act gallantly like a man from the past and a man from the present, a man even John Ford had the chance to meet and recollect the memories of O.K. Corral.
Ford didn't try to make a realistic movie but magnified the story through its peripheral details, introducing characters who are all in their way, in quest for a lost and inaccessible dream, the title in French is even more romantic as it is the "The Infernal Chase", they all have a vision, a dream and theirs became Ford's nostalgia.
He had to make a western ending with the legendary lyrics: "Oh My Darling, of my darling..."
The Lady Eve (1941)
Barbara Stanwyck as the lady who fools everyone... including the Hays Code...
The plot (or plots) of "The Lady Eve" is based on ridiculous premises... and yet it moves! Which proves at least one thing: Hollywood legacies sure work in mysterious ways.
But Preston Sturges' screwball classic certainly deserves its reputation as it dared to be silly in an inventive and thought-provoking way... almost provocative, like an invitation for a sexual affair disguised as innocent flirting. And don't get me started on that opening credits with the animated snake that made me wonder which 'symbolism' angle I should consider.
I can't say I'm the biggest fan of Preston Sturges but I did enjoy the interactions between the two leads, which makes for almost the entirety of the film. Barbara Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a con-artist who falls in love with her own target and Henry Fonda is Charles Pike, the poor, sincere and naïve heir of the Pike Ale empire, a nerd by our standards, probably a virgin, more expert in the snakes he's been studying one year in the Amazon than any woman, let alone the Amazon-type. He's also more likely to know the difference between Ale and Beer than read in any women's body language. One can't blame him with a specimen like Jean.
Now, there are two facets regarding Stanwyck's performance as the girl who wants to get the man's money and then his heart: one of is a jovial seductress, commanding and tempting, flirtatious and luscious, a female embodiment of the offer no man can refuse and the Jekyll-side is romantic, protective, abandoned to her own feelings and capable of sheer empathy like in that scene where she prevents Charles from being conned by her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn) during a memorable poker game. Interestingly, she never cheats in both fields, whether in game or in love, whether it's business or personal, she's always sincere.
And that's what makes the couple such an endearing one. There's one moment that captures this duality in an intensity I wouldn't have expected from a movie under the Hays code: for no less than four minutes after Jean got her poor "Hopsie" in her room, she's lying on her bed, he's sitting next to her his face caught between her arms while she's stroking his wavy hair and together they talk about their ideal mate. Stanwyck plays it with the confidence of the girl who knows she found her match and can let herself play truth-or-dare like games with total immunity and Fonda takes it so seriously you know it's mutual.
The reason why the scene is sexy has less to do with Stanwyck than the effect she has on Fonda who doesn't get the credit he deserves: he's mainly a passive follower in the film but in this scene, he's exhausted as if every second of that dialogue he was at the verge of (forgive the expression) cracking his boxer. Few "old movies" have been so bold in their depiction of sexual tension and it's remarkable how the film inventively exchanges the roles making the woman the one who makes the moves.
Usually, romantic comedies follow the kind of tortuous roads made of back and forth moves from the two protagonists that ultimately ends with the pair getting together for the final kiss, in "Lady Eve", it's Jean who traces the route, and when she meets an obstacle take another turn, the dynamics are never reversed. All Charles can do is stop the relationship, but even then, Jean calls the cards, after he dumps her, she swears to get him back providing one of the film's iconic quotes "I need him like the axe needs the turkey", so she pops up again in the picture this time posing as a Posh Lady Eve. And the turkey loses his head again.
Why does it work? Why is Pike incapable to see? Maybe it can sum up the whole movie. It's so far-fetched it can't be anything but the truth. She doesn't try to hide her resemblance, or to have an accent, she's so exactly like Jean it would be impossible to imagine it's the same lady, and he falls in love again... Fonda falls quite often by the way and it's another miracle that it never falls on the redundancy trap, each fall from "Hopsie" works because we can't take Fonda as a clown, he plays it straight to the point, though he's not the only actor who's used for a corny running gag, his valet or bodyguard Muggsy (William Desmarest) gets a few funny ones.
But the best gags come from moments that don't follow any patterns, besides the poker game, there's Pike's father (Eugene Pallette) asking for his breakfast, the climactic honeymoon scene in the train with the classical music played in the background while learning about his newlywed's wife history, and finally that splendid declaration of love that would've been too corny if it wasn't for the horse constantly disrupting Fonda's serenade. Ever since the cat in "The Godfather", I don't think there was another scene where an animal transcended the cinematic banality of the screen.
What else to say about the film is that it's a product of an era that preceded World War II and the rise of film noir, it was one of the hihglights of a genre that required both a level of craziness and sophistication without making it too quintessential, in these games of love and money, obviously love is the only triumphant one but I've got to hand it to the film to have not fallen for the obvious ending and providing a fine little twist that justified why the film was both listed in the American Film Institute's Top 100 comedies and romances, and also why Fonda is so lovable in the film.
Don't worry, the mismatched couple do end together, but the way it's played at the end makes it closer to the punchline than the finale embrace. Between comedy or romance, the ending makes the perfect combo?
Carrey carried away...
The "Ace Ventura" series is one of these comedic two-hit wonders from the nineties such as "Home Alone", "Babe", "The Addams Family", "Wayne's World", "City Slickers", "Sister Act" etc.
The concept was simple, every ingredient that made the first film a smash hit was re-used for the second one, only with a different recipe, and served one or two years later. Some tasted better or not different, some lost a few flavors in the process, but with the exception of "Home Alone 2", the sequels never made in the box office top 10 like the originals, thus killing any prospect of a trilogy.
And one can be glad there was no "Ace Ventura 3", the second compromised Carrey's career, a third one could have destroyed him. "When Nature Calls" is a geyser of obnoxious humor and offensiveness that makes an old-school Fleisher cartoon look like a Miyazaki. Not saying it's not funny, it's more complicated than that.
The initial "Ace Ventura" was divisive: fans loved it for its exuberance and non-stop cavalcade of laughs, decriers hated it for the nastiness and obnoxious manners displayed by the man-who-talked-with-his-buttocks. Fans could at least try to convince detractors over a few redeeming qualities, invoking the mystery-plot, the presence of Courtney Cox as Ace's investigating and occasional sex partner. As for Carrey's personality, it was the point, a man loving animals so much he wouldn't care much for his kind.
The problem with the sequel is that it ties fans' hands and doesn't leave them much to argue about. First. The plot is non-existent and only serves as an excuse for funny sketch-like sequences and the fact that they are funny, even laugh-out-loud funny at times, is beside the point. Secondly, there's no one left to make Ace calm down or at least try to temper his excitement, the film is Ace Ventura left in free style, on steroids, it's the crossing of Ace Ventura and the Duracell Bunny. Ace haters will get nauseous, fans an overdose. That's how bad the film is or too good for its own good.
I laughed a lot, the raunchy offensive ones involving the Native tribes that (like I said) outdates many 40s cartoons might still be more "acceptable" than the kind of gender-related shaming displayed in the first film. I laughed at the nod to the opening of "Cliffhanger", the spear gag even though it exhausted itself for a painful minute making the "Dental Plan" Simpsons gag feel like a quickie... I laughed at the Monopoly guy bit, the torture scene, the Shikaka moment, the bats instant, the rhino part... but there's a limit to which a point overuses its gimmick, the humor of "Ace Ventura" is efficient, but in an aggressive way.
The film leaves you with the impression that the winning streak of Carrey from 1994 inspired the filmmaker to give total the green light to Jim Carrey and let him "carry" the film in its integrality and you can tell that even Carrey was being literally carried away and was taking a path culminating with the film that almost ruined his career in 1996. "Liar, Liar" would mark the perfect come-back his career needed, one to sanity within zaniness, it was directed by the Tom Shadyac who made the first "Ace Ventura" and understood that Carrey could only play eccentric characters with a heart, allowed to have a moment of tenderness and humanity.
"When Nature Calls" was directed by an obscure director named Steven Oedekerk but let's not kid ourselves, the only one who gave this film directions is Jim Carrey. But I'm sure even in 1997, he would cringe at that film he made two years before. Because that's what you get when you leave an actor improvise at the expenses of a plot, a story, something reasonably consistent and coherent. The sequel makes you realize how consistent the first film is, and how Carrey almost endangered his career by going too far with his undeniable talent. That "Nature Calls" was a close call, at least it didn't ruin his career.
Or maybe the film was only trying to surf on the popularity of "The Lion King"? Well, it might be another case of "This Time for Africa" but nothing to get all "waka waka" or "wacky wacky" about it.
The Good, the Bad... and the Mowgli!
I implore you to forgive the lame pun and I sincerely hope the following review will improve the level.
I only meant that there are many positive aspects about Andy Serkis' take on Rudyard Kipling's most celebrated work and a few little things it could have done without, like a few superfluous details of Mowgli's family crisis and some pompous lines of dialogues that needlessly sanctify his bond with Bagheera. But there is one spectacular performance that shines all through the film like a jungle bonfire; Rohan Chend as Mowgli. I didn't take him much seriously first but the intensity of his performance once the second act starts is really word-of-mouth material.
Seriously, the crediting starts with all the 'bankable' stars who'll probably be encouraging factors and while they're not undeserving of praise, they were still only voices. For all we know Christian Bale might have voiced Bagheera wearing a Hawaiian Shirt or Cate Blanchett Kaa -yeah, they feminized him- between two "Ocean's 8" take but it's still Rohan Chend, all flesh and blood, who acted his way through the film and went through a nightmare s no one would have possibly imagined a kid undergoing in a family-friendly film. Or is it what Andy Serkis intended?
It's hard to believe (especially when you get near the resolution) that this film tried to capture the magic of the Walt Disney version, though the beginning does have its share of deja-vu material. Serkis brings up such a dark version of Kipling's book that it might even disorient the adults. There are not many jump scares but some parts are definitely set to show you that the jungle world ain't all swing and jazz, and surviving over the most Darwinian impulse was the only reasonable necessity. I won't go further, otherwise, I might let a spoiler slip.
Now, it's understandable that Serkis tried to distance himself from the pre-existing material especially after the story was rebooted by Disney two years ago, his film wasn't certainly the most anticipated of the year, so it must have been quite an ordeal to make this project marketable and he deserves some credit. What he did was expanding the gallery of characters yo the Jackal Tabaqui (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and gives more dimension to the wolf family, community and the elder leader Akela (Peter Mullan) and he gave more gravity to the tormented Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) as Mowgli's nemesis.
The result is uneven because in the end, the film still had a few cartoonish looking animals who spoke with British accents, which contrasted with the stark and gripping darkness of other scenes. It's as if the film was meant to embody the existential nature of Mowgli, the Man Cub, as an eternal in-betweener or neither-of-them, "The Jungle Book" is dark, powerful and meditative but lacked that little sparkle that could have appealed to a younger audience while its luxurious vegetation and lavish CGI effects are convincing and spectacular enough to draw a young audience. I'm not sure about Serkis' vision...
Fitfully (or unfortunately), it's a film that looks as beautiful, fascinating yet tormented and puzzled as its central character. Still, the real added value is the character of Mowgli who's truly reinvented and instead of being the action catalyst like the Disney version kid, is presented here as a true hero and even antihero of an exciting coming-of-age story and yeah, let's use the word: character study. Maybe it just take too much time to stand on its own feet... like baby Mowgli.
I would still prefer the Disney version for its sentimental and entertaining value, but I won't forget that "Mowgli" any soon. Overall, a pleasant surprise.
Ookami kodomo no Ame to Yuki (2012)
A great potential but the story doesn't find the way to draw kids into caring for these wolf-children...
And I speak from experience as we took three sixth-grade classes to "The Wolf Children" and well, if not the plot, the title sounded interesting. In hindsight, I'm realizing how naïve we were. This is a very well-made Anime but not quite suitable for children, except the really mature ones.
To their defense though, when you have a shot that consists on a woman and a wolf-headed man with bare shoulders, kissing and followed by a discretion shot implying they're in a bed, stoicism isn't exactly boys' strongest suit and some were already starting to heckle the show (that it wasn't dubbed added to their ordeal).
I must admit that the whole first act consisting of a narrator telling her mother's romance was awkward. It is played like the most banal romance with the only redeeming value in the reveal of the man's secret identity: half-man and half-wolf, that and a mesmerizing animation, but one wouldn't expect that from an anime?
As much as I loved the character of Hana as the student-who-falls-in-love, her Romeo was the kind of living fantasy that quickly turns out to be a bore, all attitude and nothing remotely "lively" about him. Having the romantic girl fall in love with the dark, tall and mysterious stranger had me yawn and it was not until little Yuki comes in the screen that the film started to gain some colors.
But before, we had to endure a life-montage à la "Up" and I was over the edge of my seat fearing another flash of nudity during or after the pregnancy. If you show the film to your kids, do expect a few yawning from that part and a few 'gross' reactions to some graphic moments (some include vomiting and breastfeeding).
But there's a beautiful middle-section about Hana's struggles to raise her children. Beautiful and unexpected: once we get the supernatural element, everything is handled in a realistic way, complaints from tenants about the noises and constant howling the "kids" make, the pressure from Childhood Protection and a very meaningful moment where little Yuke swallows gel and Hana is wondering whether to go to a doctor or a vet.
Hana is the Mama Bear figure movies love today, she resorted to natural birth out of fear to deliver wolves in a hospital and realizing an urban life wouldn't fit them, decides to move on to the mountain and live on gardening. Once there, in a sequence that reminds of "Totoro", the two children react to wilderness according to their personalities, Yuke is excited and express her wolf-life nature to the fullest while little Ame is the momma's boy who want to go home.
I'm not sure about the idea of not including fantastic elements but it was strange to have that film with such a fascinating premise stick up obstinately to realism. I guess the idea to show this film to children is to teach them the value of solidarity between people and how to adapt to a different environment where you have a second culture. But are children sophisticated enough to grab it? I think so, but it all depends on the effort to draw them into the story.
The way "Wolf Children" is made, it can appeal to a mature audience. The character of Yuki is integral to the film's appeal to kids but she slowly starts to grow up to fit in school. At that point, she stops being interesting. The problem is that the boy doesn't grow into a much interesting character either, the rule of Generation Xerox is respected and quickly, the wolf side takes the upper hand and he becomes as taciturn as his father.
So it comes to a point where the film glides into the drama genre and never tries to conceal it with a few thrills. I'm not saying a film with a children audience shouldn't be introspective but when a climax is supposed to be set during a storm, there's more to expect than false alarms and some Oscar bait melodrama. Yes, they all work, but when one thinks of wolves, there's a whole imagery that goes with, that Mamoro Hosado, the director, could have explored.
I respect the choice of not venturing into the realms of werewolves and all that stuff but there had to be some sense of danger, perhaps one last episode encouraging one to definitely opt for the human side and the other for the wolf world, in fact, twenty minutes before the end, much of the story was resolved and nothing was left for suspense. I guess it's deliberate because the film was made with Hana as the central character, and maybe that's a mistake.
I feel quite superficial and guilty because the film was enjoyable and deep; but it feels like a few opportunities have been missed, when you collect so many talents in the writing and design department when you have such a dazzling animated cinematography and so well-established characters, you just wait before 'maturing them'.
There is such a nice middle section but the characters' arcs seem to close without having us involved, we're supposed to cheer for our three protagonists at the end just because our empathy was efficiently engaged before. A pity, really. On a side note, I liked it better in the dubbed version, it might feel blasphemous to say so, but non Japanese speakers can have a problem with the original version for two reasons.
Indeed, apart from a few words, Japanese is not the most accessible foreign language and one is forced to rely on subtitles, some are white in a white screen and impossible to read. And since it's a film that depends a lot on narration, dubbed version would suit better.
I would also encourage anyone to read the Parents Guide before deciding. It's good, it has good lessons about life but while a childhood-themed film, it's definitely adult-oriented.
Being There (1979)
"We must take care of our garden"...
That was the final quote from Voltaire's satirical essay about optimism: "Candide". No matter the adversities, preoccupations or struggles, tending one's garden was the epitome of wisdom. And that came from Candide who used to believe that "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."
"Being There" is a satire that goes the reverse way, starting with a man who tends his garden and then grows with his roses and plants an optimism everyone perceives but him. The man is Chance the gardener, one of the greatest movie characters ever and unlike many others, he doesn't seem to have an arc.
As far back as he can remember, Chance, has lived in his master's big estate house and never left it. His whole life had been dedicated to (and defined by) two activities: gardening (the only thing he's actually competent at) and watching TV (his "I like to watch" referring to TV is more than a motto, it's an understatement). The man's vision of life has been completely shaped by the little screen and its continuous avalanche of images flooding day and night"from cartoons to ads, soap operas to movies, new and old.
Chance the gardener devours what comes from that box with an appetite that makes you wonder whether he would have blown out of exhaustion today. But when the film starts, all we see is a mild-mannered well-dressed middle-aged man. There's no suspicion raised about his mental state... until the maid comes and announces that the "old man" is dead. Chance's doesn't shed a tear for his boss' passing, he's a child in a man's body, speaking in a rather limited vocabulary but articulate enough to give him the benefit of doubt.
Actually, we're the first to be fooled by his appearance and this sets the tone of Hal Ashby's masterpiece "Being There", one of the most brilliant comedies ever made... or is it an intelligent movie that just happens to be funny, because it works on the simple premise of "irony", it's all about contrasts. If Chance doesn't fool little people, his good manners and his well-spoken attitude seem to imply some upper class WASP upbringing and earn him the respect of the whole Washington establishment, including an influent dying businessman and adviser of the President (Melvyn Douglas).
Chance even meets the President (Jack Warden) who ends up "understanding" his babbling about growth, plants and seasons. Chance's words are then quoted by the White House occupants and one thing leading to another, he becomes a star. Before one makes an easy comparison, the film actually works in a different way than "Forrest Gump". Gump knew he was limited and everyone did, yet from his actions he managed to earn everyone's respect and admiration. Chance isn't an impostor because he doesn't pretend to be anything else than a gardener but it would be so baffling for the upper class to see an idiot in this man that any statement, any platitude is mistaken for profundity. Even Chance the Gardener is confused with the snobbish-sounding Chauncey Gardener.
Now, in a lesser film, the wonderful premise of "Being There" would have been turned into some cheap gimmick, but the film elevates it to a level of quiet sophistication, as Chance's ascension reveals the degeneracy and decadence of the civilized world, something echoed in a French film that said "out of a misunderstanding, anything can work". The script based on Jerzi Kozinski's novel and screenplay is a biting satire à la "Network" commenting on the rise of an era of mediocrity where people are so demanding of models they would adopt any good communicant as a new prophet.
The little edge of "Being There" is that it's moving, it's also a film that showcases many aspects of Chances' life, his isolation from the rest of the world (suggested by classical melancholy), his vulnerability and childlike kindness like that moment where he he's cornered by a gang of street kids and tries to get rid of them by pressing the remote control like a magic wand. At the end of the film, he's the one basking in his own normality while the others are decrypting every word or sentence he says, using a symbolic remote control called "sociocentrism".
This is summed up in an underrated moment where the old maid laments about society being a place for the white guy since a simpleton like Chance can pass as a genius. She's not that wrong and her comment could be extrapolated to today's reality TV where models are manufactured out of sheer nothingness, oly communicated with style. Indeed, Chance can speak of "growth", "garden" saying he likes to watch or simply "I understand" and everyone else will do the figuring... projecting their own desires and perceptions in him. Chance is first like a sponge impregnated with all the images of the world from TV, at the end he becomes a mirror where everyone perceives his own ideal.
Sellers who said he had no personality once he stopped playing, was the perfect actor for such a film, it is his penultimate role but quite a performance, one that demands an exactitude within that seemingly one-note tone. And in the many scenes involving the growing friendship between Douglas and Sellers, you could see that there was genuine emotion from "Chauncey" as if even this encounter with other people could affect him. Hal Ashby was a director of true originality, here he provides an existential masterpiece and the perfect epitaph for a comic legend.
I still give it a 9 because of the useless part involving the President's sex life, distracting from the other romantic subplot involving Shirley MacLaine and for the infamous bloopers sequences. I hate bloopers even for Jim Carrey comedies let alone a film of such depth and humanity, with a perfect image and the perfect quote. Whatever 'state of mind' inspired this move... there's one of Chance's catchphrases I'll never use.
A decent popcorn thriller but a "Heat", it sure ain't!
Seriously, why is it that today every film involving strong female protagonists must portray men like Hadleyville people from "High Noon": treacherous, corrupted, psychopathic and when good, simple-minded or physically disabled. "Widows" reminded me of that "Afternoon Yak" moment in "The Simpsons". The TV host opens the show with a simple : "men" eliciting an immediate booing from a 100% female audience, prompting Homer to press the 'skip' button.
I seriously expected a film from "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and recently Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya to aim higher than that. While it doesn't trivialize men-bashing too blatantly, the way it sets up an interesting premise and then shortcuts it through a contradictory narrative is rather counterproductive.
The story is set in Chicago where three women mourn the loss of their husbands, who ended like melted meat in morgue bags after a botched heist. Of course, when a film mentions that corpses were unidentifiable and one of them is at the top-billing, you either expect a load of flashbacks or some middle-plot twist. So I wasn't surprised when it started raining a few evidence that one didn't deserve a eulogy. But all of them? Seriously, what were the odds?
Let's move on with the plot. Veronica Rawlings lost Harry in an accident and from what the flashbacks convey, they loved each other and meant it on bed. Halfway through the film, their relationship is given an extra layer of depth through a sad event, but it doesn't stain the image of Harry, played by a hunky Liam Neeson. The trick is that Harry burnt along with millions of dollars stolen from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) capmpaigning for alderman of a South Side precinct.
Jamal is angry, and threatens Veronica, asking her to get the money back. The problem is that Jamal was previously introduced as the challenger against Jack Mulligan, the heir of a dynasty that dominated politics for three generations. Colin Farrell chews the scenery as the sleek and overambitious politician and from his father's racist slurs, we'd be more than glad to see him being dethroned by Jamal (by the way, Robert Duvall steals the show as Mulligan Sr.).
So this gets tricky whenJamal seems to be an even worse character, the way he strangles an adorable poodle or uses his psychopathic brother played by Daniel Kaluuya to do the dirty job makes any attempt to figure out which politician is the lesser of the two evils a riddle for ages. But there comes a point when we realize that the outcome of the campaign is totally irrelevant to the plot... which made me question the relevancy of the earlier scenes.
Indeed, why spend so much time building up the antagonism between the two camps or trying to turn Jack Mulligan into some tortured soul when the real focus is the three widows. I haven't mentioned the two other important characters yet but this is exactly what the film does: it overlooks them first and then develops them but not in a way that draws us into caring for them... not more than the usual empathy-requirements of an average film.
I'm not even sure it did it enough with Davis' character. But at least Veronica had a motive, Amanda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) only have circumstances. It's different. Amanda discovers her husband never paid the bills and drove her shop into bankruptcy, she needs money if she wants to keep her children from her mother-in-law's claws. As for Alice who strikes for both her Eastern-European accent and her statuesque height, she was apparently mistreated and is advised to become an escort girl by her own mother (Jacki Weaver, 1ft 2'' shorter than her 'daughter')
So we have two women who need to earn money and self-respect. Fair enough. But it's not like Veronica knows that... so the only way she tries to convince them to jeopardize their lives and pull a heist is to tell them they're in danger. All their loyalty depends upon a lie. Of course, the script injected the 'underdog' aspect so we can have unexperienced women overcoming their insecurities, use their weaknesses as strengths and become as badass and independent as men (not that Davis needed any change of character).
That could have been good actually. A political thriller would have been good too. Or Davis alone against the gangsters. But the film went in too many directions at the same time. The political set-up turns out to be a completely waste of time because none of the major players of the first act plays a tangible role at the end, the progresses made by the three women are boosted by the addition of Cynthia Erivo who's capable of anything, and even the happy end (anyone could have seen coming) doesn't have that emotional electricity in it.
What happened is that the film focused on the three women in a way that made their arcs rather predictable. Amanda gets her business back, Alice, after being treated like meat or trash before, sets up her own business (good luck, we're in 2018). As for Davis, the film tries to make her the subject of a character study while she's only played the usual straight leader of a heist. "Widows" depends on an empathy we're ready to give but it throws so many plot lines and ramifications that it ends with disappointing loose ends.
And I wouldn't give much weight to all that Oscar conversation, it can happen but I doubt it. Debicki towers over everyone (literally) but her arc is nothing we've not seen before, only Keluuya is terrific and plays his character in the kind of deliberately hammy way such a role requires. But the film took itself too seriously for its own good as if it tried to be an "Ocean's 8" for the Oscars.
At the end, it's a decent popcorn thriller... with the obligatory "men-boo" undertones.
"The Return of Harry" or... and so ended a genre-defining saga...
Well, well, well...
After an epic seven-movie tour into the world of Harry Potter, here comes the final and so overwhelming conclusion of not only a decade-defining but a genre-defining franchise.
Author J.K. Rowling not only revolutionized children literature through her winning streak of best-sellers but inspired what would become a landmarks of a genre relying both on spectacular special effects boosted by computer technology but traditional three-act structure (exposition with the first three films, second act starting halfway through the fourth, and the climax in the last two films) with all the compelling elements of storytelling: the fight between good and evil, the coming-of-age and the whole escapism into a world never seen before. Like Lewis Carroll, J.R.R Tolkien and George Lucas, Rowling created a whole new universe, a myth.
Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Gryffindor, Aveda Kadevra... and so on and so forth, all these words have become part of an international lexicon, a staple of pop culture bound to be passed from generations to generations and to enchant children and adults all over the world. It is no surprising that the film concludes with Harry, Hermione and Ron playing grown-ups taking their children to Hogwarts through platform 3/4 like in the first film, we've all grown up watching Harry, Ron and Hermione from their baby-faced years to their maturity, and then will come a time where we'll look back at the 2011 film with equally powerful nostalgia. Oh yes, I'm sure the films will all live up to their reputation in nineteen years... and beyond.
And from that emotional finale, we guess that Hogwarts have probably been rebuilt and the harrowing and deadly journey that culminated with the final fight between Voldemort and his forces of Dark magic and the resistance that combined all the cumulated knowledge of centuries of wizardry will be part of the new mythology. And I feel less like reviewing the film than concluding my seven reviews by saying that the franchise couldn't have a better conclusion. For simple reasons that don't take much analysis: first of all, it is set in Hogwarts, and while it's heartbreaking to watch so many places we're familiar with being reduced to ashes or ruins by bolts of lightning and random attacks, it's captivating to watch all the players defending the place to death.
And there are deaths. Many are particularly tough to handle. And for those who have the chance to live, the story provides them chances to outdo themselves, Neville ends up having one of the most interesting arcs in the series, Mr. McGonagol and Mrs. Weasley have also their moment of awesome, and there are two reveals about Dumbledore and Snape that made me question my previous reviews and the way I instantly jumped to conclusions, underestimating Rowling's smart writing. I knew there was something enigmatic with Snape from the very start and by maintaining such a mysterious character for so long over the series, Rowling proved that she didn't have a talent for writing stories but also -as it's the case with Harry Potter- stories within stories.
And this "Deathly Hallows Part II", as far as storytelling is concerned, is fueled with spectacular action like a fitting climax, it doesn't waste time for exposition as no introduction is needed anymore, we're already familiar with the characters and the themes. So the film plays like "The Return of Harry" echoing the Jedi's or the King's. And for all the action-packed scenes that are traditional offerings but never get "routinely", the integrity of the narrative is maintained. And the heart of the story is kept as well through reveals of relationships that were the core of the saga all along. Reading about Rowling that she lost her mother of Multiple Sclerosis before she could enjoy even the first book broke my heart but it might have shaped her inspiration when writing about the relationship between Harry and her mother, and a few other characters, or even between Harry with Voldemort.
And one can't of course review this film without praising Ralph Fiennes's performance. The actor's been kept away for too long to finally implode, proving to be more than a menacing presence. He steals the show with a glare, a joke, or his hideous nose-less face... it's like the film or the book couldn't fail because it had just the perfect villain. As they say, a film is as good as its villain... but it's also as good as its ending, and while not all the chapters of the saga are equally entertaining, this last opus is a masterful conclusion and I understand now why it's the only one to be on the Top 250. It's entertaining, thrilling, suspenseful, sad, deep and comes full circle through an ending where you can't just help but shed a tear while saying goodbye to these character we've seen evolving from their childhood and even when the wizardry world was as its "infancy" from our perspective.
How fitful that the ending scene is in a Train Station, like Hitchcock another master storyteller, Rowling loved trains and it was trains that inspired her the first vision of Harry Potter, a kid taking a train to go to a wizard school... it's only appropriate that the film would end with that note, maybe telling children that everything is possible, that they also can have their own "train" of inspiration and image a little something that can grow out of magical proportions. She wanted a character who could do something she couldn't: fly, she created Harry Potter and became an inspiration, a billionaire, and a name that would be mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien when fantasy literature would be approached by fans or scholars.
If only I let my curiosity win over me and watch the first film, I can't believe I waited so long. Maybe I should take it as a lesson now and give a try and watch "Fantastic Beasts".
A different "Harry Potter" and an exciting set-up for the final fight...
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I" took up many difficult challenges such as tying up elements from the previous chapters together while not relying on expectations from fans with encyclopedic knowledge. Speaking for myself, as a "newbie", I enjoyed that penultimate film for what it was: an entertaining action-packed opus full of quiet and engaging moments.
The film also prepares us to a spectacular finale people have been waiting for during half a decade (half a month for me) without exhibiting any hurry to get into it, as if it took the proper time to tell its own story and as if the last book was too important to condense it into a three-hour format.
Now, there are additional objects of praises: the film allows us to get us a full view on every character who took part in Harry Potter's journey: Hagrid, the two good Defense Against the Dark Arts Teachers Rupin and Moody, the Weasley family (including Harry's sweetheart Ginny). And yet the film essentially focuses on the Power Trio: Harry, Ron and Hermione, taking them to locations they've never been in, as if the priority was to evacuate a few demons and seal their friendship first before they would find the definite strength in unity, to combine with the skills cumulated over their adventures at Hogwarts. I liked that aspect of the film.
And by the time it ended after two and half hours, I totally forgot there were still four or three Horcruxes to find and many obstacles paving the path to Voldemort. I don't know how this is going to be handled in Part II, especially in two hours and ten minutes (a rather short time by the series' standards), but I can't wait for the final round of the 'Harry Potter' series, a saga that defined a decade and where we literally saw three kids growing up before our eyes, while their world of wonder faded out, making way to the Dark Side.
Yes, long gone is the whimsical wizardry and its streams of spells and curses. The crucial moment occurs in the first act when Harry leaves everyone after the death of a few regulars (no need to spoil their name but surely you didn't expect a clean death toll?). He's intercepted by Ron who tells him to get off his high horse and stop thinking as the chosen one; this is no melancholy time when the Evil force commits mass killings and kidnappings, it's time to fight and everyone is on the same boat. Ron developed some maturity like Harry facial hair and he found the properly humbling words.
Which takes me back to the first film, I remember my first question was "what is a Muggle?". I initially thought the series was set in parallel universes (sort of) and there had to be zero interference between. "Deathly Hallows" opens with a nightmarish apocalyptic vision à la 'Dark Knight' proving that not only the Muggles aren't immune to the wrath of Voldemort and his minions but that they're targets as well. And speaking of Voldemort, from the table scene reuniting all the main villains, with him as the master of ceremony, we also understand that the line between good and evil is now clearly drawn.
There are degrees of vileness though, some are more reluctant than others, but when you look at the top "management", you know no quarter won't be asked. "Deathly Hallows" is different in tone but made me retrospectively understand the tragic climaxes of the previous chapters, it was all leading to it. Whether J.K. Rowling had that scenario in mind when writing the first book, one can be dubious, but there was no way that such a set-up couldn't lead to a larger-than-life exploration of the dark side of wizardry.
And not only the film inspires such expansion but it also allows us to have a subplot revealing the deepest motives of Voldemort: his quest for the Deathly Hallows, three old relics that might allow him to become the Master of Death and whose symbol echoes some conspiracy imagery. Rowling had a wide enough universe and such a rich gallery of characters she had quite a toolbox to build an inventive adventure, but she still had room for new stuff, including the infiltration of Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic through a corrupt member named Plus Thicknesses (Guy Henry).
But the heart of the story is the adventure in the wilderness lived by Ron, Harry and Hermione sealing their friendship and testing their mutual trust. There are moments of tension (sometimes sexual), moments of fun and relief and there's also a part where they simply walking down the street in London (and I expected a Rowling cameo). I appreciated that for all its richness, the film didn't get too thick and took the time for some long panoramic shots and extended scenes with the trio, as a last brief halt into our most beloved characters before the final action.
There was action all right in the first and ending sections but this is a film quietly introspective and often captivating. I concede sometimes, many devices seemed too far fetched but the pace is so fast that you don't have time to step back and think of the flaws, our minds are set in the quest for the Horcruxes and the defeating of Voldemort. And the series has turned into such a dark tone that for all I know, Harry might lose the fight or have a Pyrrhic victory.
I personally believe the film owes us a happy ending by now so I'm looking forward to have my expectations fulfilled in "Part II".
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Maybe it deserved that Best Picture Oscar after all... maybe...
How green was Ford's valley...
... and how red were Maureen O'Sullivan's hair... in her loveless marriage to the mine owner's son, she walks with the solemnity of Marie Antoinette taken to the guillotine, her long veil embracing the wind and trying to fly away like some encaged bird. The veil says in place... and so does the man she loved whose silhouette appears behind in the distance.
A lesser director would have gratified us with a close-up showing the man's devastation but Ford cares for the big picture. One large shot speaks a thousand words, and "How Green Was My Valley" counts hundreds of such eloquent shots. Here's another one: in "The Grapes of Wrath", as the Joads move out to California, Ma Joad (Jane Darnell) chooses not to give a last look toward their farm for time is not for the past. "How Green" opens with a close-up of an aging woman looking toward the mines with eyes that convey both nostalgia and sadness.
This is a woman who didn't move and witnessed the slow decay of the once green valley through the darkening effect of industrialization. That image captures the emotional spirit of John Ford's Best Picture winner (yes, the one that beat "Citizen Kane" and "The Maltese Falcon") : the universal paradox of life is that it takes climbing the valley to admire how beautiful the view was, especially with children's eyes of wonder. And never has such a vision been so hypnotically beautiful as in the adaptation of Richard Llewely's book.
It might strike as an ironic title for a movie made of black-and-white splendor, but the green is secondary when it's all about emotions. This is not a movie for purists determined to spot the flaws within accents and proudly state the obvious, this is a film for viewers who wish to have an instant of pure old-school Hollywood-style melodrama from its most emblematic director: John Ford. Ford said it was his favorite movie and so did Clint Eastwood. Interesting from two men who owed their stardom to the Western genre to pick a movie that is just a slice of life tainted with pure nostalgia.
Or maybe is it because Western was embodying the "childhood" of America and this is why "How Green Was My Valley" hits that sensitive chord. It echoes a sublimated vision of a past that no longer exists, an order sacrificed at the altar of modernity and materialism, like a purified vision of the Old West (without the desperadoes). It is an idealistic dream from the start, the valley of Wales (which strangely resemble the industrialist setting of Zola's masterpiece "Germinal") looks like the pastoral heaven where coal miners work hard, ruled by entrusted owners, women keeping the house, and priests herding their sheep.
The story is told from a narrator who's living after fifty years, assembling his belongings in the shawl that belonged to his mother. He's Huw, the youngest of the Morgan boys, played by Roddy McDowall. He captures the spirit of the film, the fact that we all look at our past with our child's eye, reminiscing an idyllic time where each member was set on a pedestal of love and respectability. And like a romantic painter, Ford addresses a magnificent portrait of the Morgan family as a monument of stability at a time where the Old Europe became the arena of bloody battles.
It was the war indeed that prevented the shooting to be set in Wales and turned the Malibu valley into a Welsh village. Needless to say that Darry Zanuck had to downplay his ambitions to make his "Gone With the Wind", a four-hour epic in all Technicolor. But Ford knew that black-and-white was the best way to express the film's old-fashioned values through his mastery of large and haunting shots and a palette of darkness and lighting. John Ford was one hell of a storyteller and where any lesser director could have turned the melodrama into something linear and mawkish, Ford turns it into a work of art that conveys his own nostalgia of Ireland.
Yes, there are instants where the film feels preachy when too socially loaded of stagey when too melodramatic but the child perspective is the soul of the film. The film opens with the family reunion, the patriarch Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp) cuts the bread to his sons, makes the prayer while the mother (Sara Allgood) is the last to start the meal and the first to finish, she's the pillar of the little community and while the film strikes a man's movie, it leaves no doubt about who's the real boss in the house. The idyllic picture doesn't last for too long as we're quickly immersed in the workers' plight and the threats of strikes pending over them.
The workers' plights are less to emphasize the political content but to show how, in one instant, the father has turned into an old relic of the part. And this is what the father is, and the last monologue convey the idea that men like him can never die, and that one can live without the past. Maybe this is why the film was such an instant favorite, it reconciled Americans with a past when the present was grim and the future uncertain. Maybe this is why it is the most Fordian of all Ford's films.
There are a few oddities here and there, keeping Roddy McDowall instead of hiring an older actor made a few interactions rather awkward, the actor who played the bigot priest was overacting, Walter Pidgeon's performance better fitted for a movie directed by Wyler (he was the initial choice)... but the film is so full of visual and haunting scenery that one can't ignore its emotional beauty, it is a vision embellished from the past that emphasizes the dissolution of many American values just like "Citizen Kane" did... in a more intellectual way.
Maybe it deserved that Best Picture after all...