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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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In which of these "Man vs. Town" movies, did you root for the hero the most?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these classic movie quotes consisting of such repetitions is your personal favorite?
You can read the options here. You can think here. You can vote here. You might discuss the list here
(see that was an anaphora with "You can" and an epiphora with "here")
So celebrating their 35th anniversary, which of these ten 'uninspired continuations', sorted by IMDb rating order, do you think was the most awful... or for the use a nicer word: disappointing?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
Which of these Oscars' late bloomers is your personal favorite?
After voting you may discuss the list here
Which of these actors' sets of Best Picture nominees is your favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
BEST PICTURE WINNER * Oscar nomination for the actor Oscar win
Celebrating Valentine's Day of 2018, which of the top 18 most iconic romances according to the AFI is your favorite?
After voting, you may discuss the list here
After voting, you may discuss the list here
Life is like a Dardennes brothers' movie, you never know what you're gonna get...
All Dardenne brothers' movies have a central character but all these characters don't necessarily have a character's arc. As my immersion into the sibling's unique but strangely flawless body of work progresses, I find these two storytelling devices equally fascinating, in the way they convey the real 'flavor' of life, living a day without knowing what the next one will be... a grimmer look on Forrest Gump's iconic 'box of chocolates' metaphot.
In movies like "The Promise" (their 1996 breakthrough), a young teenager is confronted to a moral dilemma after the tragic death of an illegal immigrant and chooses to help his widow and son instead of pursuing the same criminal path than his father, in "Two Days, One Night"; that earned Marion Cotillard an Oscar-nomination, the actress played a depressed factory worker confronting each workmate during a weekend to ask them to renounce an 1000 euros bonus to avoid her dismissal. These two movies consisted of long harrowing journeys where their protagonists managed to transcend their initial conditions, proving that even in a crisis-stricken society, there's still a glimmer of hope and reasons to have faith in humanity.
Other Dardennes' movies didn't share the same optimism, and both happen to be their Golden Palm winners. "Rosetta" featured a young girl determined to work and not to end like her depraved alcoholic mother that she would do anything to get a job, even the most unethical actions. But when she could work, she seemed to have lost the ability to be happy, as if she had already entrapped herself in an existential dead-end. In "The Child", we find Jeremy Renier, the kid in "The Promise", in his early twenties, as Bruno, the father of the titular child, along with Sonia (Deborah François) a girl in her late teens. Despite the title, the film is pretty much centered on the 'father', but the word father is to be kept between crosses. I was misled by the synopsis and the premise that 'Bruno would learn to become a father'... there is no journey in "The Child" despite some bits of remorse expressed by Bruno.
Still, the only identifiable pattern in his behavior is that he never thinks of the consequences and is so eager to make quick cash through begging or petty crimes that he never questions his ethics. Some people don't have scruples, some have, some don't even think about it. Are they dangerous? Potentially, yes. But they're a danger for themselves first because once you stop thinking of the consequences, your life can't have any purpose anymore. The irony is that Sonia, who's as immature and childish as Bruno, does have one and it happens to be her son. Although it's implied it was an accidental pregnancy, the couple is genuinely in love and love is actually an understatement, in two consecutive scenes, the Dardennes exposed the love on-going between the couple in a way that both captures their innocence and foreshadows the upcoming incident.
Indeed, this is intelligent filmmaking at best because it features the two sides of the coin, how innocence can be cute and corny only to raise an uglier and far more tragic head later. First, you see them playfully but recklessly teasing each other in the car and it's a miracle it doesn't end with an accident. Later, they play with food and end up embracing each other as if they were at the verge of making love once again without any care for their child... it's like we viewers are asked by the Dardennes to care for the kid because the parents obviously can't. But it's Bruno who crosses the line by doing the one thing not even the most experienced moviegoer could see coming: selling the child.
With an eerie attention to details and in their trademark documentary style, the Dardennes shoot the scene like a drug deal where a baby replaced the loot. But once again with the Dardennes, a scene never plays on its own, it's often a set-up to a more powerful moment. The pay-off comes when Bruno triumphantly shows a big bundle of euros to Sonia, announcing in the most matter-of-factly way that they sold their child. Sonia's reaction takes her back to a norm so severely lacking in the previous scenes, she faints and need immediate hospitalization. It's a dramatic moment but at least we know she is normal, and the fact that Bruno doesn't realize the gravity of his action that establishes his true character, one who has an uncommon lack of comprehension of the world, so wrapped up in immediacy that his soul lost itself in the process.
I compared the film with "Rosetta" but even she had a defining goal, she needed a job and that encompassed all her actions. Bruno spends the whole film needing money, and even when he manages to get the child back, he seems to be sliding in the same path, endangering the life of another child. For all his flaws, we're never put in a position to despise Bruno, we pity him but in the same way, we fail to admire him when he seems regretful or when he makes amends... the Dardennes never allow certitudes, as if we were allowed to trust our perceptions. At the end, when Bruno finally weeps, we might take it as redemption, but it can be despair. Who knows?
And "who knows?" is the question, "The Child" feels like a character study but there's an intellectual undertone behind that term, indicating a form of arc, an evolution, a coming-of-age. The Dardennes brothers could make such a film but I applaud the way they kept a shadow of doubt about the future of Bruno, by focusing so much on his actions that we're so close yet so far from his conscience, like Bruno who by getting so close to money let it get the worse from him...
To Rome with Love (2012)
From "To Rome With Love", to "To Woody, With Hate"...
Woody Allen has always been enamored with Europe and Europe has always repaid him well in return. Nothing extraordinary with Allen's European appeal since he's always been influenced by Bergman and Fellini, both emotional and intellectual school of film-making approaching the things of life, with Allen's humor to spice it all. In result; there has always been a love story between Woody and Europe. "To Rome With Love" only states what we've known already and on the scale of the many masterpieces that paid heartfelt tribute to Allen's European heritage, it's a minor offering.
Besides, "To Rome With Love" was released six years ago which on the scale of Hollywood history and the major upheavals following the Weinstein's scandal, are an eternity, the end of 2017 shook up Hollywood like no other year did and the tectonic resonance of the MeToo and TimeUp movement finally reached Woody Allen. Recently, many stars who starred in his movies expressed their regrets and validated their apologies with donations to the concerned organizations, Chalamet did it right after starring in the next Allen film. Colin Firth regretted working with Allen, so did Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page who both starred in "To Rome With Love".
I was just complaining that Allen might have lost his touch after the dreadful "Café Society" but I'm afraid that it would be now the least of his concerns. The director who feared the Weinstein scandal would turn into a witch hunt seemed to have indirectly prophesized the very crumble of his legacy, at a time where media outrage is more vocal than court judgments. It seems that stars believed the best option is to believe the allegations against Allen, whether they're right or wrong is beside the point, career-wise, it's the right move. So, I'm not sure how we can exactly judge "To Rome With Love" with today's scope, the film seems like a relatively feeble attempt to resurrect the charm of his more glorious decades while not totally devoid of hilarious moments. I wish I could love the film more, but it seems so futile by now, like an exercise in Allenisms with actors trying to play the game while not totally in it... or am I influenced by their late statements?
Anyway, there is a moment where a retired opera director played by Allen discovers a man who can only sings perfectly under the shower, I don't know if it's intended to be a tribute to the classic Looney Tunes' cartoon "One Froggy Eveneing" but only in an Allen movie, you could have an opera scene where a man sings Pagliachi with an incongruous shower set on stage. It was so nonsensical and yet predictable that it could almost be strung with the most surrealist Allen's moments and enough to earn this film two extra points of rating. If only the other parts were as good.
One of them involve Jesse Eisenberg falling in love with a young student who seems to know exactly what to say to arouse him sexually, she's played by Ellen Page. Alec Baldwin is in every scene, like a not so imaginary friend, for the record, he's the only one who didn't backstab Allen yet. A second story involves a family misunderstanding between a man who must present his fiancée to his uptight family but must save face by pretending it's the luscious prostitute played by Penelope Cruz, meanwhile his fiancée lives another adventure involving a sexy burglar and has been actor. And the fourth is about an average clerk played by Roberto Benigni who suddenly becomes a celebrity without any reason.
And it's very telling when the part that obviously tries to "make a statement" about celebrity ends up being the least successful one. The film is never as funny as when it goes to the zaniest direction and never as boring as when it tries to say something. There are many questions raised in these short films, but only the lighthearted moments allow the film to elevate itself above its heavy contrivances. Rome is such a big presence that it doesn't take much to make a film about it, but Allen overplays the postcard homage for no reason at all, granted it was part of his European tour, but Allen have proven to be a heir to Fellini with his "Radio Days" and "Stardust Memories".
Indeed, there's always been something Italian without the need to go all "Mamma Mia" without it... no pun intended of course.
The Fratricidal collision between Idealism and Pragmatism...
"The Wind That Shakes the Barley", first of the two Golden Palm winners directed by Ken Loach, starts in the kind of cinematically traditional fashion that doesn't prepare you for how innovative it is on an intellectual basis. Yes, intellectual.
Young lads are playing hockey on a field so richly green you wouldn't believe it's anywhere outside the Emerald Isle. After the game, a heartfelt exchange of farewells between Damien O'Donovan and the O'Sullivan clan is interrupted by the fierce intervention of the infamous "Black and Tans". The troop came to remind that collective demonstrations are severely prohibited and that went for sports game too. What follows is no game at all.
Things escalate quickly when one of these young Irishmen, too angry or maybe too proud to measure up the danger decides not to cooperate at all. He says his name in Gaelic and keeps his eyes and chin up with a defiant smirk that earns him a 'permanent' beating. That martyrdom is still not enough to convince young promising doctor Damien O'Donovan (brilliantly played by Cillian Murphy) to swell the ranks of the fighters, among them his older brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) against the British colons.
We're all aware that in cinema's tradition it's not uncommon for the most valiant fighters to start as outsiders or even be labeled as cowards but Ken Loach doesn't use these narrative conventions at the expenses of realism. The episode that ends up triggering Damien's determination doesn't consist on another life-threatening situation yet it is far less than being anecdotic. On the train station, he sees the driver named Dan (Liam Cunnigham) being brutalized by British soldiers because he refused to transport them, nothing to do with Irish pride but union rights forbidding him to transport weapons.
This is interesting in the way it establishes the real motivations of Damien, he's not driven by romanticism but realism, and these nuances will play a gradually important role as the story progresses. Meanwhile, Ken Loach exposes the familiar elements such as the training of the troops, the first successful operations, the first sheds of blood with an attention to details that make each operation believable and heart-pounding in their unpredictable outcome. The performance of Murphy is crucial because we always identify with his outsider's status while his involvement gets deeper and his initial persona progressively diluted in the painful obligations.
There was a 1969 movie named "Army of Shadows" depicting with an eerie realism the existential corners a fight against occupation drove some ordinary men: executing a traitor with a towel, resigning to swallow a cyanide capsule or even worse, dying in total anonymity without any posthumous recognition whatsoever. But for all its grittiness, the movie didn't leave any doubt about the righteousness of the fight lead by French civilians for the enemy was the Nazi occupants, if it didn't make any death satisfying, we knew everyone did the 'right thing' even when it meant the worst.
Now, you have "The Wind That Shakes the Barley", a movie all in bright palettes of green, nothing to do with the gray shadowy streets of Melville's masterpiece, but if this film that starts like your typical exhilaration of the fight for freedom, there is slowly but surely, in a way that credits Ken Loach' respect for his viewers, a gradual existential questioning. In a scene that echoes the traitor's execution in 'Shadows', Damien must shoot the friend who denounced them. At this point, you can see that it's a part of himself he's killing with the poor frightened kid and that there's no return to normality after that.
Indeed, we've seen sickening scenes of torture before, we know how violent the British were, but the film still allows his main protagonist to hope that Ireland will be worth the fight, this is no "Braveheart"'. The execution is a poignant moment but what goes next is a triumph of writing and self-questioning. It consists on a long discussion about a verdict forcing a rich Irish man to pay a poor woman back because of high interest rates, this is the first judgment rendered by an independent Irish court but many fighters, including Damien's brother refuses to ostracize the richer ones as they're the most important fundraisers.
We can see the first breeches of discord within the group, some believe the fight needs money, some that the power must be given to the people. And what we've got here is a film that asks two questions: is the fight worth it after all, since it makes you kill your own people? Or will it be worth it since it will keep the same system just under a different flag. The question becomes crucial after the partition of Ireland and its dominion status maintained, causing a permanent shift between Loyalists and Nationalists and culminating when a man is forced to execute his own brother, remaking the very moment where Damien killed the traitor. Damien would recall the memory to point out that there's no possible bargain with him.
Damien's views seem politically motivated and Ken Loach was criticized for injecting his left-wing views within the story, but there's no doubt that there was starvation in Ireland and that a real ideological shift occurred within the fighters. And it says a lot about the misleading exhilaration of "fighting" when you believe in one enemy before you discover that it can be within your own nation, your own blood. There's a moment where the Loyalists mention that Britain needs to save face not to encourage other countries like India. At the end, I kept thinking of India and the sad aftermath of Gandhi's fight for the Independence when Muslims and Hindus started killing each other.
British criticized Ken Loach's self-loathing approach, in fact, he does justice to the two sides of the fights by confronting them to their historical responsibility. And anyone who believes this is an Anti-British understood nothing from the film or didn't even see it.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Behind every great lover, there's a city...
In "Vicky Christina Barcelona", Woody Allen reinvents the notion of schools of loves through the conflicting visions of two friends in their early 20's, visiting Barcelona for the first time.
Rebecca Hall is Vicky, the sensed and practical one, she's no less romantic than the average girl but she has loving rhyming with living, she takes love seriously and so her coming marriage with Doug (Chris Messina) a young junior manager who, if not the fire of senseless passion, doesn't lack the promising capability to be a good 'provider'.
Scarlett Johannsson is Christina, the passionate Ying to Vicky's wise Yan, she's an idealistic woman who envisions love as a sort of omelet that doesn't go without breaking eggs, there must have a good deal of suffering and hurting, proportionally to the heights of passions to be reached. She didn't find the true love, but she's still at an age where questions have the edge over answers. And it's interesting how their occupations reflect their personalities.
Vicky is a linguist who came to Barcelona to study Catalan identity, Christina is an aspiring director or photographer, an artist to make it short. The two girls have fundamentally opposed views on love, but they won't amount to much in Barcelona, the third side of a fascinating love triangle. After having romanticized the Big Apple and then deconstructed its romantic myth, coming totally full circle with his cherished hometown, Woody Allen embarked on a European trip in the early 2000's and the halt in Barcelona was certainly one of the most notable and inspired.
With three dozens of movies on the clock, Allen sure acquired a unique talent to make a city feel alive through the film, and with the Gaudi signature, the cathedrals and the restaurants open at midnight, we know it's a matter of time before any convictions is swept up by the romantic mood of city. Indeed, with a town like Barcelona in the backdrop, half a Casanova's work is done. And when Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio comes and proposes the girls a little trip to Oviedo, granted he embodies all the suave charm of the Spanish lover, but he's like endorsed by the hypnotic beauty of the city.
It's an old trick many womanizers apply, at a time where you had to cruise and be charming on the spot, not behind a screen, they generally went to the spot flourishing with tourists. Any lady-killer could stroll in Paris in Luxembourg Gardens during summer, a free visit to an English tourist enamored with the city would be the kind of proposals that'd rarely encounter a "no". But while Vicky can see behind the game and Christina just get in the flow, and before we know it, the 'no' became a 'yes'. Not sure the trick would work in America with all the sexual harassment talk but in 2008, everybody found it romantic ... so it's not just a matter of geographical context.
The trip doesn't follow exactly the trajectory we expect, or maybe it does, but just take a little detour, allowing the complicity to blossom between Juan Antonio, the tormented artist and Vicky. Juan Antonio had struck Chrsitina's attention because of some backstory about the conflicting relationship he had with his ex-wife, but the character he shows to Vicky is oddly matching her own approach to life and art, to the point that her attention toward her fiancée gradually slips.
The trouble with cities like Barcelona, cities with a soul, is that you can't tell to which extent they influence your perceptions. Does Vicky appreciate Juan's company because she's in the perfect context for that, holiday, summer, relaxation or is the attraction genuine? To complicate things a little, her fiancé comes, to celebrate a first wedding in Spain, while Juan gets back to Christina. Something very interesting happens then in the mind of Vicky, that doesn't need any fancy analysis, it's summed up in one exchange: Juan says she and her fiancé are made for each other, and in a typical Allenian move, she's offended.
Why is that serious relationships or ambitions that imply steady comforts are perceived as negative? To the film's defense, this is not what "Vicky Christina Barcelona" advocates, it does provide a nice glimpse on Spanish Bohemian life and I don't know anyone who wouldn't be tempted to live with a glass of wine everyday, painting and making love or living in a ménage a trois. In the very context of the film, it is appealing, but the antidote is clearly provided by the fourth and most memorable character of the film, Penelope Cruz as the ex-wife. Earning her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, this is not just a credit to her talent but to her weight in a rather lighthearted film.
Before her entrance, the film made an effort to portray Juan as an attractive man and men like Doug as boring and "knowing nothing about passion" and only leading to failing and hypocritical couples such as the one formed by Chris Dunn and Patricia Clarkson.. If the film doesn't strike for its subtle characterization (Allen generally excels in this game even for minor characters), at least it provides a character who's so passionate you just want to take the next plane not to New York, but to Alaska. As Maria Elena, Penelope Cruz plays a jealous, envious, suicidal, possessive, luscious woman, who takes art to a level of destruction and destruction to the level of art, to the point that what starts like a sensual adventure with three people finally prompts Christina to pull herself together and leave.
It is a credit to Allen for not having surrendered to a total triumph of passion over reason, the ending suggests that when it comes to love, nothing is really what it's all cracked up to be and sun is always sunnier in the other side of the Atlantic, especially under the sky of Barcelona.
Critique of Impure Reasons...
Michael Haneke "White Ribbon", Golden Palm winner of Cannes Festival in 2009, takes place in a small German village one year before World War I. The mention of the war sounds like the kind of elements that foreshadows some role the major conflict would play, but if it's any spoiler, I'll say that war has nothing to do with the story and if you expect the kind of movie to provide hints or signals, you'll be disappointed... first and mesmerized after. This is an extraordinary journey in an atmosphere of nauseating and sickening suspicion without any resolution whatsoever.
And the warning is necessary because if there's ever a genre to classify the film, it is Mystery. The word should even be used in the plural form as it features many incidents that punctuate the daily routine of the village, from a prank leading to a fall from horse, to a fire, from cabbage decapitation to child molestations, it is bizarre that all these deeds are strung together but that's because the movie brilliantly reflects the fullest range of human malevolence and that we never know who's committed each act is more disturbing than the acts themselves.
Haneke fears violence like the next decent man but he fears it so much, he feels the need to anticipate it, to expose its in frontal nudity to better conceal its reversely sacred status, he's not a glorifier of human violence but an iconoclast. Whereas Hollywood is often timid when it comes to display real-life violence, using over-the-top depictions to better make up for their falseness, Haneke dares to show a dead body being toileted or the bloody face of a child who's just been molested, with macabre details revealed. It is ugly but it does justice to the moral fight against violence to show 'the enemy'.
Violence isn't just physical, it is also verbal and sometimes with more devastating effects. There's a scene where a doctor confronts his nurse and what comes from his mouth is a flood of verbal bullying that would lure any fragile soul into suicidal candidacy. The man who speaks is the one who fell from the horse in the opening scene, when the animal's legs were stopped by an invisible cable tied between two trees. He's the first victim, but he' as capable as being pitilessly cruel as the monster who pranked him.
The film is shot in black and white, but this is not just an artistic license, the early century was old enough to be captured in monochrome, whether cold photographs or silent archives and recent enough not to be depicted in bright painterly colors, it was indeed a time in black and white. But that look precisely invites us to focus on greyish parts, the shadows, what lies behind the curtains of respectability or that dusts off the ashes of evil. Because this is what the white ribbon symbolizes, not the so-called purity but the pretension to achieve it.
The film circles around the lives of many villagers, from various ranks and backgrounds at a time where people were mostly defined by their jobs, a baron, a priest, a farmer, the doctor, the teacher, and every one of them tries to maintain a façade of dignity. In an intense scene, a priest delivers a long monologue to his elder children after they've come late home... this is a clear reflection of the kind of puritan mentalities that forged some artistic geniuses like Ingmar Bergman, the use of repression or symbols to conceal the demons. But Haneke is as explicit when it comes to show how laborious these rituals are as to demonstrate their uselessness.
This is a village where moral and social conveniences end up poisoning relationships, aa farmer's wife dies because of a work accident but the husband can't complain because he knows it's a lost cause, the baron is the employer and you can't cut the hand that feeds you. A young optimistic teacher tries to seduce the baron's nurse but fails to convince her father to marry him, the priest's son prays God for killing him because he did something wrong, what he did we never know. Still, enumerating all the episodes would be futile and meaningless compared to the main experience.
The real achievement is to create a journey where we can sense the presence of two forces, evil and guilt, but with cloud of uncertainty making impossible to associate them with the perpetrators, only the victims, and even then, there's a crucial point Haneke makes is that victimhood doesn't make you an innocent person. In the context of today, where there's a clear gap between victims and predators, you'd have serious troubles if you even dare to say that, but this is why German cinema is so cold and detached, it respects our intelligence enough not to take side, or flatter our moral conscience, it invites us to reconsider our certitudes.
"The White Ribbon" isn't an intellectual exercise, it's a film about people, men, women and children, caught in a sort of hellish spiral they don't know about. Trying to associate this pattern of violence with the rise of Nazism would be too tempting and reducing, because evil has no boundaries, we all carry it, we all have reasons to fear it as much as to commit it. What Haneke does is depicting violence to deprive it from any kind of taboo value, and by refusing to provide hints or answers, he makes both everyone guilty and everyone innocent, and you've got to figure out which option is the worst.
We all have our 'white ribbons' our limits, and in the absolute no one would over cause harm to anyone, but these things happen, and just because they are irrational doesn't make them immune to a form of rationality, this is the country of Kant that established that for each cause there's an effect and inversely, and one effect becoming a cause, and maybe that's the perpetual movement of history captured in this microcosm of humanity
Il gattopardo (1963)
Keeping His Paws in the Gilded Cage
"The Leopard", Golden Palm winner of 1963, might have the prestigious look and feel of a big-budget historical drama, confidently directed by veteran Luchino Visconti and sublimated by the melodies of Nino Rota... and yes, to some degree, it can be regarded as an Italian equivalent to "Gone With the Wind". But it's within the resignation not the determination of its main character that we find the soul of the film.
Indeed, for a story supposed to be about historical upheavals and political turmoil, "The Leopard" is remarkably static and stoic. This owes a lot to the performance of Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, he carries both the codified solemn authority of a man of his rank and the poignant vulnerability of a man at the nadir of his splendor, belonging to a chapter of Italy's history whose pages are soon to be turned. We're in 1860 when Garibaldi's troops are dethroning the then-ruling Bourbons in Sicily. Salina might be a leopard but an endangered species in that particular context.
Yet "The Leopard" isn't much a character study, the film is adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel of the same name, centering on the decay of the old aristocratic system. And without reading the book, I guess it carries the same resonance in Italy as Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind". I suspect the book starts with magnificent descriptions of all the lavish vegetation that graces the landscape, the natural sprays that float over the warm sky of Sicily, among them the breeze of modernity coming from the continent. And I suspect the film while not absolutely flawless does justice to the novel.
Yet what a bizarrely quiet journey, we're getting prepared to a downfall... that never occurs. The film is very much about the way Sicily was under the noble rulers before the Unification of Italy under the King but isn't much interested in the future. But it's easy to miss that we're witnessing one of the first glimpses of the Island's unique beauty before "The Godfather" would give the most vibrant homage. History and locations are constant markers of the film but trust our knowledge a little too much. "The Leopard" might be too difficult for most viewers and maybe a little introduction about the context wouldn't have hurt the film or at least, a few geographical notes.
And despite some very well-choreographed battle scenes, war always seems distant, as contemplated from the passive perspective of the Salinas who just idly move from one palace to another, the heirs enjoying the bucolic lifestyle while the patriarch can exchange a few quips with his priest (Mario Girotti) and a few heated political gossips with his hunting companion (Serge Reggiani). The dialogues go from minimalist to passionate, superficial to subtle, but to those who don't pay much attention to politics, the highlight of these conversations is in the body language, the way they indirectly establish that the Prince still inspires respect and a servile attitude (sometimes the corniest) proving that nothing had changed as far as he's concenred. The best thing about Lancaster is that he plays a man talking about losing his power while always being powerful.
So what we have is a film that works in two paces, it is history in motion and a cross-country travel yet strangely motionless, it's as puzzling and beautiful as one of these mechanically arranged ballroom waltzes. The Prince is one of these paradoxes the silver screen is enamored with, in one of his best scenes, he's asked by the priest to confess his sins but there are limits the Prince can't tolerate, like searing seven children from a woman without ever seeing her navel. The Prince is a man of life, love and passion and the fading of his aura just coincided with the Italy he knew, but having to endure his petite Devout catholic nagging and whining wife is one blow to his manhood he can't have.
But the story would have been quite austere if it wasn't for the additions of two more high-spirted characters: Tancredi, played by the distractingly handsome Alain Delon and Anjelica, the daughter of an opportunistic mayor, played by the exquisite Claudia Cardinale. Tancredi is an ambitious go-getter who fights for either army depending on his interest but with such charisma it reveals the level of ambition so severely lacking in the Prince's progeny. The parallel between the two men isn't just highlighted by their relationship but the way they instantly feel the same lust toward the same woman... a gilded cage is something "The Leopard" can consent to... but losing his paws?
Luchino Visconti was a descendant of this Sicilian nobility yet refused to play the titular part although everyone acknowledged his regal persona. Burt Lancaster was picked so the film could get the necessary banking from Hollywood and I thought he gave a presence to the film, he's charming, charismatic and can turn from intimidating to friendly in one simple grin, he's accessible like an old friend but sacred like an old relic we venerate out of habit. But he's also a pragmatic man who understands that all the prestige of the world can't do without money and even marriage can turn into financial bargain, the end justifying the means. Aren't we after all in the country that gave Machiavelli?
All these torments pinnacle in the iconic ballroom sequence, which is as long as the wedding opening in "The Godfather" and culminates with the same inter-generational dance, but what a moment! By having a final waltz with the beautiful Anjelica, we see a rebirth for the Prince, a rejuvenating shoot before finally surrendering to the march of time, more ruthless and permanent than any conquest or invasion... but still using a party as an opportunity to tie bonds and take decisions (like "The Godfather") not much have changed for Sicilian traditions... and if it's any consolation, the Leopard was right!
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Pivotal milestone but also Powerful and Poignant Drama
"Isn't there anything that touches you, that warms you? Every man has a dream, what do you dream about?"
That quote comes from my favorite moment of Stanley Kramer's "Inherit the Wind" the movie about the monkey trial ending with the atheist lawyer, played by Spencer Tracy, admitting off the record the power of faith. He wasn't against religion but the way religion could become an oppressive force while its quest for a spiritual meaning could generously provide the kind of harmony every man seeks.
That's the idea of "The Jazz Singer", a film about two men who have their own religion, a rabbi who believes in the word of God and his son Jacob (Al Jolson) who believes he can only sing his truth by entertaining people. What they all have in common besides belonging to a prestigious generation of Cantors is the same 'tear' in the voice, and this is the stuff you can't cheat with. Yet the father won't allow his son to disgrace the family by shouting or dancing to pagan rhythms, the mother is more understanding.
Religion becomes oppressive and pushes little Jackie to leave the house and fulfill his dream. The rest is history... and today, the movie is mostly famous for being the first talkie, and the talkies couldn't have a better start than something enlightening us about the power of a voice, of music, and how it translates your thoughts, your emotion, your demons so powerfully it can reach other souls. There's something in "The Jazz Singer" that fittingly touches the essence of the medium and we might have noticed it if we weren't so busy looking at it as a pioneer.
Indeed, I've been interested in movies ever since 1995 and the whole centenary celebration. In these Internet-less times, there wasn't a book I opened, a documentary I saw that didn't mention the iconic "Jazz Singer". You'd have asked me as a kid about the first talking picture, I would give you the title and the most iconic image, a singing black-faced man... and I thought that the movie was only consisting on a man singing, a short film whose novelty was enough to made a sensation.
Then I saw the first excerpts from "Goodfellas" with the "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" part, then being an AFI buff, I discovered the line "Wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet" the first unsung line of history. I noticed many cartoons of the Golden Age made a reference to the "Manny" song. And then, I saw the episode of "The Simpsons" revealing that Krusty the Clown was estranged with his father, a rabbi who disowned him after he became an entertainer. I know it's not a very interesting story but just to say that all these little pieces of the puzzle made me believe that "I saw everything yet".
But I didn't! What makes the film so great has actually nothing to do with its status. Of course, the music is integral to its power, but had this film been the second or third talking picture, it would have changed absolutely nothing to its greatness. Yes, it is outdated by many elements (actually there aren't many talking parts) but the film is as modern and relevant today as it was nine decades ago as a riveting portrayal of an inner conflict, a man who has a dream but a heart too.
Our Jazz singer must choose between whether the show must go on and the call of his race, from deep inside. There comes a point where he either misses his first show on Broadway or not sing during the Atonement ceremony because his father is too sick. At that moment, I was at the edge of my seat as if I was watching a thriller. I've said it once and I say it again, the greatest thrills come from these powerful conflicting dramas.
And when Jackie says "I must choose between losing my career or breaking my mother's heart", I couldn't handle the desperation, whatever ex-machina could have saved him, I was ready to accept it, Because Jackie wasn't just desperate, he was angry at his boss to ask him to abandon his parents or threaten him to lose his job. That climactic sequence was one of the most powerful I've experienced recently and the resolution was just perfect.
Ebert said about Astaire's blackface number in "Swing Time" that, according to the Cinebooks essay, it was "perhaps the only blackface number on film which doesn't make one squirm today", I know there was some controversy around Jolson's blackface, but when he sang Manny, I was literally hypnotized by the tears in his voice and could see beyond the race. Just like any non-Jewish person can relate to Jackie, I don't think the blackface is played as an insult or whatever derogatory, if anything, this is a film that more plays for the ears than the eyes, and for the spirit, more than the ears.
Speaking of religion, "The Jazz Singer" is also one of the first movies immersing us in a faith that is not Christian, a film that takes you in the intimacy of a culture. Hollywood was created by many immigrants who escaped from the pogroms in Eastern Europe, it's only fitting that one of the seminal Hollywood movies plays like a tribute to their faith, especially since religion is never preached but plays like an antagonist at first before reconciling with jazz through the idea that it's only a way to reach people, after all, if music wasn't so powerful, psalms wouldn't be sung and jazz wouldn't have religious songs.
So I conclude by saying that it's more than a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, it's a great movie on its own merits, I said about "The Mission" that it was the greatest movie about the three universal languages of the soul: faith, love and music, well, maybe I'd consider "The Jazz Singer" a close second.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Too "conventionally" modern for its own good...
The concept of "Seven Samurai" is so simple that it's hard to believe it took half a century for a director to come up with the mission-team trope. But that's why Akira Kurosawa was such a genius, he made the seminal action movie and it worked so well that it didn't take much for its Western remake to become a classic on its own merits.
The ingredients are simple and so is the structure: poor people oppressed by a corrupt and powerful man, the recruiting of the seven, the bonding with the villagers which is the meat of the story, then the climactic battle where four of the seven meet their demise. The success of the film depends on how each of these segments are handled and how the cast manages to transcend the material by making us relate to each player or enjoy their presence and interactions.
But it's not as easy as it sounds, the original was a three-hour epic with a clear three-act structure, not only we could identify each Samurai but each death resonated as a mini-tragedy. "The Magnificent Seven", less epic but as entertaining, managed to make at least five of them pretty endearing in a briefer lapse of time. Now, the problem with Antoine Fuqua's 2016 remake is that it's obviously admiring the original material and does the best to duplicate its magic, but it never seems to take its own characters seriously enough, not the magnificent, not the villagers, so why should we care? As expected, each of the seven embodies a particular trait, Denzel Washington is Sam Chisolm, the Ace, his establishing moment consists on the 'permanent' arrest of a wanted criminal and a few collateral damages. The scene works but it's so reminiscent of one of King Schultz' deeds in "Django Unchained" that it's instantly forgettable. Chris Pratt is the cool one, who enjoys a magic card trick or two and spends half his time delivering a wisecrack. Individually, they're good but together, they're no Brynner and McQueen.
Now, I waited for the taciturn one, the third Samurai/James Coburn type. He's a knife thrower played by Byung-Hun Lee, this is an interesting fellow that deserved a more ominous introduction, but as soon as we're finished admiring his skills, we discover that he's only the sidekick of a more legendary sharpshooter named Goodnight Robicheaux and played by Ethan Hawke. Hawke plays the third more three-dimensional member of the seven but I didn't like the way he stole Billy's thunder, relegated to one simple skill.
And depth would be a luxury for the other magnificent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is a Mexican outlaw who's given a chance by Sam and spends the rest of the time exchanging a few racist quips with Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio is a religious tracker whose voice is the closest thing to comedy relief, and then there's Martin Sensmeier as an exiled Comanche warrior. They're all colorful and ethnically marked but that's not saying much, the Native is defined by his ability to throw arrows, the knife thrower throws knives the religious nutcase speaks to the Lord, the Mexican is... Mexican.
The only oneswho benefit from an extra pinch of depth are Hawke whose troubled actions seem to recall some PTSD shock from the Civil War and Pratt, and Washington. But if you're looking for counterparts to the magnificent seven, don't bother. I didn't expect one but I wish they could have improved the seventh one and made him as a scene stealer as Mifune, but the film didn't even manage to be better than "Young Guns", and I loved "Young Guns", the film had six protagonists and they were not as expendable as the so-called magnificent.
This version with Antoine Fuqua is obviously driven by good intentions and the fact that he decided to make a multi-ethnic cast could have given a special texture, but Fuqua also goes for the female heroine trend, and Haley Bennett (the toughest one from the village) is just so bad-ass she overshadows many of the seven. If Fuqua wanted something original, he could have made her the seventh one. It wouldn't have been the least realistic thing about the film, the introduction of the villain had almost killed any attempt to take it seriously.
They say a film is as good as its villain, on the basis of Bartholomew Bogue, the film should have been great. Peter Saargard revisits a form of old-fashioned mustached villain that is not uninteresting. That said, I can believe any form of evil exploitation, of throwing people off their land, but that a man would be shot in cold blood in front of witnesses, and a woman being axed from behind and the Marshall, no matter how corrupt he is, would do nothing about it, that's too much. If evil doesn't have standards, then the conception of heroism turns into something 'superhero' binary that doesn't really prompt us to root for anyone, since there's no intellectual challenge.
But Haley Bennett as the seventh one would've been a challenging twist, but there were more shots on her cleavage than any scenes involving the last three seven put together so I wondered whether her presence was meant to arouse the male audience or to inspire the female one. But the film leaves a little to care about, especially the villagers who're not given enough screen-time or interactions anyway. And since the timing between the entrance and the battle doesn't exceed forty minutes, we couldn't care less about the outcome. What lacked in the film is a transition between the introduction and the battle, the fact that many deaths left me cold was indicating of how the film was so reliant on the concept that it forgot to tell a genuinely powerful story, it's just about archetypes colliding into each other in a muck of cinematic conventions. It's fun and entertaining at moments, but the rest of the time, I was scratching my head with perplexity.
The greatest tragedy of poverty is when you can't even afford to be happy...
As usual with the Dardenne brothers, there's no time for fancy film-making or cinematic conventions. "Rosetta" opens with the titular 'heroine' walking in her white uniform in some unidentified workplace while the camera follows her, chases her would be most appropriate term as it seems struggling to keep her on frame, while we can hear the loudness of her firm steps indicating that she's either angry or determined. She's both actually.
She's angry to learn that she won't be working anymore, her probationary delay had just ended, angry because she thinks she's been denounced for coming too late by a co-worker (whom she confronts) and determined to keep her job and not let anyone throwing her away. She locks herself in a room but it's only a matter of time before security agents get her out. This is the beginning of "Rosetta", Golden Palm winner of 1999, a unanimous vote, and from the way the first scene plays, we suspect that this ending is only a new beginning.
The Dardennes brothers style of filmmaking is integral to the power of "Rosetta", it can look like pretentious art-house take-the-camera-and-shoot cinema verité but the content is so genuinely powerful that you can't accuse the form. "Rosetta" always walks one step ahead of the camera, we often see her from behind going from one direction to another, this is a young girl struck by poverty and unemployment, living in a trailer park and witnessing the downfall of her mother, prostituting herself for booze. She seems to go in many directions because she can't afford standing still and a job isn't a matter of life and death, but of self-esteem, her mother surrendered, she wouldn't.
But then I make the film sound like delivering an uplifting message about courage and determination, and it would be too misleading. The Dardennes are too aware of the harsh reality of unemployment and poverty to make anything remotely happy emerge from it, perhaps the greatest tragedy of being poor is that it leads to a point where you can't afford even happiness. And Rosetta, played by Emilie Dequenne (she won the Cannes Prize for her performance) rarely smiles, she's suspicious, tacit except when it comes to ask for a job, she's got the will, the determination but Dardennes' movies aren't filmed like melodramas but documentaries, which doesn't diminish their power in terms of pure storytelling.
The film takes off when she finds a job in little Belgian waffle stand, her boss (Olivier Gourmet) warns her about the precariousness of the job, but she learns well and fast. There she meets Riquet (Fabrizio Ringone) who seems genuinely interested in her. Still, if I didn't expect a romance, I didn't expect what would result from their encounter... and what happened was the perfect illustration of the inner ugliness of despair, when you've got nothing to lose and you can drive yourself to any corner. "Rosetta" is a melodrama in the sense that she can't be in love with something, except with the idea of having a job, a steady job and a normal life.
Before sleeping, she recites herself that she finally found a job, this is interesting because we suspect she would never go as far as trading her body, or becoming a criminal. Even the perspective of working illegally doesn't rejoice her, what she wants is to feel normal, like everybody, to be happy, but can she? The extreme where she's driven is perhaps more disturbing than any of these scenarios because it consists of betraying. That's the power of poverty, it can make people act like heroes, victims and sometimes villains. The Dardennes who paint with the brush of truth the uncompromising portrayal of poor people, make us question our own perceptions..
This is not about sentimentalism, this is not about left-wing pathos, Rosetta is pathetic to some aspects, but there's no effort to make her sympathetic, she's just incapable to be happy or give a proper meaning to her life because she's been alienated already, it became symptomatic of her life. The film closes at the moment where we reached that realization and maybe it stops abruptly because it can either take a good or a bad path, but the point is made in this harrowing journey in Belgium, resurrecting the Italian neo-realism. There's something bad Rosetta does in the film but it's as bad what the protagonist does at the end of "Bicycle Thief", we condone it but we understand it.
And I guess the Dardennes don't make film to provide emotional moments but just keep us close enough so we can understand why some people look gloomy, unhappy, suspicious and why they deserve our understanding and ironically enough our distrust. It's sad and cruel, but that's how it is. And again, the directing is part of the film's greatness, it takes us to very uncomfortable and closeted places like the inside of a trailer, a small bathroom, a waffle stands, we all feel like intruders, put in a place that are no cinematically pleasing, but that's the point, the camera goes where Rosetta goes, to places cinema usually ignores. The Dardennes don't care for the 'look', even if the long take isn't perfect, this isn't Hollywood, within this imperfection, we can sense tension, reality, urgency, despair, struggle and we have a glimpse of these emotions through the documentary style. Conventional filmmaking couldn't have worked for such a story, it had to be as minimalist as if it was embracing the same problems than its character.
That's typical of the Dardennes, just like in "The Promise", as if the way they told the story was as inspiring as the story itself or made the same point. Like Italian neo-Realism or like Hitchcock movies, the form sometimes defines the content.
La promesse (1996)
The Gradual and Powerful Awakening of Moral Conscience
In the mid-90's, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne had an unpleasant collective experience encouraging them to trim the work force and be as minimal as efficient. You don't win audiences by just taking the camera and "shooting", but for all their innovative directing, storytelling is the siblings' strongest suit, and seldom had directors provided such rich palettes of humanity's struggles through globalized economical crisis as the Dardennes did.
Recently, President Trump dared to call some third-world countries with a "S" slur, I only wish him to live the same experience as the protagonist. His name is Igor, he's played by Jeremie Renier, he's only 15 but it's never too late to learn. With his long blonde hair and angelic next-door look, we wouldn't believe this mechanic apprentice is the kind of kid to put himself in trouble, so when he steals an old woman's wallet after checking her engine, we think there must be a "good reason". A girlfriend. A motorcycle to buy. Maybe drugs. But that's too conveniently 'normal' for his age. Igor is no ordinary teenager, we see him with his father Roger, played by the talented Olivier Gourmet, a mix between French Gérard Jugnot and American Paul Giamatti, an everyday man who found the worst possible way to make money. He drives a van occupied by undocumented immigrants, some African, some from Eastern Europe (EU had half less members at that time) and takes them to a shackled building where current residents complain about the rates and the stink. There are obviously some dysfunctions in the sewer lines but Roger, pampering and pimping them, promises to take care... if they help him to finish the construction. But they have to pay.
One of them doesn't have enough money, he's a gentle looking African man named Amidu and had just welcomed his wife Assita and their baby boy. Roger has a few standards, he doesn't throw them out but cuts the debts out of Amidu's "wages". This is such an ugly and sordid world that we immediately understand Igor's initial misdemeanor, he's not bad but simply trapped in a maturity too precocious not to be flawed. Igor didn't grow up to be cynical, he just embraces his job with a sense of filial obedience (and maybe love) for his father who, as a token of their complicity, lets him smoke, drive the car or hang out with him at bars. And the first act works on two levels, it's both a father-and-son relationship exposition and an undercover documentary about immigrants' treatment where the camera, right behind Roger or Igor seems to slide between narrow corridors where the doors hide unshaven and worn out men gambling, having sex for money or Assita, whose housewife's dignity doesn't deserve to be surrounded by such sordidness. It's an atmosphere of neo-realism channeling the image of the Turkish Prison from "Midnight Express". In a way, these people are like prisoners of a condition.
There's an incredible scene where Igor and Roger lure five immigrants into a café by making them believe they're going to sail to America, only for the cops to apprehend them while Igor hide in the lavatory. This is a powerful scene because it showcases something even worse than human trafficking but betrayal within that trafficking, and betrayal for symbolic purposes, so that the town's mayor can prove that he's handling the situation. So maybe Trump should be reminded that the "S" word he's referring to works in a system of pipes and ramifications that know no frontiers corruption-wise, horizontally and... vertically. Immigrants are like pawns of a system and so is Igor within his father's schemes, this is not a benign parallel because from the start, from the way Igor was peeping at the immigrants' rooms, you knew he didn't look at them like Roger did, not like a warden, but a cellmate, jailed behind the bars of a corrupt adulthood. He could enjoy karting with his friends, having a few moments of freedom on his motorcycle (the film's defining image), but his main occupation was so demanding that it cost him his apprenticeship. At some point, ignoring the warning of his boss, he leaves the garage when Roger calls him for emergency. And then death takes a halt in his life and his journey can begin.
To escape from work inspectors, Amidu falls from the scaffold and get mortally injured, Igor tries to prevent the hemorrhages but Roger lets him die and decides to bury him under the cement. The most shocking thing is that we're not even "surprised" by Roger's behavior. But there's a glimmer of hope, before Amidu dies, he makes Igor promise him to take care of his wife and his boy. A last exchange, but that suddenly puts Igor in a situation of conflicting interests with Roger, and Igor knows his father is wrong and will do anything to get rid of Assita when she starts talking about going to the Police.
In a poignant and courageous existential impulse, Igor doesn't just take care of Assita but saves her. It's not as easy as it sounds, he must gain her trust, escape from his father and perhaps the toughest thing which is to find the right moment to tell her about her husband. But if this journey started with a tragedy, we know it ends with a redemption, and goes through the gradual awakening of a conscience, of a boy who stopped being an actor. And Jeremie Renier is quite an actor, and I would say "a reactor". He starts as a boy who's seen so many things that he can't even differentiate between good and evil. But he knows for sure that lying to this woman and abusing her is wrong and he acts accordingly so.
As for the believability of a teenager and an African woman to slip through the net, let's say that the capability of the Dardennes pair to make such a powerful lesson of empathy with a minimalist budget and equipment is a credit to it.
Dom za vesanje (1988)
Romani, Open Cities... Filling Glasses and Bleeding Hearts..
A civilization is a tree whose branches expand to the world while deeply rooted in the motherland, the one place where we cease to be a stranger. But there are eternal strangers who never belong to the place they live in, we call them Nomads, Romani or Gypsies. They have a culture, a language, a music (and how!) and while there might not be a place, there will always be a "Time of the Gypsies".
On Youtube, an Internet user said about that scene where a devastated Perhan drowns his sorrow in booze and music: "I don't understand what he's singing but it's like I understand everything." That's exactly how emotionally affecting Emir Kusturica's movies are and his 1988 masterpiece that won the Cannes Prize for Best Directing is no exception. Kusturica's movies are culturally specific but universally cathartic. Universal to a certain extent... even if it's set somewhere in Yugoslavia, this is a film about the gypsies, perhaps the most misunderstood if not disdained people on Earth, connected to many infamous caricatures from stealing chicken to prostitution.
And it says a lot when the main character is the fruit of the passion between a Slovenian soldier and a gypsy mother who died after giving birth to his sister a few years later. Perhan, to name him... and to call a spade a spade, is a bastard, but Kusturica almost gives this word a touch of nobility, as if it captured the existential status of gypsies, they have traditions and pride but they don't know where they're from, they belong to the present, and their greatest tragedy is to keep on longing for a past so unknown and so far it is deemed to carry a shadow of mystery. Perhan is mysterious in his own way, a young and nerdy insecure boy with a talent for accordion, a turkey for a companion and a telekinetic power.
He was raised by his grandmother, the kind of stereotypical gypsy woman whom you'd give her palm and trust whatever she says about your future but there's nothing cliché about her, she's perhaps one of the most loving and endearing mother figures from any movie, she drinks, she smokes, forgives her depraved son and love her grandchildren. Ljubica Adzovic gives the kind of performances that always gets Oscar nods, it's a disgrace that she didn't win anything at Cannes, or maybe she's just too authentic for that. Still, she's as pivotal to the film as she is in Perhan's life. Perhan who falls in love with Azra but can't marry her because her mother wouldn't give her daughter's hand to a bastard. This prompts Perhan to become someone and he promises the mother that she'll soon kiss his feet.
Circumstances help him when the grandmother cures the son of a rich man named Ahmed (Bora Todorovic, the band leader in "Underground"). Ahmed promises to take Perhan under his protections and takes his sister to a hospital in Slovenia, so she can be cured from a severe leg condition. But the film isn't much about that story than it is about the young boy who encapsulates the exhilaration and tragedy of being a gypsy. As a bastard, he's twice an outcast and ostracized in his own community, forcing him to resort to crime in order to win quick cash and become respected. And with his glasses and nerdy smile, Dujmovic bears a striking resemblance with Dustin Hoffman in "Papillon" or "Straw Dogs" while as the film progresses, his hair grow and he looks more like Hoffman or a Pacino in their prime, with that intensity in the eyes and that oddly charismatic vulnerability.
The actor committed suicide in 1999, was it drugs? The Yugoslavian tragedy? Or some secret demons he took to the grave? Whatever it was, I suspect he carried that early enough so it could translate into this performance, one of the greatest performances from a relatively unknown actor, and perhaps the most intense performance in any Kusturica film. Dujmovic is the first reason to enjoy the film or perhaps the second after the music, I saw this film 25 years ago, and I remember I was mesmerized by the themes from Goran Bergovic. I never forgot the scene where they were all floating in the river, following some ancestral ritual and the one where Perhan got drunk after realizing he would also have a bastard as a son. These two emotional peaks illustrate gypsies' predestination for parties because there's so much melancholy and sadness one would rather try to forget them.
And yet the film doesn't sugarcoat the other aspects such as prostitution or human traffic, it exposes them with some sort of cynicism on the surface but in reality a way to show that once you don't have rules, you do with what you have at hands and you're the one to set your own limitations or code of honor. The film doesn't show gypsies enjoying begging or stealing or selling children, but it finds a way to show that pride is a variable parameter, a bit like in "The Godfather" when you disdain Mafia but you understand why it exists. And for a culture torn between the European accordion and Oriental tunes waltz (I come from North Africa, I can tell you their dances isn't different from ours), nothing surprises me anymore.
That's who the Gypsies are, people at the crossroads of the Western and Oriental world, a marriage never bound to happen but worthy of a celebration, the film opens and ends with Kusturica's iconic leitmotif of a wedding leading to a tragedy, and yet a rebirth, a symbol reprised in his "Underground". Kusturica has a unique talent to immerse you into the depths of a civilization, as if we were the objects Perhan could move with his simple wizardry, this might be an allegory of Kusturica power. It's all about moving us and making us move at the beat of a trumpet ... or fly like his smiling brides.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle...
In 1915, D.W. Griffith's gave birth to modern cinema with "The Birth of a Nation", a giant leap that proved the remaining skeptics that the 20th century wouldn't do without the reel, that there was a time for Chaplin's gesticulations and a time for serious storytelling.
Of course, Chaplin's contribution is more valuable because he understood the universality of cinema more than any other filmmaker, let alone Griffith who made his film culminate with the glorification of the KKK. ¨People from all over the world would rather relate to the little tramp than any Griffith's character, but as I said in my "Birth of a Nation" review, without that seminal film, there wouldn't even be movies to contradict it.
And D.W. Griffith was actually the first to do so by making a humanistic anthology named "Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages", a three-hour epic relating four separate stories set at different historical times, but all converging toward the same hymn to intolerance, or denunciation of intolerance's effect through four major storylines: the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of the Christ, the Bartholomew Day massacre and a contemporary tale with odd modern resonances. The four stories overlap throughout the film, punctuated with the same leitmotif of a mother "endless rocking the cradle", as to suggest the timeless and universal importance of the film.
The mother is played by an unrecognizable Lillian Gish but it's not exactly a film that invites you to admire acting, the project is so big, so ambitious on a simple intellectual level that it transcends every cinematic notion. It is really a unique case described as the only cinematic fugue (a word used for music), one of these films so dizzying in their grandeur that you want to focus on the achievements rather than the shortcomings, just like "Gone With the Wind" or more recently "Avatar". Each of the four stories would have been great and cinematically appealing in its own right, Griffith dares to tell the four of them using his trademark instinct for editing. Technically, it works.
And while I'm not surprised that he could pull such a stunt since he had already pushed the envelope in 1915, bmaking this "Intolerance" only one year after "The Birth of Nation" is baffling, especially since it was meant as an answer to the backlash he suffered from, it's obvious it wasn't pre-planned, so how he could make this in less than a year is extraordinary. I can't imagine how he got all these extras (three thousands), the recreations of ancient Babylon, of 16th century France, and still have time for a real story, but maybe that's revealing how eager he was to show that he wasn't the bigoted monster everyone accused him of, as if the scale of his sincerity had to be measured in terms of cinematic zeal. That the film flopped can even play as a sort of redemption in Griffith's professional arc.
But after the first hour, we kind of get the big picture and we understand that Griffith tells it like he means it. It works so well that the American Film Institute replaced the "Birth of a Nation" from the AFI Top 100 with "Intolerance" in the 10th anniversary update. But after watching the two of them, I believe they both belonged to the list as they're the two ideological sides of the same coin. But if one had to be kept, it would be the infamous rather than the famous, if only because the former is more 'enjoyable' in the sense that there's never a dull moment where you feel tempted to skip to another part. "Intolerance" had one titular key word: struggle, I struggled to get to the end, and even then, I had to watch it again because I couldn't stay focused. Indeed, what a challenging movie patience-wise!
This is a real orgy of set decorations that kind of loses its appeal near the second act, and while the first modern story is interesting because you can tell Griffith wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of our world's virtue posers, who try to make up for the very troubles they cause and use money for the most lamentable schemes, it might be too demanding to plug your mind to so many different stories. And when the climax starts with its collection of outbursts of violence, I felt grateful for finally rewarding my patience than enjoying the thrills themselves, especially since it doesn't hold up as well as the climactic sequence of "The Birth of a Nation". Or maybe we lost the attention span when it comes to silent movies, but there must be a reason the film flopped even at its time, maybe the abundance of notes and cardboards that makes the film look like a literary more than visual experience?
I guess "Intolerance" can be enjoyed sequence by sequence, by making as many halts as possible in that epic journey, but it's difficult to render a negative judgment for such a heavy loaded film. For my part, I'm glad I could finally watch and review all the movies from the American Film Institute's Top 100 and I appreciate its personal aspect in Griffith's career. Perhaps what the film does the best is to say more about the man than the director. His insistence on never giving names to his characters ("The Boy", "The Dear Guy"...) calling a mobster a "Musketeer" and all that vocabulary reveal his traditional and sentimental view of America, and maybe the rest of the world.
That's might be Griffith's more ironic trait, so modern on the field of technical film-making yet so old-fashioned in his vision, he's one hell of a storyteller and he handles the universal and historical approach of his film like a master, but when it comes to his personal vision, he struck me as the illustration of his own metaphor, like a good mother-figure endlessly rocking our cradle.
Otac na sluzbenom putu (1985)
More relevant than ever...
Reading some of his interviews, I'm not surprised that Emir Kusturica, one of the greatest European directors, despised political movies. Some directors use their movies to make a commentary, which is fine as long as the story allows the viewers to extract the 'political' substance by themselves.
Have you noticed that everything is political today? From the movies to their awards campaign, everything revolves around issues such as race, gender or resulting discrimination, and that trend might inspire some filmmakers to try to have a shot by making something 'relevant' instead of something that speak to them. Today, no one should ever be allowed to be personal about himself unless it's for some political statement likely to inspire claps, cheers and nods. There's nothing wrong with being unpopular but with all the media outrage frenzy of our twitter-driven era, you're only unpopular when you're ostracized, and your detractors can cut off your capacity to reach people.
That's why Kusturica could have never made movies for Hollywood, or under the studio system. That's why, out of all the directors who tell political stories, Kusturica can make the most politically rich movies without being prisoner of one ideological perception. His Golden Palm winning "Underground" could be regarded as a magnificent and epic retrospective of the history of ex-Yugoslavia, but the film is also a vibrant, exuberant and musically driven orgy of booze, sex and passion that says more about the soul of the Balkans than any other thing. Kusturica speaks from the heart and portray characters who generally care about regimes and ideologies in the realm of their personal greed or lust, they're strong but weak, big guys acting like children. So much for political engagement.
And it also seems that Kustrucia, more than any other else, knows one thing or two about human hubris. One of my regrets was to have discovered "Undeground" before Fellini's movies and couldn't spot the connection when I finally discovered the Maestro. Now, I can fix it and say that maybe Kusturica is the most Fellinian director but he's like Fellini with a social commentary, maybe the neo-realisitic Fellini and it shows even more in his first Golden Palm winner "When Father Was Away on Business" (Kusturica is one of the few directors to have won the Palm twice), the story whose euphemistic title doesn't prepare for how sad it is, how dramatic and yet comedic and catching at others. Forgive for the cliché, but "like life I guess".
The film takes place in Sarajevo, in 1950, at the midst of the Stalin Tito Split, the DVD bonus features provide many information, they are so helpful I'd recommend to check them first. In fact, there's an irony in the history of Yugoslavia, the people were proud to fight the Nazis, they didn't totally surrender to Stalin's hegemony, wanting to be treated as an equal, much to the Soviet Master's anger. The film contains many football games between the two countries and you can tell that Yugoslavians are taking their victories damn seriously. The film was made the same year than the Heysel tragedy, just to remind that the setting of the film never deprives from its timeless and universal value. Still, what a tragic irony that this pride was a double-edged sword leading Yugoslavian multiculturalism to cause its downfall.
The Split lead to the formation of a bureau named Informibrio and whose mission was to spot any potential agent of the Soviet or someone malcontent enough to become a troublemaker. It's a sort of Yugoslavian "HUAC" with the same paranoid implications. But Kusturica doesn't shout it clear and loud, he only starts his film with a man singing "Chiquita", that he picked a Mexican song instead of an American or Russian one implicitly tells you the kind of attitudes that can get you in trouble. But sometimes, it can be worse than singing. The pivotal moment occurs when Mesa, a communist functionary played by Miki Manojlovic (he was the unforgettable Marco in "Underground") criticizes a cartoon in newspaper "Politika".
Mesa just state something like "they're really going too far", and the comment wouldn't have taken him too far if it wasn't for his mistress to hear him. Hurt after because he can' divorce from his wife, lshe denounces him to his brother-in-law and it's a matter of a few days to get him arrested and go "far away on business". Then starts a series of life episode involving his patient and enduring wife Mirjana Karanovic (also starring in "Underground") and the two boys, a geeky photography buff played by the late Davor Dujmovic, and a chubby kid Mario De Bartolli, he's the narrator and the film is punctuated with many episodes involving his sleepwalking.
"When Father Was Away on Business" is both a family drama and a touching coming-of-age story that never overplays the pathos or the lyricism. Sarajevo is a town where four religions meet, Kusturica makes the same point by showing a Muslim family, practicing circumcision rituals, an orthodox funeral and people of different backgrounds drinking and dancing together. As if he was sleepwalking during his own journey, Kusturica says the most without saying much, knowing that you're never as touched by a politican story when you can't touch its political content. The film could have been set anywhere, anytime, it doesn't say much about the regime, only the ongoing paranoia when every word can cause your downfall.
And before you consider yourself luck not to have to endure this, remember that, at the midst of the metoo movement, an actor like Damon suffered severe backlash for a comment he made. And how many actors now are "away on business" because of an accusation or a suspicion. Sorry to make these interfere with the movie but while I expected a 1980's drama that would have aged a little, I didn't expect a film to be so relevant.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Tell me about Sex... and I tell you who you are...
"sex, lies and videotape" is exactly about what it says, but frankly, the film could have been titled "all about sex" since the lies are all about sex, and don't get me started on the content of these videotapes. Steven Soderbergh Golden Palm winner, and game changer on the field of independent film-making, is certainly one of the most intelligent and insightful depiction of sex as a 'relationship issue' as any other movie, that it does so without being graphic at all is a credit to its maturity and straight-forwardness.
And "Sex is overrated" is one of the many golden nuggets the Oscar-nominated script contains, even more fascinating since the line is echoed by an admittance of impotence, a weakness seldom confessed by men, but which creates the strangest though slightly anticipated bond between Graham (James Spader) and Ann (Andie McDowell). She's an introverted and complex woman, he's an old college friend of her husband John (Peter Gallagher), who just came to town. At first, Ann is angry and shares her bitterness with her therapist, expecting to be the passive observer of boring dinners where the two reminisce about girl and football.
But while John is your typical cocky and womanizing lawyer with suspenders in his shirt and tricks under his sleeve, Graham has no job, no house, he's a long-haired young looking man, oddly detached from the casual responsibilities but weirdly interested in people. Graham asks the most private questions to Ann at their very first encounter. She detects his awkwardness but we suspect she's glad that he's not like John. They talk about marriage and she says she enjoys the security of it, for all his defaults, John is a good provider, but there's something shy and self-conscious in the way she says it that reminded me of Liv Ullman's in "Scenes of a Marriage".
In Bergman's masterpiece, I never forgot that line about marriage only working if "fidelity went without saying", as if the colossal edifice had to be rooted on blind obviousness. But every film that involved dysfunctional couples proved that no matter how supposedly strong they were, marriages failed because of things taken for granted, things that went without saying. And the first signal that the relationship between Ann is John isn't just that John is having an affair with Ann's own sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) but that even Ann instantly opens herself to Graham.
Remember that exchange between Homer Simpson and the new neighbor, Ruth Powers, when he's tiptoeing around to ask a private question, and she eases the task by saying that she would like to be fixed up with someone, because she has "normal appetites". Homer gets the message but still makes sure she's not talking about food... twice. Sex isn't the easiest subject to handle but once it's done, it becomes the key to open the Pandora box of a marriage,. But the film doesn't explore the theme of infidelity rather than the way 'sex' is used to as a mean to convey or conceal the sources of your own insecurities, it doesn't reduce people to sexual attitudes as much as it expands the value of sex as an existential catalysis.
Ann is an over-anxious person whose mind is obsessed by situations she can't have the control on, she's full of empathy and therefore can't express any desire unless it's directed toward someone else, she's not frigid but she's not attracted enough to John to satisfy him. John and Cynthia are more 'common' lovers, John is lawyer, a running gag informs that it's the first lowest form before liars, he screws people and dominates his wife by having sex with another woman, it's part of his persona. So is Cynthia whose ego is flattered as if she was finally getting the satisfaction of indirectly owning her sister, like the family slut winning over the goody-goody sister.
Still, this is not a film that invites us to condemn people, it only tells the magnitude of sexuality as what is says about our inners struggles, our desires, our weaknesses, things that warm, block or drive us. And the most fascinating character in this quartet is Graham. At first, he says he's impotent but by saying he can't have sex, he's allowed to record sexual confessions of women on videotapes which gives him considerably more power, status-wise. Ann manages to confront him in a scene that is a masterpiece of writing, pushing Graham in the corner of his odd fantasies and unable to answer for his lust... and admit that there's something indeed pathetic about him, but not to the point of not needing help. He might be his first 'victim'.
Steven Soderbergh's writing is one of great subtlety and realism, it only sins in the portrayal of the husband John, he strikes as a two-dimensional character compared to the three others, and the way he gets his comeuppance doesn't do justice to the originality of the movie, there's one 'detail' you could see coming and it didn't quite work but apart from small little flaws, this is a remarkable portrayal of adults caught in tormenting relationships and trying to find their way to slip through the net. It is also served by fine performances especially from James Spader who won the Prize at Cannes Festival, and Laura San Giacomo. This film should have had the same resonance as Mike Nichols' "Closer" in 2004 with two acting nods for Spader and San Giacomo, they're the best thing about the film.
Now, I'm not the fondest on remakes but I suspect the content of the script is so relevant and universal it would fit the digital era as well, I can imagine a "sex, lies and Internet" tailor-made for the 2010's, where lovers, chatters, deceived husbands would drown their sorrow by sharing their insecurities to the first listening 'ear'.
Swing Time (1936)
Swing Time, Swell Time...
That's funny, I was very much aware of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' legendary status in Hollywood's canon ever since I was a kid, probably at a time when I hadn't reached 5% of my current cinematic knowledge. But it took till my mid-thirties to watch one of these many cinematic partnerships. I guess it's never too late to discover a gem of Hollywood Golden Age.
But to be quite honest, I didn't pick "Swing Time" because it's the most celebrated Astaire-Rogers film (or is it "Top Hat"?), I picked it because of its inclusion in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies (the latest edition). I had never heard about it so when I saw the title on the list, I was like "OK, but why not "Top Hat"?". Not that I've seen it either, but the film was listed in AFI's Musicals List and "Cheek to Cheek" among the Top 100 most iconic songs, not to mention that the dance sequence was a staple of Hollywood, used in many contemporary movies to define the Golden Age.
But no, they picked "Swing Time" and I guess they had their reasons, and from what I read in the reviews, including Roger Ebert's (I always do that when it comes to movies I know a little about, so you can imagine for those I have zero awareness), George Stevens' 1936 romantic comedy is the best Astaire-Rogers movie, which means that it contains their best dance routines. I second that. The dance sequences not only please and impress the eyes but I loved the way they were fitting in the story. In lesser musicals, they generally work as fillers, interludes, but here, they deliver more than scenes.
And now it's time I deliver a little about the film. There's John aka "Lucky" a gambler who misses his wedding ceremony when he's conned by his friends into betting that he wouldn't miss it. The film starts with the usual set-up of a marriage we suspect will never happen. Lucky is summoned by his father-in-law-to be but slip through the net by telling he'll win enough money from to prove his good intentions. The way things revolve around winning money seems very contrived and repetitive but necessary to kick Lucky and his friend Pop (scene stealing Victor Moore) out of the town.
Lucky comes to New York, he's broke (he lost his money on the marriage bet) and tries to con Penny, a modest dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) he crosses on street, one thing leading to another, he tells her he needs dance lessons, and I suspect it was more difficult for Astaire to feign lousy steps than any routine he had to play. But Rogers has quite a modern approach to her role, she's both invested and detached, a bit like Meg Ryan at her prime without distracting good looks, she's a real match for Astaire as you never doubt they're not having fun together. The first dance starts when Lucky wants to prove Penny's boss how good a teacher she is, and then the magic starts.
There's an energy, a lightness, a glee of being and a cheerful complicity that never leaves any dance floor where these four feet operate together, and it's always catching with you. Although the film follows the formula of the screwball comedy to the letter, Astaire and Rogers seem to take it differently from the usual players (Grant, Gable, Russell...) where it's all about rapid-fire dialogues and outsmarting contests, the film is funny and you also enjoy the company of both Moore and Helen Broderick as Penny's friend, but you can tell the two actors are only talking circles when the real deal is the dance.
The film is rich in romantic ballads "The Way You Look Tonight" which became Astaire's signature song and the "Never Gonna Dance" near the end that inspired the climactic dance sequence. So dancing is the real star, along with Astaire and Rogers, forming a sort of holy trinity whose aura inhabit the film without ever overriding it. All these dances never last more than five minutes, even Astaire's 'blackface' tap dance in the middle is long enough to let you enjoy the humorous details with the three silhouettes dancing behind Astaire, but short enough to never let the excitement fade.
So whether for jazz, tap dance or waltz, every emotion is beautifully conveyed by these magical steps. I'm no analyst or expert to judge them on a technical level but I found them so lively, so dynamic, so emotionally rich that it was just as if they were telling a story within the story and more than that, they were more than interludes. Actually, they were so good that they inevitably highlighted the little flaws, essentially, the script which was too predictable or formulaic. Like a critic of the time said "if only the story was as good as the dancing".
Indeed, the dancing was so magical and integral to the film's appeal that it's quite ironic one of its most defining song is "Never Gonna Dance". I'm glad they didn't pick this as the title, although "Swing Time" doesn't do justice to the music either, the film does far more than swinging. Maybe they should have taken the French title, pretty poetic and beautiful, it simply says "Over the Wings of Dancing" and that's true with Astaire and Rogers, you could think they would literally fly over the dancefloor.
A bitter but necessary slice of cinematic reality...
In fact, it's a 10 minus one point for the nausea it made me feel.
I don't think I'll ever watch it again, the Golden Palm winner of 2003 is probably one of the most affecting and disturbing cinematic viewings I've ever experiences. I don't think I ever felt that way since I saw "In Cold Blood", but "In Cold Blood" had me trembling and crying during the climactic massacre, in "Elephant", just the anticipation of what was going to happen made me feel uncomfortable, and when the shootout started, I just waited for the nightmare to end. I applaud the tactful approach of Gus Van Sant to have made the film so short, eighty minutes are enough...
... or are they?
Even these eighty minutes felt like three hours once I knew where this was leading to, my belly was hurting literally. Gus Van Sant follows the lives of many high school students but without the usual fuss about it, once you get used to someone, the camera abandons its subject for another one. The point isn't even to put a spotlight, just to show as many people as possible, a bespectacled outcast, a photography buff, three anorexic girls who act like divas and debate about the time one of them spends with her boyfriends, a group taking part to a debate session, and the blonde kid with the yellow T-shirt and the drunk father.
At first, you're trying to find a reason why these boys and girls are being shown, surely they must have a significance to the story, surely one of them will do something, it can't be just gratuitous exposition... but there's something in the way Gus Van Sant handles the camera, it's like just 'happening' to be there, just random, as if it was floating in the air. Indeed, there's a sense of melancholic atmosphere, as if the day was meant to be just another boring autumn day with no fuss to make about it, and that no one ever expected it to be "special", just another autumn day in Portland, Ore, carried by Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata". While being conventionally 'normal', there is some disturbing foreshadowing when they all talk about plans for the next two hours, perhaps the only hints of subtle screenwriting.
And then we see the two killers-to-be, again no over-exposition apart from the fact that they've planned everything and now they are going to die. The film prepares us to what will be a bloodbath and in my heart, I was just hoping that Van Sant would stop the film before it ends, I didn't want the violence to happen, to know it would happen was enough, but I was like "OK, I got the point, they're all going to die, why do you need to show it", but as painful as it was to witness the killings, it was necessary, because the real test of the film is how violence would be portrayed. I think one of the triumphs of a movie is to make violence so ugly you don't want it to happen, but "Elephant" makes it even uglier when it happens.
It is ugly because it's cold and random and arbitrary, the antithesis of cinema where everything is governed by a narrative, where even violence should have a point. In Van Sant's film, there's absolutely no style whatsoever, some deaths are shown on-screen, some off-screen, some are suggested, even the killers are focused like in a paintball game, as if the point was to make the bloodiest mess, but without a sense of enjoyment, they do it because someway, they feel they had to do it or wanted to do it. But again, Van Sant doesn't try to make a statement about violence, just to show how it happens, how it can come at any point, any moment. We all believe we have a destiny, one can dream to be a photographer or a star or just to get the hell out of school, but these beliefs don't amount to much in a world where being at the wrong place at the wrong moment equals death.
The film was inspired by the Columbine shooting of 1999 but I think the film is relevant regardless of any context. Today, people can walk on the street and be randomly stabbed to death or ran over by a truck, one of the defining traits of violence is its banality, mundanity, the fact that it can pop up at any moment. Still, there's something extremely disturbing in the way the film portrays these shootings, it tries to give them an ideological value from the killers' POV but I don't think it's a matter of ideology, once you start to believe that there's a belief behind or a religion or an ideology, you lose the real scope. It's like watching "Schindler's List" and ending with the relief that these things wouldn't happen because Nazism belonged to the past.
The point is that, for as long as there will be men, there will be men killing and enjoying killing other men, and they will be as civilized as that Nazi playing the piano during a ghetto massacre or the young killer playing Beethoven in "Elephant". Sure we have to find the reasons and yes, everything must be done to anticipate these things and avoid them but Van Sant tries to be as neutral as possible, he knows even NRA supporters would weep at the end of "Elephant", so he won't rationalize these shootings as if one was the consequence of this or the cause of that, he won't show these kids enjoying a violent movie before, he will just show you how easy it is to get a weapon and go commit a massacre. Everyone is up to his own interpretation. That's why the film is important.
"Elephant" doesn't try to be a social commentary and it works as a challenge to people who think they've been desensitized with movies. Honestly, I didn't know what to think about these movies that make violence look cool or too stylized to be taken seriously, I don't think violence happens because it happens in movies but I've read that after watching "American Sniper" many Americans felt the urge to go shoot some Arabs on the street, I don't think a film like "Elephant" would provoke the same reaction, for me it worked like the 'Ludovico treatment' in "A Clockwork Orange", I was disgusted by guns, violence and any act of killing. Every once in a while, we need a movie to show what real violence is: ugly and definite. It's like a booster shot, although with 'downer' effects.
And the film is a masterstroke of casting and directing, by taking unknown actors, Van Sant emphasizes the realness of the story but he does more, by focusing on various slices of life, the film challenges our own cinematic habits, inherited from hundreds and hundreds of cinematic viewings, we're so used to see ugly ducklings become pretty or outcasts committing suicide, kids becoming heroes, or villains getting their comeuppance that "Elephant" will provide a necessary yet bitter slice of reality. Don't expect any of these conventions, I won't spoil the film's most brilliant moment, let's just say it involves a guy named Benny.
The minute Benny emphasizes what is so intelligent and remarkable about "Elephant", and also so disturbing, again, a painful experience, but necessary like a medicine.
Entre les murs (2008)
A 'school-case' of cinema vérité...
By chronicling the daily struggles of a French teacher to communicate with his students, "The Class" communicates the inner complexities of the school system not only in France but in any suburban, impoverished area of any Western city, or it's even more universal than that.
There is an irony in that psychological arm-wrestling engaged all through the year, the teachers mean good and want to deliver the best, but the students are intelligent enough to question the value of the teaching. Of course, they're not always right, but their way of being wrong can engage in more fruitful discussions than if everybody nodded in unison. It's not about being another brick in the wall, like the song says, but a free spirit behind these walls.
And that's the real delight of "The Class", it follows François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, real-life teacher and author of the original book. He's not a rookie, this is not your typical teacher in a tough class, he knows many students and there seems to be mutual respect despite the usual heckling. But when the bedlam starts, you're suddenly drawn into exchanges where even Marin nods and accepts that these kids have a point, like the uselessness of complicated and sophisticated tenses in real life.
The film rises above all the clichés and preconceived notions about the 'suburbs' without sugarcoating them. The melting pot isn't devoid of individual prejudices, against gays, Blacks, Arabs or even white people. By never resorting to self-censorship, "The Class" is a rare opportunity for a real confrontation between the ideals of education and the reality. I've been there too, support at school for fourth and fifth graders, but I've learned very quickly that you can't win them with good intentions. You can't cheat, you must be close enough to earn their respect, not their friendship as it's the perfect ticket for insolence and insubordination, that's the dosage. And over the course of the year, well-meaning and imperfect Marin is confronted to the resistance, verbal, non-verbal or physical from students such as Khoumba, a girl of African background who feels harassed by the teacher, another kid who dares to ask the teacher if he's gay, and perhaps the most memorable student: Esmeralda a tough cookie who calls a spade a spade. There is also a Gothic kid who's not ashamed to display his 'difference', a Chinese teen who works harder than anyone and the gallery never seems forced or cliché, no archetypes but some realities cinema seldom dealt with.
While not a documentary, the film is certainly closer to that genre than any fiction but the merit of the director, Laurent Cantet is to have taken non professional kids and made them act so natural, it's one thing to direct a movie like "Avatar" but for "The Class", the directing doesn't get enough credit and works on an Oscar worthy level. If I could find a name to define it, it would be dynamic, in the classroom scenes, it's always like the camera is swinging ping pong style between François and the kids as if it impersonated the way the professor's mind works, like a radar: any voice heard, any intervention deserves to be given its proper attention.
"Behind the Walls" is the French title and I think it could have been better to keep it like this, because the walls of the class while being generally associated to "entrapment", unleash the best out of these kids and become an area of verbal liberty. Many subplots involve the tough life of these kids outside the class, and indirectly pinpoint the liberating aspect of these walls. The tragedy is that many students don't value it and in one scene, another teacher lets some steam off and can't stand anymore the way they all reject the hand that tries to teach them, he seems to be at the verge of a breakdown and everyone lets him talk. We see him again a few months later, as if nothing happened. Even a teacher needs to "let it go".
And this lack of flawlessness is wonderfully conveyed in the case that would lead to the film's climactic 'battle', involving a word the teacher said to qualify the class representatives, provoking a fight in the classroom and disciplinary committee for the troublemaker. It leads to the moment where François is confronted by the students not in the classroom but the schoolyard, and that was a nice twist. Out of his zone of comfort, Marin is almost verbally lynched by the student who want to give him a taste of his own medicine, and while some are sincere, you can tell that for Esmeralda, it's like a poetic justice, to be able to toy with the teacher's emotions and win the verbal contest.
I could relate to that because kids can be sneaky, when they know they don't have the upper hand, they use their solidarity and a truncated version of facts. The film starts with a teacher teaching them how to communicate, well at the end he's taught a lesson, if he told girls that during the counsel, they behaved liked bitches, he might as well have called them whores, same effect. The word itself will be used later in a more humorous way, but it shows that language has a weight, a pending gravitas, an equilibrium that can be destroyed at any time. That's how tough it is to teach students.
Unanimously winning the Golden Palm in 2008, "The Class" is a real example on how cinema can serve a cause by just being itself, just filming. There's no dramatization, no need of plotting, just a bunch of kids who improvised enough to accentuate the realism, only following guidelines of themes to talk about, and the rest is just one of the realistic documentary-like movies ever made, a real success, a unique film, a school-case of cinema vérité in every sense of the word.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964)
The Tears of Cherbourg...
Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg", Golden Palm winner of 1964, is a deliberately simple and straight-forward story sublimated by the music, I guess that's a way to put it simply.
Still, I was never in a rush to watch this film, forgive my bias but the premise of one hour and half of all-singing made me expect some syrupy nothing-specialness à la "New Wave" sauce that I couldn't take seriously. I thought I would endure the film more than experience it. And to be fair, it's hard to get used to the all singing 'gimmick' (for lack of a better word) at first and the opening make you wonder if it's not unconsciously intended as a sort of spoof but the film finds a way to set its tone, making the singing a sort of natural background, allowing you to focus more on the story.
First, there are the first notes of Michel Legrand's penetrative score (the "I Will Wait For You" theme) that started to resonate during the opening credits. I knew I heard that tune before and then it hit me, "Jurassic Bark", poor Seymour waiting for Fry... "I Will Wait For You", one of the saddest melodies ever, that was meant to be used for the saddest TV moment ever. Now, knowing that it came from Michel Legrand and that it would be the defining theme of the film made me realize that in terms of emotions, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" 'meant business', and within the right context and served by the right lyrics, the score reached unsuspected levels of poignancy.
Secondly, when the film starts in a jazzy upbeat mood, there's an exchange between Guy, the mechanic played by Nino Castelnuovo and his friend about their plans for Friday night. The friend says he doesn't like operas, all the singing gets on his nerves, he prefers movies. What can you say after that? Such a line so early in the film can't be innocent, this is Jacques Demy's anticipating the natural resistance of some viewers, toward what can be perceived as a gimmick. Demy basically tells us that even movies can work like operas and that maybe this film can help us to consider singing as a language as adequate to film-making as facial expressions in a silent movie.
In fact, it's not exactly singing buy lip-syncing with other professional singer's voices (which is a wise choice because I can't imagine these melodies with amateur singers) but progressively, the musicality becomes such a natural aspect of the movie that any line said without any melodic intonation surprisingly rings false. The music becomes part of the background, and in total osmosis with the art-direction, the costumes, the photography. If you pay attention to the way some women's dresses always fit the patterns or colors behind, you're tempted to interpret that as a foreshadowing of their chameleonic nature, their superhuman capability to adapt to any situation or predicament in their lives.
The visual delights also lay on the depiction of Cherbourg which, depending on the season, the weather or the general mood, can be either cheerful or depressing. One day, the two lovers dance a mambo behind the red walls of a nightclub, it's red, passionate, lively, and the day after, they're in a depressing and neutrally grey train station saying goodbye to each other. Even a cute and cozy little umbrella shop can become a cold and depressing washing-machines' stores. The film is as competent in conveying emotions through visual than musical delights, but the raw core is still the romance between Guy and Geneviève played by a beautiful and young Catherine Deneuve, without it, this would have been one of these 'all flash and no substance' film. (Spoilers in Next Paragraph)
The story isn't a revolution, two young enamored people make plans for the future then comes the call of duty, they have one last night together, promise to wait for each other ignoring that the "harm is done" already and then there's the absence, the separation, and throughout her pregnancy, Geneviève is courted by a providential rich man named Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) which she finally marries, so her baby can have a father. When he's back, Guy is wounded physically before being hurt emotionally, he sinks in bitterness and alcohol before being rescued by his friend Madeleine, they marry and have a child. Finally, a few years after, the former lovers meet in an Esso station and the film concludes with the right notes of realism, foreshadowed by Genevieve's mother (Anne Vernon) who said that times fix everything and only in movies, people die from love.
If I wasn't so emotionally overwhelmed by that ending and how daring it was to contradict the then-romantic tropes, I would have kept thinking of a certain movie that almost won Best Picture last year. I just wish I saw Demy's "Umbrellas" before Damien Chazelle's "La La Land". Now I know where he got the inspiration, it's all to his credit to revive the magic of this classic for a contemporary tale, but now I see the ending less as a masterstroke of originality than a well made homage to Jacques Demy. The last time I had a similar regret is when I discovered Fellini after Kusturica's "Undeground", another Golden Palm winner.
So, what I loved about "The Umbrellas of Cherboug" is how misleading it actually is, these jazzy musical interludes, the playful way characters recite their lines by singing, you wouldn't believe this film would be so dark and so realistically bold, dealing with pregnancy, financial problems, not much war traumas than the disillusion of homecoming soldiers and of course, broken hearts. It's like a strawberry-flavor candy with a lemon bittersweet taste in the end. The film is well-made, well-edited, and well-written. Of course, the singing can get on people's heads but hey, the film is one hour and twenty something minutes long, it's not too much patience demanding.
And the final minutes will reward your patience anyway, listening to it, I know why Michel's name is Legrand.
"Up" Series Lite...
"Boyhood" has been pending on my watch list for quite a long time, yet I resisted that movie.
The word that came to mind whenever I was reading the summary and the praiseful comments was "gimmick". All these "12 years in the making", a boy's life spanning the time of the film's release (the opposite actually) and the whole philosophical contemplation about the daringness of the project left me cold. Retrospectively, I was wrong... but I'm glad I was, because I waited so long I could experience first one of the greatest movies of all time: Michael Apted's "Up" series.
Not twelve years but five decades in the making, not one but fourteen persons, British men and women followed since the age of seven and with a glimpse on their lives every seven years, the last edition was 2012's "56 Up". I binge-watched the documentary for two weeks and it was almost a metaphysical experience, there was no plot and no character's arc, not pre-written anyway. It was just life itself with the usual share of twists, surprises, deaths, marriages, separations, strikes of luck, and people just growing, getting more or less optimistic or blasé, depending on their respective experiences, making the whole series more thrilling, riveting and inspirational than any fictional creation.
I was surprised by how ludicrously lacking the name "Apted" the comments on "Boyhood" were, I don't know how much of an inspiration it was to Richard Linklater, maybe he didn't have "Up" in mind, but once you finish the documentary, "Boyhood" can only strike as a feeble attempt to duplicate "Up" from the perspective of a little boy (played by a natural Ellan Coltrane); his sister (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) and his divorced parents played by Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke. So, in the process we also follow the evolution of two adults from their younger years of wandering and wondering to their term-coming forties.
The film ends with a young boy who still hasn't figured yet what to do exactly with his life and seems to take it as it comes whereas the adults, especially the mother, question their accomplishments. This is a credit to the film's intelligence, it doesn't try to put an artificial narrative, it doesn't have a specific arc, it just consists on hazardously assembling the pieces of a puzzle whose big and final picture is the meaning of life. Needless to say that the only satisfying note the film ends with is that every player of this twelve-year slice of life hasn't ended in depression, drugs and other cliché situation. On that level, "Boyhood" hit the right chords.
So I'll play the devil's advocate: one of the main criticisms the film received is that the story wouldn't have been one tenth as interesting on a classic format. True, but if you take one year to make a film, you'll be more likely to spice it up a bit with conventional twists. Linklater fulfilled the dream of a lifetime, making sure his players would be available whenever he needed them, it wasn't the safest bet, so he couldn't possibly make this film with a specific plot in mind, that would have undermined the whole edifice and deprived it from that air of fresh unpredictability. Besides, Linklater knows what the audience wants, to see little Mason evolving, as superficial as it is, it was the film's reason to exist. And we see that little kid growing up, embracing life and its share of injustices and predicaments, authority figures with conflicting advice, an absent father and a mother moving from places to places. Mason and his sister didn't have the perfect life, they grew up without roots so that might explain why at the end they turn out to be so free-spirited. We don't know if it's an artistic take from Linklater but the way the format of the film and the story overlap and influence the experience reminds me of other movies where the form defines the content like "2001: A Space Odyssey" or Hitchcok's "Rope", not that the film plays in the same league though. "Boyhood" is good filmmaking and never really throws the concept to our faces which is good, to a certain extent. I suppose Linklater didn't want to punctuate his movies with "two years later" but sometimes, the lack of chronological indicators can be confusing and you can't really tell the change. The film seems to follow a flow as natural as life but the inclusion of some bits rather than others is questionable and make you wonder whether the real focus was "boyhood" or any part of life. Mason starts as an insecure kid, then a girl approaches him with a nice comment on his haircut, later, he's bullied and before you know it, he's got many girlfriends.
Despite being the center of our attention, Mason is sometimes harder to reach than the meaning of life. And the same goes with other characters, first stepfather starts as a disciplined man and then he turns out to be an alcoholic, one is an Afghanistan veteran and then becomes your typical bigot, Patricia Arquette is your struggling mother and all of a sudden, becomes an Academic teacher, what for the next twelve years? President of the USA? I don't think that was the kind of underlying messages the film called for especially when the sister started as a pre(co)cious girl with a lot of potential but then turned into your average superficial teenager. I did enjoy though Ethan Hawke's parts, I think he was one of the best things about the film.
In the "Up" series, each protagonist had twenty minutes of screen-time in each episode, so you can all compact their lives in a "Boyhood" runtime, the film had an interesting promise but overall, it's very uneven as if it was victim of its own device.
The Tale of all Tales...
In the ears and minds of any movie lover, the word "Ben-Hur" resonates like the quintessential Hollywood classic oozing respectability in every inch of celluloid but the same respect we owe to an old relic. In our cynical modern world, who would enjoy a pompous-looking big-budget swords-and-sandals religious epic when you have Tarantino and Appatow?
I saw "Ben-Hur" for the first time in fourth grade, it was part of our history course and being an Asterix buff, I loved watching real-life legionaries, galley slavery not to mention the chariot race, the film also enlightened me on Christianity and on Judaism (when my only religious reference was monotheism number three) and scared the hell out of me with leper. It worked on a cinematic level as much as educational, I guess even in its TV-sized crappy 80's VHS look, we kids enjoyed "Ben-Hur" especially the rivalry between Judah (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd).
I never watched "Ben-Hur" after that but nor did I have any doubt over its status as a colossal masterpiece. Watching it again a few years ago and then a few days ago, I was surprised by how engraved in my memory "Ben-Hur" was, and how the moments that stood out were still having the same effect. When Ben-Hur and Messala meet after many years, I'm always anticipating that first breech in the fortress of their friendship when the young Roman tribune will have one word too many about Ben-Hur's people, taking for granted their friendship and Judah's nobility as marks of submission. The second encounter is even more thrilling because it's like watching a shaking edifice waiting to collapse.
It was a nice call from the director Wyler to mark the feud between the two ex-friends at the second encounter, hence putting more gravitas around their relationship, that screenwriter Gore Vidal tried to impregnate with homoerotic subtext. The story is known by movie buffs, Vidal wanted to make the interactions look as the two rivals were former lovers, the subtext works even more when you look at Stephen Boyd's "enamored" eyes toward Charlton Heston. But 'Chuck' never knew the trick and was annoyed about it, I guess I prefer the way their hatred epitomize the conflict between Romans and Jews sealing as one of the most memorable rivalries in history of cinema, with the most heart-pounding climactic face-to-face (or should I say wheel-to-wheel).
I had positive feelings about "Gladiator" but "Ben-Hur" is the masterpiece that dwarfs any contemporary masterpiece, a sweeping revenge story that doesn't rely at all on fake CGI and special effects. It took William Wyler's expertise built up in three decades of experience to make "Ben-Hur" equal the reference of the time that was Cecil B. De Mille's 1925 version. As a matter of fact, "Ben-Hur" has been blockbuster material from the start, ever since Lewis Wallace's best-seller of the late century, it was played on theaters and not with modest budgets. A revenge story, with galley combats, a chariot race and an oblique take on the greatest story ever told, with a hero going from idealism to anger, from revenge to love, all wrapped up in a subtle religious conversion, "Ben-Hur" was an instant classic Hollywood couldn't ignore.
If 1925 had the race and the thrills, the 1959 one had a bigger scope, bigger budget, the colors, the talking and all the determination of a big studio like MGM to prove a 50's audience that TV wasn't yet the pinnacle of spectacular entertainmnet. When I hear my Dad talking about going to the movies, like "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus", "Guns of Navarone" or "Taras Boulba" you would think he went there, inside the screen. And right now, I can't imagine the eyes of people staring at the screen during the chariot race, there comes a moment where you stop watching the moment as a plot element, but as a real race, and it never, never suspends your disbelief, it's like at any new viewing, Messalah can finally win.
There are so many classic moments that filled the three-hour-and-half journey that you're never in a state of non-anticipation, when the new inquisitor's parade starts, you keep an eye on that loose roof tile, the one that started the whole chain of events. In the desert, you wait for the 'greatest cameo ever made', in the galleys, the big fight and Ben-Hur rescuing Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and it goes on and on. I must reckon after the chariot race, the film gets a tad too long, but only because you can't just sweep off such a rich epic with a five-minute resolution, and Charlton Heston, in his greatest role, contributed a lot to the everlasting appeal of the film, I don't think he gets the credit he deserved, he brings to his Judah Ben-Hur a dimension of emotional vulnerability that could have been laughable from a lesser actor.
Other cast members include Oscar-winning Hugh Griffin enjoying his role as Arab sheikh and Judah's mentor, Israeli actress Haya Harareet as Esther, Martha Scott and Cathy O'Donnell as Judah's mother and sister... the film is served by a solid cast, editing, directing, having swept off all the major Oscar by breaking the record of 11 wins, only to be matched in 1997 with "Titanic" and "The Return of the King" and oddly enough, these titles could somewhat apply to "Ben-Hur".
I haven't seen the 'original' and I'm in no hurry for the remake, but I don't get I'll be in a minority if I say that this is the ultimate version. I didn't see it many times in my life but it's always present in my memories as if it wasn't about the number of times you watch it but the intensity of each experience. And let's not forget the name of the director: William Wyler who outdid himself by making his masterpiece, which is saying a lot, given his previous streaks.
"Ben-Hur": A Christ Tale, a tale of vengeance, in fact a tale of all tales...
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Sometimes too "faithful" to the original, sometimes not enough...
To give the movie its deserved credit, Richard Attenborough is a wonderful successor to the iconic Kris Kingle as played by Edmund Gwenn in George Seaton's seminal Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street" and Mara Wilson is just as good as the little girl who doesn't believe in Santa but wishes she could and only asks for a proof. In fact, she embodies our very attitude toward the film, we love the original, we want to embrace this one with the same enthusiasm, so we're waiting for the script to charm us.
And it's only fair to have high anticipations, the film was made in 1994 when commercialism was as preeminent as five decades later, and written by John Hughes who could give a subtle dimension of satire and benign cynicism, all these elements could have given an edge to the 1994 remake. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really manages to deliver: when it's good, it's just as good as the original, the rest of the time, it's just a pale copy that fails to capture the the taste of its era. This film could have been made in the 80's or the 70's as well because the story is timeless, but not in the 'appealing' meaning of the word.
It's incredible but "Miracle on 34th Street" manages to feel more dated than its glorious predecessor, the 1947 version starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and young Natalie Wood. Maybe the remake was liable to feel dated because the 1947 classic was already ahead of its time for its take on Christmas consumerism, its portrayal of a divorced mother and a precocious girl (tired tropes today), so any attempt to duplicate the charm of the movie was likely to fail... unless it tried to modernize the original premise a little bit.
The problem with Les Mayfield's movie and John Hughes' screenplay is that the two men seem to be in awe with the original and never really dare to make the original structure shatter, not a bit. As a result, we have quite exactly the same movie, and the changes operated in this one never feel as improvements but rather inspire the opposite feeling. For instance, the climactic trial scene with the bags of mail delivered on the courtroom is only replaced by a parallel drawn between the existence of Santa Claus and the faith in God which, as smart as it is, is anticlimactic and leaves many things in wanting.
We all know the story is heading toward a heart-warming and magical conclusion but there's just something curiously depressing in the turn of events that lead the gentle Kris Kingle in jail and the way his aura immediately fades while the set-up of his downfall is quite obvious. There was a moment where I expectedKingle to tell that the man he assaulted had just literally accused him of the worst possible crime and had the punch coming, but the scene dangerously flirts with the idiotic plot where the lines that can get you off the hook aren't said, for no other reason that they're waiting for the right moment.
I feel a bit guilty to be so judgmental, again there's that snow beard in Richard Attenborough and that glee in his eyes that makes many scenes with him very touching, I loved his interaction with the deaf girl (a smart remake of the Dutch scene), his chemistry with Mara Wilson hit the right chord, and that little girl is a genuinely good actress conveying the right mix of smartness and innocence (a bit like a real-life Lisa Simpson). But the film reminded me of that scene where Kingle and Bryan, the lawyer enamored with Susan's mother, and played by Dylan McDermott, discuss about the mother (Elizabeth Perkins) and say there's something quite sad about her.
There's something sad in the film as well, sometimes, Elizabeth Perkins overplay that feeling and make any scene she's in a killjoy, even her romance with Dylan, while integral to the original happy ending, are only inserted in the movie as an 'obligation' but it's obvious these moments slow down the script more than anything. There are a few good characters in the film, the judge played by a scene-stealing Robert Prosky, the so underrated J.T. Walsh as the prosecutor but the film loses its way in many unnecessary plot points, and escalate to a trial where we feel cheated because we didn't have our bags of mail, after all, there was no Internet yet in 1994, it could work.
The film is still an enchanting moment that can please any child of any age, but it lacks that little sharpness, the taste of modernity it needed, and luck, too. Macy's didn't want its name associated with the film so they had to come up with a fictional company had to invent a and make the rival an evil businessman, missing the opportunity of the 'marketing policy' subplot that made the first film so ahead of its time. It's like Mayfield and Hughes didn't trust their own material, they had so charming protagonists who could carry the film alone, who needed villains? Especially when the "system" or the world's cynicism was good enough an antagonist.
A good film nonetheless, but so one-dimensional in its treatment it feels dated by the original film's standards.
Un homme à la hauteur (2016)
A dishonest movie cheating with its own premise!
I'm boycotting this film. I've seen the trailer, a few scenes and on the surface, the movie looks nothing but a delightful little romantic comedy, starring two French matinee idols Virginie Elfira and Jean Dujardin. But for the first time, after 1238 reviews and trailers, I review a movie I didn't see, because I despise its take on the very points it pretends to make. In other words, I'm boycotting it.
Here's a quote from Verne Troyer who played Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" movie: "I think when average-size people start taking roles that were meant for dwarfs, that's a little frustrating because there aren't that many roles out there for height-challenged actors."
The last part of the quote is the key, there aren't many roles out there for height-challenged actors. Many years ago, you couldn't have little actors playing big roles unless your name was Danny De Vito or Bob Hoskins and they were hardly leading roles in the romantic definition of the word, same story in France, little guys could only play sidekicks or funny comic reliefs as the obligatory whipping boys of the bigger guys.
But Laurent Tirard can't get away with that excuse, in 2016, one of the greatest TV stars was Peter Dinklage and he proved that you could play a badass dude even below the 5ft limit. Tirard wanted to make a statement about love being blind and even a beautiful tall blonde girl like Virginie Elfira could fall in love with a man of 4ft and half. I can only cheer to that, finally a movie tackling the issue of height.
Yes, height is a serious issue for men, standing at 5ft7, I have endured some rejections because of my height and I could eavesdrop many girls' conversations always converging toward the same depiction of the ideal guy: tall and handsome (notice how tall always comes before handsome). I have always wished height would be handled as a serious issue in a movie, and here came the perfect film for that, and the intentions of the script are certainly laudable, but then... I saw the trailer and realized they took the most bankable actor to play the little man. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Cinema is a tough racket, many are called and a few are chosen. In the case of little men, a few are even called. Seriously, how many young men under 5ft would dream about any ungrateful role in a big production if that meant a ticket to glory, and here comes a movie where it's the leading role. Finally, height has a point, where a little man is given the opportunity to shine and deliver a heart-warming message about love and tolerance. Surely, there must have been a handsome young man with a deficit in centimeters, how about having the guts to give one of these guys a chance... for the first time?
But not only Tirard went for the easy choice; picking the "it" actor in France but he also insulted the matter of height by turning it into a publicity stunt à la "Honey, I shrunk Dujardin", it's not about going to see the love story between a small man and a tall girl, but to have fun watching Dujardin being "downsized". Tirard turned the serious matter of height into a goddamn movie gimmick, which adds the insult to injury. Tirard would rather complicate the whole filmmaking process by having to shot with a green screen rather than casting a short man and letting it roll.
I guess the box office success is worth the risk of awkward and obviously staged interactions and of course, some will say that the casting made sense in terms of financial issues, that spectators are most likely to come to watch a Dujardin movie rather than an unknown man. Well, if Tirard couldn't care less about preventing a small man from a role tailor-made for him, he could have casted many other famous short guys in French showbiz and there are some, with notable talent. But the real problem is that the film is supposed to deliver a message which is that size doesn't matter.
Except that Tirard, by shrinking a tall guy instead of genuinely casting a small one, proved that size indeed mattered. It might be motivated by economical and aesthetical factors, but you wouldn't believe how many times, heightism is also due to these very causes, so Tirard doesn't taste the very soup he's selling to us, and I don't want any of it.
The film is a gutless production that doesn't believe in its own premise, and twice an insult to short people, because it pretends to care about them.
Stranger Things (2016)
A slice of the 80's, spiced up with a 2010's flavor!
I was first aware of "Stranger Things" after the buzz surrounding the clip of the kids reacting to the Golden Globe nominations in 2016, it was a cute moment that (retrospectively) captured the charm of the show.
Then there was David Harbour's speech at the SAG ceremony with Winona Ryder (still in character?) making the weirdest faces. Winning the ensemble award was a signal confirmed by the show progressively becoming the phenomenon of the year before being temporarily dethroned by Netflix' other youth-oriented but more socially-loaded "13 Reasons Why". Still, despite all these encouragements to curiosity, if it was up to me, I'm not sure I would have watched the series. I'm not the series' buff.
But my wife is... and I registered to Netflix, her attention span is a better match for the series' format and thankfully, I never had to complain about her choices. And yesterday, we had just finished our nine-hours of "Stranger" binge-watching, over a span of ten days. And well, the show is good, quite good, Actually, it's "2010's" good and "1980's" good.
You can't ignore the 80's thing, the series surfs across all the canvas of its flashy Pop Culture but with such a gusto and brilliance you could really believe this is a 80's classic. The only thing that slightly betrays the series is how the kaleidoscope of 80's is so persistent at times you can't dodge the feeling of a certain self-awareness from the authors, the Duffer brothers, there are at times an 'overuse' of reminders that we're not in the 2010's, but I guess this isn't an artistic license, it is a necessity.
In fact, it's just as if the Duffer brothers didn't draw their inspiration upon the well of the decade nostalgia, the series would've been another soul-less rip-off of "Lost" or "American Horror Story". And let's not forget that the show wouldn't have worked the same if the kids had cell-phones or behaved like today's generation Z. Maybe there's a generational commentary after all, reminding me of Marge Simpson's question "do kids still go on bike rides?" a time where dungeons and dragons were played with cards, where a kid wanted to be a Ghostbuster and not having the most likes on Facebook.
Netflix came up with two shows that said a lot about how kids have changed in three decades, but "Stranger Things" doesn't go for social relevance, not directly anyway, the real deal is within the story and never ceases to amaze you by the level of creativity and inventiveness injected into each episode. Sure, there are many archetypes that don't just belong to the 80's, you have the mysterious girl, a chosen one with hidden powers, you have the supernatural occurrences for starters, a group of kids with various personalities. But just when you're thinking "oh, I've seen that before", there's a new twist popping out on the screen or something that either thickens the plots or deepens the relationships, stuff which, while looking vaguely familiar, feels weirdly new and fresh with that 2010's/1980's feeling?
Take the group of kids, you have the straight one (Finn Wolfhard), the goofy one (Gaten Matarazzo), the seemingly token black kid (Caleb McLaughlin) but there's never a moment where you feel they're here to play archetypes. The presence of Sean Astin reminded me that even in "The Goonies", you could feel the Spielbergian over-the-top touch, too many gadgets, too much cockiness, these kids in "Stranger Kids" feel closer to a certain reality, we would believe kids would act that way in the 80's, just like we would believe in the everyday and homely realism of the folks leaving in the neighborhood.
For such a fantasy and sci-fi driven series, to feel that real is quite an achievement, but the soul of its success relied on one hit-or-miss character: Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. You see, I've never been a fan of all these girl power tropes, but Brown plays such a nuanced character that she practically defines the perfect sense of balance in the Duffer brothers' vision, at times, she's bad ass, other times, vulnerable but never in a "Hit Girl" way. You really feel for her and the chemistry with every other character makes the whole thing work.
"Lost" was a bit like that before it drowned itself in a maze of intricacies. I wish "Strangers Things" will keep on this trajectory, after two seasons and so many thrills, I wish it won't just get too wrapped up in its obsession to duplicate every element of the 80's. And while served by a good cast of known faces like Wynona Ryder, Harbour and Astin, the series is a vehicle for great emerging talents and I guess I wouldn't be wrong in assuming that Brown will be Oscar nominated before reaching her 20's. She's that good.
So "Stranger Things" is the typical case of a new and original recipe made of traditional ingredients, it's a salad of familiar elements, but it's digestible, and at times delicious... and it makes you realize how fast time flies, remember in the 80's, there was a wave of nostalgia over the 60's ("Dirty Dancing", "Stand By Me"...) when baby boomers were looking at the good old times. Imagine that in "Stranger Things", the oldest main actors were born in the 70's and now we're looking at the 80's as the good old days, and watching the show, I remembered the TV of my childhood. Even the theme has that ominous V-like tempo and the series that crappy VHS look.
Still, the special effects that had the wisdom not to be too 80's. Again, that sense of balance... the Duffer brothers know how to play it like in the 80's, and when not to... and the mark of the best directors is to make the strangest things out of familiar elements. And the best.
Desperately Seeking Johnny...
(Dedicated to Johnny Hallyday 1943-2017)
"Jean Philippe" is what I call a 'what if' movie, what if you lived the same day over and over? What if you were paid one million dollars to let your wife sleep with a stranger? What if you could be someone else? Movies that take one simple sentence to be summed up and with the kind of premise any viewer with a minimum luggage of curiosity would give a chance to.
The "What if" question here is more likely to appeal to a French audience: what if Jean Philippe Smet better known as Johnny Halliday, even better known as "Johnny", didn't exist? Well, if there was one French artist who was the perfect candidate to that question, it certainly is Johnny, the most iconic of all, the emblematic figure of the baby-boom generation, from a teenager idol channeling Elvis and James Dean to a biker's idol. He's probably the singer with the most vocal and passionate fans, some who followed him from the start, some who got the Johnny virus transmitted by the family.
Luchini plays one of these fans, but to say that he transmitted the virus to his wife and daughter, named Laura like Johnny's, wouldn't reflect the reality. But to call Fabrice (that's his name) a fan would be the understatement of the year, Johnny isn't just an idol, he's a full-time dedication, a budget too, any disc, prop or object loosely related to the idol is good enough for the "Johnny room", a sort of sanctuary full of discs, relics, and the collectibles they make a fortune out in "Pawn Stars". And the passion naturally transcends the limits of the room, Fabrice listens to Johnny, talks Johnny and breaths Johnny every minute of the day, and there was no better actor than Luchini to convey that level of "mental" passion.
Indeed, the actor is famous for going into long eloquent tirades, and get passionate about the most banal stuff. His verbal delirium outbursts are perhaps his most famous trademarks, a blessing for impersonators, and when it mixes with the passion for Johnny, the tone is set the most effectively. In the pivotal scene, e he can't stop singing Johnny's hit songs at night in a peaceful neighborhood, and gets immediately punched in the face. When he wakes up, something changed in the "air". Anyone wouldn't have noticed it after a few days, but it takes a Johnny hardcore fan to immediately spot a world where his idol doesn't exist.
Luchini is the first reason the film works. It's not just the premise, if Johnny doesn't exist, well, that hardly changes the face of earth, one must find a way to make the consequences of his inexistence cinematically tangible, so the fan's perspective is the right one. And It's fun to have people saying "who's Johnny?" and test Fabrice's suspension of disbelief, but a succession of baffled reactions doesn't drive a film for too long and the screenwriter knew it. Fabrice tries to understand why Johnny seems to have vanished from existence after that knockout punch and then realizes he's in a world where Hallyday didn't exist, but not in the sense that Jean-Philippe Smet wouldn't exist as well.
And this is where the film reveals its subtler touch, it's not about Halliday not existing but about Jean Philippe Smet not making it in stardom, for some reason, Fabrice intuitively guesses that Jean Phillipe does exist and that has somewhat influenced his own life (starting with his daughter's name). Fabrice searches for Johnny, learns why he didn't make it and does his best to launch his career. The underlying message seems that it's never too late to be what we were meant to be and it's a positive one although a bit predictable. It's also fun to see Fabrice trying to gain the trust of Jean Philippe, played with the perfect dose of realism and sympathy by the rocker.
Seeing Johnny being himself while totally oblivious to the kind of phenomenon he would have been adds a dimension of poignancy and sensitiveness in the character, as if he might have wished to live a simpler life or have a taste of it. The film is never as good as when it tones down the whole celebration of Johnny and becomes a more intimate introspection into the real-life counterpart Jean Philippe. It is later revealed why Jean Philippe didn't become Johnny but in reality, no failed audition or accident could have prevented him from becoming what he was born to be: a legend and the film is so aware of its awareness it follows it rather than dares to contradict it, wouldn't it have been more interesting to draw Fabrice toward's Johnny's idea of himself than having Jean-Philippe becoming Johnny.
It's like the film had to have that great finale but while the climactic performance of Johnny is a great moment, it is played in a kind of rush followed by ten final minutes that feel like false notes, as if the whole thing was just "a joke". But despite the clumsy ending, watching the film in the context of Johnny's passing kind of erases this little flaw and elevates the film as the best cinematic tribute to the singer. Johnny was such a prevalent figure he became one of those people you couldn't imagine dying one day, so it took everyone by surprise when, on a sad December morning, France was an orphan of its greatest legend.
No one could imagine him dead, but who said he was dead? His legacy would live forever and while not physically present, he'll still be here. And that's one of the aspect of Johnny's charisma the film demonstrates quite well, thanks to Luchini's exuberant but sensitive performance, even in a world when he's not present, we felt his presence when he was desperately telling people he existed. Johnny could exist on his own, through one fan, let alone millions and millions.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
A poignant, realistic and inspirational take on the "war veteran" trope...
When Al Stephenson asks his children "You've changed, what happened?", "just four years of normal growth" says his daughter Peggy, kisses and joy ensues while this line is cooking in our head. Yes, one simple absence is liable to create shifts of misunderstanding even with your beloved ones. I have always said that besides love and respect, understanding was the underrated cement of relationships, "The Best years of Our Lives" explore that issue through the intertwined post-war lives of three WW2 veterans.
Fredric March is Al, a forty-something banker who comes back unwounded but fails to recognize his home, Peggy (Teresa Wright) grew up and gained such maturity she became a mother's substitute and his son has long abandoned the war's patriotic scope for more sensitive questions about the use of the Nuclear force. The housewife (Myrna Loy) is overwhelmed by Al's come-back but you can feel the tension, when the heat is over, Al feels entrapped and needs to celebrate his comeback anywhere but out of the house.
That "Going for a drink" excuse was subtly foreshadowed by the similar reluctance of Homer Parrish to meet his folks. Homer is perhaps the heart of the story, a sailor who lost his hands in duty but took it all in stride, minimizing the loss and being thanking the Navy for having taught him the use of his hooks. We're impressed by his ability to light a match and sign his name but as Al points out, they never taught him to take his fiancée in his arms and stroke her hair, though a better line could have been "they didn't teach the family to handle them".
Homer's no fool, he notices her mother's sobbing gasp at the sight of the hooks and knows he's going to handle awkward guilt-driven demonstrations of love. As a result, he doesn't even talk about the marriage with his fiancée (Cathy O'Donnell) fearing she couldn't handle it, or maybe wishing she wouldn't. The irony of Homer, played with genuine intensity by Harold Russell, is that he doesn't want to be seen as a freak but is reminded of his handicap because he looks in people's eyes like in a mirror, or does he see his own reflection?
And then there's Fred, Dana Andrews, he comes from a poorer neighborhood and his wife (Virginia Mayo) seemed to have left the house. She's obviously a "tramp" and soon the pride and exaltation of having a dashing husband in his uniform leads to the disillusion of unemployment. Once a respected and brave captain, Fred becomes a soda jerk, a loser in the eyes of society and his wife, for what it's worth. Fred finds the needed comfort in Peggy, she can see that he's unhappy in marriage, likewise in society.
Now that the most prevalent war veteran figure is the Vietnam vet who saw his best friend being blown to pieces in Nam, here's 1946 Best Picture, directed by ace director William Wyler, and reminding us that post-war isn't just all about PTSD, shell shock and dark memories, there are physical and emotional scars, but perhaps the toughest part of the job is to try to adjust yourself to a world that changed, before you realize you're the one who changed. "Mudbound" handled that issue in 2017, and quite well.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" centers on these three men's lives and their families in the generic town of Boone City. Each man represents a side effect of the war. Although it would be tempting to treat their arcs separately, I like the way the three of them tie the plot together and rather than speaking different statements about a subject, make a positive message converging toward its heart-warming conclusion, after almost three hours of a journey into the everyday lives of normal citizens.
And this is what impressed me the most in Wyler's tone, he doesn't go for any sensational effect, or overuse of pathos, there's no forced drama or twists, the film is long because it has a certain desire to build solid and realistic bonds. In any other movie, the romance between Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews would look phony and contrived but the first day is as long as the wedding in "The Godfather", you feel the realness of every interaction, and both Andrews or Wright seem to succumb to a relationship they wanted to resist first.
The performances are so good I couldn't believe only March (who was splendid) and Russell were nominated, they won though, and Russell even won a second Oscar for his inspiration for WW veterans. But if you consider the whole cast, Myrna Low, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright deserved nominations as well, but I guess they weren't because sometimes, the talent of an actor is enhanced by the directing, and the film owes a lot to William Wyler. It can ever be regarded as a school case of masterful directing.
Indeed, what we take for great acting is sometimes a wonderful attention to details and characters behaving independently. In the Parrish' reunion scene, check how the father and then the mother has their first glimpses on Homer's hooks and try to ignore it. Another masterstroke is the phone booth scene, consisting on Homer playing piano with his Uncle (Hoagy Carmichael), Harry listening to them and Fred making a crucial phone call at that moment. Three actions compacted in one scene, meanwhile, many long moments dedicated to seemingly mundane trivialities, eating breakfast, dancing, drinking, working at the office.
Wyler knows what deserves several minutes and what can be handled in one and each character is given enough time and substance you know why? Because the story is all about people trying to reinvent themselves, for that, we need to know a little about their background, about what they are, and what they want to be, the film looks simple, but it's far more complex, intellectually engaging. Not to mention 100% relevant today.