They didn't know it was impossible, so they did it... "No one ever escaped from Alcatraz. Not alive anyway".
Alcatraz was an escape-proof fortress, a max-security prison surrounded by cold waters, guarded by sharp-shooters and built on solid concrete walls. But the Rock was also built on many self-proclaimed evidences that three prisoners dared to challenge.
Adapted from J. Campbell Bruce's book and Richard Tuggle's screenplay, and directed by Don Siegel, "Escape From Alcatraz" tells the story of Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) and the Anglin brothers (Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward) who became for the iconic prison what the Iceberg was for Titanic: reputation-changers. Indeed, after a streak of arrests, executions and drowning, they were the first escapists not to be found at all, which led to many speculations regarding their fate and a crucial decision: closing the prison in 1963.
The film opens three years earlier, on a dark and bleak rainy night with Morris being escorted from the bay of San Francisco to his cell, and no line is delivered during ten minutes of opening credits. The sequence almost works like exposition for the location as an overarching character. You can see how impregnable from outside (and inside), even a boat doesn't protect much from the currents, it's an ordeal for the escort guards. As for the escorted one, there's something in his face that exudes serene determination, he doesn't protest when being handled and when he walks naked to his cell, the guards would almost be the awkward ones.
The sequence concludes with a simple and ironic "welcome to Alcatraz", but retrospectively, you can see that Morris has already set his mind with his feet on Alcatraz, he's tested the waters. That's a prisoner we won't hear much about, passive to the extreme because he knows exactly there will come a moment for action, only one... not be missed or wasted. That we know the escape succeeds makes the performance of Eastwood vital, almost indispensable. I don't think anyone could have pulled the same intensity without trying much except maybe Steve McQueen but McQueen would have been in a more fitting territory with Peckinpah, with Siegel, it had to be his disciple Eastwood, together for one last collaboration.
Speaking of 'last', it's no surprise that the film ends with the same sequence in reverse, without one spoken line of dialogue, from cell to waters, with each obstacle handled with a pre-prepared handmade prop. At no point, there's any attempt to make the exit more dramatic because this is a pure product of New Hollywood, at the twilight of its existence, a movie less about grandstanding emotions, but about mood, about atmosphere, where actions speak for emotions, and so does non-action with Eastwood. A film where even the highest or lowest points are handled with a matter-of-factly "c'est la vie" way.
One might feel there's not enough character development to get beyond that sense of relative boredom driving the escape subplot, but maybe there's something to dig in that ground, the idea that these men are trapped in a sort of existential dead-end and Alcatraz became a life-defining challenge. The Rock held Al Capone, multiple escapists and the worst breed of criminals (rotten eggs in the same basket) but it says a lot that this jail also inspired a criminal to become a self-taught bird expert, as if one could find in ruins the material to build new meanings. And "Escape from Alcatraz" like many prison movies show a various gallery of characters trying to create ersatz of order and organization within their daily routine.
Black inmates create a hierarchy out of stairs' position, the man on the top English (Paul Benjamin) grows an instant liking of Frank and their bond, though underplayed, is one of the best things of the film. I wasn't as enthusiastic about Wolf (Bruce M. Fisher), who seemed like an artificial attempt to inject needless drama because I couldn't buy Eastwood as a rapist target. Better developed were the old painter (Roberts Blossom), the man with the pet rat (Frank Lanzio) and Larry Hankin as the closest character to a comic relief. These men aren't as fully developed as in "The Shawshank Redemption" but you get the right mood about Alcatraz and that the focus is on Frank and the Anglins wouldn't say much anyway.
Eastwood knows how to underplay his role, even when he witnesses the Warden's sadism (Patrick McGoohan) he doesn't make a fuss about it. McGoohan is the most fascinating character, less a corrupt bureaucrat than a man sitting on an impeccable record of his like a throne. Aware of Morris' reputation, he invites him to his office and warns him about the foolishness of an escape. But Morris is already examining the jail model and has spotted a nail cutter. The warden on the other hand is so blinded by his ego that he doesn't realize that the walls of Alcatraz are being deteriorated by his confidence even worse than salt water.
The man doesn't command Alcatraz, he is Alcatraz, and perhaps, the reason why the escape was so anticlimactic is because the real climax is in the collapse of the man's hubris. Maybe the film is only the clash between so-called fool-proof confidence and methodic patience, between hubris and brains. In a way, it works like an Americanized version of Jacques Becker's "Trou" especially with the whole papier-mâché improvisation that I will not dare to spoil, and without the emotional ending. The film is all in emotionlessness, but maybe that's Siegel fooling us just like Morris did. Maybe it's only a façade made of the papier-mâché of his own skills.
I'll never forget that scene where the guard tries to wake up Morris and that had me over the edge of my seat, Siegel never indulged to fancy directing but he did have a few tricks for us, some of Hitchcockian level. The film is rock-solid entertainment, not without a few cracks, but still one of the last gems of New Hollywood.
Baron Cohen Channeling Chaplin as a (Close to) Great Dictator... Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" (actually directed by Larry Charles) is a movie I avoided ever since its release. I wasn't reluctant because the film supposedly mocked Arab regimes (why should I?) but because it did so at the worst possible context: an Arab Spring that had already made way for many winters. In 2012, many North African and Middle-Eastern countries rode the revolutionary wave but was it for the best... or for the West?
Indeed, you might call it cynicism (I'd call it realism), I grew up in an Arab country and often thought an iron fist could be in certain cases be the lesser of two evils, not that it should. But Western countries often made a matter of honor to spread democracy, which is good... but oddly enough, for some dictatorships not reluctant to share their resources, diplomacy always found a way. As for the overall perception of Arabs and Muslims, terrorism and widespread immigration "helping", they always got a rough deal under a relative indifference from mainstream media, I thought "The Dictator" was one of these anti-Arab mockeries and I wasn't exactly in an urge to watch it.
But the 2010s are coming to an end, and I'm getting tired of politics and ethnic-centered biases, tired of being angry to put it simply. Retrospectively, it didn't even make sense to avoid the film: I loved "Borat", that's one thing, I'm a huge fan of raunchy, crude, satirical and most of all politically incorrect humor, that's another. Indeed, I didn't criticize "American Sniper" much because of its stance against Arabs but because it took its hostility too seriously, if Sacha Baron Cohen was offensive by being funny, I knew it wouldn't be personal, just "laughing" business. And boy, did I laugh. I laughed. And I laughed again.
The film was exactly what I expected, it did make fun of Arabs, not much of Islam which was the smart move, it did exploit the worst possible stereotypes but while swimming in such dangerous waters, it always carried a satirical edge and reminded me of some of the best South Park episode. It was politically incorrect but not untrue. Plus, there was just something irresistible in Baron Cohen's full embodiment of Wadiya's leader General Shabazz Aladeen. You could tell he took that role with the same dedication than Chaplin for "The Great Dictator", except that his target had the 'privilege' to watch his film.
Gaddafi was dead at the film's release and was obviously the main inspiration, but the caricature is not too far from other tyrants of the Arab-Muslim world, there are some shades of truth underneath the over-the-top façade, from the arbitrary executions (that reminded me of the King in French animated masterpiece "The King and the Mockingbird") to his sexual exploits with celebrities, from his prima donna tantrums to his personal obsessions (country-wise). Truth or no truth, they're still played for laughs and Ben Kingsley is perfect as the treacherous opportunistic second-in-hand Tamir, he plays it straight and serious, so we know Aladeen is closer to Borat than any of his real-life models.
Speaking of "Borat", at the end of my review, I said humor should have no frontiers. I'm not sure a reverse "Dictator" wouldn't have stirred less controversy, but speaking of that one, don't expect me to bash it; I happen to have a sense of humor and it was the funniest film I've seen in a while. Roger Ebert said it's the spiritual successor of "Duck Soup", I thought it was closer in spirit to "The Great Dictator": same plot involving lookalikes and matching the international context, same performance made of gibberish posing for Arabic, same romantic subplot (a more unlikely one with vegan, feminist, eco, LGBT and immigrant-friendly Zoey played straight by Anna Faris) and most of all: same intelligent and inspirational speech.
Say what you want about the sexual and scatological humor (perhaps the one digression from Chaplin's spirit) but the climactic speech makes you realize the West (that's a synecdoche) shouldn't be too prompt to give Arab countries lessons of democracy. I won't go as far as saying that Cohen took sides but at least he did something even Eastwood didn't: 'relativizing' and that's what humor is about: seeing things from a different angle. Aladeen might be a ruthless, egomaniac, dictator prone to execute anyone who contradicts his craziest opinions, but his methods prove to be efficient when it comes to manages Zoey's store. What did I tell you about the merits of an iron fist?
Still, I appreciate the way Baron Cohen kept the film in the safe side, and didn't make an anti-Arab movie. In fact, once you have a protagonist like Aladeen, the film can't be offensive because he's the central protagonist of a rather traditional narrative: he falls in love, evolves, becomes more tolerant. Like Chaplin's Hynkel, Aladeen is ridiculous, childish and ultimately sympathetic. I think his secret is to be surrounded by characters who act normally, from Tamir to Zoey, not to mention Nadal, his ex-chief scientist played by Jason Mantzoukas. Together they form a hilarious Laurel-and-Hardy pairing and have a great helicopter scene where their Arabic dialogue contain key words as audible as misleading for the American tourists and say a lot about the paranoia induced by September 11.
And the fact that he used his Hebrew to pass as Arabic says something about how close the cultures are and I hope the world accept an Arab comedian making fun of Westerners, though I'm not sure Cohen's humor would be welcomed in many Arab countries, some people are too respectful for their own good and maybe should just accept a few bits of irreverence every once in a while. I still believe there are a few double standards here and there but I'm ready to gracefully accept "The Dictator" because it's a product of its time, it is smart at times and hilarious every time.
Delightfully Sleazy and Trashy Florida Noir... Seriously, how much more "noir" could John McNaughton's "Wild Things" be? To call it "noir" is in fact an understatement, the film features such a trashy gallery of characters that it would be a miracle to keep faith on human conscience after watching it if the movie took itself too seriously, but smartly enough, it didn't. "Wild Things" is just a big "joke" if a thriller wrapped up in deliberate sleaze and soft-core package, and it works. Oh yeah, it does.
It's been almost 20 years that I watched the film, I visualize my friend urging me to watch the VHS tape, he knew I was a fan of twisted movies with labyrinthine plots, those were the times of FHM magazine and when Internet was still marginal enough so the sight of a bikini or a bare-chested woman was enough to arouse our senses... and with stars such as Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, "Wild Things" was the offer I couldn't refuse.
Watching it again at almost twice the age I was the first time, I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was even more fun to see the reaction of my brother who never heard about it, who grew up with the TV series and far more intricate plots than I and yet didn't see anything coming. Yep, that might be a relic of old-school cinema, no artsy sequence shots, no ominous close-ups or fancy dialogues, just a film with a plot as thick and tense as heat before a storm.
Speaking of heat, it's all fitting that the story is set in Florida. During the day, it's sunny, warm and welcoming like a postcard tropical paradise or a Miami Vice establishing shot, at night, the colorful bikinis are long gone and the place becomes the twin sister of New Orleans with menacing alligators and scary yet sometimes conveniently disposed swamps. Blue Bay mirrors the soul of the film's characters, summed up by detective Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon): "People aren't always what they appear to be."
And this quotes overarches almost every single action in the film, it's all about intentions, plots, schemes, deceptions where every single anticipation or prediction is toyed with and every 'normal' reaction is twisted. After a murder, a girl says "My mom would kill me if she knew I took the Rover", and it's the same rich and powerful mother who's enraged by the fact her daughter was raped... in Blue Bay. And as if they wanted to embrace the sleaziness of their characters, the manipulative writers gratify us with soft-core sex when we expect a cat-fight. Still, if the plot is utterly ridiculous, it's intense, sensual and perfectly executed.
There is Matt Dillon as Sam Lombardo the high school counselor and the rich, sexy, spoiled and manipulative Denise Richards as Kelly Van Ryan, daughter of Theresa Russell, who waves at Sam from the balcony wearing an open gown and a bikini... like mother, like daughter. In the other end of the spectrum, there's Neve Campbell as Suzie Toller, the trailer trash punk whose establishing moment consists on leaving a conference about sex crimes when Sam had just introduced Ray and his partner (Daphne Rubin Vega).
It's interesting that the first scene introduces every single player of the game, and the only hint it leaves will be useless by the time the plot starts with its pivotal point: an accusation of rape. This case leads to introduce the last player of the film, Bill Murray in one of his most underrated role as a more competent version of Lionel-Hutz. Like all the other characters, he embodies the notion that you shouldn't trust what you see, only in the most mundane way, he wears a brace to fool an insurance man, he calls his secretary with an interphone while she's just behind the glass and behind his own jovial "glass", he's more cunning than he seems.
At that point of the review, there's no need to pursue, the film had a way to grab you by the heart and the eyes and take you to one hell of a conspiracy. Yes, we know there's something fishy, but we can only follow the characters while they make one discovery after another, some of them contained in hot and steamy eroticism. But sex isn't gratuitous, it's crucial because it does represent the one weakness that makes everyone commit their mistakes, that's the irony of the whole "Wild Thing" scheme, it's about a perfect crime undermined by the way people can yield to temptation, be entrapped by their hubris, or have their ego manipulated.
It's the collision of something deemed to succeed in the name of greed and lust but deemed to fail in the name of their aftermaths, and guess what, even with these parameters in mind, the ending is unpredictable and doesn't follow any pattern. The film is pure neo-noir trashy B-movie material but its conclusion has a strange power, it leaves a weird smile on your face with the idea that you actually liked it, and you'd be glad to make someone discover it. That's what prompted my friend to give me the tape and actually, he was glad to watch it again with me, I wonder if it was to see MY reactions or to admire the beautiful sight of Denise Richards.
I guess it's a little bit of both. One more thing, "Wild Things" is a forgotten little gem of 1998 with cell-phones as big as laptops and where Internet was still utilitarian, the same plot would be impossible ten years later with the new technology so it was perfect timing. The old-fashioned neo-noir cult-classic holds up quite well today, better than "Showgirls" anyway. Yes, there's good trash and bad trash.
Maybe it's too pervert for some people's tastes, speaking for myself, I don't know what's mort pervert in the sexual material or the storytelling devices. I enjoyed both anyway.
If a boy's best friend is his mother, a boy's best lover might be his car... So they can say what they want about a brand new car being the finest smell in the world... after a woman (that's for the synecdoche), Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) make these two certitudes converge in a performance that both channels Norman Bates and foreshadows Private Pyle except that Arnie's 'Charlene' was a car, Christine was her name and Stephen King her creator. And if John Carpenter's adaptation has the body of an 80s teenage horror flick, its engine is a fascinating study on the strange attraction between a man and his car.
Indeed, seldom do movies approach fetishism with such a pervert sensitiveness. "Christine" is a nightmare on wheels yet we're drawn to HER power (no way I wouldn't treat her like a person). Gene Siskel nailed it the best when he said it's something we wish it could exist or happen, except not to us. And the reason we might wish it could happen is because Carpenter's directing and Gordon's acting make it feel real and oddly attractive. I felt the power of the autumn-red 1957 Plymouth Fury because I could "feel" Arnie. And that transferring process reminded me of another classic movie with a villainous vehicle: Steven Spielberg's debut "Duel".
Remember, the black truck was monstrous enough but you had a better taste of its vileness from the stressful state of Dennis Weaver. "Christine" works on the same level except that it both shows the terror of the victims (or targets) and the soul-abandonment of Arnie. Call me crazy but the encounter between Arnie and Christine's owner George LeBay (Roberts Blossom) features what I consider one of the most unforgettable love-at-first-sight moments ever and yes, it involves a guy... and a car. And the reason why the chemistry seems to work is that the two lovers (and life partners) had their establishing-moments.
Thinking about it again, Carpenter played it exactly like a romance where you first meet the two separately before the pivotal moment where Cupid throws the arrow. Arnie isn't even born when Christine comes in all shining red from its assembly line, she has not even been driven that she manages to slam the hood on an inspector and kill a cigar-smoking worker, whether it's from suffocation or sheer terror we'll never know. The clue might be in the choice of music though, the sound of "Bad to the Bone" has the same effect as "Born to Be Wild" in "Easy Rider", we get the point about Christine, she's like a 'mechanical' Jessica Rabbit who was 'assembled that way'.
Then we get to 1978 where we meet Arnie, the nerdy kid bullied at school, tormented by bossy parents and best friend with school's jock Dennis (John Stockwell). And the immersion in Arnie's not-so-quiet suburban life shows how high Carpenter is aiming in spite of the critical failure of his previous movie "The Thing", "Christine" doesn't try to be the spiritual successor of "Friday the 13th" but "Carrie" as it takes time to let Arnie grow on us, as a poor bird trapped in the cage of a pampered education, whose seeming insecurity hides a good sense of humor and the repartee of a young Woody Allen, if only self-pity hadn't trapped his persona and made him the target of brutal physical bullying.
Yes, there's some déjà vu with the scenes involving Buddy and his gang but it all sets up that crucial moment when Arnie meets Christine (sounds like some cute rom-com, does it?). The two wrecks are in the worst possible shape but in a sort of mutual and symbiotic back, they rebuild one another (and if that's not love, I don't know what it is). And like in real life, parents disapprove relationships but Arnie, improving already, confronts them and move his beloved new car in Darnell's garage. Darnell (Robert Prosky) doesn't get an instant liking on Arnie but appreciates his dedication to work and hires him for a few daily jobs. Interestingly, instead of showing Arnie's metamorphosis, Carpenter changes the flow of the narrative and starts focusing of his friend.
We see Dennis attempting (and failing) to get a date with the new girl in school, Leigh, played by Alexandra Paul who has the homely concealed sexiness of a then-Katie Holmes. The cuteness doesn't slow down the film as it all pay-offs in the football game, when we see from Dennis' perspective, Arnie who turned out to be a real greaser engaging into a deep passionate kiss. When Dennis sees them, he freezes and get injured then the film gets makes a splendid U-turn and takes the same road of regular slasher movies with less blood but no less thrills, and another winner score from Carpenter. Sure some killings get rather predictable but they're done with a sense of evil glamour as Christine gets more and more prevalent as a character, with her headlights of doom and the way she use Rock as subliminal messages, even when she's almost defeated, her "Rock and Roll is here to stay" sounds like her saying "I ain't dead yet, suckers!".
The film features many great oldies' songs that work like a second language to the iconic vehicle but for all its great special effects and suspenseful scenes, I've got to say that the performance of Gordon, turning slowly into a ghoulish loner is one of the best things about "Christine". He embodies the way isolation can push any weak soul to make a deal with the Devil, the film could have been called "Christine and Arnie" and be labeled as a romance to hell.
Watching again, it plunged me back to my memories 25 years ago when I first saw I and hid my head under the blanket during some scary scenes, and from that night, whenever someone told me he hated Rock and Roll, you know which movie moment instantly popped in my head.
The animal crackers' cracks are starting to show... Here's how I ended my review of "A Night at the Opera": "As good as it is, the film sets a precedent and provides the ludicrous idea that a Marx Brothers movie could be a vehicle for a banal romance, meant to promote two MGM stars. With a reasonable timing and good 'interludes', maybe, but who would believe the audience came to watch anyone but the Marx Brothers?" Well, I rest my case.
Titles don't lie, "A Day at the Races" was obviously meant as the spiritual successor of "A Night of the Opera" and confirmed their new departure in tone and 'gags-ratio' under the supervision of one of their most distinguished admirers, MGM producer Irvin Thalberg. But Thalberg died of pneumonia during production and the iconic siblings would never get the same consideration and even Groucho would lose interest in making films. The Marxes would make a few movies after "Races" but nowhere near the early 30's level, not that "Races" play in that league too.
So long gone were the bestial titles, the Pre-Code raunchy humor and the exhilarating deliverance of pure anarchical fun, the monkeying trolls became "good guys" helping the romantic lead to achieve their dreams and prevent the bad guys from spoiling them. While the formula worked with "A Night of the Opera", "A Day at the Races" made me feel that the previous success was accidental or maybe the opera-setting gave the film a certain edge, or maybe the Paramount spirit was still there or maybe it was just new and kind of interesting. Like Thalberg said "half the laughs and twice the money".
But even "Opera" didn't match that equation, I counted twenty minutes of sappiness out of ninety minutes of fun, "A Day in the Races" is filled with with so many needlessly stretched musical and romantic moments that the whole experience gets excruciating. Allen Jones reprises his romantic role, Maureen O'Sullivan is the new 'Jane' and the villain is the same from "Opera". Whenever the screen is filled with characters who are not Marxes, I was groaning. It's one thing to be supportive characters... but supporting? Can you imagine the same situation in a Buster Keaton or a Chaplin film?
Naturally, when they are brought up together on screen, the film gets on its tracks and provides some unforgettable moments, like the extended "Tootsie-Fruitsy" scene between Groucho and Chico, Harpo's charade, the climactic race with Hi-Hat the horse and the whole mayhem in the hospital which is perhaps one of the most defining of the 'Marxian' power, even Margaret Dumont is hilarious in this. Speaking of the fifth 'Brother', she's never been as flirtatious with Groucho as in her hypochondriac socialite's role and you could tell there was some genuine chemistry growing between the two.
Groucho Marx was at the top of his game as horse veterinarian passing for legitimate doctor Hackenbush, and there's nothing to say about Chico as usual delightfully ethnic and Harpo for once had a pivotal role in the film. But all the good stuff of the film, and there was some, was diluted into an ocean of cuteness and schmaltz making the cocktail as tasty. I can't say I liked every early Marx Brother but at least "Monkey Business" which wasn't even their best had a running time shorter than eighty minutes. "A Day at the Races" for one thing has a lying title as it runs for almost two hours and features scenes that have nothing whatsoever with the racing. It feels more like "A Day at Disneyland" where you get the equivalent of twenty minutes of fun for four hours of waiting in queues.
These fillers in "Races" felt like endless queues, the musical numbers with African-American people and the one on-stage were marvelously choreographed but they're not exactly what everyone's looking forward to seeing in a Marx Brothers film. Don't get me wrong, "A Day at the Races" had all the makings of a good Marx Brothers film but all the dullness of a forgettable chick flick... except for the ending which is perhaps the final hurrah of the Marx brothers making their last "classic" and leave with you a little smile in your face. And don't get this criticism wrong, it all comes from a fan.
Actually, I believe the Marx brothers were big, maybe too big for the big screen. They made their bones on stage, in vaudeville acts and are mostly remembered for sketches such as the "mirror dance", the "crowded cabin cruise", comedic routines involving contract parties, swordfishes or pantomime numbers provided by Harpo 'Honk Honk' Marx. In other words, they were the Monty Python and Saturday Night Live of their generation and it's no surprise that Groucho Marx had a revival of career during the Golden Age of TV. My feeling is that the Marxes would have made terrific TV entertainers in their prime, they were just at the peak of their popularity at the wrong moment, during Hollywood Golden Age and MGM and Marx Brothers mix exactly like Margharita and sugar.
But like Monty Python, the Marxes could make a few great movies, mostly satirical, a classic like "Duck Soup", "Animal Crackers", "Horse Feathers" and "Opera", sometimes, it doesn't take more than three classics to leave a legacy, the Marxes had half a dozen. "A Day at the Races" is still good enough for its time, but not so good for hardcore fans.
Victor, Victoria and Victory... over Gender Stereotyping... Ever since I heard about "Victor Victoria", I tried to visualize how a movie from Blake Edwards, "The Pink Panther" director, about cross-dressing in 1930s "Gay Paris" would look. My intuition was that the film would either be a period version of French comedy hit "La Cage aux Folles" (or its American remake "The Birdcage") or something in the more realistic vein of Bob Fosse's "Cabaret". Where does "Victor Victoria" stand between these classics?
In fact, these comparisons though valid (a hilarious gag involving a popping champagne seems to have been borrowed from the French classic) are marginal when confronted to the musical's satirical edge and the way it handles an important subject like gender roles, so fitting from the same year that provided "Tootsie" or "The World According to Garp". In "Tootsie", an Oscar-nominated Dustin Hoffman played a man who learned the ordeal of being a woman trying to fit in a male-driven world, and in the latter, John Littgow was Oscar-nominated for playing an ex-football athlete who became Roberta, the sweetest and most complex character of the film.
So, the 1982 Oscar wasn't a "drag-race" but an interesting year that questioned for the first time the kind of stuff that was usually taken for granted: men and women were different... as if they were supposed to be identical within their respective gender.
This is why you can't cover issues like men and woman's relationship or feminism without inevitably spreading it to homosexuality, gender identity and stuff that are compacted today into initials. While the notion of LGBTQ etc. wasn't as socially preeminent in 1982, there was a Gay culture nonetheless dating back to history and that found a "micro-Golden Age" in the interwar period (they weren't called "Les Années Folles" for nothing) as if Europe, worn down by endless battles down the mud, wanted jazz, swing, love and a little "je ne sais quoi" of eccentricity, living life like a cabaret in Berlin, puttin' on the Ritz in Paris or putting the "Chic" in Chicago! "Victor Victoria" takes this context into consideration, respects its audience's maturity and portray homosexuality in the most straightforward way.
So Blake Edwards lays the cards with the first shot where we see Toddy (Robert Preston) sleeping, face in profile, and then a man's head rises behind him. We understand the relationship is purely sexual, neither of them is pulling a "birdcage" and the thought that the film would indulge to such portrayals vanished instantly. Edwards finds the perfect way to put the viewers at ease, even those who can be 'bothered', he just shows from the start without sugarcoating or overplaying it. I don't mean he's "throwing" it at our faces so we're "done with it", in fact, just like heterosexual love, homosexuality is displayed within numerous layers: physical, emotional, platonic etc. In fact, sometimes, you feel like both loves are intertwined.
Take that scene for instance where King Marchand, James Garner as a charming but roguish American business, gets smitten by the new sensation of Gay Paris, look at how his jaw slowly drop when "Victoria" (Julie Andrews) puts off her apparel revealing short hair, which means that she's "Victor", which means a transvestite. At the same moment, Norma, Marchand's ditzy moll, played by a scene-stealing Lesley Ann Warren goes from bitter jealousy to ecstatic cheerfulness. That simple scene seems to show how truly insecure gender issues made 'average' persons feel ... maybe was it a nod to the audience?
Or maybe the bottom-line is that only someone with the true sensitivity of an artist would be able to question the way laws of attractions function for him or her. Look at the transvestite numbers, they're sophisticated, elegant, they do involve men but they actually put femininity into a true pedestal, the approach is equally in adoration of the woman figure than any proud macho. And once again, this 'relativeness' goes the same way around, when Julie Andrews plays the man and asks herself how she can be credible, Toddy reassures her, there's no proper way to be a man, she's just got to pretend to be some Polish count so the suspicion won't dig further than that lie (pretty smart actually).
It turns out that the best way to be a man is just not to be too feminine enough to never give up the illusion entirely, one must know it's a man for the sake of the show's own "reason-to-be". Interestingly, the notion of man is less sexualized than the woman, if you compare it to the overly sexy "Chicago" song performed by Norma. The exhilaration of being a man is played outside the realm of show-business, like a reverse "Tootsie", the way Victoria finds all door opens once she becomes a man. But see how once again King Marchand gets so obsessed by her impersonation and defensive about his manhood, many of his actions are less guided by love than his macho pride, which is saying a lot.
I might have been too analytical for a film that is essentially an entertaining, moderately eccentric, but ultimately fun story about fun-loving and sympathetic people... but I was surprised by how enjoyable it was. And just when I tried to predict some situation, something funnier or smarter or more touching came all the way, like that bit involving Marchand's bodyguard Squash (Alex Karras) that I didn't see coming.
Now, to say that "Victor Victoria" has a message would be too far-fetched but it does say something about gender and life in general: we take ourselves too seriously and anyone should be free to do whatever he loves... the film embraces its own approach by injecting a fair dose of slapstick (well, I think there was one or two brawls too many) but the Edwards' touch, the 'atmosphere', the casting (especially Preston and Warren) not to mention the musical, contribute to a spectacular and solid entertainment, that aged up very well like some good Parisian wine.
Lock, Stock and Four Singing Barrels... Three Marx brothers are in a boat; which gag first comes to mind? Exactly, mentioning the iconic siblings with the word 'boat' will reprint in any movie lover's brain the unforgettable image of an overcrowded cabin. Which makes "Monkey Business" the 'other' one set in a boat, with the FOUR Marx brothers monkeying around this time... as nameless stowaways, and is there a worse waste of a gag when Groucho Marx plays a nameless character? But that's not even the film's only flaw.
I know "Monkey Business" is considered one of these best but that's a consensus I fail to share, it is good zany madcap comedy, but it is set for the two thirds in a boat without providing a single scene as memorable as the aforementioned one from "A Night at the Opera". There's one exception though: the hilarious sequence where Harpo Marx impersonates a "Punch and Judy" puppet, like Chaplin did differently in "The Circus" a few years earlier. Harpo proves against to be a master of pantomime (his puppet-face is hilarious) and that was the scene that stuck to me after one viewing, and it still does after the second.
But whatever Harpo's presence accomplishes is shortcut by Groucho's unusual absence and one of his usual punching bags: Margaret Dumont. It was Thelma Todd who pulled it, but while she had a great chemistry with Groucho, the only memorable line he delivered to her carried macabre undertones as she would die four years later in a mysterious garage 'accident' (you can find the information on the trivia section). The ill-fated actress would have a better role in the next Marx Brothers film "Horse Feathers" as the college widow. But let's get back to Groucho.
Granted this was their third movie and nothing was still in the realm of 'usual' but let's face it, Groucho was from the start the central intelligence of the group and his presence is barely noticeable in "Monkey Business", not in the same vein of ubiquitous annoyance he used to deliver anyway. I don't think it is a coincidence that he will reprise his dominance as the intellectual troll we love to love in the next films and no less coincidental that Zeppo Marx' screen-time will decline as well. For all I know, Zeppo might even be the most genuinely funny of all the brothers but he just can't be funny. He can be involved in a funny situation but Zeppo isn't the reason we watch a Marx Brothers film.
Indeed, with Chico as the gambler and womanizer, Harpo as the goofy childlike simpleton and Groucho as the deadpan wisecracker, the trio allowed three schools of comedy: vaudeville, slapstick and satire to merge into a style that became their own and allowed them to become as essential to Hollywood as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. Zeppo rode that wave of popularity but didn't contribute much to it. So when the film opens with four barrels 'singing' and then his head shows, pops up, I find it more awkward than funny. For me, he's the 'handsome guy with the suit', when the sailors look after them, I would expect him to get through the situation more easily than his brothers. That's why he's never as efficient as a romantic character and his best gags involve the gangster's daughter.
Speaking of the sailors who were looking for them in the beginning, one of them told the captain that there were four stowaways because they were all singing "Sweet Adeline". I refuse to believe that Harpo Marx was singing as well. Nameless and absent Groucho: no happy, comical Zeppo: oddity but Harpo talking: blasphemy. In fact there are many aspects in "Monkey Business" likely to disorient the fans, it was the first Marx Brothers film conceived in Hollywood but you could tell they were carried away by the success of their two movies; I read that a dozen writers were involved in the script and Groucho hated the first draft. In my opinion, I don't see what's all the fuss with the final draft, it had a good share of jokes, but it lacked structure.
As soon as the four brothers split in the boat, it's like they exposed the biggest problem of their presence, it was undesired and needless from the start. All right, we all know that the Marx Brothers movies are only clotheslines on which to hang gags, but there has always been some coherence even within that seeming anarchy, if I had to stick to my guns, I would say the reason why I loved "Horse Feathers" is exactly the same why I didn't like "Monkey Business"... as I expected, it had a context, at least it had prohibition, school and sports management, that was the set-up to a series of gags culminating with the infamous chariot race in the stadium. "Monkey Business" has no context, it has a setting... but it could have been set in a hotel as well.
To say "Monkey Business" isn't funny wouldn't do justice to some funny sequences it features, mostly with Groucho and Chico, but the film just lacks the proper pacing. Some good jokes drag on a little, the musical numbers are quite great but they come too late after the boat part and work better when you see them as Youtube clips. In fact, the way "Monkey Business" breaks the unity of space also bothered me because I didn't like the gangster bit and the whole kidnapping thing strikes like a last minute plot point from one of the the twelve writers.
Yes, we expect anarchy from the Marx Brothers, but this film was too genuinely disorganized to let them glide through it. Good, but not great.
Life as an adventure in contemplation... "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" is quite a strange movie, but that strangeness is precisely what drew me into it, especially during the second viewing. The film doesn't make any fuss, it remains tacit and inoffensive, but it does so with such confidence that I could let myself be absorbed by the pacing which, as slow as it was, made the ending quite emotionally rewarding.
The film was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz before he made "All About Eve", so he wasn't exactly William Wyler at that time. Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, while not newcomers, weren't exactly A-listers and went through many hands before landing of them. And to some degree, the two actors who star as the titular couple never provide any you hint that they're acting for the Oscars. Tierney's greatest asset are her sharp and beautiful features which, combined with her rigid composure, compromised any emotional possibility. On the other hand, good old Rex just hams it up as if he was supposed to voice some Disney sailor. But you know what, the chemistry works and it does so because the film has a quality a few genuinely good movies don't even have, it doesn't try to fool us.
It opens on a young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) confronting her sister and mother-in-law, telling them it's time to fly with her own wings and live somewhere else, much to the two women's shock. Lucy is determined though and with a dignified serenity announces that she leaves with her maid Martha (Edna Best) and her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood). There's no artificial conflict, no sister-in-law swearing to use every possible trick to get her back. Lucy consults an estate office and what we get is perhaps the earliest example of the "house with a history", one located at Gulf Cottage on the seaside and that belonged to a sailor who committed suicide. Yet the trope is subverted, not only Lucy is interested by the price of that house but she insists on visiting the place, much to the agent's reluctance played with obvious bits of comic relief.
During the visit, we expect a few ghostly interferences to get the first alarming signs but the script knows how to toy with our anticipations. Lucy falls in love with the design of the house, and she knows something about it since she married an architect, she feels like she belongs to the house already. Her enthusiasm is tested though on the first night where we get the supernatural interventions, but everything is so overplayed you can tell it's intentional. In "Rebecca", all you needed was silence, darkness and the sense of isolation conveyed by the large walls of Manderley but here we deal with a more mundane type of ghost, one trying to assert his presence in the noisiest way to a new tenant who simply "won't have it" unlike her predecessors. And that's how an intriguing but slowly catching relationship starts between "The Ghost", Captain Daniel Gregg (Harrison) and Mrs. Muir.
Some would call it a romance but it's not really one, not until the film clearly establishes they're meant to each other and it takes time before reaching to that conclusion. What Mankiewicz does is to let the strong friendship build up without ever trying to spice it up with romantic artifices, the Captain grows fond on Lucy when he sees how she deals with her in-laws, he appreciates her willpower and calls her Lucia believing it fits her better. And when she's facing financial troubles he suggests she becomes the ghost writer of his memoirs, an interesting nod to the story's author Josephine Leslie who published the story under the pen-name of R.A. Dick (who'd write a "sailors" story written by a woman?) The strategy pays off and the royalties allow her to buy the house. In the process, she meets another author who knows how to talk to women, just like he seems to do with children under the pen-name "Uncle Neddy". Sanders is not without his usual suavity but there's something insistent and needy in his character that strongly bothers the Captain. But in a last act of gallantry, he leaves 'Lucia' alone, so she could live her own life among the real people, and by doing so, erases himself from memory.
After that powerful moment, what happens in the film's final act is, in my opinion, what seals the film's legacy. It could have gone to many directions but it's interesting that it keeps on a rather serene tone mode fitting Gene Tierney's style of acting, she might not be the best actress in the world but the film doesn't allow her to deviate from the range of emotions that specific role requires. She plays a character determined to live her life the way she wants and if that implies being alone so be it, she wrote the adventures of a captain but lived the opposite life but who knows? maybe a captain can be a lonely person deep inside and one can live tumultuous adventures alone by only contemplating the seaside. And yes, maybe it's the effect of these "time-passing" waves' shot, but the film inspired me in an urgent desire to spend some time on the seaside and just live and forget about life's little inconveniences.
"The Ghosts and Mrs. Muir" could have went for something more spectacular, it could have exploited young Nathalie Wood for more precociously cute wisecracks, but it showed a woman alone, and made her static and isolated life anything but an ordeal. Tone-wise, it stayed anticlimactic, setting its course on a final scene that worked because it was the most powerful one, I liked it, not because it took Lucy to die to finally join her beloved one but because she wasn't in a hurry, and she took her time.
"Jezebel"... Southern Belle and modern rebel... A "Gone With the Wind" it might be not... but does that say much when you have Bette Davis? She doesn't just shine, she electrifies the film through her superb incarnation of Julie Marsden, another spoiled, iron-willed and rebellious-for-the-kicks-of-it Southern Belle.
I say "another" because "Jezebel" has always lived in the shadow of you-know-what. And it's not totally fair because Owen Davis's original play predated the publishing-phenomenon Margaret Mitchell's best-seller was. Even Davis was rumored to have starred in "Jezebel" as a compensation for not getting the so-cherished role of Scarlett O'Hara... while it was Selznick who swore not to audition her angry at Warner for having made a precedent out of "Jezebel".
But while "Jezebel" gives a generous foretaste of the Technicolor masterpiece to come, it is a masterpiece in its own right, served not just by the talent of Bette Davis but also one of the most underrated directors of his generation: William Wyler. I swear the more of his movies I watch, the more certain I am about his having the greatest instinct for acting talent, no matter how many takes it takes (he was a notorious perfectionist) he gets what he wants from actors, and viewers get nothing to complain about.
And in "Jezebel", Wyler couldn't have a greater setting than pre-Civil War Louisiana of 1852. This is a place -and a time- where social rules stood as subculture, a universe where people are already acting... as pretending. So what we have is a gallery of characters as diverse in the expression of their personalities as in their repression, in over as in underacting. Some like well-intentioned socialite Aunt Belle (Fay Bainter) or expert duelist Buck Cantrell (George Brent) just live by the rules, she's so respectful to Southern traditions that she welcomes a Yankee woman with great hospitality yet for the same reason, he displays towards her disdain and hostility.
Some are guided by morals and honor but are either more tolerant like Dr. Livingstone (Donald Crisp) or more forward-thinking like Preston 'Pres' Dillard (Henry Fonda), a young banker and Julie's fiancé. Pres urges his conservative associates to invest on the railroad, clean the swamps to avoid a new outbreak of yellow fever, and he knows damn well that a war would mean disaster for the South, from a purely economical perspective. No one listens to him, naturally. But if Pres knows there's a kind in the South to be extinct, compared to his Julie, he's an old relic too.
Too proud not to be selfish, too free spirited not to be capricious, Julie rejects all codes. Her character-establishing moment is her appearance late at her own party in her riding dress. Days later, that colorful trait turns out to be more dramatic than expected... even by herself, and it involved clothing again. After being politely dismissed by Pres, she decides to wear a red dress at the Olympus ballroom where non-married women must wear white dresses. In this signature-scene, Wyler's talent for pulling emotional truth from actors glides frame by frame.
Indeed, Davis got all the praises (and the Oscar along with Bainter) but look at Fonda's reaction, he's calm, he "calls her bluff" and takes her to the ball with the red dress, retorting to people's shocked faces with death glares. The ball scene is set beautifully, but Fonda's anger is the real spectacle, a masterstroke of self-containment. He's not angry, but pretends so to hide the sadness in his heart, broken and about to break the engagement. It's calm and vindictive furor hiding deep sorrow. And Davis keeps looking at Pres with distressed eyes, obviously regretful.
The film is Bette Davis at her most expressive, Wyler wasn't stingy on close-ups and reaction shots on her face for reasons. No matter how sincere she was, you never knew whether it was her ego or her heart to be hurt, that's what makes her such a compelling and yes, modern, character. Even when she makes amends one year later, you can't be sure whether her glowing white dress is a mark of affection or a prop to get a hold on Pres again. After all, if a dress could wreck her life, another one could patch it.
Julie is actually a fascinating character because of her complex inclination for self-destruction, so blatant we never totally trust her. And one manipulation too many ending with dramatically unexpected consequences almost relegates her to semi-villainous level (the original Jezebel wasn't a saint anyway). But then the film ends up sanctifying her in a redemptive act echoing a movie of the same year "Angel With Dirty Faces". Julie's final action sealed her status as a tragic heroine and whether the eventual "saving" is left for speculation, we can at least breathe for her soul. And if Davis is the story's soul, once again part of her triumphant acting is due to Wyler.
The film opens with a long tracking shot on a street section of New Orleans, showing Creole vendors, upper-class people and slaves all brought together. This is not the usual impersonal panoramic shot from old super productions but a bright and lively image of the South. But as the film advances, the lights get darker and darker until something bizarre happens: in the beginning, Davis has the youthful face of "The Petrified Forest", at the end, it carried such gravitas and looked so worn-down by the weight of her terrible actions that she looked like Margo Channing. Davis literally aged through the film, shades of beauty slowly deserting her face while her soul gained maturity and started to glow through the final act.
And for all its old-fashion charm, "Jezebel" still holds up because what looks dated is criticized by its own heroine as Davis plays Julie's defiance toward the 1850's convention like she was with Hollywood establishment in the 30s and that sincerity makes the film hold up pretty well even by today's standards. Its modern relevance just didn't go with the wind...
Before Monty Python made "Ben-Hur" look like an epic, the Marx brothers made a big joke look like "Ben-Hur"... In 1924, the nerdy Harold Lloyd made his school win the big game and invented the underdog story, in 1936, Leni Riefenstahl turned athletes into semi-Gods riding chariots of fire across the stadium and invented the fan's sports movie. In between, the Marx brothers rode a chariot across a football stadium and simply reinvented humor.
Indeed, humor is perhaps the only game which, unlike sports, has no rules, except the one exception that confirms it: make people laugh. The trick is that they expect to laugh so you have to surprise them, surprise is humor's soul. Here's an example. Monty Python proved you can make the funniest gags out of situations where serious men, serious-looking men actually, behave in the most bizarre, unexpected or childish way. Make a judge dance the French can-can and you'll get a visual gag but that's not enough. The talent might be to make such a gag; the genius is to give it a proper context. That's what the Marx brothers do.
And their "Horse Fathers" sets the tone with its cartoony opening sequence, followed by Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff' singing along with his devoted members of the Huxley faculty (or Huxley faculty members), a song that stands on a refrain that could serve as the motto of every pompous bureaucratic administration: "Whatever it is/ I'm against it". Watching Groucho Marx indulging to that silly dance routine with big, overweight, bearded men with the classic teacher's outfit reminded me of that scene in "Sons of the Desert" where all fez-wearing members of the fraternal lodge took a solemn oath and then started humming "Streets of Cairo". By the way, did I say pompous bureaucratic administration or am I being redundant?
Now, it's remarkable how managerial purposes that are still relevant today, football eligibility rules in colleges to name them, but let's face it, they're only set-ups for an artillery of Marxist hilarity. Indeed, if jokes were bullets, "Horse Feathers" is like being endlessly machine-gunned. They're all here, Groucho as the wacky professor, Chico as speakeasy worker but not-so-easy speaker Bavarelli, Harpo as Pinkie, dog catcher but not so good at catching words properly, and even Zeppo, quite a looker and not a bad singer. Yes, the whole family is here, and guess what, there's no romance in that college-set movie, quite a cheer-leading news. Hurrah!
Maybe it's just me but I've always judged the Marx Brothers' movie on the basis of their romantic subplot, they were all good minus the romance: the less romance, the better, that's why I loved "Animal Crackers" and why I adored "Duck Soup". I don't know whether I loved or I adored "Horse Feathers" but I can tell you one thing: sometimes, I was wishing there could be some romance to allow me to catch my breath. Gags fly at such pace and to so many directions that even the musical moments might fool you. Just when I thought we had a little sappy piano interlude, Groucho gratifies with one of his greatest fourth-wall breaking moments, just when I thought Groucho was singing "Everyone says I love you", I started to pay attention to his lyrics.
Maybe I should just calm down and talk about the plot, well, let's just say the plot is an excuse, an excuse for three simple things: make a little nod to the Prohibition and show the brothers' personal take on it, an excuse for making a plot culminate with a big football game, some gags I even thought belonged to "The Freshman"; and finally to use actress Thelma Todd as the 'college widow' and the center of a love quadrilateral, courageously taking as many hugs as her arms can sustain while remaining in character. I forgot one important element, the film is also an excuse to throw anarchy into respectable public places à la "Animal House". I said three simple things and mentioned four, at this track, at the end of the review, I could make a student's thesis about what-makes-it-so-great.
But seriously, that last point was important, I guess it's fair to say that "Horse Feathers", whatever that title means, is another ode to screwball anarchy and middle finger to establishment at a time where the other Marx was taken a tad too seriously in some places and so was another mustached guy who'd later conquer the brothers' parents' birthplace. I became a teacher recently, I like order and discipline and detest trouble-makers but maybe I wouldn't mind trouble-making made with such class. It's one thing to disrupt a football game by running naked and showing your butt, but it's another thing to do it aboard a chariot race, Monty Python made Ben-Hur look like an epic, the Marx brothers made a big joke look like Ben-Hur, having conquered the Olympus of humor occupied by silent comedians and proved that talkies had a saying about humor..., silent comedy and slapstick still being provided by Harpo.
And there's more than a password, a falsetto, a kidnapping scheme and different renditions of "Everyone Says I love You" with different effects, different instruments and not so different ways to love, there's another word that defines the film and perhaps explains why the best Marx Brothers movies belong to the early 30s: "Pre-Code". No cuteness or sentimentalism, "I wanted a flat bottom but the girl had none" says Groucho Marx... and well, just when I thought "Duck Soup" had the best ending of all Marx Brothers films, "Horse Feathers" keeps the most outrageous move till the end, with a last cherry on the cake before throwing it at our faces.
The Marx Brothers were simply ahead of their time, in a simple hour plus three minutes, they compacted every single breed of humor that nourished all the comedic inspiration to come, from Tex Avery to Monty Python, from ZAZ to SNL. So whatever "Horse Feather" has, whatever it is, whatever it does, whatever it shows, I'm ALL for it!
Even after the war, there is still peace to conquer... The film opens with a conversation between disabled Vietnam veterans. They drink, smoke, play pool and talk about deep stuff. It all feels authentic because most of them are real vets, making their words even more resonant.
One's statement about the war's uselessness hit a sensitive chord in paraplegic Luke Martin, played by Jon Voight. Luke doesn't talk, just listens and feels. How can a man indeed accept that the war that cost his legs was pointless? If he does, is he just in denial for his own sanity? This is his arc-question in his journey toward resignation, mirroring the moral turmoil of a proud nation crippled too... by its own division.
Many great American figures knew the values of humility and patriotism can be a good thing, but it's not one of these 'absolute' values that stand for themselves. Captain Bob Hyde, a Marine, is getting ready for Nam, he's obviously idealistic and patriotic, his motives are honest though not deprived of personal ambition. He represents the other perspective on war and the way it is showed to how brilliant and underrated director Hal Ashby was. With small details, mostly relying on his editing talent, he can betray his political stand (and the writers' and actors') without relying on dialogues, just by keeping it subtle.
The film opens with veterans having another war coming, within themselves, then, from a pensive and introspective Jon Voight, we cut to Bruce Dern. The "Out of Time" music is rather upbeat but it's foreshadowing how still far Bob is miles away from deception... but he's got his feet so he doesn't care. How about his wife, Sally? According to Bob, she accepts though she doesn't understand much of it. In fact, it's not far from the truth, Sally is a devoted housewife, member of some gossipy column and she's so discreet and unobtrusive that she doesn't even get a cinematic entrance, she just happens to appear on the screen while the focus was on Bob.
Yet she's the emotional core, as one who "accepts" and "doesn't understand", she represents the overall perception of the war before it hit home. The film covers a time span of one year between 1968 and 1969 and something has been clearly reshaped in national awareness, the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy certainly helped. So Sally has a last night with Bob, he makes 'love' with her but her look doesn't show any sign of mutual pleasure, in a lesser movie, that would have been amplified to justify infidelity, here it only means that she let her duties step over her personal dreams.
She says goodbye to Bob in a scene with the Beatles' "Hey Jude" in the background and hesitant to go back home alone, she asks the girlfriend of Bob's buddy Vi (Penelope Milford) if they can go have a drink somewhere. She doesn't need company, she needs a new meaning to her life, even a temporary one. Sally, wonderfully played by Jane Fonda, is a woman who can be described as 'superficial' in the best case. She was a cheerleader who dreamed to have a husband. Coincidentally, Luke was a schoolmate and the captain of the football team who dreamed to be a hero. So we have two idealistic souls whose dreams have crashed into reality. And that their first encounter involved a urine bag spilling all over the floor is a powerful detail.
Sally volunteers to the VA hospital so she better gets used to it, Luke has no other choice than getting used to everything. Now, why didn't Sally want to join Bob's mother? Why did she rent a house near the beach? Or buy a sports car? In fact, she found in Bob's absence an unexpected chance of rebirth, Vietnam changed her life like Luke's... in a lesser way. But the film toys with these parallels sometimes with good humor, when Luke gets his chair, Sally changes her hair. When Luke must learn how to straighten up, she straightens her hair out. And progressively each one brings a new dimension to the other's life. She finds balance and independence, he finds peace and fun. Together, they find love.
In two hours, it's amazing how "Coming Home" manages to cover so many layers of drama, it is with Best Picture co-nominee "The Deer Hunter" one of the first movies to represent the veteran's point of view acknowledging his handicaps in an attention to detail that makes it the closest movie to "The Best Years of Our Lives", going ever further with one of the most tender love scenes ever, because it approaches disability in its most intimate, like Oliver Stone would do later with "Born on the Fourth of July" ("Coming Home" was partially inspired by Ron Kovic's biography). Not without feminist undertones, it also shows the standpoint of women, refusing their condition as long-suffering wives. Sally still loves Bob but never apologizes for her affair. Bob's suspicion and reaction are also handled in a tactful and intelligent way.
So many feelings, so many themes, so many great performances, rightfully awarded, compacted in one film, less a tribute to American pacifists, but to America after all, as a land whose history might be soiled by tragedies, but that still allow people to express themselves if they feel something is wrong. Maybe the reason of the flag's appearance in the poster's background. Unfortunately, today, division prevails and has turned into an ugly moral blackmail.
A movie like Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" is the philosophical antithesis of Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" and that it met with such acclaim proved how September 11 changed everything for the worst. Sorry to close on a downer, but I was surprised by Voight's recent political stances, even more while I was hearing his DVD commentary with Bruce Dern until it ended with a mention that it was recorded in 2001. Which speaks for itself.
"Sleepless in Seattle" brought me here... I have decided to watch every movie from any American Film Institute's list and Leo McCarey's "An Affair to Remember" was the fifth greatest romance of all time (actually the first after a streak of four movies without happy endings). That and Nora Ephron's endorsement put the film higher in my watch-list and now, I can count it in my cinematic tally.
And my feelings are mixed, for lack of a better word. It's appropriate that Ephron didn't pay tribute to the movie as much as she made it a sort of defining gender-gap issue. To put it on a binary level, women would weep at it and men would find it corny, that's exactly how it was shown in the picture. Well, I did find a few parts corny, some of them were terribly hackneyed, others unbelievably contrived but I could appreciate the emotionality of that final scene. Maybe the build-up worked after all, because the movie raised such shameless peaks of cheap sentimentality, such blatant attempts to extract tears from our eyes that I couldn't resist. Indeed, it was so obvious, so far-fetched, so schmaltzy that I ended up buying it.
Now, let's stop the theory and get straight to the point. In fact, that's what the film does right from the start. Cinemascope and Deluxe Picture. Check. Images are actually so bright Cary Grant's tan would make Peter Sellers from "The Party" jealous. The letters all in pink and "Santa Barbara" typeface. Check. The sugary melody telling us that 'love is a many-splendored beautiful feeling and flowers smell good. Check. If you're expecting gunfights and sexual tension, you got the film wrong, this is pure good old old and old-fashioned Hollywood romances like old school directors did after "A Streetcar Named Desire", in spite of, I should say. Deborah Kerr struck me as mix of Moira Shearer from "The Red Shoes" and Greer Garson from "Mrs. Miniver", not too flamboyant, not too dignified, a fine match for Cary Grant playing his usual overly confident suave playboy... but yeah, this is no Elia Kazan material.
The pattern is rather classic: a beautiful man meets a beautiful woman, they fall in love, but adversity and life are rough on them until it decides to give them a break, because you know, love always triumph. But don't let this bit of cynicism mislead you, the whole first act is quite well made and promising, it's set on an Ocean transatlantic one-liner. Renowned playboy Nickie Ferrante meets Terry McKay, he's marrying some rich socialite woman, thus nipping in the bud a previous relationship with some negligible negligee wearing French woman. Terry also belongs to a man but at least, there seems to be some ersatz of feelings with her sugar daddy, though he never asked her to marry. Obviously, the fact that they're in a similar position make them meant for each other.
It was difficult but my "meh" radar was deactivated at the start when the ship anchored at the little Mediterranean French town and then Cary Grant wasn't the usual woman's man but a gentle and devoted grandson, the grandmother provides some good warmth and acts like an unconscious matchmaker between the two souls. The film ventures into sentimentalist waters that would have looked too unlikely a few minutes before but for some reason, the piano-playing scene worked and even more surprisingly, so did the praying. The cruise takes another course as the two leads realize they're soul mates and after a few attempts to keep their open secret as close as possible, they decide after the New Year's Eve to meet in the next six months on the top of the Empire State Building granted they manage to overcome their present obstacle, mainly to become independent. It's a pact and it's a date.
All Nickie has to do is cancel the marriage (in an interview that will content the fans of "What's My Line") and gets rich by doing what he does best: painting. His talent is then handled like a McGuffin allowing him to honor his engagement. Meanwhile, Terry breaks up with her benefactor who takes it in all stride, this bit surprised me because I kept wondering why would she abandon such a nice and decent guy to be the Plan B of someone who was an opportunistic social climber... before he met her. Anyway, July first comes quick but while Nickie makes it to the rendezvous, Terry gets hit by a car and is incapable to move. Those were the days without cellphones, so Nickie couldn't know and as if the film embodied its heroine's handicap, something also stopped to "walk".
The real problem of "An Affair to Remember" is in its second act: it's all fillers. And it gets so desperately thirsty for our tears that McCarey hammers us not with one but two musical numbers with children from poor backgrounds. There were already musical pieces before the accident with Terry the cabaret but I had to skip those with the kids, which serve absolutely nothing to the plot and derail the narrative. The problem is once you skip these parts, you immediately get to the finale, which is satisfying but somehow, it's weird how the film feels rather empty in-between and can only resort to reason-defying plots points, the most notable one is: why would Terry hide her accident?
"An Affair to Remember" suffers from an uneven pace, sometimes going too fast, sometimes too slow, always at the expenses of realism, but its boldness might be its one saving grace, the film omits its weakness setting its course fa to the tear-jerker conclusion, confident that it would redeem all flaws. "Sleepless in Seattle" had the same emotional guts and wasn't without some moments that challenge our suspension of disbelief but it had a far subtler approach to the material. "An Affair to Remember" might be a little too old-fashioned for its own good.
Who said girls couldn't be funny? The truth is: no one, if there's one thing Hollywood demonstrated ever since the screwball days is that comedy can be one of women's stronger suits. Some just believe it's more of a tuxedo-type of suit and if women can truly be funny, they shouldn't.
Why not? The answer might be that men are looking for girls whose main assets would be either charm, beauty or sensitivity and traits generally considered incompatible with a good sense of humor. Being funny is perceived as unglamorous in a condescendingly gallant way, reducing women to majestic motherly figures or wolf whistles baits... while only plain-looking or ugly-looking women could be funny, because they had a 'funny face' in the first place.
It is true that Barbra Streisand doesn't have the usual glamorous look, I dare to say it so curtly because it's not a fact she ever hides in her movies, one of the songs in "Funny Girl" even mentions her 'nose deviation' and during her first stage rehearsal for a Vaudeville act, she's told that her legs are skinny and her looks too 'uncommon'. Having said that, when Fanny Brice first appears, walking through the empty stage with that leopard coat and looks at herself in the mirror, uttering the immortal "Hello Gorgeous", there's absolutely no second reading behind that line, she's confident, charming *and* gorgeous.
In a later scene, Fanny has got her breakthrough role in a Ziegfeld number, she's supposed to sing at the finale a song praising how love made her beautiful. But she can't, believing no one will ever take her seriously. Her mind is so set that she dares to defies the musical mogul Florenz Ziegfeld, played with suave and towering authority by Walter Pidgeon. The way she obeys his order while sticking to her guns isn't just a wonderful display of professional instinct but a stroke of genius, and one of the highlights of the film.
The number is one of these overproduced and over-staged musicals where everything is so perfect and beautiful you keep waiting for a fall or a slip to break the routine (literally). The Ziegfeld girls have facial features so geometrically perfect with pattern of voices so perfectly smooth it gets more and more obvious than Fanny will be like fish out of a water, but Fanny has a trick under her sleeve... and a pillow under her dress. Portraying a pregnant woman, she gives an edge to the so schmaltzy lyrics: "I am the beautiful reflection of my husband's reflection".
Spectators are laughing and clapping, the girls hold a laugh and Mr. Ziegfeld is beside himself with anger, maybe less because she disobeyed than him but because she was right to do so. Fanny knew she had talent but she just couldn't take herself seriously because she didn't look serious... she epitomizes a quality so rare among artists: self-awareness and realism ... and maybe because she had that sparkle of self-deriding and non-compromising Jewish humor. She kind of reminded me of Fran Fine from "The Nanny" (with a better voice, of course).
And Barbra Streisand reprises her Broadway role with a similar conviction because there's an obvious kinship between the two iconic performers, not just the fact that were precocious and ahead-of-their-time Jewish entertainers but because they were funny. Which makes the pattern of "Funny Girl" quite remarkable, Streisand is natural when being funny (and serious too), we appreciate her wit and self-derision so much there's never a moment where we doubt she improvised her lines... if you check any performance in typical 60s musicals, you'll fail to have the same kind of spontaneity.
So 'Babs' is so good in every scene she's in that she makes every scene memorable. By simple repercussion, "Funny Girl", despite being one of these Hollywood super-productions with overtures, intermissions, big budgets and the whole shebang, is still enjoyable because Streisand flies above all the clichés with the elegance of a 'Swan Lake' ballerina... and thankfully, she takes the film with her. And I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "Funny Girl" after all the critics I had against "The Sound of Music" or "My Fair Lady" but I guess the film plays in the same league than "Mary Poppins" in its attentiveness to that simple notion of "fun".
And there are many great scenes, the one with the roller-skates where Fanny's clumsiness garners more laughs and applauses than the rather banal act it would have been, her interactions with Ziegfeld and her attempt to show a 'poker' face. And Streisand is sincere and natural in the 'fun' department that it heightens the emotionality of the serious moments, from her passionate rendition of the song "People" to the most heart-breaking moments involving her turbulent relationship with Omar Sharif. When 'funny face' makes a sad one, we do take it seriously.
I make the film sound like the "Streisand" show, but it actually is, none of Sharif, Pidgeon, Anne Francis or Kay Medford are all supporting players, even William Wyler's directing doesn't rain on her parade. This is one of these instances where one performance makes a movie. I wouldn't say that Streisand should have won the Oscar over Katharine Hepburn instead of the tie, but while Hepburn was excellent in "Lion in Winter", she didn't carry the film singlehandedly and it wasn't a debut. "Funny Girl" marks a lot of first times, first Wyler musical, first Streisand picture and the only AFI romance between an Arab actor and a Jewish actress (coincidentally, the shooting started in the midst of the Six-Days war).
And the film takes me back 27 years backwards when I endured it because I wanted to watch a re-run of Madonna's "Who's That Girl". I sat through it thinking it would never end, I only remembered that 'machinegun' act in the beginning and the flying moment. Needless to say that I'll remember a little more now... and the film felt much shorter.
Grey Apparatchik in Gay Paris... Kind of an off-topic beginning but it's interesting to notice the similarities between Ernst Lubitsch' "Ninotchka" and the 1950 movie "Born Yesterday".
While there's nothing to take off from Greta Garbo's performance, I think the film loses most of the fun as soon as her character gains a sense of humor, the height of irony for a comedy. And that's exactly what happened with Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday", once she stopped to be that dumb-blonde with a wisdom of her own, her virtuousness got the best of her, such emancipated characters might be inspirational but quite boring in their predictability.
When Nina Yakushova makes her entrance, she's nothing but boring. The film might be in black-and-white, but you can tell she's wearing a grey outfit that totally matches her persona. "Ninotchka" as she would be affectionately nicknamed strikes as a highly protocoled and bureaucratically rigid representative of the Soviet regime, but what an extraordinary pairing she forms with Melvyn Douglas playing the suave and debonair French Count Leon d'Algout. A line like "Must you flirt?" doesn't even need a context to be funny, in the film it's a riot.
Indeed, both characters are funny not by"playing" funny but simply being themselves and make the contrast between them funny. And the initial flirting between Leon and Ninotchka is a school case of comedy of manners where the contrast plays like a clash of civilizations (Gay Paris vs. Grey Apparatchik) while being a good romantic catalyst. Ninotchka's procedure commands her to conform to the country's practices so it's almost 'diplomatically' that she surrenders to Leon's charm. What makes Garbo's performance so delightful is that she leaves her degree of individualistic implication a mystery. Once she laughs, there's no suspense anymore.
And MGM made such a big deal about that laughing business as if it was the film's reason-to-be. Garbo was already being funny before laughing, her laughing is perhaps the one gag that really falls flat, as misleading as the close-to-top billing of Bela Lugosi while he barely appears in the film. That "Garbo laughs!" thing probably made viewers anticipating it to the point that the elegance and sophistication of the courting process went over their heads. A shame especially since the romance doesn't wait for the laugh to take off. It is obvious Ninothcka is interested in Leon from the start, and must resort to lines that are a credit to the film's brilliant writing: "the whiteness of your cornea is interesting". Leon's retort "I like your cornea" was just the cream on the coffee. If that's not 'love at first sight', I don't know what it is.
And another reason to enjoy the romance like real caviar is because Garbo is obviously having fun overplaying her cold Sveska persona, going as far as mocking her trademark "I want to be alone". It is a masterstroke of self-parody that rightfully earned her an Oscar nomination and I guess 1939 was too crowded a year for actors so Melvyn Douglas missed one (like Henry Fonda for "Young Mr. Lincoln"). So it is fun to follow Ninotchka during her mission to Paris, berating Iranov (Sig Ruman), Buljanov (Felix Bressart), and Kopalsky (Alexander Granach), making the most peculiar comments about the Eiffel Tower or the city lights, or offending a restaurant owner by ordering plain vegetables... but once Leon wants her to have real fun and tries to extract a smile from her impassible face, the dynamics begin to slow down.
If one thing, Leon couldn't have found lamer jokes to tell and the way the clients in the restaurant loudly laugh severely date the film (like the theater scene in "Sullivan's Travals"). There's no problem with the "Garbo laughing" moment, she actually pantomimes laughing very well (infamously, it wasn't the sound of her own laugh) but I have a hard time imagining that 'slapstick' fall was enough to break the icy façade of Ninotchka. I wished something with the Lubitsch touch could have been the key, something inducing a progressive laugh, like a chuckle, just imagine her trying to hold a laugh and Leon noticing it, what kind of scene it could have made. MGM went for the easy way, the big explosion and then it marked the real shift from a great romantic comedy to a good classic. Garbo is still great after, she just gets predictable.
And I kept missing the gags and the fun the inspiration of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who'll soon be making movies together) provided in the first half, not just with Garbo and Douglas but also the three bureaucratic Soviet stooges and their easy surrendering to capitalistic comfort during their mission. But even the political undertones that start as witty and clever lose their tempo when the setting switches from Paris to Moscow and venture in the realm of "viva capitalism" in its most superficial incarnations. Lubitsch and Wilder are obviously preaching a choir, but let's not forget the year the film was made. While Hollywood was busy producing such masterpieces as "Gone With the Wind", "Stagecoach" and "The Wizard of Oz". "Ninotchka" was the only Best Picture nominee mentioning the war going in Paris in an opening disclaimer, as if war had already dated the film, hence giving it an odd timeless charm.
Maybe the secret of "Ninotchka"'s timelessness is its comedic power, humor is the best vehicle for deep insights about 'human' nature, this is why the film is never as politically effective as when it is funny. One year after, the war would be much established in Europe and a comedic genius would mock the "other" totalitarian regime. In a way, "Ninotchka" is Hollywood's entrance into the war, lighthearted maybe but powerful in its own Lubitschian way.
But paraphrasing the iconic midnight quote, I would say "one half of the movie was making me miss the other half".
Doctor Zhivago and Master Lean... two misunderstood poets... There's a scene where Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) examines some organisms from his microscope, the doctor is interested but the poet is in awe of their beauty. That detail mirrors David Lean's own method: he's a man of art who cares less for interest than emotion. Like when a window behind Lara (Julie Christie) exposes a radiant sun. It is less the sun that is the "small touch" than the way Yuri thinks of Lara whenever he sees sun, flowers or sunflowers.
How else can you tell a poet apart from his capability to find in anything -from a window covered with frost to majestic trees near the Urals- the path to heavenly imagery? If anything, the film is about the poet Zhivago and these are as powerful leitmotifs as the iconic "Lara's theme" by Maurice Jarre, reminding us that nothing can ever prevent the noblest sentiments to bloom, not a cold winter, not even a revolution or a civil war. While "Doctor Zhivago" has the pretension of an epic, it's as much about war as "Casablanca", and as romantic, glossy and old-fashioned.
And should it be a surprise from the director of "Brief Encounter"? I saw in "Doctor Zhivago", the same eagerness to get to the passion but with a special sense of crafted patience. Contrarily to "Brief Encounter", Lean had the luxury of three hours of running time so he could toy with our expectations by making both Yuri and Lara meet in several occasions to plant the seeds of a romance that wouldn't blow until the two first hours are over. As if there was more power in the anticipation of love than love itself.
And strangely enough, for all the talk about the director's talent when it comes to big production and crowded scenes, it's during the intimate moments that the film glows, not only between Yuri and Lara but even in the earlier scenes that set up key characters such as the corrupt aristocratic and pragmatic Kamarovsky (played by the only American cast-member Rod Steiger) or the solemn idealism of Tom Courtenay as Pacha. The former would survive out of a romanticism he never suspected, the latter would lose his heart for the Revolution.
In fact, all characters are more or less tragic figures and the movie is like a great canvas where people are forced to make a choice between feelings and duty, sometimes making both converge like Tonya, Yuri's devoted wife (Geraldine Chaplin) but overall, they are all guided by feelings that can't be more individualistic, if not selfish. That might be the antithesis to the spirit of the Revolution that made Boris Pastarnek's novel silenced by official decree. The poet who loved two women and wrote the novel in ten years was forced to decline his Nobel Prize because he loved Russia even more and couldn't accept exile.
Yet he was the poet, and the intolerance that struck his life is still less intolerable than admitting that the Revolution totally canceled passion in the hearts of Russians, as Zhivago's brother (Alec Guinness) stated "there's no Russian who doesn't love poetry". And Yuri finds something in Lara that ignites his poet's soul, something that transcends whatever reality and marital comfort can provide. Hard to judge him, the way Julie Christie looks in the film that doesn't even give half its full meaning to the word beauty: her hair, her lips, her eyes... Yuri's words were certainly far more eloquent than mine... all I could say is that she was breathtakingly beautiful.
And breathtaking is a word that applies to Lean's attention to visual details, and the way each of his movies are opportunities for spectacular landscape shots. His imagery allowed then-viewers to escape from their monotony and explore the wilderness, whether in the desert, the Indochinese jungle or the cold Siberian winter where an ice palace becomes the setting of a magnificent romance. And even in the ugliness of a train where people are piled up like cattle for days, Lean proves how great a director he is by precisely not directing Klaus Kinski, letting him be truly the free man he's portraying in the film.
Lean's work is so admirable in subtle details that it was obviously diluted into the vastness of the project, earning him severe critics, blaming him for trivializing History. Time did justice to the movie and allowed it to be remembered as one of the last great super-production of its era, one that allowed Omar Sharif, an Arab riding a camel, to become a romantic leading man, playing against part, but what part! Like a poet, he's a rather passive observer, but for all the cast-members I mentioned -including Ralph Richardson as the scene-stealing father-in-lax rumbling about the hooligans who took over power- It is definitely Sharif's film.
I closed my review of "Lawrence of Arabia" by a small ethnic bias saying that I was delighted that one of the best British American films would be about Arabs and now, that one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time, and most prestigious British films, would star an Arab was equally delightful. And I will also conclude by inviting you to look on Youtube the words' Zhivago and Didi, this was a sketch I grew up with that made me aware of that score two decades before I saw the film, I can never hear that theme without thinking of it, sometimes, you find connections in the weirdest places. It's not much poetry, but maybe the other main feeling Lara's theme conveys: nostalgia, the best antidote against cynicism or any excesses of rationality.
Sure there are a few things to "criticize" but I don't think the film intended its audience to venture into intellectual territories... so just let yourself be transported by the story the actors and the old-school Hollywood charm of "Doctor Zhivago", and its so effective music and you won't be disappointed.
The Clothes Do Not Make The Man... or do they? It is strange how clothing, and its counterpart "nudity", occupy a special place in Taylor Hackford's "An Officer and a Gentleman". And I don't think it is gratuitous. Without getting over-analytical, my impression is that the film attaches a very subtle importance to looks and clothes, it's not trivial material but the kind of things lesser movies would have trivialized.
The first time we see Zack Mayo, he looks like Richard Gere coming back from his "American Gigolo" star-making role or getting ready for an audition for "The Outsiders". Yet, what really catches the eye and not quite pleasantly is the naked body of his father lying in bed with a prostitute. It's only in the following yellow-toned flashback that we realize he's a Navy officer. What we've got then is a contrast between a uniform and an attitude. Indeed, the father (Robert Loggia) feels no grief about the suicide of his wife and has no qualms about making his son grow up in the vicinity of every brothel in the naval bases they are sent to.
His nudity represents his true nature, a selfish, careless and honor-less man. Better than anyone else, Zack knows it takes more than a uniform to be an officer, but the uniform is part of it, so he reports to the Aviation Officers School for a 13-week training where he meets other promising newcomers, among them Sid Worley, a friendly rich Okie played by David Keith. The movie shows the two men becoming friends and following what seems to be the same path: they learn at the expenses the harshness of their drill sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.), they enjoy their first perms, and they fall in love with two young factory workers who are, according to Foley, are what they call Puget Sound Debs (as for debutantes): sort of gold-diggers whose only motives is to marry an aviator and enjoy the great life overseas and all the benefits.
The two paths are similar only in the surface, in reality they highlight the tremendous gaps that can exist between people who act in pretension and those who act responsibly. Zack is with Paula (Debra Winger) and Sid with her friend Lynette (Lisa Blount). Lynette makes no secret that her dream is to marry an aviator and she'd go as far as trapping a man through pregnancy for that, she worships the "uniform" just like the guys from the town despise it for stealing their thunder in a bar. Sid isn't that superficial, he's the nicest person and is quite competent but is a spineless man leading an aimless life: once he learned that Lynette was pregnant, he dropped on request (DOR) and proposed her, wearing civilian suits. Naturally, she couldn't say yes and berated him for having abandoned so close to the graduation, and crushed their dreams, but at that time, she crushed his soul and later he was found hanged in the bathroom, naked in the truth of his own failure.
Interestingly, nakedness has more positive undertones when it comes to Zach and Paula, and the two parallel stories emphasize how good and made one for another both Zach and Paula are, at least because they tend toward sincerity and question their feelings, is Paula looking for a real love or a substitute to the AOC father who abandoned her before being commissioned? Is Zach suspecting Paula to be one of these 'Dabs'? The man's scared of that very relationship and the way in intertwines with his own training. In one pivotal scene, he treats Paula so harshly she tells him it's not the attitude of an officer, hitting a sensitive chord and prompting him to apologize. He knew at that point he behaved like his father: uniform and no attitude. Later when forced to DOR under Foley's pressure and threatened to be expelled, he finally breaks down and shouts: "I got nowhere else to go!" that moment didn't earn Foley's respect but understanding that maybe the cocky brat came to self-realization.
At that point of the review, I should mention LouisGossett Jr.' performance as Foley and say it's as worthy of the Oscar as R. Lee Ermey deserved a nomination for "Full Metal Jacket", but I retrospectively appreciate the way Foley is never an antagonist but a driver and if he doesn't show any softness, it's because he likes his AOC enough to give them his best shot. The subplot involving the female candidate Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher) could have made a great movie itself and it allows us to show that it's not a matter of ambition but of character and heart. That's exactly what lacked in the ill-fated Sid, unlike Lynette, he had the right attitude but not the heart it takes to wear the uniform or any 'uniform' for that matter. And what the film's journey shows is people learning over the course of thirteen weeks the things that define them: those they can't quit.
Which of course takes us to that magnificent ending, copied and parodied so many times I was glad that for once, I saw the original before all the parodies (whether "The Simpsons", "Friends" and many more). It's a Cinderella-ending all right but beyond all the cinematic archetypes and the catchy Joe Cocker's "Up Where We Belong" theme, we have two decent persons realizing they belong to each other and can finally make their lives converge. So the dashing white prince took her away under people's cheers and applauses and for all its blue-collar realism, the one detail that consecrates that symbiosis, right before the image freezes, is Paula putting Zack's cap on her head, like a last clothing detail that speaks a thousand words.
It's one of the most emotionally satisfying ending because the movie made us care for the characters before embracing their happiness, it had the "uniform" of a romance but the attitude of a character study... and study of character!
Not that bad, but the lousiness of some gags is even more unbelievable than the sci-fi plot... Probably tired of unsuccessful invasions and infiltrations of Earth via the United States, our good old aliens (aboard their not-so-unidentifiable flying saucers) think they'll have a better shot with Saint Tropez; they just didn't count on our valiant defenders of bikini-clad widows and playing-with-sand orphans; the Extra-terrestrials are coming and the Troop is back!
Still, the decade it took for that fifth installment to be released feels like a real change of era that affected all the cast... and not just in the looks department. In 1979, the baby-boomers who twisted in Saint-Tropez were adults whose preoccupation were rooted in reality and oil prices, so I'm not sure watching a frail old Funès dressed as a nun and making faces not to be recognized was the proper cure for laughs. That 'Salve Regina' sounds rather like the swan song of the agonizing old school of French comedy.
But courageously, director Jean Girault and screenwriter Jacques Wilfrid stick to their guns, and all the actors are certainly more heroic than their fictional counterparts in the way they indulge to the same shticks over and over without fearing to look ridicule. But there are signs that can't fool us, the most visible ones are the replacements of Christian Marin and Jean Lefebvre by similarly looking substitutes Maurice Risch (short but chubbier) and Jean-Pierre Rambal (tall but less goofy). It's quite symbolic that Merlot and Fougasse were the two who welcomed Cruchot at his arrival and quite sad that "no one notices" their absence.
To their defense, they don't hurt the film and Maurice Risch, a regular De Funès' partner who's been labeled as a poor man's "Jacques Villeret" given the obvious resemblance, dis fit to the role. The real issue is with the replacement of Claude Gensac as Cruchot's wife by Maria Mauban. Gensac was unavailable so Mauban did her best with a second-rate script that overloads de Funès' dialogues with many "my doe" (ma biche!) in case we forgot who she was.
So "The Troops and the Extra-Terrestrials" has many new faces and the "old" ones have aged too much, aging even contaminated the writing because it's dated even by the 70s standards. In other words, the first act was a disaster starting with Beaupied (Risch) discovering a flying saucer and going all bananas about it. Granted there is no De Funès movie without a fair deal of hysteria, here the joke is used ad nauseam, with media-circus, brand-dropping, neologisms and verbalisms so embarrassing you just wish the plot can move to somewhere else.
I tried to watch it with the benevolence of a parent who sees his child and knows a Laurence Olivier he'll never be, but seeing all these talented actors clowning around and trying to make us believe that stabbing someone's butt by mistake is funny... with the summit of bad taste in that shot on the Colonel's bleeding pants. The craze goes on and then it starts to loosen up and even gets better near the middle. I often criticized some De Funès' movies to start very well and then getting slower or rushed out at the end, this is the opposite case, and I only wish the warm-up wasn't so long because it could have redeemed the film.
Which takes me back to that summer of 1989 where as a kid, I discovered De Funès through a TV cycle dedicated to the Troops series. If my memories don't fail me, it was one of the first I saw and I didn't take it as a comedy. The sight and sound of the aliens, the ominous music, the rusty sound they made and even that 'bong' when you knocked their body used to give me the creeps. Besides, I never liked plots were identities were reversed for all the misunderstandings they induced. I guess I took that film too seriously but strangely enough, there were a few scenes that I still appreciated for their 'serious' undertones.
There's a moment for instance where Galabru is alone in civilian clothes and follows an alien who'd just been splashed by water and is dying, his body makes mechanical noises, his dislocation is showed like a real agony and his death is symbolized by the fading sound of his tune watch, and there's no moment where Galabru plays it comical. He's alone in the beach of St Tropez like Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes" and the whole scene plays like something that could have come from straight sci-fi. It was quite powerful.
The following scene is one of these outbursts of comedic genius you find even in the worse De Funès when they all knock their heads and they make metallic sounds only with a different tone, though it had me confused as hell when I was younger (I didn't get the joke), the punchline of can belong to one of the Top 10 gendarmes moments. I guess that's the magic of the series, after all, each one has something to offer for the legacy.
And it's weird that De Funès, the actor known for straight comedies would play for his final six roles (following his heart attack) in two memorable sci-fi films both involving the classic flying saucers. The sci-fi element is handled pretty well, I especially like the effort Raymond Lefebvre took to put electronic sound in his work, and special effects that can seem a bit B-moviesque compared to "Star Wars" but they hold up well, honorable mention to the part when the Troops fought against their lookalikes and I was wondering how they would pull it. Naturally, they went the easy way, who said they had to fight their counterpart after all?
Now, I'm not sure the climax inside the flying saucer was necessary, with the final parade and the Troops making their obligatory march, there was an opportunity for a great last gag à la "Breast of Leg?", that would have earned the film an extra point.
Judy Holliday's performance outshines the movie... For ten years, I've been believing that no performance could have been more worthy of praise and admiration than either Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." or Bette Davis in "All About Eve". I assumed Judy Holliday won by default for what was certainly a good but not legendary performance. Sorry to open with a digression, but the history of George Cukor's "Born Yesterday" and the Oscars are inextricably linked, you can't just talk about Judy Holliday's performance without mentioning that she just beat two legends and two Oscar favorites.
It was reported that Gloria Swanson told her at her win's announcement "couldn't you wait one more year?". That's how good she was... but saying she was good wouldn't give you half the idea of how truly marvelous and luminous she is in every single moment and every subtle nuance of her performance. As the initially dumb street-smart blonde who grows a brain and a virtue, Holliday shines with the simple power of a wide-eyed expression, a silence, or facial expressions that reminded me of Madeline Kahn only with a more blissful energy.
As Billie Dawn, Holliday doesn't even portray your usual pixie dream girl who sees everything in rose-tainted colors, she's actually rather blasé and wise, wise not despite her naivety but in the way she feels comfortable with it as long as it allows her to live 'good' and bear her bear-framed boyfriend Harry Brock, a loud-mouthed (understatement) and uncouth junkyard millionaire who acts like a bully with his friends and enemies with equal furor. Broderick Crawford is unforgettable as the brutish and rude man, though sometimes too mean for a comedy. But Billie doesn't undergo his outbursts of anger with the passivity of a poor lamb but as a woman struggling but succeeding to find the good even in the worse situation.
That she could be so forgiving toward a man who only treats like some 'dumb broad' and punctuate every line with a mean and loud "Shut up!", can explain how easily she fell in love with William Holden, playing journalist Paul Verrall. Even a bespectacled Holden wouldn't fool anyone, at the prime of his handsomeness, his glasses are probably meant not to confuse him with his "Sunset Blvd." role. The literate man is hired by Harry to make Billie a presentable lady and not a living embarrassment in front of his upper-class acquaintances. In fact, Harry is bribing congressmen to expand his junkyard business and uses Billie as a front-man for fraudulent schemes so she must be smart enough to read the papers and stupid enough to sign them.
But first, neither Paul or Billie know about Harry's scam, they only grow a genuine fondness toward each other, Paul becomes in the eyes of Billie a gateway to a world she never knew: books, literature, history politics... the film's realism tangles a little in the way she quickly improves and I'm not sure I liked the way Paul was always dodging every question about hims Billie had every reason to want to know about him but he never told, and we never knew his motives. Even Harry was outspoken about his past and how he became such a slick prick. Maybe Paul was too much of a Prince Charming for the film's own good but I try to look at him as the instrument for Billie's irresistible metamorphosis, a reverse Mephistopheles.
And irresistible is the word, from the way she kept looking at the dictionary, how she just froze after a fancy word or smiled when she got something, it's like you could read in her mind through her facial expressions. And I wish I could just find the perfect way to describe her voice but then I would have to pull a "Billie Dawn" and do what I do for many reviews, check in 'Reverso' and then publish a review, pretending I knew these words all along. But what goes for Billie goes for everyone, literacy is like gymnastics, and Paul is a tutor that can be assimilated to a real coach, psychological support included in the service. Gaining "intelligence" which means the ability to understand is a small process, and one can read Balzac after starting with "The Cat in the Hat".
The film just insists that it's not much about the 'well-filled' head (quoting Montaigne) than a 'well-made' one and as Billie grows more interest in the history of the USA and politics (in the perfect possible setting: Washington D.C), she becomes more sensitive about her husbands' intents and the way they reflect what goes wrong in the system and to a lesser (or higher) extent the very injustices she's enduring. And I guess this is where the film loses a little of its emotional juice: as Billie gets more virtuous, the story gets less entertaining and not for the sake of drama but a rather preachy lecture about the merits of democracy that belonged more to a Capra movie and even "Mr. Smith" had an escapist value that the film severely lacked, and I'm afraid George Cukor went for a stage-like angle that didn't allow the story to take us outside the area of predictability it had set its course to.
Ironic that Holliday's performance won over a woman who was behaving all theatrically and a disillusioned stage actress, but there is a reason why "Sunset Blvd." and "All About Eve" outshined "Born Yesterday", the film is good and inspirational but too static and preachy near the end, a criticism I also hold for a classic of the same year: "Harvey". This is why it didn't get many reviews on IMDb and its main modern appeal is curiosity over the performance that beat two legends... but I say that's good enough a reason to watch the movie.
"Born Yesterday" is the life-defining movie of Judy Holliday, an actress who died too soon, a masterstroke of comedic performance, a role she was simply... "born" to play.
The "Balkany" Scene... "With pain, sorrow and joy, we shall remember our country as we tell our children stories that start like fairytales. Once upon a time there was a country...'"
These lines closed the curtain on "Underground", Kusturica's most achieved movie about an 'unachieved' history. Indeed, "close" isn't even an appropriate verb to use since "the story had no end" whatsoever. But it was a bittersweet way to insist on Yugoslavia not being dead because it stopped belonging to current maps. The country, as a memory rather than a flag, would live as long as there would be great stories and that doesn't go without great storytellers.
So I open this review with the following statement: Emir Kusturica is certainly the most important Balkans' figure after Tito, and it's only because of the former's historical aura. I don't think any other politician, athlete, artist, celebrity no matter how preeminent and successful they were, would leave as an indelible mark in the legacy of this fascinating and tragedy-stricken land as Kusturica did, counterbalancing all the negativity brought by the news and the images conveyed by NATO or UN representatives.
Many of us have grown indeed with the images of the Balkans as a doomed placed with soldiers, refugees, barricades, burnings houses. I came to age in the early 90's and along with Israel and Palestine, Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia were 'routine' news as far back as I can remember. But as if Kusturica was aware of that reducing cliché, he gratifies us with a small but significant scene that sums up the way the proud Oriental feels about the Occidental vision. Luka, the film's protagonist, played by Slavco Stimac, an engineer working in a railway station in the Serbian mountains, is tired of hearing the same CNN-like news every day about the conflict, so he throws the TV on the railway, the news go on so he must resort to shooting the screen.
Maybe engrossed by blind patriotism, Luka was oblivious to the inevitability of war, his mind focused on his son Milos, a wannabe football player dreaming to join the Belgrade team, and to a lesser degree his mentally unstable wife Jadranka, graced with the kind of voice that shouldn't get too close to someone who wears glasses. Not totally optimistic, Luka didn't overestimate people, he overestimated the country. Stimac had played the naïve brother with a stammer in "Underground" and who discovered with shock as an old man that Yugoslavia ceased to exist. So the film works like a chronological continuation to "Underground" but with a Kusturica who took some time to digest the war's aftermath and the ill-reception of his Golden Palm winner.
It took Kusturica almost ten years to get back to the war. Meanwhile he concocted a zany comedy "Black Cat, White Cat" like an elixir to expire all the demons that could have poisoned his inspiration. And while I expected more drama in "Life is a Miracle" I was glad to find myself in familiar territories again with colorful characters, enjoying life and ignoring war even when it strikes them in the face. And I mean that literally. In fact, all the people in the film have one thing in common, they don't care about war: a man is worried for his son's future, his opera-singing wife flirts with his coach for the same reason, the son isn't too eager to play with guns, and seeing how the soldiers handle bazookas, you wouldn't blame him. Even war profiteers only care for coke and human traffic.
"Life is a miracle" is set in a sort of twilight zone of surreal fantasy or a tragic circus à la Kusturica.. And like Barnum, Kusturica knows how to use animals as fully developed characters in his movies, it's the death of a turkey that seals the hero's coming-of-age start in "Time of the Gypsies", it's animal panic in the zoo that announce the German bombings, and the scene with the bears in "Miracle" echoes the incongruous elephant wandering on the street in "Underground" or the use of the black and the white cat as wedding witnesses. Animals are integral to the story and it's by seeing a chicken laying eggs that Luka's jovial friend says "life is a miracle", his encounter with the bears will play like a darker omen. In another scene, Jadranka is chatting on a phone, a cat and a dog fight for a pigeon, they have their priorities straight as if they were one step ahead of humans.
And this is where the mule plays as a magnificent Chekov's gun, the animal blocks the railway, standing there, with tears seemingly dropping from the eyes. According to his master, the mule's sad because the "sweetheart" won't come back. There's something fascinating in the way the animal foreshadows the coming romance and even its conclusion... because beyond everything the film, like all other Kusturica's films, it's a romance. Not any romance, but one à la "Romeo and Juliet" between Luka the Serbian and Sabaha (Natasa Tapuskovic), the Bosnian hostage kept in his house to be exchanged with his son taken as a war prisoner. Sabana becomes a light of hope for Luka and naturally, they get closer and closer. There comes a point where life finds a way. "Life is a miracle" indeed.
And the film is another occasion for dazzling and poetic imagery with the two couple literally flying over the land, belonging to no country anymore, simply to each other as if the bond of hearts can transcend any frontier. We knew that already after venturing in the realms of Emir's imagination, a world where marriages were the occasion for crazy celebrations, where glasses are broken and truths spoken, movies where even death couldn't conceal that lust for life and made the party end, whatever happened.
Whether it reflects a truth of the ex-Yugoslavian people or a fantasy in Emir's mind, the show had to go on... the Barnum way, the Shakespeare way... or the Fellini way.
Just watch the 1971 animated version instead... Created in 1946, Lucky Luke, the "cowboy-who-shoots-faster-than-his-shadow", is the product of a generation raised by the most iconic ambassadors of American cinema: westerns. "Luke's father" Morris knew his classics and every adventure was the opportunity for a fun exploration of one of the many pop-culture aspects of the genre: desperadoes, pioneers, stagecoaches, Indian wars etc. Like I said in my "How the West Was Won" review, you could learn as much about the Old West with Lucky Luke as with John Ford. Yup!
So here we are in 1991, when it's the Belgian cowboy who inspires an American movie. Now, should we say "finally"? It's impossible not to get some "full-circle coming" vibes and "loop closing" delight in the fact that Morris finally made his poor lonesome cowboy get back to his roots... but let's face it, "Lucky Luke" is as American as hot chocolate. As one of the most successful alumni of the French-Belgian school of comic-books (like rivals Asterix or Tintin) its satirical humor can only mock foreign archetypes in a way that would appeal to a European audience. Maybe Terence Hill was too "European" for Lucky Luke.
Indeed, Hill is a popular actor who's made a name for himself thanks to his streak of buddy movies during the 70s-80s with Bud Spencer, together they've made millions of people laugh over the world and it's precisely for the relative 'innocence' and 'childishness' of their action-packed "Laurel-and-Hardy" style that a parody of Lucky Luke could have worked for the European public. It could work with Americans on one condition, wherever to go, you've got to fully get into that area. If you go for plain parody, you adopt the "no-holds-barred" Mel Brooks style, if you want to have your Western Spaghetti with a comedic al dente, you make a lighthearted 'Leone'.
But if you go the "Spencer-Hill" way, at least make sure your Hill is good. And Hill isn't quite good. He's like playing the straight man in a movie without any clowns until the second half starts and by the time the Daltons make their memorable entrance, we've endured a gallery of bland supporting characters supposed to be foils for a Lucky Luke who didn't look any more fun. There's a serious problem when you're more entertained by the voice-over or the stereotypical Chinese laundryman than the film's own hero. Hill played Lucky Luke like a man caught in the middle of strangers, afraid to ask where the bathroom is, while holding a "big one".
And not only Hill didn't look happy but I'm not even sure he enjoyed doing the film. I wouldn't blame his acting rather than the fact that he was 52, not quite the epitome of his youthful good looks and he used to be quite good-looking. The clothes didn't help either, it's even the first thing that struck us in the theater (yes, I have a pretty vivid memory of this film as one of the first I saw on the big screen). As a kid, I was thinking "but this isn't Lucky Luke, why is he blonde? Old? Where is the black vest, yellow shirt?" but even without these superficial elements that bothered my Dad too (he also grew up reading the comics), the film could have worked. But it didn't. Gene Siskel said "with a great casting, 80% of the movie is there", with this film, you have a good counter-argument.
Lucky Luke is more fun to watch during the entire opening credits song than the whole movie. I liked his training with the shadow and his faces with the gopher (and when the shadow outruns him) and I reckon the song is quite catchy, if the film was as good as the credits, it could have afforded to be a cult-classic à la "Johnny Dangerously". But there's nothing funny, intimidating or even badass about Luke, he's just standing, posing, making shots so badly edited they wouldn't have made the cutting room of a 30s second feature, not to mention his dubbing voice slightly above Kung Fu movies' level. When he doesn't act, he rides, he sleeps and rides again, the narration of Jolly Jumper is less a fun device than a yawning antidote.
There are a few good things about the film, I liked Nancy Morgan as Lottie Legs, the Dalton are rather fun with Ron Carey who plays a Pesci version of Tuco, which gets close enough to Joe Dalton and Fretz Seberg was quite a satisfying Averell. When the Daltons pop up, the film's energy is enhanced... for a little while. Joe Dalton finds the town boring and it sounds like a self-referential comment, the Daisy Town in the film doesn't leave much to be interested in... until the Natives' part. But even I, with my mind as open as Fort Alamo, as someone who enjoys the caricatures in Goofy cartoon's "Californyer's Buster" or "Blazing Saddles", I was cringing many times. It's less for the caricatures than the fact the actors weren't even good... as I said, if you want to go for the caricature, do it frankly and responsibly, not shyly, doesn't work with Americans... doesn't work with any audience actually.
The 1990s wasn't exactly a great decade for Lucky Luke. In 1991, the new animated series came out and despite a relative faithfulness to the albums' spirit plot-wise, it lacked the zany energy of the 80s Hanna-Barbera version. Then after what I consider his last great album "The Daltons' Amnesia", the trait of Morris, worsened by age, was going more and more uncertain until he indulged to a practice which I believe is the antithesis of creation: reproducing frames in the same page. I don't think I bought any album made after "The Dalton at the Party" in 1993.
In that unfortunate lackluster context, the movie didn't improve things; and it's quite fitting that its funniest running gag is an interrogation mark over someone's head.
A heart-pounding tale about pounding hearts... "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end"
That was Thelma Ritter's snappy reaction in "All About Eve" after she heard the tear-jerker story of Eve Harrington. There were moments in D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East" that could inspire me similar sarcasm, but there is something in Lillian Gish' performance that carries so much sincerity there's never a temptation to look down at the film.
But as much as I want to put my so-2010s cynicism aside, I've often wondered whether D.W. Griffith considered himself as a prophet or a filmmaker. For before you get to the opening frames of a tale where the happy ending will be earned at the highest price, the first inter-titles set the tone of what could be a Sunday sermon, addressed to men and the cheap prices they trade their dignity for.
Or maybe Griffith understood before anyone else (he's not considered a pioneer for nothing), the importance of cinema as a medium to address the masses. In "Birth of a Nation", his nostalgic take on South history came close to be an apology of racism and segregation; and while he tried to make amends with "Intolerance", a film whose title says exactly what it's denouncing, I'm glad I could finally watch a movie with a straightforward narrative, no no parallel stories, only subplots.
Yet old habits die hard and Uncle D.W. had to open with a preamble about monogamy being the norm since the "Son of God" brought that new thought... only to be obeyed the most superficial way. Indeed, while women kept dreaming of one mate for life, the Charming Prince myth maybe, men could still (quoting the film's bad guy) "sow their wild oats" in all impunity... because in patriarchal societies, these double standards have always existed and still exist today.
Don't underestimate the story's relevance indeed, Griffith's statements wouldn't find echo in today's occidental audiences but you've got to remember that many cultures still consider extra-marital sex as a sin, bringing shame upon the woman's reputation and rarely the man's. Such anachronisms as "honor crimes" are still committed by men who wouldn't accept their sisters to be like the girls they hang out with. And that's an equation I failed to solve, how can people say "boys will always be boys", while prohibiting both prostitution and sex out of the wedlock for women.
The story denounces this injustice with such a passionate zeal a modern viewer would think it was still prevalent at the time of the film's release. The film is actually adapted from a play of the Victorian era but I guess it's not too far-fetched to assume that there were still girls like Anna.
So Anna is the dirt poor girl, naïve and easily manipulated, who lives with her wealthy cousins for enough time to cross the tragic path of the local cad, as the inter-title says, only interested in three things: ladies, ladies and ladies! It's always nice to discover a despicable villain in a movie from the silent era, as Lennox Anderson, Lowell Sherman is just that prick we want to punch on the face.
Lennox lures Anna into a sham marriage to 'use' her and what was ought to happen happens, she gets pregnant and is "dismissed". Lillian Gish doesn't overplay her emotions in the usual theatrical way, her doll face can convey both pathos and resignation at the same time, she might be fragile and vulnerable but she never goes through these "aaaah" or "ooooh" that would have destroyed the film. On the contrary, her acting is integral to the its power. And so does Griffith's directing, like Wyler would do later, he inhabits his story with colorful characters to give it a realistic texture.
And we see poor Anna hiding a secret that would have made her a pariah in any door she knocked on... while the author of her troubles is living across the street and to add insult to the injury asks her to leave. Meanwhile, Anna caught the eye of the young and handsome David (Richard Barthelmess) but must resist his advances. It's only a matter of time before the woman who witnessed the death of Anna's baby and the absence of a ring in her finger meet the local gossiper like a match meets T.N.T. In the next dinner scene, a herd of moral guardians throw Anna out of the house.
Some movies can easily be ruined by a scene and boy, was I glad that Anna before heading toward the blizzard, could finally tell the truth about the marriage and accuses the man who destroyed her life. I can take Gish' puppy eyes any time but that was a moment for biting before leaving the house with dignity... and not much clothes to confront the icy storm.
Many things have been said about the climactic sequence where she's lying on the ice floe floating downstream to the falls, Griffith was a master storyteller and one hell of an editor. Even Gish paid dearly the price of his ambition as It was her idea to put her hair and head in the icy water, permanently damaging some nerves, as for Barthelmess rescuing her from the fall... and the falls, the trick behind that shot doesn't matter, today insurance costs would forbid it, CGI would permit it.
In "Way Down East" Griffith tried to mold an ordinary melodrama with sanctimonious preaches, one of his trademarks, but the one that sealed the film's reputation was his talent for heart-pounding, carefully edited climaxes. Without that iconic scene, the film would have sunk into oblivion like an ice floe in the falls. Nothing against the whole build-up but one can look at it as a peaceful ice floe, breaking first, then carrying a poor creature to a doomed ending before a spectacular rescue, the climax plays like the film in microcosm.
"Way Down East" is a heart-pounding movie about pounding hearts.
You don't do art for a living, you live for art... "Why do you dance?" ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) impassibly asks Vicki Page (Moira Shearer), another of these Covent Garden dreamers who can't fool him.
But Miss Vicky plays in another league, she marks a pause and retorts "why do you want to live?", the man who was so stingy in smiles lets one slip, he's obviously amused by that question, it's a rhetorical one but he answers nonetheless, that's how thrown off he is: "I don't know, but I must" That's her answer too.
And that simple exchange encapsulates what Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's classic masterpiece "The Red Shoes" is about: Passion.
The film is one of the greatest, if not the all-time best movie about ballet, it's all fitting that the title contains the word "shoes", but its soul rests in the word "red" word, red like the fire that ignites three people caught in an odd triangle of love and dedication to art. Some do arts for a living, some live for art, what when these two visions collide? What when there's a choice to make? But I'm being hasty here, let's get back to the genesis ... or how a simple screenplay meant to be a vehicle for a Hollywood star became another bull's-eye from the Archers!
The screenplay is actually both an original and an adapted one, like many self-referential show-within-show movies, it is based on a pre-existing work and make backstage realities and fictional shows converge toward the sameconclusion. One can make an easy comparison with Darren Arronofksy's "Black Swan" and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" as the emotional skeleton. Working on an existing work is crucial because two original stories can strike as contrived coincidences while a work with an existence of its own allows a better suspension of disbelief.
And it's like Hans Christian Andersen's tale was begging for such a parallel story. The tale is about a woman who puts on some red shoes from a Demonic shoemaker and then can't stop dancing, what starts as an enchanting musical escapade with her boyfriend turns out into a nightmare, the girl dances until she wears nothing but rags and end up so exhausted she got her feet cut to stop the curse... the story is the perfect embodiment of the way passion can drive people to extremes... with a few Faustian undertones.
Powell and Pressburger made a lavish movie about people who are all deeply dedicated to their art and can't allow anything to interfere with it, it's just as if there was a sort of a pact with the devil in a movie that doesn't seem to have any villains. Lermontov is the closest to one but it's more a posture than a nature. Played with dignified severity by Walbrook, he's the kind of man who doesn't let any emotions interfere with work and his only outburst of genuine sympathy happen to be approvals of good work. And when he hires a young pianist as an assistant conductor, it's because he can recognize talent when he sees it.
Julian Craster (Marius Goring) doesn't have the flashiest role of the leading trio but his seemingly lack of physical appeal justifies that he would be the easiest to surrender to love while enhancing Lermontov's frustration that Vicki make a rival out of such a bland man. Lermontov' fortress of confidence is obviously shaken; he could have lost Vicki's heart for Art but not for Julian. We know from that point that tragedy is tiptoeing toward their people's lives. Lermontov himself was based on famous Ballet Russes founder who fired two dancers after they fell in love.
But as riveting as the story is, it doesn't tell one tenth about the film's greatness.
"The Red Shoes" is a dazzling looking film served with Technicolor magnificence, restored with the sheer passion of Martin Scorsese who holds it as one of his favorites, a movie where the hair of Moira Shearer can't inspire any better description than the one written in Powell's memoirs "an autumn bonfire", and where the score and the cinematography render all the grace and magic of the ballet and the tragedy of great art, summed up in that meaningful statement: "a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit."
While "Black Swan" was an introspection into the agony and spirit of a tormented soul with the same tragic perfection at the end, "Red Shoes" is a more extraverted hymn to the beauty of dance and the way the music can command the most graceful fantasies, and the film couldn't have conveyed that message had it not contaminated the crew, which means the director, art-designers, the camera operators, the writer and the choreographers.
"The Red Shoes" is renowned for a long ballet sequence when we can have a proper view on Moira Shearer's talent as a professional dancer. That Powell wanted a real dancer was the right approach, proving that he respected viewers, art and artists and that a debutante like Shearer or professional dancers such as Leonide Massine or Ludmilla Tchérina could be so natural is one of these miracles allowed by the Gods of the reel when you show them enough respect.
The dancers might have made a pact with the Devil, the Archers made one with Heaven. And as for the ballet in itself, it's a moment of pure heavenly magic that transcends the story and puts us viewers in the Vicki's state of mind, it's a surreal combination of stage artifices and camera magic, an extraordinary symbiosis between reality and dreams. It's also a masterstroke of directing featuring many daring special effects we would be wowing over if we weren't so drawn by the music and the art-direction (two deserved Oscar wins for the film).
Truffaut demanded that a film expressed "either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema". That's exactly what "The Red Shoes" are about: joy and agony disguised as sheer virtuosity.
A good silent comedy classic but a "lesser" Keaton... It would be a lie to say that "The Navigator" didn't make me laugh, nor that I didn't enjoy it. I found it a very crafted romantic adventure based on an interesting premise, one that would be deemed original even by today's standards... only to be ultimately misused.
Indeed, having a man and a woman both born with silver spoons in their mouth, finding themselves alone in a big passenger ship drifting into the ocean is something that would have immediately been fueled with sexual tension and puerile arguments set on the course of an obligatory love scene. In fact, no modern movie would have showed the two protagonists coming from similar backgrounds, because today's screenplays workshops insist on the necessity of conflicts between protagonists.
Fair enough... but Buster Keaton belongs to an era where scripts were a luxury a few movies could afford and they didn't have 'conventions' to be embarrassed with. Keaton takes advantage from the temporary availability of an ex-passenger cargo ship set for scrap iron and turns it into a protagonist rather than the setting of a sweet and lovable tale, one of two aristocrats learning how to domesticate machinery. What wouldn't people do when driven to the most extreme situations? As usual with Keaton, the setting and the 'vehicles' matter more than the stories.
But as a story, the film is divided into three simple acts. First, there's a plot-setting "foreign spy" conspiracy so common in interwar movies: a group of politicians, learning that the "Navigator" was sold to their enemy decide to sabotage the ship and set her adrift during the night.
Meanwhile, there's Rollo Treadway, a rich heir so wealthy he needs a limousine to cross the road and go visit her neighbor Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire) and asks her for marriage... because he had nothing else to do. Before he gets an answer, he's already sent the butler to book two tickets to Honolulu. Is he overly confident or utterly stupid? There's something so nonchalant yet pleasant in that Rollo character, even the "No" he gets is met with stoicism, he decides to go anyway, as if he's not even used to deal with conflicting opinions. While turning his back to Betsy, he doesn't even realize she's not indifferent.
Then series of incidents involving piers' numbers and unfortunate encounters put the two lovers in a situation where they wake up in the morning and find themselves aboard the "Navigator". After a hilarious chase where they keep missing each other, they finally bump into each other and the second act can start.
The chase is one of Keaton's typical masterstrokes proving that he knows how to provide the right angle to get the full picture, there's something that could have been almost Averyan in that scene. He uses the large ship as a prop to his comical inspiration. Another sequence shows them struggling to make coffee or Rollo trying to open a can using a hatchet so big he destroys everything, the scene drags on a little but it makes the pay-off even more satisfying when we see them having built some practical expertise after a few weeks.
But one of the highlights of the movie is the night sequence with the picture of Donald Crisp, the director, swinging and looking from the window as if there was an intruder in the ship. It is funny how an image with a right expression and a movement creates the illusion of a presence by simply moving. It does say something about the magic of the camera... and convincingly.
The third act is perhaps the most memorable with the underwater scene and a funny sword fight with the perfect opponent, a swordfish, something worthy of a cartoon. And unfortunately, one can say the same about the following part, which is good but doesn't quite hold up in our days of political correctness, it involves the whole fight against "cannibals" portrayed by dark-skinned actors, it's not fair to judge the film by our values but to be fair, the cannibals sequence never really work on both a comical or action level because they are no professional actors and some action scenes look too staged for the film's own good... and just because it's a 20s film doesn't mean we should lower our standards.
But I guess the real issue with the film is that Keaton is a man of movement, in "Sherlock Jr." he spent almost ten minutes on a bike, in "The General, it was a train in motion but a large ship is hardly the epitome of visible movement, so it's a rather static setting that doesn't leave much to his talent, even the underwater scenes feels slow as if a diving suit wouldn't be his strongest. Too heavy to put on, so to speak; and maybe the ship was too big for Keaton's own inspiration.
Just think of Chaplin's "Immigrant" and how many situations he exploits from the sailing movement, I could picture a sap like Rollo dealing with seasickness, a situation with fishing, but maybe I should appreciate that the film didn't go for easy laughs and cared about telling a story instead of filling them with stunts. Still, we all expect stunts when it comes to Keaton, that's his trademark, isn't it? Maybe it's because "Sherlock Jr." didn't succeed and he was trying something less exuberant, and that the film was a commercial success proved his intuition right.
But while I liked that movie, it didn't impress me and with Buster Keaton, it's problematic. I know these reviews are all relative and why should I judge this film as a lesser 'Keaton' while it's a classic silent movie... I guess my eyes were hungry for thrills and acrobatic stunts like only Keaton could have pulled, and that hunger wasn't quite satisfied.
Help me, I'm married! Neil Simon has just passed away and *I* am going through a divorce. I was then twice in need of discovering Elaine May's "The Heartbreak Kid".
Indeed, as the 'divorced' one, I know quite a deal about 'heartbreak' and the film was the cathartic experience I needed. I laughed, I thought... I cringed a lot too, that's how the film was: funny, intelligent and yeah, kind of awkward at times.
It starts with a wedding ceremony between Lenny (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeanine Berlin, May's daughter). It's a Jewish ceremony that doesn't leave much doubt about Lila's background while Lenny could either be Jew or gentile. What matters is that he's more sophisticated than Lila, and reconsiders his choice when they're en route to their honeymoon. Though the first signal was his empty post-coital stare revealing that one of the reasons he married her was because she saved herself till marriage, and if he knew how lousy it would turn out to be, he might still be single.
The contrast between Lenny and Lila wouldn't have been as flagrant if it wasn't a matter of one-sided love, Lila's gradually annoying habits, her sexual insecurity, playful immaturity and gluttony would all look cute to anyone madly in love. Berlin -who was Oscar nominated for that role- plays with bravura and endearing pathos, a simple, albeit slightly stereotypical, Jewish girl her family threw at the first attractive aspirant. And Lenny realizes a bit late that he can have better when in Miami, he meets the young, wealthy; beautiful Kelly.
Getting the blue-eyed blonde is such an irrational but deeply rooted fantasy in the mind of Mediterranean or Semite guys that the point isn't to understand what Lenny found in Kelly, he just 'found' her. And Kelly is the kind of girl so used to flattery and favors she's hardly surprised by Lenny's courtship, she's not a trophy, she's the one who gets the man (look at the poster). Cybil Shepherd might not the best actress of her generation but she knows exactly how to play Kelly with a sort of impersonal tone that emphasizes her goddess-like quality... while Berlin is Fran Fine without the sexiness.
Now in a lesser movie, Lenny's continuous rendezvous with Kelly while Lila is oblivious to his whereabouts would have been handled like an old-age screwball comedy, but I just love how director Elaine May and writer Neil Simon inject a sharp social commentary and enrich the story with characters who embody our own skepticism. Lenny is obviously an unstoppable force who'd be comically boring if he didn't meet an unmovable object and this is where the best character in the film intervenes: Mr. Corcoran, Karen's rich and protective father, wonderfully played by Eddie Albert.
The father grows an instant and understandable dislike on Lenny, but he still loves his daughter enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, perfectly aware that the more he'd try to stop him, the more it'll get him closer to Kelly. The tension that grows between the two men culminates with one of the film's highlights, when Lenny lays his cards and makes a long and detailed speech about his feelings, I almost admired his nerve for telling he was married... the truth and only the truth indeed.
But while Grodin takes forever to make his 'point'; trying to keep some composure, Eddie Albert provides a master-class of silent acting that probably earned him his Oscar nomination. First, he's severe but fair, listening carefully. The mother smiles but look at her jaw slowly dropping as Lenny digs himself deeper and deeper, and at the word 'marriage' it's like an electric spasm caught the father, boiling from inside, waiting for that whole rhapsody to stop so he can give his answer. I've never felt so bad in a scene and yet so enthralled by acting and I had still had another coming with the infamous breakup and the way poor Lila kept missing the point.
The sad truth of marriage is that there's always a needier one, and when it comes to separation, he or she would never see the signs even if it they hit them in the face. Maybe it's not much love that blinds than the need to be loved, a contained feeling, internal, motherly. It's Lila's vision, certainly the Corcorans', but Lenny is a dream-chaser, a social climber going as far as moving on to Minnesota, stalking his girl, eating a dinner and complimenting vegetables for their sincerity in the most surreal way.
It's funny when he says "there's no deceit in the cauliflowers" but pathetic at the same time in the way he underestimates his future in-laws, thinking they could fall for such toadyism. At that point, with such an unlikable protagonist, I couldn't envision a satisfying ending but this is where the subtle and intelligent talent of May and Simon, like Reiner and Ephron later, worked. The worst thing that could ever happen to a man as determined as Lenny is to find someone who'd call his bluff... Mr. Corcoran won by allowing him the privilege of spending forty and fifty years in that heavenly place without "deceit in cauliflowers".
While regretting the jerk-typecast that followed this role, Grodin said many guys told him they could relate to him. I could personally. Many people are perpetually dissatisfied and realize too late the value of what they've lost, they basically spend the present time idealizing the future or nourishing their minds with past regrets. Either ways, they fail to embrace the present and that's the existential alienation the last shot on Grodin highlights, Lila's postponed victory.
It's interesting that many 1972 movies ended with that "what have I done?" or "now, what?" sense of isolation and life's dead-end, "The Godfather", "Cabaret", "The Candidate", "Sleuth" and "The Heartbreak Kid" is even more haunting for its Karmic bittersweet taste at the end.
Beware of what you're catching! I have always pictured Ben Stiller as the poor middle-aged schmuck who must go through all the available crappy situations before getting a break at the end... and a nice, beautiful girl. Not saying all his roles follow the 90% loser-10% winner pattern, but his most memorable certainly do. Interestingly that's how it all starts in the Farrelly brothers' remake "The Heartbreak Kid", Eddie is a guy in his early forties who just saw his ex-girlfriend walking down the aisle and question whether he can or will find the right one. You just want to hug him and comfort him, at the end, his princess will come.
That's good old Stiller and from the throwaway jokes directed at him during the wedding to the pseudo-encouragements from his sex-addict father (played by Ben's own father Jerry) and a friend who's such a henpecked husband he uses the "Wicked Witch" them as his wife's ringtone, you know it'll be a long road before Eddie finds any comfort in his life. Yet against all expectations, he meets that special someone in Lila (Malin Akerman), a young environmentalist researcher named like her 1972 counterpart. Everything goes fine until she announces that she's going to move to Rotterdam because it's part of her company's policy for unmarried employees. This prompts Eddie to take the big step.
Now, let's have a pause and get back to Elaine May's original film and remember that Charles Grodin played a nebbish self-centred boy instantly dissatisfied with his newly wed wife and chased another one who was everything she wasn't, breaking a marriage only five days after to follow a Viking-like goddess. His name was Lenny and he was such an unlikable protagonist that the film had to end on a bittersweet note, he just couldn't triumph. Besides, Grodin looked exactly like the kind of jerk to pull such tricks with his timid smile and embarrassed manners, he was that guy you wanted to punch on the face... if he wasn't so strangely attractive.
And un-likability and handsomeness aren't exactly the traits we'd most associate to Ben Stiller's so the Farrelly brothers take up a rather difficult challenge to make Ben Stiller portray the kind of selfish prick who could have been more fitting for actors like Jim Carrey or Owen Wilson (as a matter of fact, Grodin's facial expressions reminded me of Wilson a little bit). Still, they went for Stiller and as if they aware of the 'limitations' of the main character's appeal, they decided to go for a less subtle and a zanier tone, portraying Lila as an unbearable girl by objective standards, she's loud, annoying, has weird sexual fantasies and so dumb she believes she wouldn't get sunburns because the Ozone works differently in Mexico. Was she too over-the-top? Yes. Did it hurt the film? That's debatable.
Indeed, the only way to build some empathy toward Eddie is to see him enduring all these shenanigans with Lila. Of course, the realization that she's not exactly the girl of his dreams isn't treated in the introspective way or cultural clash the other film did (what did you expect from 2007?), the original was a social commentary about relationships within marriage and Lenny's faults were handled in a "What have I done" or "Now, what?" tone, that one explores various tonalities of "Oh, crap" that are usually perfect for Ben Stiller. It goes so far we don't have time to think about ethics.
At the end, there are enough crude jokes, many involving the vacation resort owner Uncle Tito (Carlos Mencia), a group of mariachi popping up at the worst possible time, funny misunderstandings, and awkward moments to get us to the ending with a good ratio of one joke at least every minute, and there's certainly one of the funniest scenes ever involving a freight train to go to the US border. Still, it's hard to empathize with Stiller no matter how hard the film overplays Lila's weirdness and Miranda, the "good one" Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) doesn't need much to touch us, but she's so good that we're somewhat satisfied when at some point of the film, Eddie still doesn't get here.
Which leaves us to the dead-end at the end, so to speak, a comedy like "The Heartbreak kid" can't end happily, but even with the Farrelly brothers, for all the film's zaniness, it couldn't also be a totally happy conclusion for Eddie. The ending is well-thought though but it could have done without the sex joke in the middle of the credits, the Farrely Brothers proved to be master of visual humor but maybe they forgot they were handling very fragile and sensitive material. If they treated the original material with more respect, something I think the other directing siblings (the Coens) did with "Lady Killers", the film could have been something on the level of "There's Something About Mary".
Still, it's a good and fun comedy of the 2000s far better than what the harsh critics imply.