Released with the imminence of the Blitz in mind, "Foreign Correspondent" is about a man assigned to discover what's coming to Europe, for an audience who knows it already. So much for the surprise effect! But you can trust the Master of suspense and deception to have a few tricks under his sleeve.
It's historical poetry that Britain's darkest hours shed the light on two British geniuses: Chaplin and Hitchcock. And "Foreign Correspondent" was called a 'masterpiece of propaganda' by a certain Joseph G. Who knew one thing or two about manipulating the masses. He saw in Hithcock a dangerous competitor capable to lean opinions to his cause without hammering slogans but only through the commercial attire of an action-packed and romantic thriller just like Chaplin could arouse crowds with "The Great Dictator".
And like Chaplin, Hitchcock concludes his thriller with a rousing speech; he didn't like politics but made an exception through a last-minute change in the script from Ben Hecht and John Jones (Joel McCrea) urging America to help Britain during a broadcast where audiences could hear the planes coming. America wasn't part of the game and still hesitant to make blatantly anti-German movies, calling the big brother for rescue was the narrative, one wonderfully imploding in a masterpiece like "Casablanca".
Jones may be a mild anticipation of Rick Blaine, an American reporter who couldn't care less about politics and is sent to Europe to find out what's going. Initially, I wasn't too sure about McCrea and wished Gary Cooper would have taken the role (he regretted it afterwards) but while not the most versatile actor, there's something about McCrea's good looks but ignorance that makes him quite sympathetic and effective as a Hitchcock protagonist.
Indeed, this is a man who can't see a fake bodyguard (Edmund Gwenn) when he tries to kill him, who can't ask questions without blowing his cover and who seems incapable of deduction. However, he's capable to understand from facts, from what is shown, not told... good enough, but Hitchcock likes to show and in espionage movies, things aren't told. But the plot is complex enough it requires a smarter character and (curtesy from Hitch) he happens to be British, his name is ffolliot (no capital letters, that's a long story), played by the irresistible George Sanders.
At his arrival, Jones meets the Globe's former correspondent Stebbins (Robert Brushley), who kept saying all's quiet on the Western front. He embodies that "so far, so good" attitude of Europe on the latest days of August 1939, like the story of the guy falling from a building. Jones then meets Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) the leader of a pacifist organisation, whose knowledge of some clause 27 makes him a perfect target for some unnamed enemy. McGuffin, we got it, just looking at the man being tortured for that tells about its importance (and we don't even need to see the torture, hearing the screams is enough)
Anyway, during a conference, Jones meets the beautiful Carol (Laraine Day), daughter of Stephen Fischer, a peacenik played by Herbert Marshall. I wasn't too impressed by the romance going and the struck dumb look of McCrea during her speech, but just when things are slowing down, Hitchcock changes the pace with what appears to be the assassination of Van Meer the Odessa-Stairs way. From that point, the Hitchcockian ride starts and the first touch of genius is the way the killer vanishes in a pool of black umbrellas where you can guess his movement from the swirling effect it generates. This is the best uses of rain, crowds and black since Magritte's "raining men" painting.
To call Hitchcock a surrealist would be a stretch, Hitchcock wouldn't tell you "this is not a pipe" but "this is not JUST a pipe"... and a windmill might be a regular one but can be a hideaway for political conspirators. Interestingly, it's Jones' reliance on the "shown" that makes him find the "hidden", noticing that the windmills didn't turn the same way. And progressively, it's Jones' daringness that pushes him further to the key of the conspiracy, he's not an intellectual but like Michel Audiard said: two sitting intellectuals go less further than a brute who walks.
Not only Jones walks, but he runs and climbs, pulling a "Vertigo" more than once, and still has time to declare his love to Carol and meet her father. As Mr. Fisher, Herbert Marshall plays one of the most nuanced Hitchcockian villains, and perhaps the most tragic of all his characters, giving a subtle dimension to a film that loaded with delights of contrivances. Hitchcock knows he can get away with implausibleness if he's got a nice villain and a spectacular climax with a memorable setting.
Hitchcock went into full details about the making of the sequence, and yes, the scene holds far better than the lousy CGI crash in "Air Force One" and elevate Hitchcock to a unique level: one of a man dedicated to his craft and eager to take any challenge, if British could accomplish the miracle of resisting an invasion, he could also reinvent cinema, trust both the art and the technic.
It might be a detail, but notice how Hitchcock never trusts the paper: Carol gets mixed up with her speech notes, telegrams are unreliable, even the clever ffolliot is fooled by Mr. Fischer when he tells him to write down an important information. However, telephone is the real deal, the first things the enemy uses or cuts, and ultimately, telephone is the unsung hero of the film when it ties the plot through an ingenuous and funny trick from the protagonists.
The film anticipates the decline of paper and the importance of technology in the new media, as if all the headlines in the world wouldn't have the same impact than a broadcasted voice calling for help ... or a movie that even by fictionalizing such event, would make it even more timely, and real.
So many spoonfuls of syrupy sentiments it gets indigestible pretty fast...
"You Can"t Take It With You", adapted from George S. Kaufman's play by Capra's long partner Frank Capra is one of my least Best Picture winners, there, I said it!
They say you shouldn't use negative sentences during a job interview; even if the intended effect is positive, "I'm a doer" is a wiser choice of words than "I'm no quitter" and somehow "It's a Wonderful Life" works far better than "No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends". So maybe that overlong, negative and preachy title cast a spell on my own appreciation.
I enjoy a good Capra film like the next movie lover, there's just something in my heart left cold by an avalanche of good sentiments and interminable lectures about the value of money vs. Friends. There's a fine line between telling a moral story and moralizing the audience, which Capra crosses way too often, feeding the viewer with so many spoonfuls of syrup it gets indigestible pretty fast.
The film opens with two families as opposed in values as the Montaigues and the Capulets: the Kirbys, a wealthy conservative family where being a businessman is an evidence from one male heir to another; the son, Tony (James Stewart) is already young Vice-President by the sole merit of being the son of Anthony (Edward Arnold). And the Vanderhorfs/ Carmichaels/Sycamores, a family where anarchy doesn't run but gallops on the horse of insanity and whose offspring Alice (Jean Arthur) works as a stenographer for the Kirbys and is incidentally Tony's sweetheart.
Tony compares Alice's family to characters that could have emerged from the imagination of Walt Disney. I wish it could be Disney for they're closer in spirit to the Looney Tunes. And the grandfather and patriarch Martin Vanderhoff (Lionel Barrymore) is perhaps the wisest of all (which isn't saying much). His establishing moment consists of persuading a timid bank clerk (Donald Meek) whose hobby is to manufacture little toys, to quit his job and leave in his big house (how he figured he didn't have a family speaks volumes about his capabilities to read into people).
I wish the family's portrayal could have lived up to that madness-with-a-heart spirit but, the Sycamores form such a nutty gallery it makes the patients of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" feel like a Bergman cast. The mother, Penny (for some reason Oscar-nominated Spring Byinton), works on a play not out of passion but because she wanted to use a typewriter, her husband designs firecrackers in the cave, the little cousin (Ann Miller) keeps dancing so much it's a miracle there aren't blood spots all over the tapestry, her husband played by a young Dub Taylor plays xylophone, ... there is also some Russian dancer (Mischa Auer) who looks like a Rasputin after a haircut and the two Black helps whose seem to have been moderately infected by the whole environing nonsense.
The so-called hymn to freedom invoked by Capra confines to sheer cacophony, which allows us at least to appreciate the true moments of genuine tenderness like when Martin talks about his wife to Alice. Lionel Barrymore is one of the best things about the film, with Edward Arnold who was born to play businessmen-like types. And the little scene with Alice allows us to understand why Martin doesn't want to sell the house hence preventing an important project to be built in a 12-block area of New York City, working against the interest of Mr. Kirby and his shareholders. It's a matter of sentimentality, not some rebellion against the system or against taxes that could have been used against Capra during the HUAC commission.
Sentiments are as integral to Capra's appeal as horses in John Ford's movies. The romance between Stewart and Jean Arthur is touching and sweet but while Stewart does act his age (he was 29), Arthur looks way too mature and lacks a little sparkle of juvenile innocence. Or was it deliberate? Alice is perhaps the closest to a straight person, making her somewhat the 'black sheep' of the family, which means a tad more likable than the others.
That's my beef with the film, what Capra basically asks us is to choose between a family that is way too hard to like and a family he tries too hard to make us like. The film went well for the most part but I kept feeling the psychological maneuvers here and there. One in particular annoyed me: in the scene where Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes) started to talk about her own hobbies, Penny dismissed them as 'ridiculous'. If anything, the Sycamores should embrace ridiculousness, so why so categorical? The reason is simple: the script wants us to dislike the Kirbys' but here's the Gordian knot of the film: one family can't be liked for ethical reasons, the other for practical ones.
And while the edifice seems steady for two thirds of the film, everything stumbles in the third act when they all go to jail and Mr. Vanderhorf gets his bail paid by people, which is the Capraesque usual reward, and we know what comes next is the "change of heart" that will redeem father Kirby, after getting not one but two 'reasons-you-suck" speeches. But even when the two old men start playing harmonicas, I kept thinking of that very death that occurs in the film, way too dramatic for the whole material.
And growing tired of the whole 'let's all play and sing and wrestle' mess, I was thinking of that canceled project: wouldn't have it created more jobs and allowed people to improve their living? Money can't buy happiness but didn't it make Mr. Vanderhorf a free man? Despite some truly likable moments and an adorable James Stewart, this is just Capra's least subtle contribution.
I guess this was the Great Depression and Capra's films were people's antidepressents, but you know what happens when you take too many pills at once?
A nice little apple to Hollywood from Capra, one that sure brought him good luck...
"Lady for a Day" was released one year before Frank Capra would direct his first true classic, the romantic screwball comedy and Best Picture winner "It Happened One Night". This is a giant leap from a gangster-picture-with-a-heart to a movie that touched the hearts of millions of Americans in the midst of the Great Depression; still, hints of the spirit coined now as 'Capraesque" can be detected even in his earlier works; and one might regard "Lady for a Day" as a Frank Capra's last warm-up before entering the Big league.
Now, a bit of context, I saw the film after watching the 1961 remake "Pocketful of Miracles", the experience was a tad disappointing (from a Capra fan's perspective) and so I wanted to check how the original stood out. It certainly was a better experience in the sense that the film went straight to the matter and had set up all the majors protagonists in less than ten minutes, Warren Williams as Dave the Dude, Ned Sparks as his deadpan snarker partner with a fitting nickname Happy, and of course, May Robson as street peddler Apple Annie.
I thought the casting was uneven in the remake, I'm not sure I'm a fan of Williams as he doesn't exactly radiates the same charisma as a Cagney or a Robinson or a Muni; in fact, he's one little measure less caricatural than Sparks who at least can get away with it, that's the attitude that immortalized and made him a darling for the Looney Tunes. But there is May Robson, the film's heart and she was a better Annie than Bette Davis. Don't take my word for it, even Capra said it was more acceptable for audiences to accept down-on-their-luck characters when they're unfamiliar with their faces.
Indeed, when we see Davis as the street peddler, we know it's a matter of time before the relooking does justice to her status as a Hollywood icon, when she makes her entrance as Lady Manville, we don't see the transformation of Apple Annie, but just Bette Davis. May Robson, the earliest-born Oscar-nominated actress, was a relatively unknown figure but her homely grandmotherly look feels irresistibly authentic. And her transformation doesn't make her beautiful but just like a dignified wealthy woman like Margaret Dumont. It's even more striking a surprise because she still maintains her genuine sweetness.
And when's frantically writing a latter to her daughter in Spain, listening to classic music and pretending to be a rich lady leaving in a prestigious hotel, we're simply watching one of the earliest Capraesque characters, not a beggar but a woman who places her individuality beneath the moral comfort of her daughter thus guiding her life with the torch of self-sacrifice. Capra has always been found on people who acted for their fellow brothers without ever compromising themselves, and if it wasn't for Apple Annie, we wouldn't have Mr. Smith, Mr Deeds and George Bailey. Granted there's no ideology in Capra; just matters of simple belief, the point isn't to judge Annie for the way she tricks her daughter but the noble motive behind.
And so it comes down to the 'prince and pauper' trick combined with Damon Runyon's play and a clever rewriting from Robert Riskin, making people believe that she's rich and welcome her daughter, her fiancé and her future father-in-law, the Count of Spain. Dave the Dude also owes something to Annie, believing her apples brought him luck for business and his superstition, as ludicrous as it is, is a welcomed sign of sentimentalism that prompts him to help Annie, by any means; hiring a pool hustler to pretend to be her husband (Guy Kibbee), silencing some noisy reporters and hiring a bunch of goods and dolls to act like mundane figures, all monitored by the muscleman Shakespeare (Nat Pendleton) and Glenda Farrell as his moll.
Now, I'm realizing I couldn't memorize all the names and had to check IMDb's front page, which says something about the film's unintentional weaknesses, there aren't many stars and that makes it twice dated since we don't have many Capra regulars. And so what sticks is all these Capra touches that made his reputation, the way his movies always revolve in the real world, with cops, commissioners, mayors, governors, reporters, and every one forming a spiderweb of political relationships that would make the ordeal of little people easily unnoticed. Even the beloved classic "It's a Wonderful Life" dealt with loans, banking etc. The practical aspect allowed the film to delve into familiar territories and made the so-called Capra corn immune from accusations of fairy tales.
Unlike its successor, the film never lingers on these details, goes right to the point, never preparing the audiences to the resolution that comes at the last minute and that has no other explanation than the inner generosity of people and the desire to help a poor woman, or the central point of Capra's philosophy; good people always get their break and are rewarded by their efforts, it might have the touch of the miracle but from Capra's perspective, this is the America he believes in. As unrealistic as it is, Capra never cares for realism but rather the plausibility of an inspiring act that would inspire audiences, let alone audiences of the Great Depression. No one would help an Apple Annie like that but how about after seeing the film?
With its tiny imperfections, theirs is a sensitive chord in the film that predicts the masterpieces to come, the spirit is there already and May Robson had the merit to be one of the earlier Capra protagonists before his cast would always include big names.
But this was an apple the Sicilian-born director gave to cinema and it sure brought him good luck.
Many unfortunate little holes in that 'pocket of miracles'...
"Pocketful of Miracles" sums up the spirit of Frank Capra's tremendous legacy with such eloquence it's a pity that his final feature film couldn't live up to the premise of its title.
Ironically, I didn't know this was a remake and so it was to "Trading Places" that I kept thinking while watching this film. At the end of the day, I find it less enjoyable. Why? Simple reasons: Landis had a great cast, kept focused on its story and the film was short enough to sustain its comedic material, and now that I've watched "Lady for a Day", my criticism stands even more. But let me start with the good stuff.
This film has the kind of plots that can almost totally depend on character actors. On that level, Peter Falk steals the show as the henchman Joy Boy, his constant rambling about a plot that goes nowhere makes him an interesting cross between a Greek Chorus and a deadpan heckler. He's one of the best things about the film, and his performance was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. As the pool hustler Judge Henry Blake, veteran Thomas Mitchell is given a superb supporting role, sadly one year before his passing. And I also enjoyed Edward Everett Horton as the long-suffering butler Hudgins, overshadowing the bigger roles with a pocketful of small but subtly funny moments.
Unfortunately, with all due respect to Glenn Ford who was the producer of the film, who insisted to play the part, and who wasn't Capra's initial choice... I'll just say: can you imagine someone other than Gary Cooper playing 'John Doe' or Mr. Deeds? Or anyone but Stewart as Mr. Smith or George Bailey? I loved Ford in "Blackboard Jungle" because he had that ordinary downbeat look most teachers have and that allowed him to reveal a more nuanced side of his inner bravery... however the role of Dave the Dude called from a colorful incarnation of the gangster figure: Widmarck, Cagney or Sinatra (who turned down the role). As for Ford, it's not a matter of talent but let's say, physicality.
As his moll "Queenie", Hope Lange isn't unconvincing but she embodies so many different personalities that she feels like a written rather than a genuine character. First, she's a modest girl in a raincoat who seems to impersonate Anne Baxter in her first "All About Eve" scene; the next scene, she's a cabaret star, then she urges Dave to marry her, live in a ranch and have a pocketful of little ones and finally, she's a female pygmalion who finds the nerve to stand to her man. Still, within her spring-like arc, she does her best and her role wasn't exactly the hit-or-miss of the film, which can't be said about the film's only true star: Miss Bette Davis.
Davis is almost unrecognizable as the apple-selling street-peddler who sends money for her daughter in Spain. They made such an effort to make her unglamorous, to exaggerate her neglected and shady aspect that she becomes as implausible as a Disney character. And since the plot requires her to impersonate a wealthy woman, there's something uncomfortable at watching her begging audiences to feel sorry for her. What worked with May Robson because she was a much older woman and an unfamiliar face, couldn't work for Davis. Even Mr. Smith wasn't a boy scout and George Bailey had a few tantrums and while witnessing the drowning of Davis in an ocean of pathos, I was thinking "can somebody throw a buoy?"
And Louise, the daughter, Ann-Margret makes a fine debut for a role that only asks her to look cute and darling, and Arthur O'Connell doesn't bother with a Spanish accent, which is the right move. The most unforgivable aspect about the guests is all in these hugging and tweeting of happy emotions, culminating with the 'A Capella' rendition of the "Cherry without a bone" song, which made me think of John Belushi smashing Stephen Bishop's guitar to pieces in "Animal House". Romance is one thing but here Capra broke Billy Wilder's first commandment: "the audiences, thou shall not bore".
All these shortcomings wouldn't have damaged the film had it benefitted from a better cutting. It takes almost twenty minutes to know about Annie's charade and one hour to get us to the 'sting'. Meanwhile, we have to go through the whole backstory of Dave the Duke and some deal with a fugitive gangster (Sheldon Leonard) that doesn't even payoff at the end except. The only things that makes these part endurable is Peter Falk, for his acting and his narration.
The film tries to be a witty gangster film and an inspiring fable about people's generosity with a finale à la "It's a Wonderful Life", but both legs don't walk at the same speed and so the rhythm is rather unsteady, with each part trying to catch up to the other. A shame because there are some great moments in this film, the whole tutorial of Dave's boys and dolls to look like upper-class people was even better than the casting of Hitlers in "The Producers", so there was a comedic zest that just was mixed between other ingredients.
I'm also puzzled when a comedy lasts for more than two hours, comedy is built like a joke, the longer it is, the less it connects the punchline with the setup and soCapra is torn between the emotional climax resurrecting "Wonderful Life" but there was no set-up for it, nothing that made Apple Annie such an endearing figure? And the crucial part about the three missing journalists got less screen-time than the gangster deal that added nothing. Ultimately, comedy was the effective antidote against the film's sappiness.
Ford and Davis went into a feud, causing Capra's problems and prompting him to end his career... and that's just sad. Even sadder that the film's trivia is more interesting than the film itself... which still makes it an interesting watch for hardcore Capra fans.
When the past of a man is even harder to desert than the Army...
"Rio Grande" could easily be disregarded today as a film that offends the memory of Native Americans, showing them as bloodthirsty savages and legitimizing the fight "valiantly" conducted by the white civilization... but that would be an unfair trial, not to mention hypocritical given the intouchable reputation of "The Searchers", not the most Native-friendly Western to say the least.
It would be unfair to sweep the good off "Rio Grande" for the simple reason that whatever drives the usual 'Cowboys vs. Indian' tropes in that Western, you can feel John Ford's heart isn't in it, that the director is in autopilot mode and only uses the cavalry and the rebellion from Apaches tribes as a canvas to tie the real story: a cavalry officer estranged with his wife and son he hasn't seen for 15 years. Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke is played by John Wayne, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.) is his son, and Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) his son's mother.
And beyond its military setting, "Rio Grande" is certainly one of Ford's most blatant exercices on sentimentalism and yet strangely effective because anyone familiar with movies like "How Green Was My Valley" or "My Darling Clementine" would know how sentimental and deeply attached to values like family and commitment Ford was. And as corny as it is, I must say I was absorbed by these moments between the two Yorkes. John Wayne was only 42 but his receding hairline and smaller-than-usual toupee made him look a tad older and te more endearing, and it's interesting to see him shift from his character-establishing charisma to the genuine pride of a simple father.
I've never seen John Wayne looking so sad and so emotional, in small moments where he looks at his son or at Kathleen during that first serenade from the Regimental Cavaliers (played by the Sons of the Pionneers) it's all in the eyes. This is a man who devoted himself to the cavalry to desert from a past that came back to him with a delicate vengeance, and he's way too honest to lie about his feelings. There's no attempt to hide his persona, he's no Ethan Edwards, but a no nonsense man who's proud of his feelings and wishes to see Maureen O'Hara back to him. As Kathleen, Maureen O'Hara has a beautiful scene where she listens to a music and a long close up epitomizes John Ford's statement about directing: photographing people's eyes.
Through the eyes, we see feelings of course, unspoken truths and perhaps the two opposite stares, one to the past, one to the future, that converge into one expression only an emotional mindset can dissect.
And one could look at Ford's filmography as a constantly idealized tribute to the past, for the only true movies dedicated to the present were his WW2 documentaries. Ford here doesn't idealize the Western past or a time where Whites were conquering the Old West but the past within that past. And so the real dynamics are between that past and the future which is represented by the young Yorke. Kirby could win back Kathleen's heart and let his son go but he knows the price to pay to make a man out of his son, and would jeopardize his future with Kathleen for his son's own future.
The nobility of that past lied in the way it kept a practical attention to the future. (and allow me to digress and declare that our present, once it'll become the past, won't be the source of much nostalgia given how much a disaster on the making our future is already is.) And so "Rio Grande" tells two parallel stories: the coming-of-age of a young boy with a lot to prove to himself and the comin- to-terms between his parents who've got a lot to prove to each other, the whole thing wrapped up in a strange overuse of music. But music is actually the bridge between all times, past, present, future, translating the riddle of time through beautiful melody from the "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" to even the folkloric "Irish Washerwoman" (and I was surprised they didn't sing "Toora Loora" at some point).
"Rio Grande" features many memorable characters such as Victor MlcGalen as Sgt. Major Quincannon and obligatory comic relief, Ben Johnson makes quite an impression as trooper Tyree, a Texan fugitive, there's also Harry Carey Jr. As another risk-loving recruit and J. Carrol Nash as a disillusioned general who give the order that reminds us there's a war going after all. I must say I felt a bit frustrated when it went to the whole fight sequence that showed Apaches a killers or hostage-takers- granted this is something one would expect from cavalry film but I only wished he could give a little more complexity by also introducing the Mexican army. Their involvement never really pays off at the climactic which is quite ironic from a film titled "Rio Grande".
But again Ford didn't go in full-Ford style and only made it to get money to shoot the more superior "The Quiet Man". But if "Rio Grande" isn't one of Ford's best, far from it, it's one of its most effective romances and a film that gives us a different perspective on Wayne, far from the usual bitter man always in a bad mood... his Yorke is a good person, open-minded and who doesn't overplay the whole heroism that kept Wayne stuck in the same persona for years and years.
And so from a movie known as the last of the cavalry trilogy, the cavalry elements are rather accessory, I didn't love everything from it, but it had a heart and that's what mattered in the end. Jarman Jr. Does his best but being 16 at the time, I felt he was a bit too young and obviously you could tell Ben Johnson was the real newcomer; and Maureen O'Hara has such a natural chemistry with Wayne I was actually wondering whether it was acting. Yo-ho!
I have a hunch that readers of E. L. Forster or fans of Merchant-Ivory productions will be delighted by Joseph Losey's Golden Palm winner "The Go-Between"; on the surface another exploration of British aristocracy at the turn of the century from a novel by L. P. Hartley, and yet the miracle of Joseph Losey's directing and Harold Pinter's writing is to make such a lively and bright film out of rather nonchalant people basking in bourgeois idleness and confined in the codes of their cast... not to mention indulging to ersatz of activities that would make any sane mind wonder: aren't these people ever bored?
But there's more in that story: it swiftly shifts the focus from adult characters and the usual forbidden-love trope to a child who finds himself entangled in the romance between a stunningly beautiful young lady Marian (Julie Christie) and a manly long-haired farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). The boy's name is Leo (Dominic Guard) and the film opens with his marveled eyes as the carriage takes him to his rich classmate's luxurious house in the middle of the countryside near Norfolk. His friend Marcus and is played by Richard Gibson.
Together they climb up and down the stairs, making loudly echoing noises, playfully wrestling, simply acting their age... with an innocence in danger of being spoiled, if not soiled. On that level, "The past is a foreign country" is one of these openings that immediately sticks to your memory, like "I had a farm in Africa" or "Only Connect", suggesting a present way so estranged from the pas we may suspect that these holidays at the Trunighnam house had a dramatic impact on the boy's life. Whether for bad or good reasons is the element of mystery that gives the film its spice. Michel Legrand's ominous piano theme keeps us on guard.
Still, Leo who's obviously fish-out-of water in this grand house carries on very well and manages to win the heart of the family, grabbing a few genuine chuckles through unintentionally dry humor. Known to practice black magic, he matteroffactly says "well, there's spell and spell" and when asked by the matriarch (Margaret Leighton) if he intend to cast deadly spells on them them, he says "I shouldn't think so", which is so British tongue-in-cheek humor.
At that time, he's already noticed the beauty of young Marian played by Julie Christie, they go along very well, she buys him a forest-green outfit and the choice of color isn't fortuitous. His first mission would be to carry romantic letters to Ted unbeknownst to him with green as the perfect camouflage. What Leo sees is that he makes Marian happy.
Meanwhile, he gets in closer circles, meeting Hugh Thurmingham (Edward Fox was born to play aristocrats), Hugh grows an instant liking on Leo and coins him with an obvious nickname: Mercury. When Leo learns that Marian is engaged to him, he's start questioning the ethics of his unofficial endeavor, even a child his age knows the value of engagement and friendship and wants answers that would reasonably comfort him.
But as summer goes on, the little green chameleon fits just too well within the village, even catching a few good balls during a cricket game, a sport also cast by the spell of slowness, judging by spectators struggling with sleepiness and bees (where's rugby and football when you need them?). The game is followed by a singing session where Marian accompanies Ted and it's subtle moment of tension that I was surprised it didn't raise more gossipy whispers.
But in reality, the family isn't totally oblivious to Marian's on-goings, not even Hugh, not even Marian's father (Michael Redgrave) but Hugh is formal, "nothing is a lady's fault", his stoicism is as sharp as his determination to duel Ted if reparation is needed. Ted is beyond these uptight conventions but even he can give propers answers to Leo's naive puzzlement. As for Marian she says that she can't marry Ted and tes she must marry, because that's the way it is. The tantrum she puts on Leo contrasts with the previous moments of pampering and reveals Leo's status as a laquey, a boy who doesn't act his age, but acts his class.
And there's the fatality of a scandal coming like the grey clouds of the storm, taking us back to the rainy drops of the opening credits , we get closer to the present, and that the climax was set during a rainy evening, reminded me of that "Blade Runner" quote "all these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain", as if all the happiness and innocence of childhood displayed all through the film would be annihilated in one incident, one that earned Margaret Leighton its Oscar-nomination (she has two great scenes in the film).
Now, oddly enough, Losey chose to juxtapose the story with brief glimpses on the future, obviously showing the adult Leo. Maybe it would have worked had these scenes been extended, Sergio Leone did it far better with "Once Upon a Time in America" (with which you'll find some similarities here). But these scenes are so brief they feel more disruptive than adequate. It gets better near the third act when we start to see where this is going, we understand the purpose, a sort of last voyage to the time of childhood that ties the flashback together, showing what has become to Leo, a type of man whose discovery of love was sacrificed at the altar of selfish passions.
"The Go-Between" is a lavishly directed film, with glorious shots of pastoral beauty for a torrid summer that aroused two young people's instincts at the expenses of a boy's childhood, sending a warning about the negative influence adults can have by toying with kids' undivided trust. At first, I thought Legrand's score, as beautiful as it was, might have been too solemn; retrospectively, it totally fits the film.
Paris, like every post-modern metropoles, is so full of poverty-stricken people that the hardship of immigrants like "Dheepan" is likely to be unnoticed in the anthill-like crowded streets or suffocating subways. And if I put the name between crosses, this is less a reference to him being the titular character than the first reveal: his identity taken from a man who wouldn't have the chance to reclaim it.
Played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Dheepan is a former Tamil soldier who's lost his family in the civil war that struck the island of Sri-Lanka for several years. Seeking exile, his only chance is to be joined by similarly ill-fated people, left on their own within the ashes of a burnt-up past whose smokes darken their future. There's a woman in her twenties who becomes Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and the 9-year old Illayaal (Claudine Vinashitamby). As far as they're concerned, they don't just leave a country, but a past.
While Europe is more partial to the appeal of Mediterranean or Oriental post-colonial territories, countries like Sri Lanka or Bengladesh are cruelly overlooked. But Jacques Audiard took an interesting challenge by focusing on a Tamil character because there's something about people's conception of these dark-skinned immigrants that is too Third-World to generate an interest or not colorful enough to trigger fireworks of glamorous Bollywood-like stereotypes.
Lately, the diaspora has increased and from friendly sellers of roses wrapped in plastics, or silly toys and gadgets or cooked chestnuts during winter, they became restaurant owners, and in one some popular Parisian districts they lead the little segment of telestores and phone equipment; and the upper you go to Paris, the more likely you'll find cleaning ladies belonging to their community. And so Dheepan manages to 'fool' the immigration office and gets himself a job as a janitor in one of these impoverished suburban area or French hoods depicted in movies like 'La Haine' or more recently 'Les Misérables'. That they didn't check the pictures, might suggest that for Europe, they're interchangeable faces that don't even deserve to be focused on.
Now, I figured Audiard would use the very gloomy and dark prospects of marginalized people to venture in the realms of these documentary-like explorations of immigrants' or poor people's struggle that inspired the best of the Dardennes brothers. That "Dheepan" is mostly spoken in Tamil was the naturalist move to give the film its seal of credibility but it's interesting that the three players are complete strangers within their own circle, because that makes them act with mistrust one to another. Yalini is still contemplating the idea of leaving to London and is incapable to show any motherly love for Illayaal. By being so close and yet so distant one to another, they became harder to reach from our own standpoint, and therefore we try to grab any moment that will reveal a little depth of character.
And so the film is like a broken vase being fixed bit by bit, and we get fragments of personalities, long close ups of shattered lives that give us time to try to understand the defensive mechanisms behind their behavior. It's a very odd journey and actually one of the reasons the film functions despite its slow pace, lingering on these moments of casual dialogues loaded with unspoken truths that make the emotional burst more rewarding. And from uneasy intruders in a place of three converging solitudes, we feel more at home with Dheepan's family and more uneasy in their environment.
Dheepan, used to more life-threatening, makes his borns, earns the respect of honest citizens and proves himself a dependable man. A few subtle details reveal that inside he's a good man. When his 'wife' who doesn't speak French, gets a job, I expected him to lie to her, but he's really willing to pull the family together. Later, when he's asked to joint the combats by a former general, he refuses, stating that he lost his family and as far as he's concerned the war is over... little does he know that the place he works isn't estranged to violence and is the arena of a gang war that does worse than threatening his life, it prevents him from being a role-model. In the scene where the refuses to let the gang search Yalina's bag, we get the first sign that he won't take that crap for too long.
One might question the choice of Audiard to feature gang wars and take the film in a whole different director, channelling (of all the films) Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs", I gather that it showed Dheepan as a miscast who's so worthless that the gangsters didn't even contemplate danger through him, clearly underestimating him like with Dustin Hoffman's geeky character . There an abrupt transition from drama that takes us to the vicinity of hard-edged thrillers or vigilante movies that can't hide its kinship with another Golden Palm winner named "Taxi Driver": a seemingly exhilaration of violence to end all violence, either killing you or making you stronger, or at the very least, the place safer for those you love. The poetry lying underneath the happy ending also echoes the so-called dream-like finale of "Taxi Driver".
Maybe I wish Illayaal could have been given more presence in the final act where she seems to get off the picture, or maybe I felt Vincent Rottiers was oddly miscast as Brahim was given Audiard's courageous efforts not to deprive the ethnic aspect from a certain realism in his film. He didn't even look like he could be the old man's son. But these technicalities put aside, "Dheepan" is a strangely engrossing film whose appeal depend less on Audiard himself than the charismatic personality of Dheepan himself, a humble man, wise, devoted but like a sleeping tiger who shouldn't be awakened.
Michel Piccoli as the man at the wheel, but not in command...
Pierre Bérard is a man in his forties, a lean and attractively masculine architect exuding self-confidence and that nuanced shade of charisma in gray-flannel suits executive display like a second nature.
On a sunny day in the French countryside near Nantes, a lorry full of pigs is caught in the middle of an intersection; blocking the way to Pierre's car coming at full speed, and with a truck coming in the opposite direction, Pierre can't avoid the head to tail, he veers off the road, hits a tree, spins and turns over and over before being ejected on the grass. The accident lasts less than ten seconds but is treated like a longer interval allowing Pierre to recall all the events that preceded it... and also to tell us that real people don't 'go out' with style and only Sautet's artistic license made a truly engaging character out of a rather ordinary man.
Now, there's more than the "whole-life-flashes-before-eyes" trope, more than the brutality of a sudden accient that the magic of cinema can stretch to a long exhausting hour, itself being the result of ten days of shooting, there's more to it. There's a stylistic decision from Claude Sautet that marks one single event with the stamp of human obsession: like the Golden Palm winner of 1966, "Blow-up" and a mysterious picture or the winner of 1974 "The Conversation" with a mysterious recording, the adaptation of Paul Guimard's novel explores an 'act of God' with the hopeless insistence suggesting that something ever went wrong.
The title gives the unique clue, that's only part of the "things of life".
The film opens with an unscrewed wheel rolling like the last remain of a life in motion. Pierre is lying motionless on the grass, his car already burnt up. Cut to Pierre, lying in bed, with Hélène (Romy Schneider), so much younger we suspect she's not the woman with the ring. There's something about Michel Picolli's physique that makes him strangely more appealing than matinee idol Delon, whose movies with Schneider feel designed to attracts younger audiences. Picolli with his receding hairline, his silvery sideburns, his hairy chest and his naturalness makes the relationship somewhat more relatable.
The intentionally unsubtle transition to the first flashback exposes a naked truth about Pierre's life. The whole accident is shown in slow-motion and intercut with events and incidents set before, getting us close enough to his state of mind during the brief lapse of his accident to seize the irony of his whole life: only when he regained control that he was caught off-guard. In the slow-motion parts, you can see in his face a grim look either out of anticipation of pain, or worse, the realization that he had just broken his "Pot of Milk" like La Fontaine's dairymaid.
Picolli dominates the screen, his chemistry with Helene is believable but there's something so 'definite' about their project to leave for Tunis that it doesn't fool us about Pierre's motivation. He's got a life besides Hélène: a job, a friend (Jean Bouise), a gifted son (Gérard Lartigau) who manufactures electronics gadgets and his ex-wife Catherine (Lea Massari). Every ordinary moment has a sort of casual nonchalance, not interesting in the cinematic meaning, the expositional value would even compromise our interest if it wasn't for Piccoli floating above his own arc with a thinly veiled duplicity.
When he takes an old childhood picture from an old relative or when he has an intimate conversation with ex-wife he grows some complicity, it's like the unexpected activation of the subconscious before something dramatic would happen. And so the flashbacks all build up to the moment where he cancels his holidays with Helene, to spend more time with son. He's evasive in his explanations, with the guilt-ridden expression of a man who can't make the fatal move, I could relate to it. The middle-act weakens the characters but humanizes him in the process.
His chain-smoking isn't even a detail, he smokes so much that IMDb's cigarette count on the Trivia page made me laugh (46, by the way). It's not much the addiction but rather the necessity to plug himself to old habits, the unmovable forces that govern his life without hurting anyone but him.
Another scene shows his first encounter with Helene during an auction, outbidding her for such a futile piece of art it leaves no doubt about her status as the trophy girl. Helene becomes the lighthouse illuminating his second youth, shown through romantic outdoors interludes à la "Love Story", all converging toward the tragic intersection and its nihilistic taste bacK.
Life is a series of random events that constitute our arc, the events that prompted Pierre to write a letter, to retract himself for sending it, to make the final choice, Pierre talking to himself and letting the viewers know the contents of his thoughts, all these things don't amount to much when destiny decides to cut short all our goals and projects.
When Pierre is lying on the ground like Rimbaud's "Sleeper of the Valley", his thoughts are internalized, passing the torch to the more traditional voice-over (that might have inspired the final monologue in "Carlito's Way"). Images aren't set in the past but in a future too idealized to be taken at face value. Indeed, when Pierre's imagination starts, his reality is fading out slowly, becoming the subject of morbid curiosity. The show of life goes on with the anticlimactic spectacle of normality: angry drivers, quarreling couples, policemen, doctors, hospitals and all that jazz.
We're never in total control of our lives, and as one of my friends used to tell me, we spend our life writing the past, not the future, or like John Lennon said, "life is what happens while you're busy making plans" or as LaFontaine said:
When I'm alone, I dare the utmost: [...]
Diadems rain down on me.
Some chance event then brings me to my senses,
And I'm my lowly self again.
Separation: a series of emotional climaxes leading up to the anti-climactic conclusion..
After a certain amount of time, separation and divorce come down to the same emotional ordeal, eloquently encompassed by the title "We Won't Grow Old Together". Maurice Pialat's separation inspired an autobiographical novel but as if words couldn't bring the intended catharsis, he needed images, dialogues, shouts, cries and even silences to show the true nature of the beast.
I went through divorce myself and I still remember the six-paged letters with carefully chosen words, the pride-swallowing pleas and the whole affective bargain ... the truth with separation is that you don't mourn a person, or a relationship, but the very idea that the one you loved wouldn't be the life-partner you expected, nor the hand that'll softly touch yours in the deathbed. As someone said: "the woman of your life is the woman of your death". There's a symbolic death indeed upon separation, which doesn't make it an act but a process, a slow one going through the five commonly known stages: denial, anger, sadness, fear and resignation. Pialat used them all as necessary seasonings to a dish served in the sober colors of reality, using real locations to dramatize real episodes of his past experience.
Pialat could have played the leading role himself but I guess he wouldn't have brought that level of authenticity with another person but the woman he loved. And Jean Yanne was too painfully real as Jean, a grisly, gruff, disenchanted but oddly magnetic filmmaker. He's a divorced man in his early 40s venting his past frustrations on the much younger Catherine, played by Marlène Jobert. The ghosts of his failed marriage keep haunting his present, reminding constantly that Catherine is not his ex-wife Françoise (Macha Méril). Still, the complicity seems in place in the beginning; they have the interactions of a man and a woman who've known each other for years, silences aren't awkward and there's room for tenderness.
Suddenly we see Jean throwing a tantrum on Catherine struggling to handle the sound boom while he's filming in a crowed street. He insults her, pushes her, shouts so loudly that even the sanguine Mediterranean bystanders retort. Today, Jean would be considered a bully and end up arrested by the Police or filmed by a smartphone and have his career destroyed; the film reminds us of the way violence toward women was, if not systemic, at the very least was trivialized. And despite his behavior, Jean keeps his edge over Catherine, even her parents don't dare put him in his place. Maybe it's Jean's age, his strong masculinity, the way he can swiftly switch from anger to gentleness, or a possessive spirit that's only a twisted version of love.. or is it just that Catherine loves him and like many enamored people, falls into the biggest trap of a toxic relationships: the false conviction that you can change someone.
The bullying culminates in the memorable car scene where he delivers such a harsh and odious "reasons you suck" speech even Yanne was reluctant to go through it, calling Catherine 'vulgar', 'ordinary', 'ugly' and concluding with "it's over". The face of Jobert says it all; just when you think she's at the verge of teary explosion, she keeps a dignified face; words don't hurt her anymore. And she's right to spare her feelings, next thing you know, they're back together again. And that 'false start' (or 'false finish') sets the narrative pattern: an alternation of arguments and reconciliations. The more they swear not to see each other again, the more rapidly they reunite. The repetitive episodic structure might give the wrong impression of a story spun in circles with nothing really happening but since when does reality rely on plot requirements?
The whole ups-and-downs schema actually makes two points. First, undoing a relationship is as difficult as building it, if not more. Secondly, if you keep an attentive eye, you'll see that Catherine does evolve. While Jean fails to communicate with her without the uses of patronizing rants and violence, verbal and physical, Catherine realizes that she didn't stay with him out of love, but of fear. Fueled with stoic determination, her detachments takes its slow but certain path to the finishing line, finally responding to the overarching viewer's questioning: when the hell will she leave Jean?
And in that psychological arm-wrestling, Jean realizes he lost the upper hand and therefore changes the tactic: he writes romantic letters, shows his sensitive and benevolent side yet smoothly but surely, Catherine lets her hand slip. She becomes 'Françoise', the absent figure to haunt Jean's present. A confused Jean is reduced to pathetic investigations about Catherine's new man, asking her parents how he looks, how old he is etc?. That's indeed the final stage of grief in its manhood-offended expression: when we accept losing someone, we hope it's for the best. Jean still believes he has a saying on Catherine's life while she shines through her absence. Jean's confusion illustrates one of separation's paradoxes: bringing people closer. Separation is even harder in a time without Internet or social networks, when immediate dating wasn't commonplace.
Yanne, a famous TV comedian and chansonnier, reveals his dramatic side in a performance that earned him the Best Actor prize at Cannes and boos from the audience (as if they had projected their own disdain for Jean), Yanne didn't intend the festival anyway, he and Pialat didn't get along, and it is possible that the director exploited it to enhance Jean's bitterness. Jean ends up consoling himself that there's more fish in the sea and a free Catherine, happily swimming in that sea. As tough as it is, separation isn't that bad after all.
Still, what an enigmatic character, leaving so many interrogations marks: was he truly in love? Did his first failed relationship twist his capability for love commitment? Pialat's merit is to humbly allow viewers to make up their own opinions, as if he was a riddle for himself as well.
One of the major books of the 20th century, Georges Bernanos' "Under the Sun of Satan" isn't an easy read. Centered on the personal crisis on a young priest who struggles to find God's voice, it is a powerful comment on humanity's more convenient devotion to Satan. Not the Satan that became a stock-word to define tentations, but that energy of despair, that 'gravity' effect toward the lowest depths of the soul. As I said in my review of Ingmar Bergman's "Silence", if we can't make ourselves worthy of God, let's make ourselves even more worthless.
Bernanos wrote the book after the Great War when French people; instead of mourning the dead or contemplating the barbarity they had just undergone, indulged in lust, fun and celebrations. The author indirectly points out the way the Roaring Twenties deafened humanity from the calls of the grace. As a fervent Catholic, he deplored the 1905 new laicity law and the way rationality inherited from the Kantian revolution and psychoanalysis, prevented priests from operating in what he described as "the bleak battlefield of our instincts" (the war that would never stop).
I mentioned Bergman, Maurice Pialat channelled the introspective "Winter Light", also about a priest caught in a faith crisis. But Bernanos' hero Donissan (played by Gérard Depardieu) believes in God, his struggle is more complex: his life reduced to petty rituals and confessional's confidences, his mind became a regular depository of human crasses he couldn't get rid of. Ironically, he's in a situation where he must keep his flock close, but his enemy (Satan) closer. Full of insecurity, he poignantly admits his failure to find the right language with Abbot Menou-Segrais (Maurice Pialat). He flogs himself regularly to expiate his own powerlessness.
And I couldn't see anyone but Depardieu as Donissan. With his broad shoulders and towering presence, Depardieu has always been a force of nature capable to play larger-than-life and flamboyant characters but there's something inherently instinctive in that man who learned acting from the scratch, without any Academical background, spontaneous at the risk of stumbling on a word, starting a sentence he wouldn't finish or just being silly. The power of Depardieu is that even his his oafishness could move audiences. Fittingly so, Donissan was a man who acknowledged his intellectual limits, but had the faith that moved mountains.
There's a second subplot with Mouchette, a sixteen-years old teenager who announces her lover that she's pregnant. The merit of Mouchette is to draw Donissan's torments in flesh and blood, preventing the story to get stranded in abstractions. She enjoys being beautiful and desired, much more by handsome men. She doesn't embody sin but embraces it as the lesser of two evils. Indeed, she hates her condition; daughter of a peasant, as mediocre a politician as a brewer, surrounded by hypocrites who lust on her body but would never make it worth ruining their little lives. Not only have men failed to elevate her but they wouldn't even join her in a stylish and assumed degradation.
Mouchette becomes the instrument of her own vengeance toward the human genre... including herself. And Sandrine Bonnaire was perfect, with her frail petite frame and yet eyes that contained more passion and strength than all the male characters combined. The story is driven by Donissan et Mouchette and when the two meet: it's the ultimate convergence of two souls that were lost for different reasons ... but as close as they were, literally, they had went just too far in their own journey to reach one another.
Now, there's a third important player in the film, a man Donissan meets during a long walk across the countryside, he's played by Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Pialat knows how to use a blatant 'Day for Night' effect with deliberately exaggerated blue and pale tones to convey the supernatural aspect of that crucial encounter. He isn't exactly a fancy director but he knew that epiphanic moment needed an extra-surrealistic push, visually. The rest of the film is more sober even in the passionate moments.
There is a lot of dialogue between Pialat and Depardieu but they never sound as on-the-nose or expositional material, the reason is simple: these men are priests, they're used to listen and they're used to silence, they can either process their thoughts or explain how they can't, all in a very soft voice, that befits their status but also establishes an unconscious resignation for failure in a world where the Catholic church had lost its grip on people. There's an important moment where Menou-Segrais makes Donissan (too honest to deny) admit he put himself in the hand of someone he didn't have esteem for. The abbot knows he lives in bourgeois semi-idleness he wouldn't trade for all the mental torture of the world. But Donissan is capable of passion (in the 'pathos' sense): he whips himself, shouts at Mouchette, raises a dead corpse with that strength and body language that elevate even his silent moments to sheer eloquence.
"Under the Sun of Satan" earned France its second Golden Palm twenty years after "A Man and a Woman", meeting with furious boos from audiences who wished it was "Wings of Desire", I couldn't be more satisfied by that outcome for Wenders' film that dealt with similar themes but with flashy artsy stuff to conceal its skeletal story. Pialat took up a higher challenge and made a film I just wish directors like Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese saw it.
Getting his Golden Palm, he raised his fist and said "if you don't like me, I don't like you either", I always thought this was anger speaking, after seeing the film and hearing the director speak about it, I think it was exhaustion and maybe frustration of not having reached his audience just like Donissan with his people... and he was humble enough to appease the tension afterwards.
Still, one of the most famous moments of Cannes' history, a unanimous but controversial win, but a deserved win nonetheless.
Good intentions, but the film ultimately falls in the sentimental trap it kept desperately avoiding...
Recently, I bumped into a list of Top 10 Brazilian movies, "City of God" was there but the absence of Golden Palm winner "Black Orpheus" puzzled me. But "Central do Brazil" was there and maybe in the top position, my expectations were high and so was my disappointment.
While there are many things to appreciate in this movie, I couldn't get past that feeling that the screenplay was -yes, that dirty word- manipulative, why should some emotional movies be deemed with that ugly label while others get away with it? That's the nature of the beast.
The film started very well, with a yellowish lighting suggesting the ending of the day, when it's rush hour in the station and the passengers' challenge is to immediately get into the train (the youngest ones gracefully slip through the windows, preventing the older and weaker ones to have a seat), the placed is crowded, noisy, and this is where operates Dora, Fernanda Montenegro as a public writer for illiterate people (a job that exists in many emerging countries). Dora listens and writes: love letters, insults, letters for friends, or for Jesus, people's waste of life is her way of living. How do customers know she'll send the letters? They're simple enough to trust her, she's unscrupled enough to joke about them with her neighbor and friend, a younger celibate played Marilia Pera. When she doesn't tear the letters, she keeps them in a drawer called the Purgatory.
We get it, that's her character-establishing moment, Dora is a disillusioned and bitter woman who faces enough ugliness in the world to afford any professional conscience. But there's a fine line between writing an unlikable character and making such an effort to portray her without any redeeming qualities whatsoever than we can process from the very start the mechanisms of the plot. The more unlikable Dora appears, the more apparent the story arc's starter is and the more obvious that her journey will make her a better person. That we expect something good to happen doesn't ruin the enjoyment but creates an uneasy feeling of fakery, which is certainly not the intended effect of a realistic portrayal of Brazilian society.
Speaking of realism, how about that: a mother comes a second time with her son Josue (Vinicius de Oliveria) asking to rewrite a friendlier letter to her disappeared husband (Dora didn't even send the first letter), Then the mother is hit by a bus. She dies. Dora wasn't remotely shocked, maybe she didn't realize it was the same woman she saw one minute earlier, but then wasn't she surprised when she saw Josue coming back *alone* the next day? Is "Scram!" something you'd say to a boy who just lost his mother? While we're at it, are we to believe that there's no Children Protection organization, that no one cared for the boy, no family? His mother was taken to a hospital and he was left alone stranded in the station for days?
Let's move on. Dora has a change of heart and takes him to her home but only to sell him to an Child Association and get enough money to buy a new TV. If it wasn't for her friend warning her against people that kill children to sell organs (another great depiction of Brazil), Dora would have probably been responsible for a cruel death. Thanks God, Dora's immorality has limits. She's lucky enough to come at time and take Josue back. Apparently her plan was to make diversion by proposing other children... but why would she give real photographs and expose other kids is she knows they're dangerous people? We'll never know, but that doesn't matter since the road movie can finally kick off. After another failed attempt to abandon Josue, the two finally stick together and the bond can be consolidated through the usual ice-melting episodes.. It's an old story of the sweet kid taming the cold heart of an adult (Heidi, Gloria to name these) but the interactions work thanks to the performance of Montenegro, nominated for an Oscar.
Josue is more problematic though. The kid is cute and knows how to deliver cold stares or enthusiastic stares, but I could feel director Walter Salles mentoring him behind. It's all in the body language, when they learn the father isn't in the right house, he has that sad walk with his head down that reads 'sadness for the dummies'; when he's got an idea, his smile is as obvious as the pre-prank grins in "Problem Child"; he knows how to "look" angry or scared. This is not bad acting but excellent pretending, but it never feels natural. And when the acting is fine, we get that overplayed, sad melody that comes at the right time to remind us this is not a comedy we're watching.
Of course, it's impossible not to ignore the journey into some places in Brazil other than Rio and the Carnival: the isolated towns, the religious ceremonials, the housing development and its cardboard houses but it's much difficult to ignore some glaring loose ends in the plot. Besides those I mentioned before: How could the man in the truck not figure that Dora stole the food from the grocery? And how come Dora left Josue without even asking him? Why would she trust her instinct that failed her so many times?
Maybe because she could finally get back to her life but now with the satisfaction of having done the right thing and becoming a good person. Hence her cries and smile at the end. This time, she would send the letters. And I guess Josue's smile at the end is because the 9-year old kid figured all that existential boost and was happy to see the most important person in her life leave him maybe forever. Yes, that makes sense.
The film had noble intentions but ended up splashing into the schmaltz it kept avoiding.
First of all, I apologize for that lazy pun but it just popped out of my mind while I was thinking of Mel Brooks.
"Gunfight at the O. K. Corral" is Western that is so zealously respectful of all the requirements of the genre it fails to have an identity of its own, and much worse, if it manages to avoid the cartoonish caricature, It has its unintentionally risible moments, starting with that opening song.
The titular song is obviously a wannabe, if not a rip-off, of "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin", with the score composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, the lyrics are so on-the-nose and the chorus so corny it's hard to take them seriously and Frankie Laine delivers as if means business. This is one of the darlings not only John Sturges didn't kill, but he gratified us with it in the middle section and the ending. Its one redeeming quality is that it inspired Mel Brooks for his "Blazing Saddles" (also sung by Laine) and now, you know why I was thinking of Brooks.
And the first to get in the picture is Wyatt Earp, the legendary lawman played by Burt Lancaster, played so straight we never get one glimpse on actor's trademark grin. Kirk Douglas is the more tormented and ambiguous Doc Holliday. This was the actors' second of seven movies they starred together, and the one that sealed their friendship. The chemistry and complementarity between the two personas: the noble and the roguish dichotomy is so believable I wished the actors' shared more scenes together. That might be the edge the film has on "My Darling Clementine" where Henry Fonda was totally overshadowed Victor Mature as Doc.
Unfortunately, most of the film can be summed up as a long, talkative and expositional build-up to the whole gunfight, the set-designs are beautiful, the costumes, designed by Edith Head, are stylish, and the baddies have the right postures and the right timing when it comes to be quick in the threatening and slow in the drawing. Forget about it, there's something too artificial in that film where even the moments meant to heighten the tension rely on grotesquely grandiose effects even amateurs Shakespeare troops wouldn't indulge too.
I read many users complaining about the needless romance but the real problem is within the treatment. John Ford could inject romanticism in his stories for the Master was a sentimental himself. Even Howard Hawks almost ruined a masterpiece like "Red River" with a love triangle. Ford managed to make love and passion integral to the whole story arc culminating with the gunfight, he even had actor like Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton to bring the element of passion within the villainous sides.
However, the angle taken by Sturges is the friendship between the two men and how they're undermined by their feelings and their sense of duty. Jo Van Fleet as the saloon lady infatuated with Doc isn't exactly Linda Darnell and overplays the neurotic card so much it's hard to believe these two had anything in common. And the romance between Lancaster and Rhonda Fleming is so savorless and straightforward it wastes some rather precious time to portray the villains in a less one-dimensional way.
Starring John Ireland and Lyle Bettger, the Clanton gang is rather underdeveloped and only presented as gang of cattle-thieves with a history with Doc Holliday. They bring nothing substantial apart from the younger brother, played by Dennis Hopper who inspires some interest dialogue with Earp about gunslingers' mentality. The Earp brothers don't get much chance to shine either, it's all about Wyatt and Doc. Both actors do justice to their roles, Lancaster makes his own stunts, and Douglas channels his previous Van Gogh and makes his Doc more tormented than ever, even his coughs are believable.
Ala the rest of the film never really impresses, full of stock-characters delivering stock-lines: the corrupt sherif, the nagging wife, the long-suffering mothers, the lecturing mother and you can tell a Western has aged badly when a guy is shot, touches his wound, makes an acrobatic move, falls and crawls three seconds before his arms collapse on the ground. The climactic shootout brings its shares of thrills but if you want to enjoy a good Sturges Western with a perfect cast, try "The Magnificent Seven" certainly the last hurrah of American western before the revisionist wave.
Or even Sturges' previous "Bad Day at Black Rock", set in 1945, had more Western vibes than the less than "OK" Corral, an unremarkable little film that didn't leave much impact, and one can understand why. That's all, folks!
When you reach a certain talent, even your flaws will be regarded as 'intended effects' or 'artistic licenses'...
Christopher Nolan belongs to that premium category of directors whose projects are anticipated months, even years before release, carrying the premise of something innovative either on a technical or a storytelling level or both, Tarantino is perhaps the next in line. "Dunkirk" was on the talk months before its theatrical release in 2017, its critical success propelled it right to IMDb Top 250 but that's generally the first reaction with Nolan's films. Now it's no longer there and "Tenet" had taken all the hype, so "Dunkirk" can be appreciated as a movie, not as a recent hit.
The film opens in ominous silence with an anonymous soldier wandering across the town's deserted streets while sheets sent from German airplanes are literally raining from the sunny sky: we're in the midst of the post-Blitzkrieg debacle and British soldiers are literally cornered in that tiny portion of France. There's no dialogues for almost ten of fifteen minutes and I could feel the tension, the impending doom from the quietness before storm, anticipating a massacre to occur at any moment. Nothing of that sort ever happens, I got it then: Nolan wouldn't make the war-movie following the manual and I got better used to these false alarms signs.
Desperately seeking a character to hook my interest one, I also quickly realized that this wasn't Nolan's perspective on the Dunkirk evacuation and his rendition of that pivotal moment of World War 2 would focus on events on lesser scopes and soldiers whose anonymousness better highlight how impersonal they become in action. The limit of that reasoning is that most of the time, they're in inaction and opportunities to give them a little more human density are wasted on silences that heighten the tension but without any emotional reward whatsoever. We gather this is no movie meant as 'propaganda', we don't need to have backstories, to know that Harold has a fiancée in Brighton or Davis is a promising student for Cambridge, all that characterizes the soldiers is that they want to go home.
But they're all entrapped in the vastness of a beach, an open-sky jail that offers an infuriating view on their "home" across the Channel. And instead of talking, sharing memories, talking about politics, wars, girls, they wait, wait for a ship, or they get in the ship and wait for the tide, or get in the ship, survives drowning, gets back ashore and there we go again. The tension is palpable, the nervousness too, the sense of total abandonment by French troops and even the British enhance their frustration. Now, supposing Nolan has succeeded in highlight these aspects and making viewers on the edge of their seat, couldn't we be given a few moments of pure emotional relief? I didn't even expect humor it's as unlikely to happen in a Nolan film than an Oscar performance in a Michael Bay film.
Let's get serious now, I feel like Nolan by detaching himself from the usual archetypes have detached the movie from a fair portion of viewers who might have expected something a little more "Saving Private Ryan"-like, especially from a master of action movies who proved his craftsmanship in the Batman series or "Inception". Still, even on that level, the film is frustratingly minimalist, devoid of the epicness of one of the war's momentums, when Britain could have lost all his army and become incapable to fight the Germans. The evacuation of Dunkirk whose price was the sacrifice of soldiers in Calais was a success à la Midway or D-day, but it was a "Pyrrhic defeat", a symbolic defeat on the paper that still allowed Britain to resist the invasion and the Blitz on the longer term.
But Nolan's angle doesn't give much range to analyse whatever was Dunkirk military-speaking and emotionally, his neutral focus keeps us on the edge of a denouement that comes too late to be remotely inspiring. The last twenty minutes when the British civilian boats finally make their entrance and later the monologues that question the whole battle seem spiritually disjointed from the rest of the film. Yes, they're conventional but war movies have two options: question the war or embrace it, as much as I loathed some aspects of "Saving Private Ryan", I can't ignore the merit of Spielberg to portray the epic barbarity of any battle and make soldiers' deaths even more tragic when we know where they come from.
Nolan only gratifies us with no more than a few hundreds extras, three Spitfires, one or two Messerschmitts and no gore whatsoever, making it a relatively tame depiction of war. And characterization-wise, I couldn't tell who was who, most soldiers had Black hair, and the two relevant soldiers were a Frenchman (Damien Bonnard) whose role is always kept ambiguous, a shell-shocked pilot (Cillian Murphy) who commits an act that makes it impossible to sympathize with and Tom Hardy as an ace pilot whose face is kept hidden all through the film. Soldiers aren't given a heroic part, in fact the closest to a hero is Mark Rylance as the civilian using his own boat to transport survivors. Kenneth Branagh plays a Captain who waits for the rescue but you can tell he's here to provide enough information so we wouldn't lose track on the situation.
And it's true it can get confusing at time. Action switches from day to night making the continuum of events hard to follow, Hardy's Spitfire is in action all through the film and never runs outs of gas etc. The trick is that Nolan has outdid himself so many times that he's also among these directors whose flaws will always be regarded as intended effects, designed to convey something special. In fact, I can recognize the achievement that is "Dunkirk", and I might have missed a few things that make it a little better than the underwhelming experience I went through. And by underwhelming, I want to say boring.
Before "The Red Shoes", the White Tunics... and Red Lipsticks...
If it's fitting that one of their artistic peaks was set in Himalaya, it's still ironic that Powell and Pressburger collaborated so efficiently to portray a collective failure, translating Rumer Godden's love letter to India "Black Narcissus" to the chronicle of a doomed mission - for the first time, they didn't work on an original script but they sure knew how to transcend it.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is assigned as nun-in-command in the new convent, her Mother Superior (Nancy Roberts) felt she's unfit. Too many forces undermine her mission starting with the elements: the convent is built on the edge of a mountain whose bell dominates a ravine that might have inspired "Vertigo". The weather doesn't help, the ceaseless winds are nuisances besides being eloquent metaphors of the nuns' own internal turmoils or the calls of 'nature' that will invade their spiritual confinement.
Environment is a crucial place (as it's often the case in Powell's films) but time is no less relevant as the place was inhabited by an ancient king's harem and the walls are still covered with racy paintings that strongly contrast with the nun's austerity. The place is haunted by ghosts from a frivolous past with the little servant Ayah (May Hallatt) reminisces through a weird little dance.
The mountains and the weather incarnate an unshakable present and the past -whether expressed in traditions, folklores and colorful clothes- inspire the locals a touch of defiance toward these exotic-looking nuns, if anything the closest to ghosts with all their white uniforms and staid demeanor. A haunting past and a present drowned in countless contrasts make for a rather uncertain -if not bleak- future.
On the other hand, there's a young General played by Sabu who wishes to learn, intellectually curious about the peculiarity of the Occidental world, but still attached to his traditions. And there's Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a young and extremely sensual teenager, embracing the 'past' of the place through anl erotic dance that ends up catching the eye of the General. It's their attachment to the reality of the past that builds a converging future for these two.
The portrayal of natives is limited to these two characters (discounting a small cameo from Esmond Knight) but there's also the old man, in lotus position, motionless like a Buckingham Palace guard. As unflappable as the mountain, he represents the place of religion that is here to stay and offers the contrast with the nuns in sterile gesticulations. Obviously, he's not the one too many in the place.
Sister Clodagh has quite a burden with these nuns whose priesthood is limited to a yearly oath. Fiona Robson is the disillusioned one, Jenny Laird the happy-go-lucky, Judith Furse the most dependable and Kathleen Byron the rebellious loose cannon. But even Sister Clodagh has inner demons she tries to dissimulate under the uniform while her eyes speak the truth. She's given a few flashbacks revealing her failing romance that lead her to the orders like men going to the French legion.
But the real test-of-character is David Farras as Mr. Dean: the British argent and their help, the man who fixes things and whose short outfits get more and more revealing of his sexiness, in an all-female film, he's the forbidden fruit. Another piece of irony is that this man is still less out-of-water than the nuns, and since he knows how to make his presence indispensable, he ultimately triggers the deepest impulses within Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. You can cut through the tension in that awkward scene where the bare-chested man is towering over them like a totem surrounded by pagans.
The sexual tensions increase with the plot and ultimately, the film serves that purpose invoked by the Archers: cinema isn't about escapism, but about showing the naked essence of the truth. Tunics can't hide the eyes and the side glance Sister Ruth gives to Clodagh as the very mention of Mr. Dean says everything. Cardiff knows how to use shadows to enhance the truth-telling intensity of eyes, like a cinematic Vermeer or Rembrandt, he's literally painting Ruth's emotions with the magic of his lighting.
And both Cardiff and Powell knew how to use Technicolor, relegated at that time to musicals or epic spectacles. They let sunsets and colorful paintings cheering up the sight, but keeping the predominant white of the nuns as bland as possible, even asking actresses to use clearing lipsticks because their natural complexion kept their lips red and sensual. In a scene where Ruth's uniform is tainted with blood -and Dean is wearing a red shirt- you could see the direction toward more fiery palettes culminating with the startling image of Sister Ruth in normal clothes, (a jump scare in that context) and one of British cinema's most intense moments, simply involving the use of a lipstick.
"Black Narcissus" is a magnificent illustration of the perpetual battle between what elevates us and what pushes us down the cliff, passion and religion, Eros and Logos, our noble intents and our primitive instincts, what can be controlled and what can't, what moves and what doesn't. At the end, the British nuns leave, coincidentally the very year India got her independence.
Call it passion, values, or just fate... if their characters never really knew when they were going, the Archers sure did and on every step of the production: writing, directing, lighting, cutting and even the music drives the climactic scene, foreshadowing its crucial role in their following masterpiece: "The Red Shoes".
Even my disappointment that the film wasn't shot in location but in Pinewood studios, made me admire them even more: those matte painting made the illusion looked more real than reality, and as the late Bertrand Tavernier said, the film feels more authentic than David Lean's "Passage to India".
That's it, the greatest trick the Archers ever pulled was to keep a total control on their art while telling story about people who couldn't have control on their lives.
Such a well-written and realistic character as Tiana deserved better than being a frog for 70% of the runtime...
It is fully justified to consider "The Princess and the Frog" a milestone as the first Disney film to feature an African-American heroine: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose). Thinking about it, it took sixty years to get to the first non-White Disney Princess with Jasmin and the first Native heroine three years later (not counting Tiger Lily who had a rather small role in "Peter Pan") and she'd be followed by Esmeralda in "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame", now all these female characters had darker skins but there weren't of African background.
Interestingly, the term "African-American" is totally appropriate as the cultural heritage of Tiana -as well as her ethnicity- bring (no pun intended) its color to the story which resets the famous Grimms' tale in New Orleans. And we sure get all archetypes (except for the Gospel): jazz, bayou, swamps, French-sounding names, Cajun accents, gumbo, the texture is so authentic that the prospect of Disney modernizing a classic fairy tale is as exciting as its revolutionary "casting". Two birds with the same stone... now, they could have used a traditional African tale as well, but the voodoo (over?)played in the film does borrow elements from the African heritage.
And the film starts well: Tiana's mother Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) tells the original tale to Tiana and her friend Charlotte. Charlotte is dressed as a girl who's been brainwashed by Disney movies and the constant glee of a spoiled Daddy's girl who's got the latest Barbie. Tiana finds the frog story nauseating and has the most realistic reaction: "Yukk". And that's what I liked about Tiana: she felt real, writers made an effort to develop her as a person. Tiana is a waitress and a gifted cook whose dream is to open a restaurant, her Dad (Terrence Howard) tells her about the little star in the sky that fulfills your wishes but that doesn't diminish the value of hard work. Before "Frozen", Tiana was a right role-model and didn't need an on-the-nose dialogue to tell viewers what to do but the best thing to do.
Tiana is a character who grows up in a sane family environment, Charlotte might be her best friend but growing up calling your father 'Big Daddy' has awkward resonances although he's indeed a big bear-like man voiced by John Goodman. Of course, Tiana's got to go through the usual patterns: her father dies during the Great War and in her environment, she's a misfit. Her background is regarded as a handicap to start a business on her own and she's surrounded by nay-sayers (including friends and her mother), she's an underdog and gives us a lot to root for. The film is set during the preparations of Mardi gras and the little town is ready to welcome the arrival of Prince of Moldania Naveem (Bruno Campos), it seems like a South-East Asian country and so in a way the prince is also a fine new step, though his resemblance to Prince Eric is startling.
All goes well until the first little faux pas with the joyful introduction song. I guess it doesn't exactly sound like a compliment if you say it feels like a Randy Newman song, which means an umpteenth variation on "You got a friend in me". The townspeople obligatory song serves to introduces Doctor Facilier (Keith David) who looks like a cool animated version of Samuel L. Jackson with top hat and spats. Facilier makes a pact with Naveen and his servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlet); in the end, Naveen becomes a frog, it's a little complicated plot involving some pre-established deals with ghouls and whose only outcome is that Tiana mistakes him for a legitimate prince and then instead of getting him back to his normality, becomes a frog as well.
Now, two things: Tiana as a person with human preoccupations was such an endearing character that the whole magical spell felt like a cheat. A second was: for once that you have a dark-skinned princess (and prince too) they spend most the time as frogs, which -let's face it- don't make for the best-looking creature despite the animators' effort to make them cute and appealing, and slightly less cartoonish than the singing frog in "One Froggy Evening". I understand that there had to be a frog, but the title is misleading "The Princess and the Frog" suggests that there's only one frog. So we got through a long middle-section set in the animal-world, one that lingers on extremely lengthy big musical lectures that don't offer many catchy themes to hum afterwards.
Don't get me wrong: the visuals are stunning and the hand-drawn animation is a fine return to the roots but the swamps/night setting aren't the landscapes we expected no matter how hard they make the characters colorful: from Louis, the giant alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) to Ray, the Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings) or the little witch Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a blind woman and an extra-milestone for disabled characters. In the best case, the film looks like "The Rescuers" and doesn't live up to the potential showed during the first act.
Maybe worse: even within the frog part, the chemistry between Tiana and Naveen seems too forced to be believable, one scene they berate each other and the next one, they fall in love for no particular reason. In fact, the whole frog / human magic is extremely confusing for we never know what powers have Facilier, even the whole "kiss a princess" premise has sets of rules that differ according to circumstances and when you have so many possibilities left, anything can happen anyway. When they become humans again, there was no way the Tiana we left would abandon herself to a Prince just like that. Now I understand why they made Anna the feminist heroine... but Tiana deserved a little more.
A fine continuation of "Inside / Out" and "Coco"... that only deserved a more mature conclusion...
For almost a century, Disney has been THE visual factory of dreams coming true with the sheer magic of animation and the most unsuspected sparks of imagination.
And since the 2000s, a new trend started driving the creativity of the studios: the high-concept film - building out of 'abstractions' parallel universes or even corporations with guidelines and processes; "Monsters, Inc." was the first of that genre. Then came "Inside/Out", the film that dealt with emotions, "Coco" with the afterlife and memories, the latter presenting parents as dream-killers but then questioning whether dreams amounted to much when it came to the simplest things such as family and love. It's only "fair" that the quintessential family-oriented brand dealt with such matters.
And in the midst of that perpetual life-and-death brainstorming, "Soul" came out. Anticipated since 2020, the film is about a middle-aged music teacher and Jazz-passionate named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx). He's stuck in one of these secure jobs that give life a security but not quite a meaning. In the span of one single day, he learns that he's finally a full-time teacher (he's as ecstatic as Jafar when he gets the news) and that he's getting a gig in an important jazz recital with legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett)... oh, and in that very day, he dies and finds himself (as a bubble-like creature) taking the stairway not to Heaven, but what they call the "Great Beyond" (with the obligatory ominous chorus sound).
Just when his life got a fresh start, it got cancelled. Karma is... you know.
So far, so good... the bureaucratic almost Kafkaian depiction of heaven isn't new: it's been handled by filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsh and Michael Powell, it inspired countless cartoons and "Heaven Can Wait" is a title that rings a bell, but CGI animation gives its specific visual literature speaking through a few powerful frames thousand words. The 'Great Beyond' part had set my mind to something exceptional. But then the rebellious Joe-soul refused to reach the white light and in his panic, found a loophole to take him to the Great Before, with little souls in preparation getting mentored to get an Earth pass, literally becoming humans.
That part enthused me a little less than the first act, channelling so many deja-vu feelings it distracted me from the unique concept of the "before-life". Something about the looks turned me off, it looked like some animation designed for toddlers with these annoying bubble-souls and the linear and sketchy Picasso-like aspects of the 'office workers' made me wonder if it wasn't taken from some earlier "Inside/Out" drafts. That Tina Fey voices the rebellious soul #22 (after Amy Poehler did "Joy") and the whole personality assignment enhanced that feeling. By the way, did they know in advance who was going to be a loser or a psychopath?
Anyway, the novelty passed at that moment though the whole trip into the world of souls allowed the script to unveil some hilarious nuggets "you can't crush soul, that's what Earth is for" or "that's Earth problem". But I guess the real problem is that once we get into that part, the expositional elements tend to overshadow Joe's existential crisis. And once Joe manages to get back, the film takes a new boost of energy with 22 getting into his body and Joe into a cat and then the film takes us to Joe's universe where he's got the voice and mannerisms of 22, which allows him to have different and deeper interactions with people from his environment, especially his mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad).
There are two revealing truths in that part: for Joe, we take many personalities for granted and sometimes miss a lot by not saying things properly and for 22, the greatness of life can rely on the smallest little details normal people take for granted : a warm shower, a slice of pizza, a melody etc. Meanwhile, there's a subplot going with a petty bureaucratic clerk drawn like "La Linea" (remember that cartoon?) working with the tenacity of a bailiff to get the two after-life fugitives back to the Great whatever, it all comes down to Joe and 22 but only one Earh Pass, so the situation is pretty heavy.
Now, let me say that I just love a film that surprises me and everything was building up to that jazz concert being the climactic sequence, even the title suggested a movie about music (the expression of the soul and all that), so I appreciated that the concert wasn't exactly what the film was about, but rather Joe who went from a man considering his life as a series of failures to a not-so terrible life after all. As a man who took wrong decisions because of dreams, I felt Pixar animators gently tapping on my shoulder, telling me not everyone is entitled to succeed, and our passions aren't necessarily what we're best at or that dreams are overrated.
And within its anticlimactic aspect, there's something true-to-life within Joe's epiphany and the final gesture it inspired, beautifully closing his arc.
Now, the question is: what counts the most: the lesson or the opportunity to apply it? For such a mature and modern-looking film (the rendition of our today's world is 100% convincing), I was a tad disappointed that it chose to remain in the same spectrum than "Inside / Out" and "Coco". Fantasy is a tricky genre because it sets so many rules it's easy to counteract them, but dealing with fantasy and yet sticking to a "realistic" ending à la "Ghost", now that would have been something.
I suspect there were heated debates about the ending, but aiming a children audience, Pete Doctor picked the safe option but I'm not sure that same target would respond as enthusiastically to all the metaphysical and existential undertones of the film. Such a splendid premise deserved a more mature ending.
The unshakable, unsinkable and "unblitzable" stiff upper-lip Spirit...
The film opens with workers srewing the last bolts on the future next great destroyer: the HMS Torrin. Later comes the christening with the bottle of champagne wishing her the best of luck if not the safest missions. But fate abandons the proud vessel in action in the Mediterranean sea when the last object that smashes into her metallic body is a German torpedo. Near Crete, in 1941, HMS Torrin sunk leaving less than half of survivors, some of which managed to cling in a life raft.
"This is the story of a ship" announced the narrator with a vibrant voice that sets the patriotic tone of "In Which We Serve". Processing my thoughts right now, I feel that "life" was more fitting a word than "story" as we literally witness the conception, the birth, the baptism and the death of a ship. This is a film that humanizes an object as a matrix of lives (those she contains, those she protects), a mother to all sailors, a rival to their wives... after all, what pronoun do they use for a ship?
And while her fate is sealed in the opening fifteen minutes, the symbol remains: the unshakable and insubmersible British valiance and determination, commonly referred to as "stiff upper-lip", that "relax and carry on" attitude that could let houses being blitzed but not spirits. The film takes us to the different missions inside the ship and tells through punctual flashbacks the stories of the survivors, from top commanders to ordinary seamen, who have all in common that very ship in which they served.
There's the proud and charismatic Capt. E. V. Kinross (superbly played by Noel Coward himself) who encourages his men to be both a happy and an efficient team, as "one can't be efficient if he's not happy" and that goes the other way round, he rules his ship with firm hands but his capability to address his troops tells you about the kind of sacred bond that forged the legend of seamanship for centuries, reminding us that this is an insular country whose fate have depended in various instances of history. There's Bernard Miles as Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy, a less solemn figure who devotes all his love to mistress Torrin.
Both are happily married men, Mrs. Kinross is played by Celia Johnson who incarnates the devoted and self-effacing housewife à la Mrs. Miniver, Joyce Carey is Mrs. Hardy, who's like her husband, a more down-to-earth counterpart to the too-perfect Johnson. Both actresses would star in another iconic Noel Coward's creation: David Lean's masterpiece "Brief Encounter" -sure the film had a serious bearing on that casting decision. Finally, the third story involves an ordinary seaman named Shorty Blake, and played by the mousy Mickey Rooney-like John Mills, on a leave from service, he meets and marries the pretty Freda (Kay Walsh).
The military parts are so riveting thanks to David Lean's inspired cutting as we can never really tell the difference between fiction and archive footage when it comes to big scope scenes. There's such a documentary-like precision that I was often misled by the title thinking it was a documentary. The special effects, sound editing, and the haunting black-and-white photography completes the picture. Lean's pivotal contribution would be so grand that Coward will accept to credit him as a co-director, starting the career of one of the greatest British film-makers.
But the editing shines beyond the war sequences, when it takes us to the intimacy of these couples and the way they live war from within. We see women trying to keep their moral on and sowing while the wheezing sounds of the Luftwaffe pierce in the sky in the scary ominousness that reminded of "Mrs. Miniver"; speaking of which, I was afraid that one of the civilians would know an ending similar to one of the characters from the Best Picture winner. The tragedy isn't that some soldiers died but that they survived but lost someone in the Blitz.
But the film has its share of joyous interludes: an engaging singing session of "Beer Barrel Polka" with Mr. Hardy, two parallel toast scenes, one where the proud Harry raises his glass making an almost indecent declaration of love to the HMS Torrin, and a second where Mrs. Kinross admits her resignation as a seaman's wife that her greatest rival will always be a ship and there's nothing to do about it. Some family scenes kind of drag on but like in the happy/efficiency equation; one doesn't go without the other, it's because we see these men in their privacy that we live the war with them. The film shares also some similarities with another Best Picture winner William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives".
Overall, this is a spectacular and convincingly emotional movie that allowed one director named David Lean to emerge. Based on the Lord Mountbatten's story of the HMS Kelly, it's remarkably synthetic in the way it shows all three forces collaborating together -infantry, Navy and RAF- in sheer comradeship. But beyond its "morale-boosting" premise, the film unveils a more nuanced side by portraying a young stoker who left his place in action, I didn't even recognize the young Richard Attenborough.
Now, from our distant perspective, the convenience of labelling a movie such as "In Which We Serve" as a propaganda war movie shouldn't undermine any attempt to analyse the film on a pure cinematic and narrative basis. On the level of both, Noel Coward's superproduction, endorsed by the Ministry of Information, is a triumph. This is a film that engages the viewer into the reality of wartime seamanship but rather than focusing on the military element, it also present us the aspects of the war on a pure domestic and human level.
We see military men fighting, throwing torpedoes into enemy vessels, getting sunk, drifting on floating drafts and reminiscing within their common misfortune on their family lives. The best war movies aren't just about the physical battles but also their emotional implications from the civilians' perspective, and both sides inspire rather exhaustive experiences.
Britain's entrance into modernity... for the best... and against the worst...
The title is as promising as it is misleading: no colonel, no Blimp and no death but in three hours that never fail to grab you, this is certainly the most vivid and flamboyant cinematic depiction of the British spirit.
Played by Roger Livesey in a performance that should have earned him an Oscar, Clive Candy is a British soldier who as De Gaulle put it about France, had all his life a certain idea about Britain. Values like decency, gallantry, honor, all challenged by the rise of the modern world and its ugliest offspring: nazism. The film was released in 1943 when the Ministry of Defense was launching campaigns to convince the population about the inner morality of strategic bombing given the immorality of the enemy.
This is where the magic of "Blimp" operates: the moral dilemma is shown through the prism of a forty-year friendship between an Englishman and a German, Candy and Theo (his name is unpronounceable) played by Austrian-born actor Anton Walbrook. The film was made in and despite Britain as the Secretary of War John Grigg refused to give the go-ahead and to allow Laurence Olivier to play Candy. Churchill was infuriated by the prospect of having Germans portrayed favorably when the war was reaching its momentum. The project was doomed from the start and so the wizards of British cinema did it: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka the Archers.
In the beginning was Colonel Blimp: a comic-strip character created by David Low. A distant cousin of the Monopoly guy rambling about politics while wrapped in a towel in a Turkish bath. He became famous for his over-the-top reactionary rants and jingoistic views (not to mention a few savage blows against the enemy). From that striking image, Powell and Pressburger concocted a whole life and created an epic era-defining character as eccentric as Charles Foster Kane and as lovable as Scrooge McDuck, the embodiment of the old fool who keep bragging about what they've done when we weren't young.
The film opens with a clash of generations announced by a sequence of pure military goofiness: a brash young Home Guard soldier decides to go against the official order "war starts at midnight". He has Candy 'arrested' in his Turkish bath before scheduled time. Spud's argument is that the military exercice was supposed to be "like the real thing", nor the Invasion of Poland or Pearl Harbor respected schedules. A sweating and bewildered Candy insists that there are rules to be respected, the youngster mocks his narrow-mindedness, his big belly and his walrus moustache, ignoring how he got it. Fighting ensues and both fall in a pool while "if you knew me forty years ago" take us to that bath again, forty years before, in 1902. A marvelous ellipse.
Candy is as a dashing young officer on a leave from the Boer war, learning from a British correspondant named Edith (Deborah Kerr) that a German is spreading defamatory rumors about so-called British exactions in South Africa, he disobeys his superiors and goes to Berlin to find the rat. One spit and one punch later, he's forced to duel with a German officer. Film starts to display its subtle brilliance when a long build-up about the duel's formalities ends before the duel really starts, the camera moves away, showing the gymnasium from outside in a snowy dream-like setting, suggesting the whole futility of these values, like in Renoir's "Grand Illusion".
The two men end harmed, a scar on the upper lip convinces Candy to grow a moustache, he makes a friend of Theo, still struggling in English, yet he's the one who gets Edith. Candy gets back to England, contemplates an empty wall in one of the eighteen rooms of his mansion and in another inventive ellipses, a series of animal heads appear in each wall, from a lion to an elephant face from 1904 to WW1. Brigadier-Chef Candy has lost some hair and also his touch with modern methods, refusing to use torture against german POW soldiers. When the war ends, his joy is less at the perspective of victory but that British fought with honor. He meets again Theo whose somber face of defeat doesn't make for the best reunion, despite his English improvement. And Candy marries Barbare, the nurse met in combat and who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. She's also played by Deborah Kerr (another of the film's delightful touches).
And so the last ellipse takes us to the dawn of the war with the film's greatest moment: Theo is now a widower escaping Nazism. In a long monologue, he speaks softly, gently without cynicism for all the Germans who want the Allies' victory. Candy vouches for him but is later dismissed from the army because of his 'honor is might' credo. The old Theo, in now perfect English, insists that this war is no game with a revenge, and one can't give a honor-less enemy the benefit of honor.
That Powell and Pressburger could make a propaganda war movie with a German and British friendship was gutsy but who else than a screenwriter from a town that lost 90% of its Jewish population could know how to handle fascism? Theo speaks on behalf of 'Imre' Pressburger, as he says: "who can describe hydrophobia better than one who has been bitten - and is now immune". Similarly, Deborah Kerr, in her star-making role, represents the evolution of women, British unsung heroines: from the suffragettes to the army nurses to those who took part to the defense of the city, like Jessica, the MTC driver.
If women and children fight, what homes are left to be defended anyway, asks himself a disillusioned Candy... until he realizes that he had the privilege to see the birth of modern Britain for the best and against the worst. He's too stubborn to embrace it but his grin at the end shows that he's accepting it. After all isn't fair-play the mark of a true Englishman?
After "Harlem Nights", another under-appreciated Eddie Murphy gem...
First, let's credit "Boomerang" for what it is: an all-Black cast movie not centered on urban crime, drugs, racism, hood etc.
This is not the first of its genre: Spike Lee built his reputation by portraying African-Americans in narrative realms outside the usual dictated tropes, but director Reginald Hudlin and writer Barry Blaustein went even further by exploring the world of glam, cosmetics agency, marketing, female power and reversed the roles with white people playing comic reliefs and women dominating men; it's "The Cosby Show" meeting "Working Girl". And from that starting point, it creates a whole new outlet for romantic comedies whose tropes were codified by Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts movies.
And in this seemingly implausible world, Eddie Murphy plays Marcus, the smooth-talking womanizer who can get any girl. A lesser movie would make him arrogant and detestable but Marcus plays in a while other league, taking women as seriously as any part of his professional endeavor. His character-establishing moment occurs when he improvises a lost-dog scenario by buying a leash on the spot, Lela Ronchon falls in his trap. The trick could work by earning him a number but it works so well she gives hers. One ellipse takes us to him decorating his house with the cautiousness of a caterer and ignoring the insult of his neighbor (Tisha Campbell) who keeps warning new girlfriends about the predator.
Yes, Marcus is always on the prowl but his perfectionism is rather impressive, he could have the girl in his bed but he plays it so cool he ends up in hers. Then a quick stare on her feet while she's sleeping, reveals ugly soles calling for immediate dumping. This is neither a gag, nor a hint at a foot fetish but a revealer of the unconscious overlapping of his trade with his relationships. Indeed, advertisement is all about attentiveness to image or packaging, and so the man regards his preys as 'objects'. But take it for someone who worked in that racket, this is a woman's world indeed, as image-awareness is largely considered a female trait, so for all his masculine act, Marcus got entrapped in the cult-of-image. It's an interesting comment on how image is a double-edged sword for both sexes, while more of a burden for women.
The 'feet' aftermath is discussed with his two buddies Gerald (David Alan Grier) and Tyler (Martin Lawrence). They're outsiders who don't understand his reaction but then again he's the Alpha-male while Gerald pushes the platonic button so hard it always propels him into friend-zone and Tyler didn't have sex in the 90s (the film is from 1992). They're too admirative of Marcus to see the problem: being as much a sexual object as the women he objectifies. Later, he spends a night with the president of the agency Lady Eloise (Eartha Kitt) counting on a casting couch promotion. Kitt, 65, gives herself totally to the role and clap to turn off the lights before the rodeo starts, Marcus asks if it can be darker, the line is serious but it reveals how willing he is.
But the promotion is given to Jacqueline, played by the breathtakingly sexy Robin Givens. What Marcus realizes, besides having been used as a sex toy, is that she's his boss, and she's out of the fooling-around zone. It's interesting to see that man whose reputation as a sex-collector makes mail guys bet on his next performances, becomes the subject of his own shenanigans. But Marcus smartly dodges the woman/man issue by inviting Jacqueline for dinner (after all, male colleagues would do that), the result is literally the sprinkler sprinkled. After all his efforts to cook a sumptuous dinner, all she wants is watching the Knicks. The scene is intercut with a cute dinner between Gerald and the new art-director Barbara (Halle Berry) and their interactions and awkward, cute, genuine but somewhat authentic. The parallel between the two scenes highlights the position of Marcus, awkward only by the standards of usual rom-coms.
That's how inventive and innovative the film is, showing a confident men getting a taste of his own medecine, which is the antidote to his toxic relationship with women. He's hit by the boomerang that puts his idea in the right place. And there's something about Murphy's performance, he doesn't overplay his laugh, when he's upset, he asks for the kind of respect women usually demand. The film is so effective in its comment on intersex relationships that the scene with the racist store owner feels too forced and could have been cut without hurting the rest.
But there's more in "Boomerang". This is an adult movies that doesn't hide behind its comedic premise, there are soft-core elements making the relationships feeling real. In your average rom-com, it's a passionate kiss and before you know it, the L-shaped bed, in "Boomerang" even the sex position or a climax become a grammar that verbalizes the statuses. And sexiness is also the source of hilarity, besides Eartha Kitt, there's Geoffrey Holder as Nelson the goofy video-maker, and there's Grace Jones as Strangé the French mascot for a new perfume, her scenes are so outrageous and over the top that I burst out laughing, from the 'stink so good' clip to the infamous restaurant scene, she es movies to places you wouldn't suspect.
Halle Berry brings such a sweet and lovable presence that it's a foregone conclusion she and Murphy will end together, though it's a little unfair for poor Gerald, but otherwise "Boomerang" hits everything right, it uses Murphy's usual persona for a story arc that ends up displaying more respect toward women and accepting that they can too have sexual appetites, in many aspects, the film is avant-guardist, bold and straightofrward, and should have a higher reputation, because of its uniqueness.
Indeed, I don't recall a movie like "Boomerang" before and after it, that's the mark of great films.
Garbo as the divine lighthouse in a port of shadows, fog and booze...
Being an AFI movie buff for several years, I memorized one quote long before watching the film. It was the second entry in the list of the 400 nominated quotes (from "Anna Christie", right after 'All-righty-then' from "Ace Ventura"): "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side and don't be stingy, baby".
Each word flows as smoothly as the other, creating the kind of kitchen-sink poetry that works almost instantly without even the luxury of a context, yet the context is what makes that single line so legendary. Those were (and you probably know it already) the first words spoken by Greta Garbo on screen; in fact, the very tag-line (and publicity) of the film was "Garbo talks!" and no, they're not the first words spoken in the film as Clarence Brown keeps us almost twenty minutes in the waiting before the queen of the screen makes her long awaited arrival, the first since the talkies.
But these minutes are rather well-spent in the company of George F. Marion as the drunken barge captain Chris Christopherson and his boozy companion Marthy played by the incomparable Marthe Dressler, the Hollywood queen of ordinary, homely and ugly mugs. Together they drink, argue, have another drink, with the nonchalant rythme that Brel would translate into the furious tempo of 'Port of Amsterdam'. Amsterdam is still too glamorous for the film setting: one of these ports embedded in perpetual shadows and fogs where sailors drown their sorrow and lost memories in booze.
Chris is a solitary man who's left his wife and daughter, and Marthy is what we would call a tramp, both faces carry the mark of old age and both drink and laugh with the genuine spontaneity of losers who don't even feel sore about it. And what else about the 'whiskey' line is that it would be expected from another low-life barfly, not the most gracious face that ever illuminated the screen. That it's Garbo's mouth uttering these words is so anticlimactic that it took a few seconds for audiences to digest them and then react with thundering cheers and applauses. So for these thirteen words only, the film was legend material. Now, let's get back to it.
When Chris and Marthy go to the local pub, one that has a specific ladies' entrance, Chris had just received a letter from his daughter Anna, and speaks about her in very high terms: she's a nurse or a governess in Minnesota, who did well for a girl who lost her mother at the age of five. Marthy is good sport about Anna's arrival and not only accepts to leave the house but also to get off the picture for a little while, understanding that she'd outstayed her welcome and became a liability as far as Chris' image goes. But Anna's entrance and order changes it all: Marthy understands that the two have in common a shattered past that justify such a choice of drinks: no martini, no tea, but a whisky and a ginger ale that would never serve. If Anna is a nurse, then Marthy is the First Lady.
The film is prude enough not to mention the past except in vague terms but we're mature enough to figure it out. In ports living under the haunts of fog, it's much easier to keep a past secret, the catch is that it leaves the future uncertain. But the air and fragrance of the sea, that old devil according to Chris, does good for the spirit of Anna who finds her energy revitalized and seems to retrieve some balance with the old fool, that until the old devil brings a newcomer. His name is Mat, he's a beefy Irishman, strong as an ox and speaking so loud Chris immediately shrinks in his presence and get as a frail as frog. Mat is played by Charles Bickford.
It doesn't take long for the two to fall in love and for Anna to understand that this is one love built on lies. Garbo is the living embodiment of doomed romances, before Ingrid Bergman, she knew how to make that forced gaiety and genuine tears inhabit her characters, women in love with wrong persons. But Anna Christie is the 'wrong' person that time and a lie is a pernicious venom, for even in love, she'd be alone in her own conscience, letting her soul drifting secretly while her gracious figurehead is what attracted Matt. It all comes down to her plea for a second chance, but that can't do without revealing her past, that past she kept hiding not to further plunge her father in an ocean of guilt.
The fllm was adapted from a play by Eugene O'Neil and seems to take place in a time before the prohibition, it's rather conventional and is full of stagey and melodramatic moments but it's sublimated by the figure of Anna who discharged her past into the sea until it splashed all over her conscience. Some scenes are extremely poignant like in the amusement park scene when she pretends she doesn't know Marthy. This is a woman who're not ashamed of her past because she was a victim after all and yet lives in world where she's controlled by opposing waters: men, reputation, booze, you name them.
Directed by Clarence Brown, the film might have inspired "Port of Shadows" a milestone of French cinema with Jean Gabin playing an army deserter and Michelle Morgan a girl with a troubled past. There's immanent poetry and impending fatality in ports and sea, you can board a ship and have a second life, or you can anchor yourself but memories have their tides and come back to haunt you. The film ends on a happy ending that seems rather forced and never leaves us confident that some gloom won't come to haunt Anna's back.
The one thing to be confident about was that the film ensured her second career in the movies, as she proved she was more than a face.
The last spurt of freedom and fun before a finishing line called marriage...
I often joked that a proper continuation to "Saturday Night Fever" was "Sunday Morning Hangover", taking the h-word in its real or figurative meaning. But here is a movie that shares two words with the disco classic and mentions the inevitable aftermath of these turbulent nights. This film is Karel Reisz's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning": there's not much dancing in this one, there's no iconic suit but there's that feverish spirit of a blue-collar youth that waits for Friday night to finally loosen up after a week of factory and its symphony of clinging machinery... with the same rituals, getting your best suit, spotting the prettiest gal, getting a date and a second... and the same testosterone-driven appetites that aren't without dramatic consequences. Hence the "Sunday morning", and its unspoken subtitle: what goes around comes around.
Arthur Seaton is the leading young lad, he's got rugged looks, the insolence and vigor of a guy at the top of his form, who doesn't let TV suck the spirit out of him as it did for his Dad whose dull gaze toward the TV speaks thousand words. He's played by Arthur Finney in his breakthrough role and this is a tour de force performance that never feels like acting, the man simply acts his age and embodies its insouciance and devil-may-care spirit. That's a generation that didn't fight during the war, that went through poverty but takes a substantial benefit from the industrial recovery: work, wages, financial independence. This is the same 60s Ken Loach would later paint in the masterpiece "Kes", the education isn't that much, but for as long as there are jobs, men can have the fun they want while remaining on the prowl... till the 'right one' shows her pretty head.
Arthur's life is made of that: all work on weekdays, we first see him manipulating his lathe and rampaging against the submissive workers like Jack (Bryan Pringle) and the petty foreman Robboe (Robert Cawdron), then pubs and fun on Fridays and Saturdays, with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) and eventually some fishing on Sundays. He's having an affair with Jack's wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) and the plot thickens when he catches the beautiful Doreen (Shirley Ann Field) on a Sunday morning. Now, "Room at the Top" was the first British film to deal explicitly with infidelity but it was slightly different: the woman was living an unhappy marriage, what's more with a cheater, and the actress Simone Signoret, as well as her character, was French, which could content the Legion of Decency.
This time Brenda is British, she's cheating on her boy's father, and we see the two lovers in bed, and Reisz should be saluted for his bravado: he threw a stone in the water and transcended the love triangle trope by showing the truth in its naked vulnerability. Both Finney and Roberts share the same bed, leaving no doubt over their occupations. Later when she reveals her pregnancy, we realize that Karel Reizs wasn't ready to sugarcoat the material from Alan Sillitoes' novel, nor to over-dramatize it. Rachel Roberts is the perfect match to Finney, she doesn't play a depraved woman but one with dignity who blames her lover yet the material never falls in the melodramatic trap, keeping in tune with its realistic tone. For all its realism, "Room at the Top" was a morality tale, in this film, we're not put in a position to judge the characters or expect a Karmic ending because life doesn't work that way.
The two segments of the love triangle never really converge, but they ironically allow Arthur to get away with his actions; when he meets Doreen, he doesn't play the big game, knowing that he's got a woman to satisfy his lower needs. By not overplaying the needy card, he looks strangely more attractive, and the more trouble he gets into, the closer it takes him to Doreen. He does end up having his comeuppance, fittingly coming from two clean-cut soldiers, the symbol is eloquent. Still, this is not a film caring about narrative conventions, this is a historical piece of British cinema, the first tides of the New Wave of what would later called as 'kitchen sink' realism. Like "400 Blows" or "Breathless", the film deals with youth and their struggle to adapt to a world where freedom is counted in years. Because beyond the friendship, the romance, and the consequences, there's the urgency of commitment.
"Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" shows you the reality of the working class, there's a documentary-like precision in its depiction of the factory and the interactions within employees, you have typical need to go to the pub where formal clothes for once made the classes disappear. Finney is such a presence that he carries the whole film with his broad and robust shoulders, charismatic, naughty and charming, being a presence to count on. Watching him flirting, being angry, playing with kids and tormenting his nemesis, Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris) gives the film an aura of authenticity and entertainment. You could watch the film for the historical aspect, for its groundbreaking nature but also the performance of Finney that sets all the common patterns of a famous British trope: the angry young man.
Behind that that anger, there's a social comment on masculinity during the post-war economical boom, where boys were boys and learned to be men in the short span given to them before they could become husbands and fathers. "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" is like the last spurt of freedom and independence before the finishing line which is marriage. Arthur doesn't get away with his wrong doings because he's the protagonist but simply because his experience is the schematic pattern of many boys his age, again, this is no morality play, this is modern film-making and a British little revolution carried by the charismatic personality of Sir Finney.
A nuanced, enthralling and ahead-of-its-time portrayal of how a wrongful accusation can destroy a life...
The title is misleading, "Risky Business" would either mean a job that takes shortcuts with the law or one that can get you in trouble if you don't play straight, the meaning in French is more nuanced:, referring to ordeals inherent to one specific corporation, if you're a trick driver, it's the possibility to be robbed or sleep at the wheel, if you're a cop, you might get shot, and if you're a teacher, a masculine teacher for that matter, just pray you'll never live the experience of Jean Doucet, a teacher in a small little French village, played by Jacques Brel in his breakthrough role.
The opening credits sequence consists on a long travelling shot on Catherine (Delphine Desyeux) a young teeange girl, visibly upset, frantically running to her home and heavily panting, it's a long exhaustive sight to endure, but there's a reason director André Cayatte shows us that particular scene right from the get go. He could have started with the girl arriving at home, leaving the door open and getting to her room but Cayatte invites us to examine things carefully for there's a detail that might already reveal whether the story she's about to tell is a lie or not.
The 'story' hits a sensitive chord today, she accuses her teacher of touching her and it's no spoiler to say that it is a lie. Indeed, given the novelty of the subject, no film would have dared to make Brel play a despicable character. The film is about a wrongful accusation, which is revolutionary enough for the year 1967, but that would ironically strike as reactionary before the year 1968 where sexual liberation sowed the seeds of practices that are totally frowned upon today. "Risky Business" has aged better than that wave of soft-core flicks of the 70s/80s.
Now an average director would have inflict us expositional scenes with some random course and we would see that Doucet is the kind of charismatic teacher who can inspire one or two crushes, but Cayatte figures that we could know as well about the character by starting from the middle and have the first class scenes serve the investigation. According to Doucet, it's all about that lighter and his wife (also a teacher) Suzanne (Emmanuelle Riva) confirms, he got an expensive golden lighter, he suspects Catherine. One thing leading to another, he learns that she has a picture of him on a beach and a confrontation after class rapidly turn sour. That's how she decided to play the victim.
The choice of Brel is interesting, he's a singer, known for his natural artistic talent, he doesn't play a teacher as much as he lets his personality inhabits him, making his obliviousness ridiculously naïve and his unawareness that being too nice would make him like a potential predator, but that's a risk he's willing to take, because such a 'good' character wouldn't care about appearances. Precisely. And you can tell from the start that he's far from perfect, he does indulge to familiarity and treats Catherine like a spoiled little girl, he insults her and doesn't consider that she might want to be treated like an adult. That's his mistake. After one accusation, he's encouraged by the mayor to leave the town so he has time to hush up the affair but Doucet feels that would accuse him even further. Unluckily for him, another chain of events will have the best and prettiest student Helene (Nathalie Nell) and another girl, accusing him. The irony in all that tragedy is that each one has a different motive.
And so rumor spreads like a disease in the small village and Doucet must face the facts: his name is to be cleared from any suspicion or his career and life would be destroyed. The film is set at a time where these things were possible but where teachers would still have the benefit of the doubt, but three accusations force the cop to take measures very promptly not to face the vox populi, and so Doucet is arrested. The film avoids any spectacularity and Brel plays his Doucet as a resigned man who interiorizes his breakdown. The film also shows the mechanisms of defense of girls at puberty and how peer pressure or love can command the worst thing and make them incapable from discerning right for wrong, sometimes being even encouraged by their parents because of some 'prestige' the posture of victimhood can offer. Cayatte also denounces the hypocrisy of the press in a particularly revolting scene where Catherine is exposed to two male journalists who tutor her about how to look victim enough, and their male gaze is obvious, and horrifying. It's just like the film prophecized the cult of victimhood and the disturbing way it shares frontiers with the oversexualization of girls.
In that hellish nightmare, there's Riva as the wife, fiercely convinced of her husband's innocence but going as far as asking a woman (Muriel Baptiste) to tell the Police she had an affair with Doucet as an alibi. Suzanne is both the unsung heroine and collateral damage, she has an interesting exchange with her husband: blaming herself for not being able to have a child, fatherhood would make him look as an old man for the girls, not one they can flirt with. Her efforts all throughout the investigation are slightly rewarded but it's finally Doucet who manages to wrest the truth out of Catherine in a rather disturbing way (by today's standards) but effective as it ties the whole lie with the opening credits sequence, and the detail we could miss.
The film drags on perhaps two or three flashbacks too many, but delivers a powerful warning to teachers, especially in the social-network era. I am a teacher, and an experience colleague told me he never stayed in a classroom with one student, if they don't like you, it could be risk, if they do, it could be even worse. Risky business, indeed.
The clash between pragmatism and idealism... with America's soul at stakes!
Right from the get go, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" sets the tone and has you on the edge of your couch. A spellbinding montage of the various protagonists of the movie intersecting with archive footage plunges you in the mood of 1968. We've been on that territory before, for the unprivileged ones who weren't alive at that time, which means 95% of IMDb users, we've seen Oliver Stone's movies and we've seen "Forrest Gump", we know what the sixties were all about: a decade that started with the 50s establishment and American traditional values, then Kennedy shot, then the Vietnam war, then the Beatles, the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, the sixties started slowly but on the scale of history, it had one hell of a climax.
And that's where the film takes us: in the hurricane eye of an era where a Democratic Convention is interrupted by thousands of pacifist protestors, necessiting the intervention of the Police force, blood shedding, deaths, chaos... whatever happened during that convention is left for flashback purposes. The narrative is played like "Reservoir Dogs" with the exception that everyone is in a totally different starting point: there's young idealist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and John Carrol Lynch as David Dellinger who, according to himself, "looks like a boyscout". Then more adequate to our notions of hippie-looking rebels, there's Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman and Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin. Yahia Abdul-Mateen II is Black Panther member Bobby Seale.
Now, we spot other faces but you can trust Aaron Sorkin that he doesn't use this as exposition devices -it would be rather difficult to remember more than three names after ten minutes- but to make one simple point: these guys didn't meet each other BEFORE the riot. That's it. The merit of the director is to plunge us in the raging sixties mood while making a plot point we might easily miss. Next thing we know, the trial starts and before we get to the court, we're introduced to the young new appointed prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His assignment is less a promotion than an attempt to have an easily influencable element, there's Mark Rylance as William Kunstler. Last in the name-dropping game is the judge Hoffman, played by Frank Langella, who's so confused by the names (Dellinger or Dirringer) and insistent that there's no affinity with the other Hoffman that you can tell Sorkin is echoing our own sentiment that there are too many names. The very opening of the trial reveals its density and how intricate the exercice of justice will be. It also allows Cohen to deliver his first quips against the judge, inaugurating one of many series of contempt to court.
Then the show begins and it's a remarkable cascade of one-liners and exchanges with the verbal agility of Sorkin as the ringmaster: he who directed political movies such as "American President" or "The West Wing" series and a trial classic like "A Few Good Men" made his two talents implode in "The Trial of the Chicago 7", a movie that allows us to show the tricks going on inside and outside the trial, a real chess-game where the seven defendants defended different ideas but converging toward the same ideals: ending the Vietnam war. There are some riveting moments where they anticipate the opposition's move, some of pure poignancy when they realize that they're only pawns, and some shocks when it's the court that simply change the game, expressing contempt toward its very standards. The plot reveals an inconvenient truth: that the real conspiracy isn't the one we expect. Sorkin knows how to toy with the tricks of the genre, having Michael Keaton playing the star witness but then offering us the disappointment of not even allowing the jury to hear him.
There's a feeling of anger-driven resignation from a trial that starts with the posture of respectability and allegiance to American ideals but evolves into a kangaroo court worthy of the darkest hours of the Soviet regime. But it becomes clear that it's not about winning or losing but making a stance and the film is often at the edge of falling into the trap of its own noble intentions but never does so for Sorkin, a veteran of the game doesn't commit the same mistake a new director would do, he doesn't preach but let the unfolding events sows the seeds of our own conclusion, he doesn't sanctify his defendants but shows them as vulnerable and guillible people, making honest mistakes, and sometimes not aware of the limits of their idealism while the opposite side puts the reason of the state in such a high pedestal that they almost lose their soul.
"Trial" is more than a court film, it's a political movie depicting the fragility of American ideals at a certain point of history and instead of treating like a tragedy, Sorkin with his flair for entertainment makes it a tragicomedy, showing that sometimes, the idealism isn't necessarily the better-incarnated side as far as fashion and amiability is concerned. On that level, Cohen steals the show as Abbie Hoffman, whom I finally recognized when he harbored his trademark flag-shirt. Abdul makes for a powerful performance as the entrapped in the procedure Seale. And Langella is just the kind of judge that make prosecutors rather useless, I've never see one as hostile since "The Verdict".
So, the verdict is this: this is a great film that remind me of the good old 90s with its resemblance to "A Few Good Men" and "JFK", it offers an interest introspection about America's idealism and the film embraced the sixties' spirit: a slow start, a turbulent middle section and one hell of a climax.
On the surface, George C Wolfe's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom", one of Netflix' latest sensations, shines a light unfairly extinguished on a forgotten singing legend. But truth-on-screen quickly shows that neither Wolfe or the late August Wilson (who wrote the play) seemed to care about their titular heroine inasmuch as her story could serve as a cinematic canvas to deliver the usual diatribes against systemic racism and misogyny.
Now, I applaud a film that made me realize it wasn't Bessie Smith who invented the blues. As a matter of fact, blues preceded itself, being the only vehicle for one community to express its struggles, to immortalize shattered lives that history books wouldn't dare to mention. But that I didn't learn that from the film but from the excellent documentary feature on Netflix and a little detour on Wikipedia. The least I expected from "Ma Rainey" was to transport me into a territory that would make me understand the blues, like countless movies about the Great Depression with the bluegrass or country music
The beginning was promising though, with Black people gathering to some place in the South and getting entranced by the penetrative lyrics of Ma Rainey and her trademark twerking and the swingy notes of her orchestra, where we notices a young troublemaker and virtuoso saxophonist named Levee played by the late Chadwick Bosman. Then a quick ellipse (made of lazy archive footage) explains the big migration where millions of African Americans escaped from the racist South to find jobs in the North. Ma Rainey and her troop seize the opportunity to go for a recording session in Chicago.
The production value of the film starts to shows its limits where we get one train station shot and one panoramic urban view and then we're immediately put in the studio where, we don't know it yet, most of the film will take place. So just when we expect some escapism through music, the band is entrapped in a small rehearsing room that will allow them to ramble about the usual subjects. The dynamics are quite good actually, Levee brags about his freshly bought yellow shoes, he tries to infuse his own style to the band members who react with patronizing laughs, we wish we could sympathize with Levee but he's so annoyingly cocky we can feel the script's insistance to portray him as a misunderstood fella.
The dialogues between Levee, Cutler (Colman Domingo) and the veteran Toledo (Glynn Turman) do have a zest of spontaneity that finds a strong echo in that claustrophobic locale but then we have the first faux pas with a flashback monologue clearly designed to elicit our tears, Turman's solemn teary red-eyed looks at Levee's story almost works like an "Applause" sign. Then came the second false note, Viola Davis is a great actress but the way she approached Ma Rainey was rather disconcerting, I saw pictures of the singer, natural and smiling, Davis decided to rely on grotesque make-up, a constant worn-out look, gold teeth, and the prima donna behavior, pushing the Oscar-button so vividly it leaves no room for vulnerability or genuine normality.
Her performance is borderline caricature no matter how authentic she wanted to play it, with a spectrum of emotions rather limited going from arrogant-angry to arrogant-happy. Apparently, a woman who could get that high should be "man" enough to respond to a cop or have an instinct of carnal possession with protégée (Taylour Page), we got it. Still, why was she so rude? Was the budget so low we couldn't get one flashback about her past? Isn't she the titular character after all? After half-an-hour of establishing personalities, the film reveals the intellectual maneuver: characters are only platforms to make political statements..
Later, it's Toledo who goes through some random metaphor of African American being leftovers of society (with some risibly dignified "toward-the-horizon" stares of anonymous victims) and Colman Domingo tells the story of a reverend being humiliated by white men, making Levee question the existence of God. Yes, I understand these stories have a significance of their own and can be used in a play, but monologues are double-edged swords, either they tie the plot together, or they are lectures posing as necessary digression. Sidney Lumet knew how to make speeches drive the plot like in "12 Angry Men" or "Network" but "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" doesn't care much about blues (we only get two songs) or maybe not even about Ma Rainey, the main point was to make a seminary about the exploitation of minorities. The 'bad guys' are played by Jeremy Chanos and Jonny Coyne, but they never really strike as racist bigots.
Still, the Oscars liked the music and the film earned Bosman a posthumous Oscar (which he'll win) and one to Viola Davis, the film's other nominations made me reconsider my harsh comments about "Da 5 Bloods', I deplored the way Lee loaded his story with political comment but at least, he didn't forget to tell us one, and Delroy Lindo's monologues were integral to his arc, and finally Spike Lee made a far more powerful movie about music exploitation with an underrated gem named "Mo' Better Blues".
Bosman brings an extraordinary energy to the film and watching his acting is perhaps the greatest spectacle the film has to offer. But his arc is also revealing of a big problem in Hollywood, I read some Youtube comments that the ending showed how Blacks vented their angers against each other, that's the insult: audiences are so literal-minded that they deserve such a lame, manipulative and forced climax, one intellectually accessible to a junior high-school student but disconcerting on a pure narrative angle... meanwhile, 30 years after, we're still wondering who started the trouble in "Do The Right Thing".
That's the trend going on Hollywood when it comes to the award-bait factor: the idea that a film that deals about a minority group or a real-life figure (or both) must be driven by a sense of self-assignment, it's got to teach and preach and present a simplistic conclusion, instead of just telling a simple story whose complexity allows the audience to use their brains and make their own conclusions.
"Soylent Green" is one of these sci-fi movies that keep you thinking 'we'll get there' so that whatever negative reaction it elicits, that'll never be indifference. As for me, it became a certitude that Harry Harrison's prophetic vision of 2022 would come to reality sooner or later, and the opening credit sequences is a simple but effective-way to establish that the urban nightmare featured in the film is a logical continuation of the uncontrollable increase of the population.
The fast-paced montage of photographs leaps over one century in less than three minutes, where stills of crowded streets in the Big Apple and highway spiderwebs, make pictures of vast landscapes as obsolete as the Dodo. And in that whirlpool of suicide-inducing images, some ought to catch the attention of a 2020's audience. "Soylent Green" might not have the wizardry arthouse feel of Stanley Kubrick's "2001" but a certain pandemic increased its significance. In this 2022 New York basking under clouds of yellow suffocation, people wear masks, need permits to circulate, ration cards to eat and can consider themselves lucky if they don't sleep on stairs.
Even the least literate mind can feel the Orwellian vibes with corporations playing the Big Brother role, and we can forgive that 2022 looks oddly similar to the 70s and that digital technology didn't make much progress, but the merit of Richard Fleischer is not to aim too high so that the film can easily hit the target and makes its point, sparing us a lecture on Malthus theories about the regulations of population and the balance between demographics and food supplies. While the material calls for pessimism-driven analysis, the script written by Stanley Greenberg follows the usual patterns of detective stories with new layers revealed at the right time.
And so we have alpha male Detective Frank Thorn, played by Charlton Heston and his partner and roommate Sol, Edward G. Robinson in his final role. Sol is an old man who age-wise represents the 70s audiences or any viewer for that matter, one who can recall a time where food was real, where fruits existed, where the fauna and flora of the planet weren't annihilated. He keeps rambling about them to an oblivious Frank just as then-audiences in the 70s heard stories about the Great Depression. Heston plays his Frank in sheer detachment, which is the right approach as someone for which this is the only 'reality', the catch is that like the vast majority of people, he doesn't know the secret about that reality.
But whatever is to be discovered by Thorn is pending in the right order on the narrative's line, one we follow step by step. It starts when a big corporation executive named Samuelson (Joseph Cotton) is assassinated by a hitman and the murder is disguised as a botched burglary. The guilt-ridden victim knew his fate and didn't fight back. Frank is the one in charge and he handles the case rather cooly, thrilled by the opportunity to explore an upper apartment and bring back some trophies. He lets the bodyguard (Chuck Connors) file some red tape and then washes his head in the bathroom, takes a soap bar and admires the 'furniture' played by the beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young. The story warns us that in a time where necessity prevails, women's liberation would take many steps backwards.
Frank brings back some real food from the house and later comes one of the most memorable movie eating scenes. What we see is a young man realizing what food is and one reminiscing about how it was. Think about it, what was the last time you went to a pub? The last time you could walk and breath without a mask? In these Covid-eras, we learned to value things, but we know they'll be back some day. Robinson's performance is integral to the power of that scene, every gulp, every drop he swallows gives a poignant dimension. In fact all the Heston-Robinson scenes are heightened by the subtext of their beautiful friendship, like in "Double Indemnity", Robinson can handle a manly 'I love you' without being a sap.
Progressively, the film gets in the vicinity of these 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers where a hunter becomes the hunted one. At that point of the review, there's no use to reveal the secret, let's just say that it became one of the most iconic quotes of American cinema and one that inspired a solution from Homer Simpson for overpopulation. The investigation in itself is rather formulaic and Fleischer doesn't have the right flair when it comes to handle action sequences, but the film is transcended by the Robinson's final scene, perhaps the most glorious swan song an actor ever had.
The sequence is a classic: Sol, tired of all this nonsensical world, decides to go "home", he pick his favorite music, his favorite color (another scene parodied in "The Simpsons") and enjoys for the last time the sight of nature the way it used to be (in that nightmarish future, at least they kept the footage). Sol's eyes are filled with tears and so are Frank's. Knowing that Edward G. Robinson was dying of cancer, you can see these were genuine tears from the two actors and friends. Heston crying because he's bidding farewell to his friend, Frank's crying because he sees his friend dying or that world that is dead already, there's a whirlpool of tears induced by sights and sounds from Beethoven's symphony, culminating with a last "I love you" right before Gynt's morning music and a sunset illuminates the screen.
That's a depiction of death that hasn't been equalled in any movie, as we see ourselves as part of the universe, embracing its eternal beauty before leaving. We'll get to that moment, but will that be as magnificent as Sol's departure? (perhaps the one moment of timelessness where "Soylent Green" came the closest to "2001").