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Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

Carrey carried away...
The "Ace Ventura" series is one of these comedic two-hit wonders from the nineties such as "Home Alone", "Babe", "The Addams Family", "Wayne's World", "City Slickers", "Sister Act" etc.

The concept was simple, every ingredient that made the first film a smash hit was re-used for the second one, only with a different recipe, and served one or two years later. Some tasted better or not different, some lost a few flavors in the process, but with the exception of "Home Alone 2", the sequels never made in the box office top 10 like the originals, thus killing any prospect of a trilogy.

And one can be glad there was no "Ace Ventura 3", the second compromised Carrey's career, a third one could have destroyed him. "When Nature Calls" is a geyser of obnoxious humor and offensiveness that makes an old-school Fleisher cartoon look like a Miyazaki. Not saying it's not funny, it's more complicated than that.

The initial "Ace Ventura" was divisive: fans loved it for its exuberance and non-stop cavalcade of laughs, decriers hated it for the nastiness and obnoxious manners displayed by the man-who-talked-with-his-buttocks. Fans could at least try to convince detractors over a few redeeming qualities, invoking the mystery-plot, the presence of Courtney Cox as Ace's investigating and occasional sex partner. As for Carrey's personality, it was the point, a man loving animals so much he wouldn't care much for his kind.

The problem with the sequel is that it ties fans' hands and doesn't leave them much to argue about. First. The plot is non-existent and only serves as an excuse for funny sketch-like sequences and the fact that they are funny, even laugh-out-loud funny at times, is beside the point. Secondly, there's no one left to make Ace calm down or at least try to temper his excitement, the film is Ace Ventura left in free style, on steroids, it's the crossing of Ace Ventura and the Duracell Bunny. Ace haters will get nauseous, fans an overdose. That's how bad the film is or too good for its own good.

I laughed a lot, the raunchy offensive ones involving the Native tribes that (like I said) outdates many 40s cartoons might still be more "acceptable" than the kind of gender-related shaming displayed in the first film. I laughed at the nod to the opening of "Cliffhanger", the spear gag even though it exhausted itself for a painful minute making the "Dental Plan" Simpsons gag feel like a quickie... I laughed at the Monopoly guy bit, the torture scene, the Shikaka moment, the bats instant, the rhino part... but there's a limit to which a point overuses its gimmick, the humor of "Ace Ventura" is efficient, but in an aggressive way.

The film leaves you with the impression that the winning streak of Carrey from 1994 inspired the filmmaker to give total the green light to Jim Carrey and let him "carry" the film in its integrality and you can tell that even Carrey was being literally carried away and was taking a path culminating with the film that almost ruined his career in 1996. "Liar, Liar" would mark the perfect come-back his career needed, one to sanity within zaniness, it was directed by the Tom Shadyac who made the first "Ace Ventura" and understood that Carrey could only play eccentric characters with a heart, allowed to have a moment of tenderness and humanity.

"When Nature Calls" was directed by an obscure director named Steven Oedekerk but let's not kid ourselves, the only one who gave this film directions is Jim Carrey. But I'm sure even in 1997, he would cringe at that film he made two years before. Because that's what you get when you leave an actor improvise at the expenses of a plot, a story, something reasonably consistent and coherent. The sequel makes you realize how consistent the first film is, and how Carrey almost endangered his career by going too far with his undeniable talent. That "Nature Calls" was a close call, at least it didn't ruin his career.

Or maybe the film was only trying to surf on the popularity of "The Lion King"? Well, it might be another case of "This Time for Africa" but nothing to get all "waka waka" or "wacky wacky" about it.


The Good, the Bad... and the Mowgli!
I implore you to forgive the lame pun and I sincerely hope the following review will improve the level.

I only meant that there are many positive aspects about Andy Serkis' take on Rudyard Kipling's most celebrated work and a few little things it could have done without, like a few superfluous details of Mowgli's family crisis and some pompous lines of dialogues that needlessly sanctify his bond with Bagheera. But there is one spectacular performance that shines all through the film like a jungle bonfire; Rohan Chend as Mowgli. I didn't take him much seriously first but the intensity of his performance once the second act starts is really word-of-mouth material.

Seriously, the crediting starts with all the 'bankable' stars who'll probably be encouraging factors and while they're not undeserving of praise, they were still only voices. For all we know Christian Bale might have voiced Bagheera wearing a Hawaiian Shirt or Cate Blanchett Kaa -yeah, they feminized him- between two "Ocean's 8" take but it's still Rohan Chend, all flesh and blood, who acted his way through the film and went through a nightmare s no one would have possibly imagined a kid undergoing in a family-friendly film. Or is it what Andy Serkis intended?

It's hard to believe (especially when you get near the resolution) that this film tried to capture the magic of the Walt Disney version, though the beginning does have its share of deja-vu material. Serkis brings up such a dark version of Kipling's book that it might even disorient the adults. There are not many jump scares but some parts are definitely set to show you that the jungle world ain't all swing and jazz, and surviving over the most Darwinian impulse was the only reasonable necessity. I won't go further, otherwise, I might let a spoiler slip.

Now, it's understandable that Serkis tried to distance himself from the pre-existing material especially after the story was rebooted by Disney two years ago, his film wasn't certainly the most anticipated of the year, so it must have been quite an ordeal to make this project marketable and he deserves some credit. What he did was expanding the gallery of characters yo the Jackal Tabaqui (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) and gives more dimension to the wolf family, community and the elder leader Akela (Peter Mullan) and he gave more gravity to the tormented Shere Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) as Mowgli's nemesis.

The result is uneven because in the end, the film still had a few cartoonish looking animals who spoke with British accents, which contrasted with the stark and gripping darkness of other scenes. It's as if the film was meant to embody the existential nature of Mowgli, the Man Cub, as an eternal in-betweener or neither-of-them, "The Jungle Book" is dark, powerful and meditative but lacked that little sparkle that could have appealed to a younger audience while its luxurious vegetation and lavish CGI effects are convincing and spectacular enough to draw a young audience. I'm not sure about Serkis' vision...

Fitfully (or unfortunately), it's a film that looks as beautiful, fascinating yet tormented and puzzled as its central character. Still, the real added value is the character of Mowgli who's truly reinvented and instead of being the action catalyst like the Disney version kid, is presented here as a true hero and even antihero of an exciting coming-of-age story and yeah, let's use the word: character study. Maybe it just take too much time to stand on its own feet... like baby Mowgli.

I would still prefer the Disney version for its sentimental and entertaining value, but I won't forget that "Mowgli" any soon. Overall, a pleasant surprise.

Ookami kodomo no Ame to Yuki

A great potential but the story doesn't find the way to draw kids into caring for these wolf-children...
And I speak from experience as we took three sixth-grade classes to "The Wolf Children" and well, if not the plot, the title sounded interesting. In hindsight, I'm realizing how naïve we were. This is a very well-made Anime but not quite suitable for children, except the really mature ones.

To their defense though, when you have a shot that consists on a woman and a wolf-headed man with bare shoulders, kissing and followed by a discretion shot implying they're in a bed, stoicism isn't exactly boys' strongest suit and some were already starting to heckle the show (that it wasn't dubbed added to their ordeal).

I must admit that the whole first act consisting of a narrator telling her mother's romance was awkward. It is played like the most banal romance with the only redeeming value in the reveal of the man's secret identity: half-man and half-wolf, that and a mesmerizing animation, but one wouldn't expect that from an anime?

As much as I loved the character of Hana as the student-who-falls-in-love, her Romeo was the kind of living fantasy that quickly turns out to be a bore, all attitude and nothing remotely "lively" about him. Having the romantic girl fall in love with the dark, tall and mysterious stranger had me yawn and it was not until little Yuki comes in the screen that the film started to gain some colors.

But before, we had to endure a life-montage à la "Up" and I was over the edge of my seat fearing another flash of nudity during or after the pregnancy. If you show the film to your kids, do expect a few yawning from that part and a few 'gross' reactions to some graphic moments (some include vomiting and breastfeeding).

But there's a beautiful middle-section about Hana's struggles to raise her children. Beautiful and unexpected: once we get the supernatural element, everything is handled in a realistic way, complaints from tenants about the noises and constant howling the "kids" make, the pressure from Childhood Protection and a very meaningful moment where little Yuke swallows gel and Hana is wondering whether to go to a doctor or a vet.

Hana is the Mama Bear figure movies love today, she resorted to natural birth out of fear to deliver wolves in a hospital and realizing an urban life wouldn't fit them, decides to move on to the mountain and live on gardening. Once there, in a sequence that reminds of "Totoro", the two children react to wilderness according to their personalities, Yuke is excited and express her wolf-life nature to the fullest while little Ame is the momma's boy who want to go home.

I'm not sure about the idea of not including fantastic elements but it was strange to have that film with such a fascinating premise stick up obstinately to realism. I guess the idea to show this film to children is to teach them the value of solidarity between people and how to adapt to a different environment where you have a second culture. But are children sophisticated enough to grab it? I think so, but it all depends on the effort to draw them into the story.

The way "Wolf Children" is made, it can appeal to a mature audience. The character of Yuki is integral to the film's appeal to kids but she slowly starts to grow up to fit in school. At that point, she stops being interesting. The problem is that the boy doesn't grow into a much interesting character either, the rule of Generation Xerox is respected and quickly, the wolf side takes the upper hand and he becomes as taciturn as his father.

So it comes to a point where the film glides into the drama genre and never tries to conceal it with a few thrills. I'm not saying a film with a children audience shouldn't be introspective but when a climax is supposed to be set during a storm, there's more to expect than false alarms and some Oscar bait melodrama. Yes, they all work, but when one thinks of wolves, there's a whole imagery that goes with, that Mamoro Hosado, the director, could have explored.

I respect the choice of not venturing into the realms of werewolves and all that stuff but there had to be some sense of danger, perhaps one last episode encouraging one to definitely opt for the human side and the other for the wolf world, in fact, twenty minutes before the end, much of the story was resolved and nothing was left for suspense. I guess it's deliberate because the film was made with Hana as the central character, and maybe that's a mistake.

I feel quite superficial and guilty because the film was enjoyable and deep; but it feels like a few opportunities have been missed, when you collect so many talents in the writing and design department when you have such a dazzling animated cinematography and so well-established characters, you just wait before 'maturing them'.

There is such a nice middle section but the characters' arcs seem to close without having us involved, we're supposed to cheer for our three protagonists at the end just because our empathy was efficiently engaged before. A pity, really. On a side note, I liked it better in the dubbed version, it might feel blasphemous to say so, but non Japanese speakers can have a problem with the original version for two reasons.

Indeed, apart from a few words, Japanese is not the most accessible foreign language and one is forced to rely on subtitles, some are white in a white screen and impossible to read. And since it's a film that depends a lot on narration, dubbed version would suit better.

I would also encourage anyone to read the Parents Guide before deciding. It's good, it has good lessons about life but while a childhood-themed film, it's definitely adult-oriented.

Being There

"We must take care of our garden"...
That was the final quote from Voltaire's satirical essay about optimism: "Candide". No matter the adversities, preoccupations or struggles, tending one's garden was the epitome of wisdom. And that came from Candide who used to believe that "everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds."

"Being There" is a satire that goes the reverse way, starting with a man who tends his garden and then grows with his roses and plants an optimism everyone perceives but him. The man is Chance the gardener, one of the greatest movie characters ever and unlike many others, he doesn't seem to have an arc.

As far back as he can remember, Chance, has lived in his master's big estate house and never left it. His whole life had been dedicated to (and defined by) two activities: gardening (the only thing he's actually competent at) and watching TV (his "I like to watch" referring to TV is more than a motto, it's an understatement). The man's vision of life has been completely shaped by the little screen and its continuous avalanche of images flooding day and night"from cartoons to ads, soap operas to movies, new and old.

Chance the gardener devours what comes from that box with an appetite that makes you wonder whether he would have blown out of exhaustion today. But when the film starts, all we see is a mild-mannered well-dressed middle-aged man. There's no suspicion raised about his mental state... until the maid comes and announces that the "old man" is dead. Chance's doesn't shed a tear for his boss' passing, he's a child in a man's body, speaking in a rather limited vocabulary but articulate enough to give him the benefit of doubt.

Actually, we're the first to be fooled by his appearance and this sets the tone of Hal Ashby's masterpiece "Being There", one of the most brilliant comedies ever made... or is it an intelligent movie that just happens to be funny, because it works on the simple premise of "irony", it's all about contrasts. If Chance doesn't fool little people, his good manners and his well-spoken attitude seem to imply some upper class WASP upbringing and earn him the respect of the whole Washington establishment, including an influent dying businessman and adviser of the President (Melvyn Douglas).

Chance even meets the President (Jack Warden) who ends up "understanding" his babbling about growth, plants and seasons. Chance's words are then quoted by the White House occupants and one thing leading to another, he becomes a star. Before one makes an easy comparison, the film actually works in a different way than "Forrest Gump". Gump knew he was limited and everyone did, yet from his actions he managed to earn everyone's respect and admiration. Chance isn't an impostor because he doesn't pretend to be anything else than a gardener but it would be so baffling for the upper class to see an idiot in this man that any statement, any platitude is mistaken for profundity. Even Chance the Gardener is confused with the snobbish-sounding Chauncey Gardener.

Now, in a lesser film, the wonderful premise of "Being There" would have been turned into some cheap gimmick, but the film elevates it to a level of quiet sophistication, as Chance's ascension reveals the degeneracy and decadence of the civilized world, something echoed in a French film that said "out of a misunderstanding, anything can work". The script based on Jerzi Kozinski's novel and screenplay is a biting satire à la "Network" commenting on the rise of an era of mediocrity where people are so demanding of models they would adopt any good communicant as a new prophet.

The little edge of "Being There" is that it's moving, it's also a film that showcases many aspects of Chances' life, his isolation from the rest of the world (suggested by classical melancholy), his vulnerability and childlike kindness like that moment where he he's cornered by a gang of street kids and tries to get rid of them by pressing the remote control like a magic wand. At the end of the film, he's the one basking in his own normality while the others are decrypting every word or sentence he says, using a symbolic remote control called "sociocentrism".

This is summed up in an underrated moment where the old maid laments about society being a place for the white guy since a simpleton like Chance can pass as a genius. She's not that wrong and her comment could be extrapolated to today's reality TV where models are manufactured out of sheer nothingness, oly communicated with style. Indeed, Chance can speak of "growth", "garden" saying he likes to watch or simply "I understand" and everyone else will do the figuring... projecting their own desires and perceptions in him. Chance is first like a sponge impregnated with all the images of the world from TV, at the end he becomes a mirror where everyone perceives his own ideal.

Sellers who said he had no personality once he stopped playing, was the perfect actor for such a film, it is his penultimate role but quite a performance, one that demands an exactitude within that seemingly one-note tone. And in the many scenes involving the growing friendship between Douglas and Sellers, you could see that there was genuine emotion from "Chauncey" as if even this encounter with other people could affect him. Hal Ashby was a director of true originality, here he provides an existential masterpiece and the perfect epitaph for a comic legend.

I still give it a 9 because of the useless part involving the President's sex life, distracting from the other romantic subplot involving Shirley MacLaine and for the infamous bloopers sequences. I hate bloopers even for Jim Carrey comedies let alone a film of such depth and humanity, with a perfect image and the perfect quote. Whatever 'state of mind' inspired this move... there's one of Chance's catchphrases I'll never use.


A decent popcorn thriller but a "Heat", it sure ain't!
Seriously, why is it that today every film involving strong female protagonists must portray men like Hadleyville people from "High Noon": treacherous, corrupted, psychopathic and when good, simple-minded or physically disabled. "Widows" reminded me of that "Afternoon Yak" moment in "The Simpsons". The TV host opens the show with a simple : "men" eliciting an immediate booing from a 100% female audience, prompting Homer to press the 'skip' button.

I seriously expected a film from "12 Years a Slave" director Steve McQueen and starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and recently Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya to aim higher than that. While it doesn't trivialize men-bashing too blatantly, the way it sets up an interesting premise and then shortcuts it through a contradictory narrative is rather counterproductive.

The story is set in Chicago where three women mourn the loss of their husbands, who ended like melted meat in morgue bags after a botched heist. Of course, when a film mentions that corpses were unidentifiable and one of them is at the top-billing, you either expect a load of flashbacks or some middle-plot twist. So I wasn't surprised when it started raining a few evidence that one didn't deserve a eulogy. But all of them? Seriously, what were the odds?

Let's move on with the plot. Veronica Rawlings lost Harry in an accident and from what the flashbacks convey, they loved each other and meant it on bed. Halfway through the film, their relationship is given an extra layer of depth through a sad event, but it doesn't stain the image of Harry, played by a hunky Liam Neeson. The trick is that Harry burnt along with millions of dollars stolen from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) capmpaigning for alderman of a South Side precinct.

Jamal is angry, and threatens Veronica, asking her to get the money back. The problem is that Jamal was previously introduced as the challenger against Jack Mulligan, the heir of a dynasty that dominated politics for three generations. Colin Farrell chews the scenery as the sleek and overambitious politician and from his father's racist slurs, we'd be more than glad to see him being dethroned by Jamal (by the way, Robert Duvall steals the show as Mulligan Sr.).

So this gets tricky whenJamal seems to be an even worse character, the way he strangles an adorable poodle or uses his psychopathic brother played by Daniel Kaluuya to do the dirty job makes any attempt to figure out which politician is the lesser of the two evils a riddle for ages. But there comes a point when we realize that the outcome of the campaign is totally irrelevant to the plot... which made me question the relevancy of the earlier scenes.

Indeed, why spend so much time building up the antagonism between the two camps or trying to turn Jack Mulligan into some tortured soul when the real focus is the three widows. I haven't mentioned the two other important characters yet but this is exactly what the film does: it overlooks them first and then develops them but not in a way that draws us into caring for them... not more than the usual empathy-requirements of an average film.

I'm not even sure it did it enough with Davis' character. But at least Veronica had a motive, Amanda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) only have circumstances. It's different. Amanda discovers her husband never paid the bills and drove her shop into bankruptcy, she needs money if she wants to keep her children from her mother-in-law's claws. As for Alice who strikes for both her Eastern-European accent and her statuesque height, she was apparently mistreated and is advised to become an escort girl by her own mother (Jacki Weaver, 1ft 2'' shorter than her 'daughter')

So we have two women who need to earn money and self-respect. Fair enough. But it's not like Veronica knows that... so the only way she tries to convince them to jeopardize their lives and pull a heist is to tell them they're in danger. All their loyalty depends upon a lie. Of course, the script injected the 'underdog' aspect so we can have unexperienced women overcoming their insecurities, use their weaknesses as strengths and become as badass and independent as men (not that Davis needed any change of character).

That could have been good actually. A political thriller would have been good too. Or Davis alone against the gangsters. But the film went in too many directions at the same time. The political set-up turns out to be a completely waste of time because none of the major players of the first act plays a tangible role at the end, the progresses made by the three women are boosted by the addition of Cynthia Erivo who's capable of anything, and even the happy end (anyone could have seen coming) doesn't have that emotional electricity in it.

What happened is that the film focused on the three women in a way that made their arcs rather predictable. Amanda gets her business back, Alice, after being treated like meat or trash before, sets up her own business (good luck, we're in 2018). As for Davis, the film tries to make her the subject of a character study while she's only played the usual straight leader of a heist. "Widows" depends on an empathy we're ready to give but it throws so many plot lines and ramifications that it ends with disappointing loose ends.

And I wouldn't give much weight to all that Oscar conversation, it can happen but I doubt it. Debicki towers over everyone (literally) but her arc is nothing we've not seen before, only Keluuya is terrific and plays his character in the kind of deliberately hammy way such a role requires. But the film took itself too seriously for its own good as if it tried to be an "Ocean's 8" for the Oscars.

At the end, it's a decent popcorn thriller... with the obligatory "men-boo" undertones.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

"The Return of Harry" or... and so ended a genre-defining saga...
Well, well, well...

After an epic seven-movie tour into the world of Harry Potter, here comes the final and so overwhelming conclusion of not only a decade-defining but a genre-defining franchise.

Author J.K. Rowling not only revolutionized children literature through her winning streak of best-sellers but inspired what would become a landmarks of a genre relying both on spectacular special effects boosted by computer technology but traditional three-act structure (exposition with the first three films, second act starting halfway through the fourth, and the climax in the last two films) with all the compelling elements of storytelling: the fight between good and evil, the coming-of-age and the whole escapism into a world never seen before. Like Lewis Carroll, J.R.R Tolkien and George Lucas, Rowling created a whole new universe, a myth.

Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Gryffindor, Aveda Kadevra... and so on and so forth, all these words have become part of an international lexicon, a staple of pop culture bound to be passed from generations to generations and to enchant children and adults all over the world. It is no surprising that the film concludes with Harry, Hermione and Ron playing grown-ups taking their children to Hogwarts through platform 3/4 like in the first film, we've all grown up watching Harry, Ron and Hermione from their baby-faced years to their maturity, and then will come a time where we'll look back at the 2011 film with equally powerful nostalgia. Oh yes, I'm sure the films will all live up to their reputation in nineteen years... and beyond.

And from that emotional finale, we guess that Hogwarts have probably been rebuilt and the harrowing and deadly journey that culminated with the final fight between Voldemort and his forces of Dark magic and the resistance that combined all the cumulated knowledge of centuries of wizardry will be part of the new mythology. And I feel less like reviewing the film than concluding my seven reviews by saying that the franchise couldn't have a better conclusion. For simple reasons that don't take much analysis: first of all, it is set in Hogwarts, and while it's heartbreaking to watch so many places we're familiar with being reduced to ashes or ruins by bolts of lightning and random attacks, it's captivating to watch all the players defending the place to death.

And there are deaths. Many are particularly tough to handle. And for those who have the chance to live, the story provides them chances to outdo themselves, Neville ends up having one of the most interesting arcs in the series, Mr. McGonagol and Mrs. Weasley have also their moment of awesome, and there are two reveals about Dumbledore and Snape that made me question my previous reviews and the way I instantly jumped to conclusions, underestimating Rowling's smart writing. I knew there was something enigmatic with Snape from the very start and by maintaining such a mysterious character for so long over the series, Rowling proved that she didn't have a talent for writing stories but also -as it's the case with Harry Potter- stories within stories.

And this "Deathly Hallows Part II", as far as storytelling is concerned, is fueled with spectacular action like a fitting climax, it doesn't waste time for exposition as no introduction is needed anymore, we're already familiar with the characters and the themes. So the film plays like "The Return of Harry" echoing the Jedi's or the King's. And for all the action-packed scenes that are traditional offerings but never get "routinely", the integrity of the narrative is maintained. And the heart of the story is kept as well through reveals of relationships that were the core of the saga all along. Reading about Rowling that she lost her mother of Multiple Sclerosis before she could enjoy even the first book broke my heart but it might have shaped her inspiration when writing about the relationship between Harry and her mother, and a few other characters, or even between Harry with Voldemort.

And one can't of course review this film without praising Ralph Fiennes's performance. The actor's been kept away for too long to finally implode, proving to be more than a menacing presence. He steals the show with a glare, a joke, or his hideous nose-less face... it's like the film or the book couldn't fail because it had just the perfect villain. As they say, a film is as good as its villain... but it's also as good as its ending, and while not all the chapters of the saga are equally entertaining, this last opus is a masterful conclusion and I understand now why it's the only one to be on the Top 250. It's entertaining, thrilling, suspenseful, sad, deep and comes full circle through an ending where you can't just help but shed a tear while saying goodbye to these character we've seen evolving from their childhood and even when the wizardry world was as its "infancy" from our perspective.

How fitful that the ending scene is in a Train Station, like Hitchcock another master storyteller, Rowling loved trains and it was trains that inspired her the first vision of Harry Potter, a kid taking a train to go to a wizard school... it's only appropriate that the film would end with that note, maybe telling children that everything is possible, that they also can have their own "train" of inspiration and image a little something that can grow out of magical proportions. She wanted a character who could do something she couldn't: fly, she created Harry Potter and became an inspiration, a billionaire, and a name that would be mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien when fantasy literature would be approached by fans or scholars.

If only I let my curiosity win over me and watch the first film, I can't believe I waited so long. Maybe I should take it as a lesson now and give a try and watch "Fantastic Beasts".

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

A different "Harry Potter" and an exciting set-up for the final fight...
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I" took up many difficult challenges such as tying up elements from the previous chapters together while not relying on expectations from fans with encyclopedic knowledge. Speaking for myself, as a "newbie", I enjoyed that penultimate film for what it was: an entertaining action-packed opus full of quiet and engaging moments.

The film also prepares us to a spectacular finale people have been waiting for during half a decade (half a month for me) without exhibiting any hurry to get into it, as if it took the proper time to tell its own story and as if the last book was too important to condense it into a three-hour format.

Now, there are additional objects of praises: the film allows us to get us a full view on every character who took part in Harry Potter's journey: Hagrid, the two good Defense Against the Dark Arts Teachers Rupin and Moody, the Weasley family (including Harry's sweetheart Ginny). And yet the film essentially focuses on the Power Trio: Harry, Ron and Hermione, taking them to locations they've never been in, as if the priority was to evacuate a few demons and seal their friendship first before they would find the definite strength in unity, to combine with the skills cumulated over their adventures at Hogwarts. I liked that aspect of the film.

And by the time it ended after two and half hours, I totally forgot there were still four or three Horcruxes to find and many obstacles paving the path to Voldemort. I don't know how this is going to be handled in Part II, especially in two hours and ten minutes (a rather short time by the series' standards), but I can't wait for the final round of the 'Harry Potter' series, a saga that defined a decade and where we literally saw three kids growing up before our eyes, while their world of wonder faded out, making way to the Dark Side.

Yes, long gone is the whimsical wizardry and its streams of spells and curses. The crucial moment occurs in the first act when Harry leaves everyone after the death of a few regulars (no need to spoil their name but surely you didn't expect a clean death toll?). He's intercepted by Ron who tells him to get off his high horse and stop thinking as the chosen one; this is no melancholy time when the Evil force commits mass killings and kidnappings, it's time to fight and everyone is on the same boat. Ron developed some maturity like Harry facial hair and he found the properly humbling words.

Which takes me back to the first film, I remember my first question was "what is a Muggle?". I initially thought the series was set in parallel universes (sort of) and there had to be zero interference between. "Deathly Hallows" opens with a nightmarish apocalyptic vision à la 'Dark Knight' proving that not only the Muggles aren't immune to the wrath of Voldemort and his minions but that they're targets as well. And speaking of Voldemort, from the table scene reuniting all the main villains, with him as the master of ceremony, we also understand that the line between good and evil is now clearly drawn.

There are degrees of vileness though, some are more reluctant than others, but when you look at the top "management", you know no quarter won't be asked. "Deathly Hallows" is different in tone but made me retrospectively understand the tragic climaxes of the previous chapters, it was all leading to it. Whether J.K. Rowling had that scenario in mind when writing the first book, one can be dubious, but there was no way that such a set-up couldn't lead to a larger-than-life exploration of the dark side of wizardry.

And not only the film inspires such expansion but it also allows us to have a subplot revealing the deepest motives of Voldemort: his quest for the Deathly Hallows, three old relics that might allow him to become the Master of Death and whose symbol echoes some conspiracy imagery. Rowling had a wide enough universe and such a rich gallery of characters she had quite a toolbox to build an inventive adventure, but she still had room for new stuff, including the infiltration of Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic through a corrupt member named Plus Thicknesses (Guy Henry).

But the heart of the story is the adventure in the wilderness lived by Ron, Harry and Hermione sealing their friendship and testing their mutual trust. There are moments of tension (sometimes sexual), moments of fun and relief and there's also a part where they simply walking down the street in London (and I expected a Rowling cameo). I appreciated that for all its richness, the film didn't get too thick and took the time for some long panoramic shots and extended scenes with the trio, as a last brief halt into our most beloved characters before the final action.

There was action all right in the first and ending sections but this is a film quietly introspective and often captivating. I concede sometimes, many devices seemed too far fetched but the pace is so fast that you don't have time to step back and think of the flaws, our minds are set in the quest for the Horcruxes and the defeating of Voldemort. And the series has turned into such a dark tone that for all I know, Harry might lose the fight or have a Pyrrhic victory.

I personally believe the film owes us a happy ending by now so I'm looking forward to have my expectations fulfilled in "Part II".

How Green Was My Valley

Maybe it deserved that Best Picture Oscar after all... maybe...
How green was Ford's valley...

... and how red were Maureen O'Sullivan's hair... in her loveless marriage to the mine owner's son, she walks with the solemnity of Marie Antoinette taken to the guillotine, her long veil embracing the wind and trying to fly away like some encaged bird. The veil says in place... and so does the man she loved whose silhouette appears behind in the distance.

A lesser director would have gratified us with a close-up showing the man's devastation but Ford cares for the big picture. One large shot speaks a thousand words, and "How Green Was My Valley" counts hundreds of such eloquent shots. Here's another one: in "The Grapes of Wrath", as the Joads move out to California, Ma Joad (Jane Darnell) chooses not to give a last look toward their farm for time is not for the past. "How Green" opens with a close-up of an aging woman looking toward the mines with eyes that convey both nostalgia and sadness.

This is a woman who didn't move and witnessed the slow decay of the once green valley through the darkening effect of industrialization. That image captures the emotional spirit of John Ford's Best Picture winner (yes, the one that beat "Citizen Kane" and "The Maltese Falcon") : the universal paradox of life is that it takes climbing the valley to admire how beautiful the view was, especially with children's eyes of wonder. And never has such a vision been so hypnotically beautiful as in the adaptation of Richard Llewely's book.

It might strike as an ironic title for a movie made of black-and-white splendor, but the green is secondary when it's all about emotions. This is not a movie for purists determined to spot the flaws within accents and proudly state the obvious, this is a film for viewers who wish to have an instant of pure old-school Hollywood-style melodrama from its most emblematic director: John Ford. Ford said it was his favorite movie and so did Clint Eastwood. Interesting from two men who owed their stardom to the Western genre to pick a movie that is just a slice of life tainted with pure nostalgia.

Or maybe is it because Western was embodying the "childhood" of America and this is why "How Green Was My Valley" hits that sensitive chord. It echoes a sublimated vision of a past that no longer exists, an order sacrificed at the altar of modernity and materialism, like a purified vision of the Old West (without the desperadoes). It is an idealistic dream from the start, the valley of Wales (which strangely resemble the industrialist setting of Zola's masterpiece "Germinal") looks like the pastoral heaven where coal miners work hard, ruled by entrusted owners, women keeping the house, and priests herding their sheep.

The story is told from a narrator who's living after fifty years, assembling his belongings in the shawl that belonged to his mother. He's Huw, the youngest of the Morgan boys, played by Roddy McDowall. He captures the spirit of the film, the fact that we all look at our past with our child's eye, reminiscing an idyllic time where each member was set on a pedestal of love and respectability. And like a romantic painter, Ford addresses a magnificent portrait of the Morgan family as a monument of stability at a time where the Old Europe became the arena of bloody battles.

It was the war indeed that prevented the shooting to be set in Wales and turned the Malibu valley into a Welsh village. Needless to say that Darry Zanuck had to downplay his ambitions to make his "Gone With the Wind", a four-hour epic in all Technicolor. But Ford knew that black-and-white was the best way to express the film's old-fashioned values through his mastery of large and haunting shots and a palette of darkness and lighting. John Ford was one hell of a storyteller and where any lesser director could have turned the melodrama into something linear and mawkish, Ford turns it into a work of art that conveys his own nostalgia of Ireland.

Yes, there are instants where the film feels preachy when too socially loaded of stagey when too melodramatic but the child perspective is the soul of the film. The film opens with the family reunion, the patriarch Mr. Morgan (Donald Crisp) cuts the bread to his sons, makes the prayer while the mother (Sara Allgood) is the last to start the meal and the first to finish, she's the pillar of the little community and while the film strikes a man's movie, it leaves no doubt about who's the real boss in the house. The idyllic picture doesn't last for too long as we're quickly immersed in the workers' plight and the threats of strikes pending over them.

The workers' plights are less to emphasize the political content but to show how, in one instant, the father has turned into an old relic of the part. And this is what the father is, and the last monologue convey the idea that men like him can never die, and that one can live without the past. Maybe this is why the film was such an instant favorite, it reconciled Americans with a past when the present was grim and the future uncertain. Maybe this is why it is the most Fordian of all Ford's films.

There are a few oddities here and there, keeping Roddy McDowall instead of hiring an older actor made a few interactions rather awkward, the actor who played the bigot priest was overacting, Walter Pidgeon's performance better fitted for a movie directed by Wyler (he was the initial choice)... but the film is so full of visual and haunting scenery that one can't ignore its emotional beauty, it is a vision embellished from the past that emphasizes the dissolution of many American values just like "Citizen Kane" did... in a more intellectual way.

Maybe it deserved that Best Picture after all...

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

"I'm just beginning to realize how beautiful this place is"
That line is delivered by Harry Potter himself while admiring the beautiful view offering itself in one of Hogwarts' highest turrets. I liked that little touch.

And I suspected a meta-referential mood in Potter's contemplation, as if he was echoing the emotion of J.K. Rowling or all the crew members who got involved in one of the greatest franchises of the past twenty years and only realized at that moment how high they climbed their way up to cinematic greatness. Did they have time to step back and consider their achievements over the span of eight years?

Probably not. It's possible that this was just the quiet before the storm, one in two parts named "The Deathly Gallows" and whose book was published a few days after the sixth movie adaptation's release. 2009 must have been quite a year for Harry Potter fans. To think that I've discovered the series three weeks ago and here I am, reviewing "The Half-Blood Prince".

And misreading can be quite misleading, focusing on the second part of the title, I totally overlooked the "and" and thought that film would reveal that Harry Potter is the Prince. Maybe I went too far in my speculations but now that we're getting close to the 'real deal' and far from the times of cute wizardry and enchantment, anything is possible and even worse: anyone can die. Many deaths have been quite heartbreaking over the course of Harry's journey, none was pointless though.

It's been established, ever since the death of Bambi's mom and Mufasa in "The Lion King", that the death of a parent or a mentor figure is integral to the coming-of-age story. Harry Potter is no exception and he's perhaps the strongest codifier of that trope outside the realms of Disney. His very life is owed to the sacrifice of his parents and his magical power crystallizes the wrath of the hideous Voldemort. The opening with the destruction of the Millennium Bridge proves that no one is immune to his actions anymore and that the overarching scope of Potter's adventures reached its limit.

But for all its ominousness, the film finds a strange way to make us lower our guards and enjoy the novelties it has to offer especially the introduction of Horace Slughorn, an old comrade of Dumbledore reassigned as a Potions teacher. Jim Broadbent gives such a natural performance as the bumbling old professor that he seems to have been part of the series from the beginning. The man is hired in Hogwarts because he hides a crucial memory involving young Voldemort -Tom Riddle- that could help to defeat him.

There are many flashbacks providing new insights on Voldemort's backstory but interestingly, there aren't many new players and the film has a strange focus on Snape (Alan Rickman) assigned as the New Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Somewhat I wasn't surprised by that new turn of events. Ever since the series started, he was a living enigma, I could never tell whether he was acting "good" to hide his vileness or the exact opposite, as any of these two assumptions could be validated at least once. This film finally reveals the depths of his persona. And it was about time.

Another character who gets a similar upgrading in vileness is Drago Malefoy (Tom Felton) whom Harry Potter suspects to have turned into a Death Eater working for Voldemort after his father's disgrace and imprisonment in Azkaban. Snape becomes the protector of Malefoy and seals an unbreakable vow with his mother and Bellatrix Lesstrange. Obviously, only the worse could come from such a pact and I should have suspected something wrong seeing how Dumbledore -who was so close to Merlin- turned into Gandalf the Grey all of a sudden, he leaves the show in a blaze of glory... but he leaves it nonetheless.

I guess the series called for such a dramatic death and from my modest viewer's seat, I knew I was witnessing something as significant as the death of Bambi's mom. But I wasn't as overflowed by emotions as I thought I would be. As saddened as I was, I took it as a natural step in Potter's quest. The whole irony of "Half-Blood" is that the middle section of the film is perhaps one of the most lighthearted of the whole series if you except the first film. But it just doesn't prepare you for how dark it gets.

I've never enjoyed the interactions within the Potter gang as much as I did in that episode especially the flirtatious jokes and the way many cute and comedic moments ensued with the help of the love elixir. I also loved the growing chemistry between Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) who's finally given a substantial role. And boy, I loved that that segment in the Weasley Twins' shop, if anything that moment of pure recreation and fun reminded me of the values wizardry should also stand for ... once the baddies are defeated (or away).

Overall, the film felt like a giant cinematic mood whiplash whose most pivotal moment is when Dumbledore and Harry extract the secret from Slughorn's memory about the Horcrux, the object that establishes "killing" as a key to immortality and reveals how Voldemort used seven murders to separate his souls into artefacts (tying many previous plot points together). Unfortunately, whatever thrills are provided by the last escapade between Harry and Dumbledore in that dark cavern are easily overshadowed by the headmaster's demise, caused not by Malefoy, but Snape, aka the man in the title.

So doubt isn't permitted anymore about Snape and that last revelation prompts Harry to abandon Hogwarts and go for the climactic fight against Voldemort. And I guess now I'm ready for the final two-parter, I don't know what to expect, I only wish they won't kill many characters who're so dear to me. But "Deathly Gallows" sure isn't a reassuring title!

The Tales of Hoffmann

The Naked Emperor with some pretty Red Shoes...
Maybe I lack a special gift to fully appreciate Michael Powell and Emeric Pressbuger's "Tales of Hoffman", maybe it's all about being an opera buff or maybe there's no "maybe".

Indeed, I read some comments from opera aficionados who loved it while others experts disdained a few artistic choices and the way they interfered with the operatic vision of Offenbach... and to my defense, if I could enjoy five Powell-Pressburger offerings in a row, maybe a slight dissatisfaction was bound to happen. I didn't dislike "The Tales of Hoffman" but I wouldn't recommend it as a first movie from the Archers... and I don't know why I should feel so guilty now.

Indeed, what can you say about a movie Martin Scorsese claims to have been obsessed with ever since he discovered it as a boy? And what can you say about a movie that prompted George Romero to become a director? One additional endorsement would have turned any criticism into sheer blasphemy. Yes, it seems like "Tales of Hoffman" should be embraced by anyone who's sensitive enough about the art of film-making, or plain art.

Again, I don't think any film should be immune to criticism no matter how good its intentions are and this one had its share of decriers in Pauline Kael who said that the film confused décor with art, and Bowsley Crother (from the New York Times) who criticized the lack of warmth and fire compared to its obvious alter-ego "The Red Shoes". I'm not trying to corner this film in a sort of in-between status where both admirers and detractors would be right, but I do believe there's a general truth that can be said about Powell and Pressburger's film: it is visually breathtaking. But does that say much?

Calling it a Technicolor masterpiece is an understatement, the restoration proceeded from three original negatives made the film look as modern and lavish as if it was made ten years ago. And the set-design and scenery are magnificent to look at. But then again, I saw the same level of perfectionism in the choices of color, clothes, patterns and ornaments displayed in "The Red Shoes" or "A Matter of Life and Death". The trick with the painted stairs in the first "Olympia" segment was irresistibly clever but could it beat the legendary 'stairway to heaven'?

The problem with "The Tales of Hoffman" lies in its premise, perfectly summed up by number one fan Marty: "The Red Shoes" was filled with music and opera, this film IS music and opera. So what we've got here is the iconic ballet sequence from "The Red Shoes" stretched for two hours, spanning over three segments where Hoffman (Robert Rounseville, one of the only singers AND dancers) tells the three adventures during which he met various love interests to a crowd of wine-drinking listeners in some tavern. The film is opera from beginning to end.

Speaking of the end, I was slightly confused when Moira Shearer made a last entrance, I didn't know she was the ballerina from the interlude so I was a bit confused. But let's get back to the film, I guess in order to enjoy "The Tales of Hoffman", you've got to wonder for how long you can sustain songs and dancing. The answer is simple. If these are the kind of parts you tend to skip in a movie, this is not for you. This is why, if I had to stick to my guns, I should consider my review of "An American in Paris" where I dismissed the musical climax as too much a distraction from a plot, but the situation is different here, the "plot" is in the music?

I think "Tales of Hoffman" had better design and cinematography than Minnelli's Best Picture winner but it might have been too heavy handed in its ambitions to make music a cinematically viable language. That it inspired many film-makers is no surprise, this is a film I would study myself if I wished to become one, and there's so much to learn in the use of music, décor and lighting, how the movement of the body can match the lyrics of the melody but even with that in mind, the problem with opera is that it doesn't speak the same language than cinema.

Cinema can be silent in the sense that we understand what goes within the characters in one expression or a written text, we can be missing a few bits of information but we follow the pace of the action in the same rhythm. Opera has a rhythm of its own and it's meant as a spectacle, it takes twice of thrice more time to get us one information or a point that we would easily get to without music. In "The Tales of Hoffman" do, but the escapist value of Opera is overplayed at the expanses of the traditional dynamics of storytelling, so the film doesn't feel much a movie but one big gigantic musical interlude. And I disliked "What's Opera, Doc?" for the same reason.

That said, I really enjoyed the automaton part, which was the closest part to a story in the film and a legitimate plot, maybe it was the dazzling yellowish color, maybe the way puppets were turned into real dancers or vice versa or the whole creativeness involved in that segment, or maybe the simple presence of Moira Shearer... or even here, there's no "maybe".

After that sequence, nothing could match that feeling. The "Moon" theme which was used in "Life is beautiful" does convey a few waves of poetry but I was expecting something that goes far beyond the level of visual enjoyment.

The film is a good Archers' production, but not the bull's-eye from the opening!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hogwarts united against the forces of evil... and oppressive bureaucracy?
Looking back at the first films, I wonder if J.K. Rowling would have expanded the story so generously hadn't she been carried away by the success of the first books and their respective adaptations; probably getting new ideas with -this time- the cast members in mind and so many vehicles for new CGI "wizardry". Her 'baby' was undeniably caught in a virtuous circle and the fifth opus "Order of Phoenix" was no exception.

Although this chapter is a bit tougher to follow, it's all to the credit of a writer to be able to amplify such a promising material and make a coming-of-age story over the span of seven books. Naturally, the tone is likely to evolve as the kids approach adulthood and the inevitability of the final confrontation with the forces of evil ("Goblet of Fire" gave us quite a foretaste). So if the enchantment fades away in favor of more sinister plots and subplots, maybe it's only a way for fantasy to echo reality and the loss of innocence induced by the passing of times.

Neville (Matthew Lewis) who was the butt of many jokes in the first stories, has nothing remotely comical about him anymore and Drago Malefoy (Tom Felton) goes from the spoiled cowardly brat to a dark young man who won't be played for laughs any longer. By contrast, the least blatant changes come from the leading trio whose evolution followed a more natural pace. And here they are in their fifth year at Hogwarts, which means they're pushing to 15, older than their counterparts but looking young enough to be believable teenagers. Eventually, the only one who's still played for laughs is Cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) shell-shocked after an impromptu visit from the Dementors (an eloquent symbolism as the attack is set in a playground).

Yet the tone of this Harry Potter isn't as "dark" as it seems, only puzzling. After using a magical spell to put the Dementors away, a mail announces he's been expelled from Hogwarts. I didn't decide to give much weight to that because intuitively, I felt it was only a set-up to a denser story. Even the reaction of Uncle Vernon proved that it wasn't intended to carry some gravitas (I have a chuckle just thinking of Richard Griffith's ecstatic grimace, as if he was holding a seizure). Still, that was a perplexing set-up.

Indeed, why wouldn't Harry Potter be trusted anymore? Wasn't that an obvious case of self-defense? Wasn't the Ministry of Magic overreacting a little? Why wouldn't they believe that You-Know-Who was back? Not to spoil the previous chapter but how did they think that 'incident' ever happened? Harry's judgment made me question the choices of Rowling to insert some comments against bureaucracy and political corruption in her universe, that's a level of maturity I didn't expect especially since it took time for the main plot to take its full shape.

So what strikes in "Order of Phoenix" is that new loosely structure tone, combined with several new faces and a storyline that demands a lot of patience and has gotten me lost several times. Obviously, the big shots of the Wizard worlds don't trust Voldemort's return and officially appoint Dolores Umbridge as the new teacher of you-know-what, officiously a "mole" determined to whip everyone in line. While she has the traits of Cinderella's godmother, Imella Staunton plays Umbridge as a combo between Nurse Ratched and a caricature of Margaret Thatcher with the pink outfit of Jackie Kennedy. Maybe too one-dimensional to be an endearing villain, she was a scene-stealing presence.

Speaking of the newcomers, there's the unbelievably sexy Natalia Tena Nymphadora Tonks (a name more fitted for a James Bond girl) and Evanna Lynch plays the dreamy blonde Luna Lovegood, a girl who seems to live in her own world and looks strange even by Hogwarts standards. Finally, there's Helena Bonham Carter who makes quite an entrance as the Death Eather cousin of Sirius Black: Bellatrix Lestrange. It's not much the way she looks than what she does in that film that would leave no skepticism about her status as a serious villain. There's a lot to digest in that film, as you can see, but from what I read, the book is the longest of the series, so the task of David Yates was rather Herculean.

And it's no wonder the result feels like such a maze of secrets, traps, chases, escapes and revelations, including a great one about Harry Potter's father, giving him more depth and humanity than the eternal sanctification that started from chapter one. One can easily lose his track in the film but I guess the best way to stay focused is just to follow Harry Potter, he IS the touchstone of the series, and never knows more than we do. Perhaps that's the best thing about the series, we know there are events that precede him, a lot of foreshadowing, but as long as we stay with him, answers will come sooner or later, with style or heavy drama.

Now of course, Harry's not the round little wizard with eyes getting wide after a successful magical trick, his personality has turned into something fully dimensional and far more complex than many franchise characters... he's not the protagonist of a rich universe, he's a universe by himself and maybe that's why he's often inclined to do the job alone, as if he felt his friends shouldn't venture in the same places than he, as if he had to carry alone the burden of being the "chosen one". But "Order of Phoenix" has this novelty (foreshadowed in the title) that this time, the game gets bigger... so they all work as a team, and not just a trio.

It's all about spreading the wealth and the film has the juice of a thrilling adventure movie, the score that goes with it and the climax that redeems a few little flaws.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The wit of Oscar Wilde, the thrills of Victorian horror... and an unexpected call for "soul-diet"...
Approaching my thirties, I was looking at my early adult years with nostalgia, as if something was being lost and I was aware of its dissolution.

I was still young, immature and somewhat naïve but I was sensing a change that had nothing to do with looks, I used to say it was "something in the eyes". We're never quite innocent beyond the teenage years but there's a relative innocence in the great scale of life, sparkles in the eyes, an appetite for pleasure and a lust for idleness that disappear once responsibilities start. My brother is 25 and he starts his first job in a few weeks, somewhat I feel he won't look exactly the same in one year.

That preamble is only to highlight how strongly I felt toward "The Picture of Dorian Gray". I knew a few bits of the story and I thought it would be a sort of commentary about aging through a picture that ages instead of its real-life subject. I expected a movie with a long time span and a gimmick toyed with to elicit a few cheap thrills. But no, the film had more to do with the unseen rather than the obvious.

Indeed, we all do age, but who can tell a good wine from a bad one if not by tasting it. It's in the lowest depths of our soul that our true selves are hidden and the titular picture of the man named Dorian Gray follows less an aging process than the degeneration of a soul that surrendered to cynicism and vanity. And yes, this is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde's novel, his only novel actually. But it's like one novel was enough space for the genius of the dandy-poet to express his philosophy to the fullest.

Wilde said it himself that the film was representing through the major characters the three sides of his personalities. Lord Henry Wotton is the Oscar Wilde the public thinks he is: a hedonist, a bit blasé, a tad cynical who can only elaborate his speeches through witty quotations ("the best way to resist the temptation is to yield to it" etc. etc.) Who else could play him than the charming and biting George Sanders? Lowell Gilmore is the painter Basil Hallward, the way Wilde sees himself, ironically the least colorful character. And Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) is the idealized vision: the embodiment of eternal youth... earned through a Faustian pact.

That novel could say more about Wilde than any autobiography, it's no wonder it was the only one he wrote, one of dramatic effects though since it was used against him and contributed to his imprisonment for homosexuality. So for better or for worse, one can't appreciate the talent and the depth of Wilde without dedicating some time to "The Picture of Dorian Gray", if not the book, at least the film. It does of course avoid the salty elements and the ambiguity about Dorian's sexuality (those were the Hays Code day) but the least shown is enough to generate uneasiness.

We literally witness a soul that starts as pure as virginal as a newborn but then proceeds to rot itself under the pressure of an influencing twisted mind. When Dorian hears Henry's ode to young age and pleasure, out of fear of losing it, he wishes to give his soul in exchange of eternal youth. There's one catch, it's the picture that will age for him but a few scenes later, the picture actually reveals more than the aging process. Whatever it shows is something I knew nothing about and it felt so good to have genuine and efficient jump scares throughout the film.

Yes, for all its philosophical take on age and life, the film is a terrific and terrifying thriller with many nightmare fuel moments. I wouldn't recommend watching this film alone, even on a Halloween night. It was listed in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Thrills and I can see why: it's a remarkable example of Gothic film noir set in the Victorian era and the Angela Lansbury's presence works like a subtle connecting thread with a similar movie made the year before: "Gaslight". And she plays such a different role than her wisecracking maid that she probably confirmed her status as one of the most promising newcomers in the industry.

Her Sybil Vane, a sweet and sensitive cabaret singer, is enamored in a way that never shows in movies, it's all in the total abandonment of any pride to the benefit of that one stranger who walked into her life. She gave him her soul indeed. Looking at the more "obvious" performance of Donna Reed as the future love interest Gladys Hallward, it's easy to see what earned Lansbury an Oscar nomination. I was rather surprised by how brief her role was, but the impact she left is the key to Dorian's metamorphosis. She's indirectly the first drop of ink that will darken his soul and we despise him precisely because we were touched by Sibyl.

I can't go on more with the film without spoiling it, while I think it deserves to be left to the viewers who haven't seen it. It is a legitimate thriller from a director Albert Lewin who didn't make a name of himself but he directed another favorite of mine, the underrated "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman", another movie haunted with memories and intertwining romance with death. As for the performance of Dorian Gray, maybe his youthful appearance so charming at first, turns rapidly into a sort of ghastly death mask that didn't play in favor of subtlety.

Still, his performance made an impact and I was asking myself aone question when the film was over: Maybe if we could have a glimpse on our souls through pictures, maybe we'd think to improve things up the way we try to lose pounds. If anything, the film is an invitation to a soul-diet.

Meet John Doe

The film that came close to being a masterpiece, as the one "dark" Capra movie...
Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe" opens with a medley resonating exactly as if every facet of America tried to speak for itself through one universal language which is music, the result is both cheerful and misleading.

Indeed, the first scene establishes the context with an eloquent subtext. A young clerk comes from the new editor manager's office and indicates through playful whistles the employees who're getting fired. The necessity and value of jobs are shown through a cruel irony, notice how no one protests as if it was part of a natural cycle in these Great Depression days and even non-blue collar jobs are immune to the ruthless laws of capitalism.

That's for a start, now there would be no story in the status quo, the narrative takes off when one of the ill-fated employees decide to rebel (the typical Capra move: it takes one voice to be raised). As a last act of bravura, she manufactures a letter of protest with the pen-name "John Doe" menacing to throw himself off the city hall building at Christmas eve if nothing's done to help the people. In our 2010's jargon, it's called a buzz.

And it sure does spread the 40s way (word-of-mouth, newspaper and radio) and one thing leading to another, Anne (Barbara Stanwyck) gets her job back with higher wages and convinces her boss to counter-attack the accusations of fakery by hiring a man who'd pretend to be John Doe. They find in Long John Willoughby the perfect average Joe, played by the always endearing Gary Cooper. John's a former baseball player whose career was cut short after an arm injury and whose life spiraled into poverty.

Cooper plays his usual reliable and dependable average Joe, but I didn't remember how lively and captivating he was. After watching his "Sergeant York" and "Pride of the Yankees", I'm surprised he wasn't nominated for that performance. Cooper plays a normal fellow who enjoys this sudden rush of wealth and splendor and who doesn't grasp the malicious intents of his advisers... not out of naivety but from a firm belief that they're acting for the best. There are also growing feelings toward Anne, but thankfully, the romance is never played out too loud (though the film has one or two sentimental moment too many).

Anyway, there are three characters who stand for their beliefs all through the films. John Doe and his sidekick (played by scene-stealing Walter Brennan) who enjoys the idleness of a life that doesn't hinge on any financial enslavement, his speech about the 'heelots' is still oddly relevant and I'm surprised that Capra could insert such a thought-provoking monologue in a film supposed to embrace all-American values. But perhaps behind this defiance toward the system, lies the failure of politicians to be entrusted by the people.

As D.P. Norton, Edward Arnold embodies that ordinary selfishness. The actor doesn't overplay the corrupt aspect as if lying and deception were a second nature, as if actually, there's no betrayal to blame on politicians because it's part of their plans, and we make a wrong diagnosis by labeling their policies as "failures". The clever foreshadowing of Norton's true nature comes from his interest toward the 'John Doe' concept and then his positive reaction from Anne's answer "for money" when she was asked about her motives. Money is a word that hits a chord, the man can buy power and he quickly understands that John Doe is the horse on which he should bet.

It all comes down to the central character of Anne who swims in different waters and has built a project that went beyond her own control. It just works too well and many average Joes join John's protests against the political corruption. The momentum is so great that there's room for a third political party but the man who pulls the strings is Norton and turns it into a 'grassroots' campaign. Anne's arc comes full closed when she realizes that she was as much a puppet as John, only with a higher price. She discovered at her own expenses that capitalism didn't exert its influence for the welfare of people but just as a never-ending cycle between money and power.

Interestingly, the boss who fired her in the first place, revealed himself to be a softer heart, and tells John about the scam. And I think "Meet John Doe" does more for patriotism than another flag-raising movie of the same year "Sergeant York", and it's as biting a social commentary as "Citizen Kane". Much more it's an interesting case of a story that can speak a thousand words and provide that epic vibe with just a clever use of editing and montage of newspapers, reaction shots and sign-brandishing shots. Capra proved to be a master storyteller in a territory he made his own with "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "Mr Smith Goes to Washington".

One was a lighthearted comedy, the second a drama, "Meet John Doe" starting like the former, evolving like the latter could have metamorphosed its narrative in a strikingly dramatic way to end with the overdue Christic climax, faithful to the spirit of the original story from Robert Presnell Jr. The current ending might be your typical Frank Capra's restoration of faith in mankind with the bells ringing (literally) and hearts singing "Alleluia" but it seemed to belong to another movie, so far from the level of grittiness and sharpness displayed before.

It has left a strong impact on me when I first saw it some ten years ago. I wasn't then the movie buff I am today, but I was underwhelmed by the conclusion, something was artificially fabricated to generate a happy ending that it failed to connect with the whole dynamics it was building up to that point. In other words, John Willoughby had to die. It would have been a rather tragic ending but with enough meaningfulness to seed bittersweet feelings and the sensation that things might get better.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Not kids' stuff anymore...
Starting with a frightening gallery of skulls out of which emerges a menacing snake, the first shots of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", directed by Mike Newell, are already tainting the atmosphere with an unusually disturbing darkness. Yes even by Hogwarts' standards, there's something quite unsettling in the opening flashback.

From the perspective of an elderly gardener, we see a young man mentioning the name of Voldemort while leaning his head over a cradle whom occupant needs no hinting. The ugly sight of Peter Pettigrew makes the instant connection with the previous film. Finally, a snake seals the fate of the poor gardener who's zapped from existence in a lightning flash that reveals it was a vision from Harry Potter all along. A grown-up Harry.

And this time he's already in good company as it's Hermione who awakens him with Ron not too far. From the absence of the Dursleys, I felt the saga reached a point of maturity that allowed it to start without the usual preliminaries. And the film does make quite an impression from the start, showing Harry and his friends at the Quidditch World Cup, a part that made me expect an orgy of CGI-loaded acrobatic stunts.

Yet just when I thought the film was going to exhaust itself with special effects, the chapter is abruptly closed with the interference of the Death Eaters, frightening creatures who look like the kind of minions Voldemort would have and whose sense of fashion remind of some triple-lettered Organization. When Harry was knocked over and woke up in a landscape of ashes and desolation, I was confused. Why would the film set us to such exciting game just to cut instantly into it?

Well, technically, the part represented 200 pages in a book four times longer and it wasn't much an adaptation as it was a compression of a story of epic proportions, a story whose length was probably justified by its key significance in Harry Potter's canon. The film could have worked perfectly without the World Cup but it' a memorable moment nonetheless and it ends on the ominous note of a skull and snake forming in the sky, to keep us on guards before the return to Hogwarts.

Then the tone changed so drastically I couldn't see where this was leading to. I guess there's a reason why these films are so long. Now, I don't know exactly if I should go into the Triwizard contest hosted by Hogwarts or that final act directly. I guess both work for the exact same purpose as they highlight the maturity of the main characters from the first crushes that start to titillate their hormones to their studies. The contest offers a perfect backdrop for what constitutes a great blending between the high school movies and Harry Potter's usual formula, adding new layers of complexity... with the same old recipes.

So for one hour and half, we see Harry battling a dragon, trying to decrypt a message, learning new secrets from the new Defense Against Dark Arts Teacher Alastair 'MadEye" Moody, you know... routine stuff. In the meantime, we also see him asking a girl out, getting into a feud with Ron... we see Hermione finally blossoming into the beautiful girl that never fooled us and Neville getting more confident. It's all the more natural that the Hogwarts regulars (Dumbledore, Hagrid...) are relegated to the periphery of the story. Kids are growing up indeed. We finally discover that Hogwarts had its jock all along in Cedric Diggory (a pre-"Twilight" Robert Pattinson) a nice and popular kid who's so perfect I knew he would be involved in some dark twist. How wrong I was while still being right!

So the middle-act while spectacular, exciting and full of intriguing subplots, i rather conventional and not without a few loose ends... but it culminates with a last event taking place in a maze and whose final outcome is Harry and Cedric grabbing the trophy that turns out to be a Portkey and then transports them in a setting we've never seen before and well, what goes after is the kind of "thing" I could not have guessed coming. While processing the ending, it all makes sense, it's all been leading up to that point. I said about "Chamber of Secrets" that it made the first film feel like an appetizer, well that's what "Goblet of Fire" does for the first three movies.

Indeed, it was time for Harry Potter to meet his nemesis Voldemort... and he makes quite an entrance in Ralph Fiennes, whose traits, voice, mannerisms and hideous face truly match the fear he's been inspiring during the previous films. The shock coming from his reveal and the death that goes with it announce us the real path the adventures of Harry Potter are taking as we have to accept the imminence of a confrontation between the forces of Evil and the Good. Yes, the series is taking huge mythical proportions... but are we surprised?

I said that "Azkaban" put the franchise at cruising speed, I should have waited till I saw "Goblet of Fire", it was merely a take-off and while the film just feigns excitement and fun, harboring the usual stuff of action-adventure and youth oriented film with all the usual manufactured special effects, all these elements are instantly disclosed with that final act whose erupting violence totally justifies its PG-13 rating.

Yes, there's quite a gulf between the first and the fourth opus and even the audience is expected to be mature enough to handle the secret that goblet of fire is hiding. "Goblet of Fire" is a departure from the tone of the previous films and can be regarded as both a masterpiece of direction and... misdirection.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The "Harry Potter" franchise at (broomstick's) cruising speed...
Animaguses and werewolves, a flying hypogriff, which is a pleonasm, night buses, talking paintings, time turners and so on and so forth... all these exciting products of J.K. Rowling's fruitful imagination blending with centuries of fantasy literature, bloom as smoothly as naturally in the third opus of the Harry Potter's series: "Prisoner of Azkaban". I liked it a lot and I was surprised by how much I liked it.

Indeed, after two movies, I started to notice patterns within the structure ... sometimes they enhanced my excitement, some others, I wasn't quite sure whether I wanted to experience them again. For instance, I knew the film would start at the Dursleys and I was wondering what kind of mischief Harry would inadvertently cause, I wasn't disappointed and Pam Ferris sure got what she deserved for insulting his parents. I also liked that for once it was Harry going out by himself telling viewers in all subtext that Harry has grown up and wouldn't take it anymore.

I was also expecting a few newcomers: as the new Defense Against Dark Arts teacher, Professor Rupin, David Thewlis proved to be a nice addition and so was Emma Thompson as a Professor Sybill Trelawney. I expected of course a new villain, and seeing Gary Oldman introduced as Sirius Black, the man who caused the murder of Potter's parent, I expected quite a climax. But all positive expectations put aside; in all fairness, there was something perplexing about the title.

"Prisoner of Azkaban" made me expect a prison (duh!) so I visualized a high dungeon or a dark tower over a high cliff with many passageways and corridors inside. Which means that after the claustrophobic and unnerving journey around the "Chamber of Secrets", I wasn't too excited by the premise of another in-door adventure. So you can imagine how much I enjoyed "Azkaban" and its departure from the usual settings. Most of the adventure takes place outside Hogwarts, and features great exterior shots. It says a lot that the film wasn't Oscar-nominated for Best Set Design.

However, it was nominated for Best Score and Best Visual Effects and on that level, the film is an absolute delight. "Secrets" was made of variations from the previous score because John Williams had a busy year but here, he makes a spectacular come-back with a score that is as heart-pounding and triumphant as any fantasy epic, far from the ominous and whimsicality of the original score. And the visuals remind us that CGI reached a point of maturation in 2004, though Alfonso Cuaron, the newly assigned director, didn't let them overtake the film and the best computer effects are never obtained without the involvement of some practical ones.

So "Azkaban" is an outdoor adventure, perfectly suitable for three protagonists whose ages are around 13 or 15 and seem more fit to be running over a hill, flying on an apogriff or finally punching the odious Malefoy in the face, than any riddle to solve within the confined walls of Hogwarts. It's like the scope of the adventure was too big for the school and allowed us viewers to have some relief and a share of fun as Harry attempts to catch Sirius Black and avenge his parents' death. That would be too linear of course so within his journey, many obstacles will be set as well as many opportunities to unveil many secrets.

And that's the mark of the best franchises, they don't touch the pillars (the leading trio, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Snape and even Malefoy) they enrich the gallery with new protagonists and plot elements, but they also dig deeper in the past and reveal a whole chain of events that preceded Harry Potter, as if the story was only one link of an epic chain, one that involves so many characters the franchise start to strike as a real universe where each member gets into a passage rite consisting of a substantial contribution to the plot. In "Secrets", Ron took part to the climax without Hermione, "Azkaban" allows Hermione to finally shine and contribute to the resolution. Characters start to act like heroes on their own and not just foils.

And all the teachers and courses are left to the backdrop. Seriously, I didn't expect the film to be contain such a great deal of escapism but it says a lot about the seriousness upon which Rowling and the Warner Bros studios considered the franchise and insisted on maintaining this capability to precede the viewers or the readers' anticipations, to surprise them. And that's the least one would expect from a series dealing with the world of wizardry, isn't it? And any innovation works because we're getting used to the world of spells and magical formulas so we can accept any new trick as long as it has rules of its own.

And it all comes down to that last nice time-playing twist I didn't see coming, and that could have been contrived if it wasn't foreshadowed in previous scenes. Yes, the Harry Potter plays tricks with us but never without elements of foreshadowing, even some that weren't meant to foretell anything. Yes, they play tricks with us, and in retrospect, they often work. : from a simple pet animal that hides a terrible secret to the explanation of why Hermione is so studious and always ahead of her schoolmates.

Though the story didn't get darker than "Secrets", it goes deeper in Harry's fears and traumas and features some of the most frightening creatures after you-know-who in the Dementors (the guardians of Azkaban). But the tone is quite lighthearted and the film has more the flavor of a teen adventure than a fantasy movie, but don't get it wrong, it's still a Harry Potter, and the series is definitely at cruising speed. Broomstick-wise of course.


If "Mulan" was made today...
If "Mulan" was made today, instead of reviewing her lesson for the Lady matchmaker, she would be found trying some new moves with her father's sword. And the song "Reflection" would include a chorus where Fa Mulan would pull a "Let it Go" and say "But What I (Really) Want is...".

If "Mulan" was made today, the grandmother would have sided with Mulan all along and encourage her to follow her dreams. Which leads me to think that she wouldn't have alerted the family when Mulan left home to go fighting instead of Fa Zhou and maybe we wouldn't even have Mushu.

Speaking of Mushu, if "Mulan" was made today, we certainly wouldn't have Eddie Murphy as the voice actor. Though I'm not sure they would have made the effort to cast one Asian actor for every single character, the scene-stealing sidekick would have certainly been voiced by an Asian-American star. And why not? Listening to the little red dragon, I was wondering whether it was Axel Folley or the Donkey who got caught in a time loop that took him to the Han dynasty... and I wonder why they didn't try to get Jackie Chan for the part (was he that busy with "Rushmore"?)

If "Mulan" was made today, we wouldn't have the cricket because he would be as needless in 2018 than he was in 1998...

If "Mulan" was made today, she would have been a natural-born warrior impressing the soldiers with her skills from the very start instead of being that "adorkable" unexperienced maiden trying to pass for a man. Everything would have been done to tone-down the effect of her cross-dressing and reduce it to the cutting of her hair.

Speaking of which, if "Mulan" was made today, I'm not sure we'd have that badass synthetized score during the dressing moment. Not even sure we'd have so much music that scream "Nineties" (and yes, it came from Jerry Goldsmith, of all the composers!)

If "Mulan" was made today, a song like "Like a Man" wouldn't exist. (I wish they would keep the tune though because it's catchy as hell).

If "Mulan" was made today, Shan-Yu wouldn't have been turned into such a scary-looking villain in case it might offend Hunnish populations.

Now that one is risky: if "Mulan" was made today, would there be a romance? Would they keep the character of the young captain Shan?

Let's face it, "Mulan" is perhaps one of the few Disney movies where we don't get one but two heroes and Shang even follows a character arc as he starts as an inexperienced and prejudiced soldier trying to fit in his father's shoes to a more tolerant person. Mulan and Shang form a rather interesting "Yin and Yang" duo and I wonder if he would have been kept or just turned into some ruthless leader wrongly opinioned about women.

Still, let's stick to the romance. If "Mulan" was made today, would they have abandoned any prospect of a romantic relationship and avoid the possibility of two male-looking soldiers being romantically involved. Disney has so much to show, so many grounds to break, so many taboos to fight, that I don't think they would have missed that opportunity for one of the few stories involving cross-dressing. So I'll stick to my guns and say there would be a romance.

That said, if "Mulan" was made today, the romance would be one-sided and wouldn't distract Mulan from her mission. Well, as long as they keep that hilarious and risqué "river-bathing" scene...

Now, of course, if "Mulan" was made today, it would be in 3D.

But if "Mulan" was made today, the Great Wall of China would look even greater but I don't think they could have made a more impressive sequence than Huns' epic riding over the mountains. This has got to be one of the most beautiful Disney shots from any movie ever on a pure Eisensteinian or Kurosawan level.

If "Mulan" was made today, she would still save the day by causing an avalanche but maybe the writers would have found a better way for our heroes to survive. I want Mulan, Shang, Mushu and the other fellows to live like the next watcher but there are so many insults to the laws of probability in three minutes of the avalanche sequences than maybe all the Renaissance Disney pictures of Disney. And my disbelief was suspended by a looser rope than the one thrown from over a cliff to land on Harvey Fiernstein's head.

If "Mulan" was made today, the climax would have kept the concubine cross-dressing but would have ended with an iron-crossing fight between Mulan and Shao-li.

If "Mulan" was made today, she would have accepted the job as the Emperor's counselor and never get back home to become a maiden again. Hell, Shang wouldn't have followed her. Wait a minute, of course he wouldn't have... since he's not supposed to exist so it all makes sense that Mulan ends up a counselor, then a general, then maybe the new Empress of China.

In fact, if "Mulan" was made today, there would be at least two or three extra female characters, maybe Shao-li would have a daughter who would have been the real nemesis, maybe Mulan would have a little sister (all right I cheated for that one) or maybe the empowering message would have been even more explicit, like "Brave", "Frozen" and "Moana" and would make 1998 Mulan original look like Snow White...

My question is: are there any girls who still don't give a damn about being warriors? Mulan did that out of love for her father and I just hope that will still be the key motive in the 2020 versions but I do expect a few changes to remind me how far we are from 1998... when Mulan was considered a progressive movie.

It's a matter of opinion but I believe it is.

A Star Is Born

"Bad Romance" made Lady Gaga a Pop Star, a Good Romance will make her a Hollywood Lady...
"A Star is Born" is a cinematic contradiction. It reveals a lot and yet doesn't reveal much.

There's a moment that caught my attention and doesn't feature any of the two lead actors. Ally's father (Andrew Dice Clay) tells his colleagues about people who had enough talent to compete with the likes of Sinatra (with Sinatra actually) but didn't have their big break or didn't believe in themselves enough. Point was: it's not enough to have what it gets, it also takes to believe in getting it.

Now, let's get back to my contradiction: Lady Gaga is an international star, as soon as she popped up in the pop scene, it was quite obvious she was the true heiress of Madonna and a star in her own right. It wasn't just about her talent but also her eccentric looks, her unique sense of fashion, and the fact that an ordinary-looking Italian girl-next-door could become a legitimate icon. So everyone thought she was the new Madonna but who would have thought one second she would also be the new Barbra Streisand?

What Lady Gaga delivers in "A Star is Born" is a performance that shines through its straight naturalness wrapped up in an artistic talent that blooms under the comforting direction of Bradley Cooper, the director and his character. That an established star would be able to get back to her roots and play a shy newcomer (with an uncanny resemblance to Sofia Coppola) slowly overcoming her insecurities is actually more impressive than any of your routine Oscar-bait mellow-dramas.

So Lady Gaga is Ally, a girl who's got the talent but has entrapped her motivation behind the bars of a nose complex (can't help but see the Streisand parallel). It takes the encounter with Jackson Maine -an aging rocker played by a handsomely bearded Bradley Cooper- to realize that she's got it after all. It's not just the talent but that she's got something to tell. It might sound corny but the film is actually immune against such criticism because one can't ignore the self-referential aspect.

Now let me open a parenthesis: I was looking forward to watching "A Star is Born" before that version was even in the talks, I wanted to watch the Judy Garland then the original and the 1976 remake. It ended up with Cooper's being the first version I saw. It's obvious that the titular star can't not-be played by a complete artist with a few personal demons to slay and Streisand and Garland must have a great deal of adversity in their lives. It is obvious why some confessions from Ally hit the right chord acting-wise.

Indeed, being Ally allows Lady Gaga to open up about her insecurities in the kind of bravura performance that goes deeper than making yourself uglier, it's about undressing your soul. Ally represents Stefani Germanotta before all the "Roma-Romama" and "Ga-Ga Ou-lala" started spreading all over the radios. I discovered her at the end of 2009 and at the beginning of 2010, Lady Gaga was a brand-name already. So yes, a star can be born that quickly because there's something about talent.

Hips don't lie, said Shakira, I would say talent is an even worse liar, which takes me back to the initial contradiction. The show reveals that Lady Gaga is not only musically gifted but can play her heart out and is worthy of more demanding roles than Madonna or Beyoncé... but I wasn't surprised, it wasn't just her Golden Globe win that rang a bell but the fact that some people just got what it takes. And for that, even Bradley Cooper deserves some credit, that he recycles material and works on a timeless story doesn't mean he couldn't fail, he jeopardized his credibility on this directorial debut but proved to do half the job well by having the right cast.

Lady Gaga was perfect for the role and so was he as the lead role, the fading star Jackson Maine who discovers accidentally Ally singing Piaf in a shacked up bar and decides to take her as a protégée. It doesn't fool us one second that what go between these two persons are vibrations that venture in the realm of love rather than any dream of musical achievement, but it's through music that they find a way to seal their romance, through the future Oscar winner "Shallow", a song that I would have kept humming outside the theater if it wasn't for "Bad Romance" interfering with it.

The beauty of "A Star is Born" is that it works as much as a romance than a music film and combines these two aspects expertly. It's the kind of love story that doesn't need any artificial plot device, no cheating, no prison, only the ascension of a young woman and the descent into the hells of alcoholism of a man. The film opens with their romance and the rest is all about how one slowly rises above her demons while the other sinks into. It's a love story and the process of a separation going through scenes that are rather painful to watch and one so embarrassing I couldn't stare at the screen.

To think that I suspected Bradley Cooper would give himself a very grateful role but he's got perhaps an even more challenging one as he goes against his charming persona and is surprisingly good at conveying pathos without never being totally pathetic. For a directorial debut, the result is quite impressive and I envision at least four Oscar-nominations with a few technical nods such as Sound and Editing. I'm not sure Sam Elliott would get a nod but he was also a highlight in a film that full of them.

And beyond these Oscar considerations, even without watching the predecessors, "A Star is Born" does justice to the story, if not a masterpiece of originality, the performances are sincere and draw you into caring for every character and the songs memorable. What more could you ask for?

The Little Foxes

Early 20th Century Foxes... and a few gentle souls...
"Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes." That prayer was the basis of Lillian Hellman's critically-acclaimed 1939 play "The Little Foxes"; adapted two years later by Samuel Goldwyn.

Tallulah Bankhead didn't reprise her role as Regina Giddens as she was replaced by MGM figurehead: Bette Davis. That change was significant as Bankhead played Regina as a woman acting "vicious by necessity", trapped between a loveless marriage and a family upbringing that made her two sons the sole heirs of her father's fortune. But Davis's approach was of a cold, conniving woman taking everything as a mean-to-an-end especially if it meant money.

Davis' performance would perfectly embody Mr. Burns' statement: "Family. Religion. Friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business." Still, if her performance is integral to the film's success and earned her the 43rd spot in the AFI Top 50 villains, it's not pivotal in the sense that many supporting characters give an actual "meaning" to her vileness. Take the French title: "The Viper", as eloquent as it is, I regret the abandon of the plural form because there's not one viper in the film but a whole bunch of greedy rattlesnakes named the Hubbards.

To get an overview on that despicable microsystem (set in some Southern state circa 1900), there's a great deal of expositional talk in the beginning, revealing the male Hubbards as an ugly and greedy triumvirate. Each heir actually represents a psychological variation of cunningness starting with the 'big bear': Charles Dingle as Ben, the mastermind who hides behind his jovial and easy-going façade the detachment of a Machiavellian tactician.

Ben has nothing but contempt for the human race and the only possible way to earn his respect is to be equally malicious if not more. Dingle steals every scene as the ringmaster of the business deal that will make his family even richer. Installing a cotton mill in the region and benefitting from the low wages and the available hydraulic power will guarantee profit without merit, and Ben has no scruple telling his future partner how they made fortune without any aristocratic background, by exploiting the Old Order's remnants.

Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) married one of them, in wealthy heiress 'Birdie' (Patricia Collinge) who, once she served her purpose, became the punching bag of his sadistic and bullying husband, certainly the rottenest of all if you discount Leo, Dan Dureya once again as a foppish, weak and clownish boy who'd probably sell his mother to get the crumbs of the big pie. Not that she wouldn't return him back the favor, from her own admittance, Birdie hates her son and warns her niece Alexandra not to fall in the same trap by marrying him. Birdie is the broken soul of the film and a sad collateral damage of the Hubbards' ambitious.

Of course, we're left with some hope for the mankind through Regina's husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) and the most tender of all the grapes: Teresa Wright as Alexandra, the soulful arc of the film. She starts as an idealistic and coquettish girl who can only see goodness in people. By the end, when she grasps the extent of her family's vileness and realizes she was the white sheep all along, a choice is given to her: either following the path of Birdie or to stop idly watching foxes taking the grapes.

Patricia Collinge was nominated for an Oscar and so was Teresa Wright whose naturalness was so impressive for a film debut. In a dramatic scene, you could pinpoint from the expression of her eyes the moment where the 'worst' happened. The last time I was riveted by similar eye-language was with Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment". Wright was extraordinary in the film although she wasn't playing the most colorful character. But it's vital that the good people could raise their voices and act; stories aren't written to tease our selfish impulses after all.

And the film did inspire in me a reaction I didn't expect: an urge to know more about the playwright Lillian Hellman. I found in her background many fascinating aspects justifying such a stance against capitalism and the choice to focus her story on a strong-minded woman who overcomes the abuse from her brothers and earns her independence by playing with their weapons. It's interesting that once 'defeated' the two villains only compliment their winners as if life could only be seen under the prism of an eternal challenge for possession, the "Mr. Burns" way.

Indeed, we've come to a time where cynicism pushed us into admiring persons like Hubbards who would blackmail or sway their own family, while deeming their victims as weak. But "The Little Foxes" isn't an endorsement but a biting and exciting pamphlet against the extremes of capitalism, elevating decency and gentleness as a virtue, without being too preachy and still keeping some shades of sympathy within the bad guys.

So after so many schmaltzy and sentimental movies of the 40s, I was glad I could see a noble-spirited film like "The Little Foxes" that doesn't go for the Capra or "Gary-Coopery" way. Under the strong directing of William Wyler (who deserves his credit) feelings are expressed through actions, never speeches. I didn't mention the plot here, because the whole story is a plot, a scheme... and watching the film back to back, you can read in everyone's minds just from the silent moments (which the film is full of).

I praised Wyler for the wonderful piano sequence in "Wuthering Heights", he gratifies us with a similar sequence where you could have a taste of every character's personality just by watching their facial expressions. The play was undoubtedly great material to work with, but Wyler made it even more exciting without being too stagey.

It is truly a delightful movie of the 40s in both form and substance.

The Pride of the Yankees

All schmaltz and no (baseball) play makes "Pride of the Yankees" a dull film...
"The Pride of the Yankees" is the kind of emotional blackmail I rather refuse to be submitted to. Of course it's a classic, but that doesn't say much. Obviously you don't make a movie about baseball legend Lou Gehrig, played by Hollywood legend Gary Cooper, in 1942 when America was the latecomer of the then-roaring Worldwide conflict without the best intentions of the world.

The film even opens with a disclaimer reminding us of the quiet heroism showcased by the "Iron Horse", the New York Yankees first baseman who achieved one of the greatest legacies of the history of baseball (with more than 2000 consecutive games) and died prematurely from a rare condition he gave his name to. He faced illness and an upcoming death with the same courage than the soldiers who were fighting in various parts of the world, and his untimely death was calling for a homage. Fair enough.

But let's not kid ourselves, this is not the pride of the Yankees as team, except if you consider America as the big team. Anyone wants to be a big player in his team and if anything the film - voted 22nd in the American Film Institute Most Inspiring movies- inspires Americans to do is play for their team with the same passion and resignation, it is not about baseball but a spirit. So while Lou Gehrig is getting a fine tribute, Hollywood still elevates the spirit and the pride of moviegoers and who's better than the actor who did exactly the same as Sergeant York the year before?

Once again Cooper pulls off his 'American-of-the-month' image and trading his "Alvin York" overalls to a New York Yankee uniform, as Lou Gehrig, and both would be listed in AFI's Greatest heroes. Still, I'll always be partial to Will Kane from "High Noon", I love Gary Cooper but before "High Noon", his talent was kind of diluted in these noble-spirited roles no matter how iconic they were. And Cooper never looked at ease anyway, towering everyone with the bashfulness of a fish out of water, there was never a moment where you could sense it could be anyone than good old Coop.

But the problem with "The Pride of the Yankees" is in the way it forbids any attempt to be critical because it features a likable actor playing a lovable icon who had just passed away. And right now, saying anything remotely negative about the film feels almost like spitting in Lou Gehrig's grave, while I believe this is a film that should have honored Lou Gehrig in a more baseball-friendly fashion. Indeed, I kept on enumerating AFI lists and there's also the fact that the film was voted third best American sports movie of all time. The least you expect is to have some baseball.

From what I read, Cooper wasn't much of a baseball fan and all the film does is cutting between shots of him swinging the bat, running the base and you don't get more than that. The illusion worked since the only Oscar won by the film (out of nine nominations) is for Editing. Cooper was nominated for Best Actor but I wouldn't get too harsh on him, it was MGM who wanted him and he was clearly miscast. The problem is in the directing which deserves the term of wooden and coming from a director named Wood, it's appropriate.

For a movie supposed to be a dramatization of a man's life, Wood is no Wyler and for a movie supposed to exhilarate the fun of baseball, it is desperately static, even stagey at times. The directing is as wooden as its storytelling, and in case you didn't notice, whatever could be shown through exciting clips is only told from dull standpoints. We got more radio commentary than clip that's for the most obvious, a montage of Gehrig's winning streak is reduced to a series of clippings from his wife Eleanor and the public reaction to his slump is reduced to a patchwork of dialogues between everyday men across American each one having a saying about the matter.

Much worse, the film being two hours long might make anyone except a first act dealing with baseball and a second with the illness when in fact, the baseball is very secondary and there's more time between Lou's mother (played by the hammy Elsa Janssen) and Eleanor talking about the wallpaper or which furniture to buy than anything between Lou and his teammates. And it seems like he developed a bigger relationship with that kid for which he hit two homeruns (apparently a legend) and with sportswriter Sam Blake (Walter Brennan). Did they try to duplicate Sergeant York or what?

And just when you expect the illness to enhance the drama a little, to have the parents learning about the disease, you get directly from the news to the farewell speech and the genuine poignancy of the speech and the line "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth", perhaps the most deserved AFI's inclusion (Top 100 Quotes). Cooper does make the scene work and it's genuinely sad (it was the original speech that prompted Samuel Goldwin to green light the project), this is an outcome that could have worked better with the proper set-up.

"The Pride of the Yankees" deals more with the romantic and domestic life of Lou Gehrig than any other element and what saves it from sheer dreadfulness stands in two names: Teresa Wright. I swear she was perhaps the most talented actress of her generation, a natural, so sweet and lovable I forgot for once that Gehrig was the focus. But I just wished the film was more focused on the baseball and say more about Lou Gehrig than the fact that he was a great man. All we get is that he was great, he became ill, he died and became a legend. For the rest, we still have Wikipedia and documentaries.

A Matter of Life and Death

When a British gentleman cheats Death, he can't refuse a rematch...
"A Matter of Life and Death" reaches so many heights of cinematic artistry it's alarmingly great, it is thought-provoking and yet makes it difficult to articulate a rational thought. What can you say after all about a film that dares to "belittle" its own content by starting with a vision of the universe? Indeed, as if it was inviting us to grasp the futility of our little human matters on a universal scale (or was it the contrary?), in both form and content, the creative opening of "A Matter of Life and Death" proves how ahead of their time Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were.

And so we slowly zoom from a vastness that makes our solar system look cozy to our good old Earth. And we're listening to the comforting voice of a narrator guiding us from the floating comfort of a God-like position to the claustrophobic RAF plane cockpit amidst a battle against the Germans. I don't think I could ever expect such a bold approach from a 1946 film, its only 'dating' aspect being the context of the life-and-death situation.

But the beginning doesn't leave you much time to digest the metaphysical material, as soon as we get to David Niven and Kim Hunter, we're literally hooked. While his co-pilot (Bob Trudshaw) lies dead with a bewildered expression in his face, Peter Carter sends a last mayday to an American operator from Boston named June. Racing against the clock, he leaves a poignant message to his mother, his sisters, June is moved to tears and tries help but Peter has no parachute and would rather die from a fall than being burned. His farewell message turns to an expected "I love you".

Now, can two people fall in love just like that? Probably. I guess it's in these "life and death" situations that one force only can show the true content of its power: love. Lesser movies make it look county but when it's about a man who knows this is the last person he's talking to, much more a young woman who then represents his last embodiment of life before encountering death, there's no other way than love. It's like a sort of unbreakable bond that was formed and that only death could tear apart, which they were prepared to. But that's the catch, Peter jumps... and doesn't die. His survival was expectable though ... but not the reception, so to speak.

And this is how you get the true measure of Powell and Pressburger's writing talent: they set our emotions up with the 'universe' opening and then make two people fell in love. So basically, we have the two sides of the same story, the universal laws and two people who know what the stakes are. That material was good enough to make a good story but see how the two men enrich it with perhaps the most spectacular and breathtaking incarnations of the afterlife ever put on film. All in black-and-white but an artistic license that doesn't undermine the majesty of the location and turns it into some neutral place where the trivial Earthy matters don't matter.

We have a vision of Heaven like a bureaucratic office, with employees and clerks, where we meet the copilot waiting for his buddy. And that also is a funny pay-off to the moment we saw him in lifeless position. I wish I could say I fully enjoyed the Heaven part but I was distracted all the time. I'm a wannabe screenwriter (I wish I could succeed some day) and I made a story that was set in a bureaucratic vision of the afterlife. When I heard about the TV Series "The Good Place", I knew my story would feel like a rehash, but I never expected a movie from 1946 to have preceded it. Sorry, I meant it the other way. I confess my envy.

But that jealousy left place to a constant state of admiration, the transition from the monochrome to the Technicolor, so dazzling that even the messenger from Heaven named Conductor 71 (the delightful Marius Goring) mentions it, probably a self-assured nod from the authors to their photographer Jack Cardiff and cinematographer Alfred Junge. The color once again is an ally of the 'Archers', with all its pastel tones of so lively brightness, the garden scenes are there to show that there's a Heavenly quality in Earth. In Heaven you can meet Plato, Moses, Lincoln or your grandfather, can you kiss a girl, lie on a garden or smell a flower?

Maybe we grew too cynical but the film was shot at the end of the war and the question of life was too valuable not to be considered in such epic proportions. Powell and Pressburger pushed the envelope and contributed to one of the most iconic shots of cinema's history, one that inspired its American title "Stairway to Heaven". For someone who grew up with the Tom and Jerry cartoon "Heavenly Puss", I couldn't believe the film that inspired such a common trope was relatively unknown. These guys were really ahead of their time.

And I didn't reveal tenth of what makes the film so great, I should just say that there's a fourth major played by Roger Livesy (he was the romantic lead in "I Know Where I'm Going") as the Doctor who'll help Carter to plead his cause, you just don't live Heaven like a tavern and you've got to prove that even in the great scheme of things, the love between two people doesn't amount to a hill of beans. And in the other side, he'll have to confront Raymond Massey as a counselor who has his reasons to be prejudiced against British people (he hate their guts to put it simply).

Say no more. Just enjoy the film whose photography, story, acting, lighting, editing, everything seemed to have been made as if they were indeed a matter of life and death.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Makes the first one feel like an appetizer...
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was an already satisfying meal but "The Chamber of Secrets" make its feel like an appetizer... and what an appetizing premise its title carries.

A second installment that is basically telling you in every frame "wait a minute, you haven't seen nothing yet" is the kind of offer any movie lover can't refuse. And on that level, let me enumerate a few things "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" have: the thrills of an Indiana Jones movie, the CGI expertise of a "Star Wars", the smooth pace of an Agatha Christie mystery, the whimsicality of a "Disney", the capability to immerse you into a whole universe like some blockbuster adapted from Tolkien, and yet... it is a straight continuation of the original film, in plot and spirit.

And that's the mark of a great franchise: you have a first film that doesn't try to play it for the profits only and then the second that doesn't take the previous success for granted and gratifies the audience with denser and richer material. "Chamber of Secrets" might be a tad overloaded but things never go overboard thanks to Chris Columbus's alternation between action and mystery... and action is an understatement when you have a flying car, giant spiders and a confrontation with a giant snake that makes the first film's climax feel like a tea party.

The mystery part is even more fascinating because it's all built on the first film's established elements: Hogwarts and its four founders, the evil Salazar Slytherin whose true intents were foreshadowed by Hagrid's statement that not all wizards turn out to be good and the fact that some students are Muggle-born like Hermione Granger. The original canvas stays the same but the scope gets bigger, as if the clear picture we had on Hogwarts in the first film turned out to be only the tip of an iceberg, a puzzle with many pieces missing and it's impossible to identify which. But this time, the stakes are high, and even innocent students can be killed... or in the best case, petrified. Yes, the material is pretty heavy.

But I guess the choice to make the story darker and edgier was inevitable. In the span of one year only, many kids had their voices broken, they all grew up, Hermione's interactions with the boys get more awkward for obvious hormonal reasons, so they're all fit for more challenging experiences. And guess what? That's probably the secret of the franchise: the audience grew with the characters, which takes me back to my brother who showed me the first film, he was eight when it was released and entered university with the last one. We're talking of life-shaping series, like "Star Wars" but with more humanity.

So yes, for a whole decade, the "Harry Potter" series defined the word 'Fantasy' and its maturation of tone was almost a natural process. Author J.K. Rowling knew she could go darker in the depiction of Hogwarts; just like a known place that reveals hidden corridors, passageways, chambers or even residents. Things that existed all along but whose absence in the first film could make sense, as these additions never seem contrived... neither do a few coincidental accidents. Magic can work in mysterious ways after all and what goes for locations goes for characters as well.

So, in "Chamber of Secrets", we get a closer look on the Weasley family, we meet the little elf Dobie (Toby Wilson) who looks like a mix of Jar-Jar Binks, Gollum and E.T., a phoenix named Fawkes, Lucius Malefoy, the father of Harry's nemesis, played by Jason Isaacs who once again embodies the expression: "if looks could kill". We also meet the closest to a human comic relief as the vain and self-absorbed new teacher Lockhart, played by a hammy Kenneth Branagh and in Moaning Myrtle, the ghost of a young girl played so convincingly, I didn't recognize Shirley Henderson. These new characters are all promising but never given a full VIP treatment, their legitimacy always comes from their interactions with the regulars and I must say the eye stares between Harry and Malefoy were quite chilling.

And the good all folks are there, Richard Harris, plays one last time his Albus Dumbledore before his sad passing in 2002, there's also Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman but this this time in rather static positions, as if the bizarre shenanigans happening within Hogwarts were scary even by their own standards... which is saying a lot. We suspect everything will be all right by the end yet the suspense is all there and the action too, served by convincing CGI-aided special effects. A few things didn't age quite well but I can imagine how impressive the film is for a theater audience, especially during the final act.

Now, it's not indispensable to know the first film but don't expect much exposition: as soon as it starts, Harry knows the place he belongs to (remember his reluctance to go back home at the end of the first), he knows the extent of his power and his friendship with Ron and Hermione. He knows his place and he knows... well, he doesn't know everything and the film turns all his interrogations to plot-driving elements and interesting unveilings of backstories, secret identities, some good, some evil, not to mention those hints you only get after several viewings.

Now, I probably missed a few things but I suspect I'll never know the series as much as I handle "The Godfather" or "Back to the Future" but you don't watch all movies the become an expert, do you?

(On a side note, there is one shock during the film that proves that back in 2002, people didn't make a fuss about boys or girls being equally heroic. Not sure the plot point involving Hermione would have been used today. That's how "old" the film is)

Bohemian Rhapsody

A tale of self-destructive but uniquely creative showmanship...
Time will tell whether Bryan Singer's "Bohemian Rhapsody" will proudly stand among the greatest biopics of its era... but it does help a lot when it's about one of the most gifted and talented artists of his generation and Freddie Mercury IS a legend, though slightly overshadowed by the pop icons of the 80's. Still; there's one thing they won't ever take from Mercury or Queen, and it stands in two words: "Bohemian Rhapsody".

Yes, one song. One single song is enough to justify their place among the musical Gods. I'll never forget the first time my brother made me listen to it, I knew Queen from "We Will Rock You", "We Are the Champions" and forgive me for that, the theme of "Highlander". When I first heard "Bo Rhap", I didn't know what to expect and that feeling went all through the listening: it was both magical and bizarre, whimsical and poignant. I knew I had to listen to that song again, and I did it over and over, to the point I became obsessed. Literally.

Like they say in the film: everyone finds its own story in the rhapsody, it doesn't need to have a meaning. Nothing really matters, like the song says. And the biopic depicts a group of four misfits that found each other, on the top of them an exotic looking effeminate man who invented his own fashion and acted like a drama queen, using more 'darlings' than Talullah Bankhead and Cruella DeVil put together; such colorful roles are wet dreams for actors looking for a breakthrough performance.

I had my reservations when I first saw a picture of Rami Malek but now I think he should be a lock-up for the Oscar nomination, not that it really matters (any way the wind blows as the song says again...) He's simply unrecognizable as the legendary singer and he never plays his mannerisms as a gimmick but as a deliberate carapace of awkwardness concealing deeper wounds. I guess a modern audience can probably respond to Mercury's antics more than his own generation did but Freddie has that edge over all the Madonnas and Lady Gagas, which is that we can't doubt his sincerity.

He was indeed a true and complete artist, with that element of self-doubt and insecurity that made him make the wrong choices and choose a path that would cross AIDS. And that was Mercury, a man who turned everything to his advantage, who was true to himself no matter what and sometimes turned his own blessings into curses. As he says, mistakes, he's made a few... but ultimately, he was the champion of the world. Now, the question is: is the film good because it's about a popular performer and entertainer, could a Queen biopic possibly fail?

To put it simply, while all the other characters are slightly meant as pawns in Mercury's life, there are two stars in the film: Rami Malek who gives a performance that does justice to the legacy of Mercury and there's the music, there's no moment in the film that doesn't feature one of them. And much to my surprise there was less lip synching than I thought and the concert performances emphasized the way Malek totally embodied the soul of Mercury, his aura, his body... minus the voice. He is that good.

The film treats the singer's origins through a few outbursts of racial slurs (he's called "Paki" while he's Farsi Indian born in Zanzibar) and scenes with his family that have the tact not to get too melodramatic. We also have the evolution of his feelings and the discovery of his longly repressed homosexuality, perhaps the second most important character is Mary (Lucy Boynton) who inspired the heart-breaking "Love of My Life". There's the dry spell, the decadent days and of course, the come-back during the iconic Live Aid concert, maybe the peak of his career and certainly one of the images most associated to the singer.

The film ventures in the usual realm of musical biographies, it doesn't reinvent the wheel but why should it anyway? Who needs fancy directing when the show is driven by an eccentric and tortured soul like Mercury. He's a show on his own and I don't envision more than two or three nominations for the film, but at least the so long anticipated biopic was released and maybe it's a star-making role for Malek who looks incredibly convincing. Speaking of that, I also failed to notice Mike Meyers (whose name popped up in the credits) but I'm glad, I'm really glad the film made a subtle nod to "Wayne's World" because a huge part of the song's legacy is due to its re-use in 1992. Till now, who can resist banging his head at the guitar solo moment?

At the end of the film, many viewers were singing a few Queen hits, I was whistling "Tonight" on the way back home, remembering that even my daughter who's just turned five, loved to listen to the 'mama' song but were scared of the Muppet version. I think there's something unique about Queen, the way they used Rock, opera, Pop and disco sounds, their symbiosis with the audience and the self-destructive yet so creative showmanship of their lead singer. My only regret is that they didn't feature one of my favorite Mercury's songs: "Living on my Own" (it was begging to be used in the break-up part).

The film is far from being perfect, there's something obvious and maybe too linear in its storytelling, even subtly manipulative but it transcend that crooked banality just like a tooth-condition that allowed the legend to reach so many high octaves. How the film succeeds by being so 'predictable', maybe it's because like Queen's music, it just can't be pigeonholed. It's not much a biopic, not much a music movie... it's just a film about Freddie Mercury.

And that's enough.

From Here to Eternity

So long as there are men...
That's the translation of the French title, and I like it. So long as there are men ... there will be wars, and lives and loves torn apart...

...so long as these things are, there will be the stuff that makes such movies as "From Here to Eternity". And getting back to the original title, in anything is to be deemed eternal in "From Here to Eternity" it is without a doubt Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's intense and passionate kiss on a Hawaiian beach.

Sure there have been kisses in movies before, remember Rhett and Scarlett's shadows getting closer while war painted the background in bright tones of orange and yellow, a passion burning like the city of Atlanta... yet "From Here to Eternity" surpasses that kiss thanks to two last-minute strikes of genius, earning the film its ticket to immortality : they kiss each other horizontally, lying on the wet sand, and like fire in "Gone with the Wind", natural elements interfere through the wave hitting the couple, the little touch to be parodied zillion times. It's not romantic love but nature in motion, sheer passion: he loves women... ...and she loves men.... and that's that.

I knew it would be impossible not to mention this scene, but there is more in what makes the film such an endearing classic, even more to be compared with "Gone With the Wind" as it was the first film to equal its record of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But this isn't any Best Picture winner, the film has a strange capability to please your eyes without trying hard, to challenge your thoughts without being intellectual, to touch your heart without being sentimental and to be erotic by only suggesting... it's a fascinating and insightful gallery of character studies disguised as entertainment or what some would call War movie or Romance.

But there isn't much war in "From Here to Eternity" and not much romance, the idyll on the beach was so iconic everyone forgot that it was followed by an argument less than a minute after. After the wave-kiss, they'd never have an opportunity to be so physically and passionately in love, for there is an obstacle called duty. And there isn't much war either, only when the film culminates with the Pearl Harbor attacks that the second romance between Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed (playing a prostitute) gets overly melodramatic. By the time the film becomes more Hollywood-like, it's over, women left and wept, men died and others got ready to it.

And that sad irony is what the film carries deeply in its core, thanks to a magnificent script adapted by Daniel Taradash from James Jones' novel, it is poetically summed up in Lancaster's farewell line to a dead Clift "You couldn't play it smart". As Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, Clift played a stubborn soldier who refused to box for his platoon because of a tragic accident, for much of Captain Holmes' displeasure who pulled the strings to get his middleweight champion. Retrospectively, boxing would have spared him months of humiliations, harassment, and so non-military treatment... without the championship even happening at the end. Well, no one saw Pearl Harbor coming.

Basically, Prew was torn between his status as a soldier and his moral independence and ironically (again), that's what earned him the respect of Sgt. Warden (Lancaster) who could recognize a great soldier if he saw one. Prew represents this kind of lone wolves cherished by the director Fred Zinneman, the likes of Will Kane or Sir Thomas More. And Clift gives an intense performance as hard-nosed Prew, his piercing look threatened more than his body and defied anyone to shaken his integrity. Speaking of which I'm glad Zinneman gave the example by not surrendering to Harry Cohn's initial choices including Rita Hayworth, William Holden and Eli Wallach.

But Lancaster was the only choice they first agreed on and he couldn't have been more perfectly casted. Indeed, Warden is not your typical Sergeant, if anything, nothing is typical in the film, he's quite easygoing, getting away from every situation with his killer smile and a charisma working with both men and ladies and he's enjoying his office work without minding playing the assistant for a less competent hierarchical superior. But he falls in love with his boss' wife and only becoming an officer can solve his dilemma. But like Prew, he feels his duty is to serve the Army and not even love can change that. Even Warden is incapable to 'play it smart', because it's not about being smart, but simply about being true to your personality.

Only women are capable of changing. Kerr as Karen was a honorable woman turning into the Army 'obligee', while Alma was a prostitute trying to become honorable, the film is a successful of fascinating contradictions, even more delightful because many actors played against types, Kerr, more used to sophisticated and distinguished ladies play a repressed nymphomaniac while Donna Reed was the eternal Mary from "It's a Wonderful Life" (she won the Oscar for that role) And how about Frank Sinatra who accepted to be underpaid to get the part (no horse-head behind a deserved Oscar) and good old Marty (Ernest Borgnine) the villainous Fatso Hudson (Ernest Borgnine).

But aren't we all against-type players? Isn't the conflict between duty and personality, the real war in the film? But you can't force people to be what they aren't and love be damned if it ever meant compromising, and this is why by the end, those who played it square didn't necessarily win the game. Neither the others, but only because the film had to sugarcoat some elements from the original novel to please the censors and the Army. Still, with such great performances (nominated in four acting categories), an intelligent script and an unforgettable kiss...

...well, the title says it all.


Add an "S" to a classic and you'll get another classic...
Ridley Scott had set the bar so high with his groundbreaking "Alien" No one thought a sequel would be a good idea. Those were the times...

Why a sequel anyway? The first Alien was history, Ellen Ripley was the lone (human) survivor and getting back in that doomed rock wasn't the smartest move. Much more the film was a modern horror classic and any attempt to recreate the claustrophobia of the Nostromo would have induced more déja-vu than jump scares. Paraphrasing the original tag-line, a sequel would've been "'Jaws 2' in a spacecraft."

But Canadian director James Cameron wasn't a newcomer in the mid-80's. "Terminator" had thrilled the audiences with a simple concept: an indestructible machine set to kill a girl next door (literally), a nightmarish ride with no other option than fighting and the sweet Linda Hamilton turning into a match to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Basically, Cameron told a story with a familiar David vs. Goliath structure and character's arc, his 'Alien' was the Terminator and his 'Ripley' was Sarah Connor.

And I think I can recreate the whole brainstorming that shaped the sequel. I guess the first question echoed the purpose of the sequel: what is scarier than an alien? Two aliens or how about a colony, or how about a human colony invaded by the aliens who need human for incubation purposes. Then all you have to do is find a way to justify how the colonization of the « alien » planet took place without taking Ripley's warning into consideration. Then all you have to do is let her drift for as many years as it takes, even if it means losing her family, her daughter... and she might find a 'daughter' figure in her mission. Of course, they'll need Ripley who's the only human being to have encountered the Alien, but since she's the only one to know how dangerous they are, how about spicing it up with a corporate prick who'd love to bring an Alien to Earth... do we need a treacherous android again ?

See, the most complex stories can originate from a simple question which happens to be the right one. At the end, we have the plot that became a staple of the action genre, a group of hardened soldiers of various experiences and levels of bravery assigned to a supposedly routine mission (a 'bug hunt') with only two people who know the real stakes, Ripley obviously, and Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) as the slimy executive who managed to make himself more detestable than any Alien. It's a smart demarcation from the original where the secondary villain wasn't human (by the way, I wonder if it's a coincidence that 'Burke' is the sound of disgust in French).

The casting also includes Michael Biehn the unsung hero of "Terminator", the late Bill Paxton as the easily-freaking-out one, William Hope as the inexperienced Lieutenant, Lance Herrikssen as Bishop the android and scene-stealing Jennette Goldstein as Vasquez, the real female badass. There's also Boggs from "Shawshank", a cigar-chomping sergeant who goes too soon, a few forgettable faces and Carrie Henn as little Newt. Her military salute to a panic-stricken Paxton is one of these moments that make the film more than a formula picture. If it's full of establishing moments and typical wisecracks in the beginning, once the the chips are done, three-dimensional personalities are unveiled. And there's a reason why I insisted on Vasquez' being the badass one.

Again, Sigourney Weaver plays Ellen Ripley in the humblest and most pragmatic way, she's involved because she hates the Aliens, she knows what they're up to, and nuking them is the only option. She's not a military officer, no gun expert, yet because of the Marines' inexperience, two-faced Burke and her promise to never abandon Newt, she becomes the only one capable to defeat the Aliens, not because of fighting skills, but because she has a protective instinct, an intuition for the right moves... and sometimes, a lighter. Ripley is like a more experimented version of Sarah Connor, triumphing over her fears until the unforgettable Power loader moment and the climactic line.

The only match for Ripley was a "witch" indeed and that was decades before strong women became a marketed trope. Here, the film culminates with the fight between two Mama Bears, when the Aliens are all defeated and there's still the Queen. So we had aliens in tunnels, we had the glowing dots, we had a face-hugger trapped in a room (and I could relate to it since I'm scared when I suspect a cockroach in a bathroom), we had flamethrowers and grenades and acid flushing all over faces, a race against the clock, but the ending fight is just the Chantilly on the cherry on the cake.

To be honest, I initially thought the last hour was so intense it was like an overdose of adrenalin, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Ebert sharing the same view. I saw it again, and I was amazed that this was made with no CGI, that the story was riveting and the characters appealing. I said "Alien" was a masterpiece of suspense while the sequel was a great action movie, in fact, "Aliens" might be the ultimate action movie and a masterpiece of suspense as well, earning seven Academy Awards, including a surprising nomination for Sigourney Weaver. Unlike the first two "Terminator" movies, the film didn't join "Alien" in the Thrills list, but Ripley was also named eighth heroine in AFI's Top 50, not bad for a sequel... but even 'sequel' is too feeble a word to describe how powerful "Aliens" is.

To think that all Cameron had to do was adding an "S" to get a classic makes it even more legendary.All it took was adding an "S"...

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

And so began a decade-defining saga...
"What's a Muggle?"

Two minutes after the film started and that was the first question I asked, my young brother told me the word defined people without magical abilities. A sort of wizard-goyim I guess. Anyway, I can't describe the satisfaction I felt over getting that simple information. Knowing the meaning of "Muggle" was strangely overwhelming.

Indeed, the series stopped almost one decade ago, started nearly two, and the books are now part of pop (and legitimate) culture and children's literature heritage... so the fact that I resisted so long gave an additional aura of mystification and I was getting my first real peek on the classic. Forget about Harry Potter, Hermione, Voldemort and Dumbledore (names I got amateurishly mixed), I lost a virginity when I knew what the Muggle was. My curiosity deepened and I was ready to embrace J.K. Rowling's universe. I wasn't a Muggle anymore.

And I was glad I waited for so long, I knew I wouldn't get all the names right, I hadn't read the books (I was a teen when the film came out), I wasn't millennial enough to be part of the Harry Potter mania unlike my brother (who's ten years younger) and had his childhood shaped by the bespectacled sorcerer, Pikachu and Lizzie McGuire. I didn't even have the basic curiosity of the average movie lover because I was never into fantasy or movies about magic to begin with. I thought such stories could provide any contrived twist or last-minute Ex Machina simply by toying with their own rules. When a curse can be done or undone, when powers leave no holds barred, what are the stakes? Where's the danger?

I'm glad I could undo the curse of my lousy stubbornness and watch for the first time the first opus of the century-defining saga "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone". I enjoyed every bit of it and I found it a charm I knew was going to fade over the course of my discovery. You know when you look back to the first movies. I suspected the tone was going to get darker as the kids grow up, as JK Rowling got more confidence in her success and didn't try to make something trendy or fun. So I savored the first film not as a franchise starter, but like as a standalone, charming fantasy movie, confident that Chris Columbus was the right director and that every cast-member was the right choice.

Cast-wise, the director respected Rowling's condition before selling the book's rights so the film is a roll-call of all established British and/or Irish actors: Richard Harris as the Merlin-like wizard Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagol, scene-stealing Robbie Coltrane as the gentle giant Hagrid, the one who gratifies us with every information we'd need to let the plot move on despite a catchphrase that consists of "I shouldn't have said that". Also starring John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Richard Griffith, Ian Hart, Fiona Shaw, and three baby-faced newcomers named Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.

The film is a school-case of how to get the right actors to play the right parts... and that goes for the little ones. If you examine the child actors, they're not perfect but never is the imperfection undermining the believability of their characters: they're kids with magical powers so we have to consider that their normal behavior is also conditioned by such abilities. And maybe that was the core of Harry Potter's appeal, ordinary children dealing with extraordinary powers. When they listen to advice, they know more than anyone the extent of the danger awaiting them... when they learn tricks or magical spells, they can't be too excited either, they learn it like stuff they would teach you in class.

The adult actors convey the perfect mix of normality-within-strangeness. In fact, the whole film is about an extraordinary world showed in the most mundane and matter-of-factly way, and the reason why it works so well is the same as comedy. Comedies don't feature people making other people laugh, actually, seeing someone angry can be the funniest thing. Fantasy works the same way, you can't have characters being impressed every second, let the viewers do all the wowing... but then again, Harry Potter is the newcomer so he represents our own perspective, he's got that capability to be impressed, to enjoy his powers like a "normal" child would do.

And that's the charm of the film: we're amazed at the magic and at Harry's own amazement, it finds the right balance between fantasy and "reality" in every single department: acting, storytelling and naturally set design. Hogwarts Schools looks like your typical British school with its high walls, Victorian decorations and Dickensian interiors but never exactly feels like a haunted mansion. There are also sscenes set in plain daylight with a comforting blue sky like the brooms training and the unforgettable Quidditch game.

And here and there, you have a few effects to keep you on guars. There's a scene where Harry Potter opens a book and I got my first jump scare, I like that this scary gag isn't overplayed, one is just enough, like Ebert said: it is scary but not too scary. The story never lets itself being dependent on "effects", and cares about Potter and his friends above everything else, providing him a promising backstory, explaining his scar on the forehead, his magical gift and why he's got a nemesis already.

On a side note, 2001 was a terrific year for the fantasy genre as it saw the release of three successful franchise: "Shrek", "The Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" as the most family-friendly. I read about the title's translation that the producers were afraid to use "Philosopher" instead of "Sorcerer". I think they should used the French title; "Harry Potter and the Wizard School", that was catchy enough without being too misleading.

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