The buzzing movie that should have generated more buzz!
So here I am, watching the original "Minuscule" one week after I enjoyed its sequel with my daughter on the local movie theater, she liked the poster and if it wasn't for her enthusiastic endorsement, I might never have heard about any of "Minuscule 1" or "2", especially since the first one didn't even catch the attention of prestigious festivals, too busy rewarding "Frozen" to care about a simple, sweet and endearing movie about little insect that flies us back to the essence of animation and comedy.
And just as I expected it, the order of viewing didn't really matter. "Minuscule" proved to be an enchanting entertainment for the little ones, amused by these little buzzing sounds and thrilled by the action sequences and the adults who will appreciate the beautiful scenery, the gags and a few nods to their childhood. I trusted directors Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo to beget something as hypnotic and thrilling as their sequel and I wasn't disappointed.
I knew the film wouldn't take the insects too far from home, that there would be no paradise island this time but now, but the series could expand to four or five installments, I don't think I'll get tired of it. You can take these ladybugs to the city, to New York City, to a desert, as long as they don't confront an army of cockroaches, I'll handle it. But there's more in the film than geographical escapism, its greatest merit is to dwell in many universes at the same time. Starting with the big picture: a realistic looking world established with a picnic with a real-looking couple, interestingly misleading us.
The picnic is interrupted when the woman in her latest stages of pregnancy feels the first signs of labor. Her husband takes her to the car, so they all leave the food at the mercy of little bugs and insects from the neighboring forest. And then we get to the insect's perspective and instead looking more or less real, what we get is perhaps the cutest creatures ever without the Disney eyelashes or the cute voices. They're all identified through wordless sounds: ladybugs buzz, ants emit sort of electronic hums, flies have a funny human-like giggle but there's little to no talk whatsoever.
And this is how you distance yourself from mastodons such as Pixar and Disney, there's no need for making any intelligible sound, you take the viewers back to the roots of animation and comedy by making a simple and straightforward story and leave everything up to slapstick, action and heart. It's just as simple as that and yet the level of fun is subtly sophisticated because the film doesn't try to take its 'no sound' device as a trademark of realism but as a creative canvas in order to fill up the scenes with the most inventive visual gags, appealing to both kids and adults.
And the structure of "Minuscule" is simple too, the film is divided in two acts: a thrilling chase sequences between black ants and red ants, the former group carrying a box of sugar cubes to their hive and the latter pursuing them inside a soda can after they refused one cube as a peace offering. The chase, as thrilling as "Apocalypto", gets trickier when their means of transportation are floating over rapids or when a hungry fish gets in the picture and a simple sugar box becomes a boat, a U-boat and war booty.
The second part involves a hilarious and heart-pounding war battle with the same box of cubes at stakes, and the mastery of CGI has nothing to envy from the epic effects "Mulan", I loved the epic of the red ants trying to break the black ants fortress, the way they use everyday objects as weapons, including insecticide bombs and toothpicks, or use forks as catapults even at the risk of falling down while uttering Wilhelm scream in their falls. I won't spoil the whole film but this is a fine example of linear and simple storytelling where the language is as universal as music.
Indeed, "Minuscule" has the outdated charm of a Silly Symphony cartoon, the tenderness of a Miyazaki especially with the cameo of a little spider creature who bears a strange resemblance with his soot sprites, the breathtaking visuals of a documentary and even the naughtiness of some more adult-oriented cartoons and one or two fart jokes that happen to work.
I saw the sequel in the theater and this one, at home, with my daughter and my father was here but she slept so we watched it alone and this time the roles were reversed, I was the little one watching it with his parent, but like the previous film, we both liked it. And I guess the best compliment you can give it is that it feels like it could have been made at any time for any audience. "Frozen" is good but it's a product of its time, "The Wind Rises" is masterpiece but that Miyazaki could only make after reaching his artistic peak. "Minuscule" is timeless.
There was Disney, then Cocteau and finally Del Toro!
I remember these Sunday afternoons in the early 90s where movie versions of classic Grim tales were aired and I could tell from my parents' enjoyment that they were made for both an adult and a child audience. I still remember the "Red Hot Riding Hood" movie and the nightmarish sight of the wolf posing as the sickly grandmother and whose face managed to fool the little girl.
So It would be an unfair trial to accuse Disney of watering down fairy tales when you recall nightmarish moments such as the Evil Queen's metamorphosis, Pinocchio's friend turning into a donkey, Bambi's mother etc. Disney understood what made these stories from the Grimm Brothers and Perrault so vivid in our memories, begging to be translated into a visual language, Disney for children and Cocteau for adults proving there were more than fairies in fairy tales, they could be dark stories exuding wisdom and poetry.
And then came the third (ram's?) head of the triumvirate, Guillermo Del Toro with his "Pan's Labyrinth", a maze of a plot and a masterpiece that uses the basics of fairy tales: supernatural elements, fantastic creatures and coming-of-age story through an allegorical language that also ventures in the realms of politics while I was expecting something in the vein of "Narnia" or "Lord of the the Rings". How misguided I was. This is is certainly one of the all-time greatest fantasy movies and original fairy tales.
The reason why the film works so much is because it prepares you to venture in the realms of fantasy but it's the juxtaposition with a clearly defined historical period that marks its first intriguing novelty. Set in wartime during the fight between Franco's soldiers and rebels at the end of the civil war; it's that element of context that gives the story its full meaning.The parallel's relevance is highlighted by the contrast between that period and the narrated 'prologue' about a princess who disappeared from her kingdom, a world where 'no lies and pains' exists.
We're plunged in a world that seems like the antithesis of that kingdom and while we wish for the princess' soul to get back to that world of her own, so many things happening in reality prevent us from envisioning any other alternate world as if reality was too cruel to make us believe in fairy tales. And Del Toro doesn't underestimate our intelligence, he knows we'll suspect the 11-year old girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who reads the story, to be the potential chosen one, and while we're tempted to see the world from her child's perspective, we realize that the distinction between the real world and the fantasy isn't just stylistic but also narrative.
This is more than "Alice in Wonderland", what happens in reality escapes from Ofelia's attention as if it had a narrative relevance of its own and the monstrosity of the Pale Man for instance is nothing compared to what the main antagonist of the film has to offer. Indeed, Ofelia must clearly deal in the real world and above everything, her abusive adoptive father who impregnated her mother, a ruthless Captain named Vidal.
Vidal is a soldier who lives by the fascist code and has only contempt for anyone below his rank: rebels, women, children. The man is blinded by his power, uses his patriarchy as a terror weapon but beyond his menacing aura, is capable to display bravery, considering death as the true measure of a man. Vidal doesn't prove that vileness lives with rules but that rules can be evil in the way they force blind obedience and lead to blind violence.
Meanwhile, Ofelia must also follow rules and accomplish tasks that are not devoid of blood spillages. The tasks are given by a ram-headed creature, a Faun she met in the middle of an ancient labyrinth. And never question the validity of these tasks as if the "fantasy" worlds had more legitimacy to call for obedience. It's until the second task where Ofelia meets the infamous Pale Man and refuses to follow an order that we understand the absolute value of obedience before it's questioned again in the final task.
Once we start to draw parallels between Ofelia's journey and the war in the background, that we value her courage and the heroism of everyday fighters, a doctor, a servant against the ordinary tyranny of fascism and other institutions that sacrificed generations of Spanish people, that we anticipate with thrilled expectations the convergence between these two worlds. The final task wonderfully ties up the plot together in a parable of infinite wisdom, and whose use of violence is the best tribute to its maturity and intelligence.
Indeed, I have always avoided the film because I heard about how disturbing it was and when I found the DVD, the "beware violent scenes" made me expect the worst and I knew I had to be careful. But I was caught off-guard when the first disturbing scene happened. Many fantasy moments were repellent but they never equaled the violence reached by Vidal, played by a disturbing but effective Sergi Lopez.
The film establishes the heights of horror and disgustingness reached by the two worlds and how it all comes down to simple issues "should one follow his heart, his principles or follow blindly the rules?". The film manages to raise such intelligent question by providing great insight about the horror of the Franco's regime and make us adults root for the adventure of a little girl, with a fairy tale that embraces the true essence of a genre too sugarcoated today.
I have seen the film once but it touched me deeply through its visual, the little girl's performance, the haunting lullaby melody that I shall never forget. Or let's just put it simply, if as they say, a film is as good as its villain, then "Pan's Labyrinth" is truly a masterpiece.
One eye saw the future, the other didn't see what was coming to him...
Bugsy Siegel appeared in two 1991 mob movies, "Bugsy" and "Mobsters", I'm glad I discovered the "lesser" one first, it plugged in my memory names such as Arnold Rothstein, Benjamin Siegel, Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky and made my experience of the better film much easier.
And since "The Godfather Part II" and the 'Moe Greene' speech, I knew Barry Levinson's "Bugsy" wasn't just about a gangster, but also the man "of guts and vision". So the film works like a companion piece to any classic gangster movie and also an unofficial prequel to "Casino", it's also a splendid example of classic film-making elevated by a stellar cast including Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Harvey Keitel and Joe Mantegna.
It is also served by an entertaining screenplay with dialogues that convey the biting sharpness of its period and its colorful gallery of players: starlets, grooms, crooners, moles and not-so legitimate businessmen. Still, the recreation of the forties is too lavishly impeccable to be authentic. We're not left with the impression that the film is impersonating "The Godfather" despite sharing its perfectionism, "Busgy" is not an attempt to paint the gangster underworld with a gritty documentary-like realism.
And Benjamin Siegel is depicted not as a romantic character but a man of romantic impulsiveness that forged his legacy and made him economically unviable. To make a second parallel with "The Godfather", this is a man who had the alpha-male authority and womanizing habits of Sonny, the goofy gentleness of Fredo, the cold manners of Michael and the amiable diplomacy of Tom Hagen. Bugsy had all the makings of a good gangster but too many to make a durable one, that was his downfall.
And the film establishes his personality as soon as the opening credits start, puzzling us with that set of contradictions. We see Bugsy practicing his speech, making an effort to pass as a literate man, then he's shown handling some muscle job. We also see him as a good family man and then flirting with some vamp met in an elevator. This is a man who knows how to dress, to talk and to press the trigger and yet he loses his temper when he's called Bugsy or when someone gets too loose with the basics of respect.
It's hard to believe these habits will all coexist within the same man without imploding some day. As a man, Bugsy is a living grenade and Beatty is perfect for the part because he's like an extreme version of another gangster icon he played: Clyde Barrow. Clyde had the same layers of complexity: a man who used the gun and hated violence, loved his girl but wasn't such a good lover, more enthralled with the idea of robbing banks and being a gangster than his actions. Bugsy is similar because he's a man of ideas, ideals and passions that overshadow his actions.
So we share his enthusiasm even when it's expressed as childish caprices such as his plan to kill Mussolini. And the film's aesthetic choices take side with its main protagonist. By contrast, Bugsy's associates all look like sinister corporate men, even his friend Meyer Lansky (Kingsley). Also notice how the first killing Bugsy makes following his friends' orders is cold-blooded and unemotional while his genuine explosions of anger, though not life-threatening, are more intense and memorable, if not grotesque.
Notice the discretion shot with the only killing that would have made him as despicable as his enemies. The film wants us to root for Bugsy in a way that doesn't feel like manipulation. And the reason it works is because the film is more about vision and passion than the way "the business is done", less about business than the way it ties or unties relationships. And relationships are so integral to the appeal of the film, that it's just impossible to rave about it without mentioning Annette Bening's performance.
As Virginia Hill, she's the 'Flamingo' who inspired Bugsy's "vision", she's the trigger of his most brutal reactions when her name is tarnished, or she's the woman who gets turned on by his brutal humiliation of an underboss who skimmed off the top. She's pivotal in his own world of violence and business dealings, for better and for worse. And from her first interactions with Bugsy, we know he's found his match and that they're bound to be together. Bening, who was robbed an Oscar nomination, is essential to the film because "Bugsy" is not a gangster picture but a love story.
And I call it a love story for a specific reasons: we know how guys treated women back then: dolls, broads, things that belong to them but Bugsy doesn't just love Virginia, he cares for her. When he teases her about her previous lovers, it's not out of possessiveness but because he's cautious about his public image and attaches the same importance to Virginia's own reputation. Beatty gives a spectacular performance as a man who handles his job with passion and an instinct that passes as foolishness, because it's "always" personal, never strictly business.
So even the business scenes are subtly emotional. When Bugsy submits the idea of Las Vegas to his associates, you can tell the support of Lansky is out of friendship and because he's able to see the genius behind the fool. There's also the interesting subplot with Siegel's friendship with Harry Greenberg (Elliot Gould) and the way he handles his betrayal near the end foreshadows the role Lansky plays after the Flamingo's fiasco. As the plot advances, the velvet, champagne and sunshine are traded for night, rain and gradual violence, until its expected and gruesome culmination.
Lansky said Siegel didn't respect money but that was because his heart lived for highest purposes: love, passion and vision. That his 'vision' was the most profitable business move ever only makes his demise tragic and heart-breaking... as a visionary but let's admit it, even as a gangster.
Stan Wyck and the Seven Dwarfs... and the Charming Cooper...
Here's the equation.
Eight men are combining their respective shares of knowledge to write an encyclopedia: they're scientists, botanists, mathematicians, grammarian, in Hollywood 40s jargon: eggheads, in our 2010s terms (a Homer Simpson would shout): neeeeeeeeerds! Naturally, that translates itself on the big screen into the most possibly unattractive men: old, short, bald, stocky, and whose asexuality is feebly concealed by a few salty remarks that don't fool us anyway, they're just as naughty as little boys.
They're played by gentle-looking character actors who knew from the very start they wouldn't kid any producer as leading men, Billy Wilder who wrote the screenplay with Thomas Monroe wanted to create a parallel with the seven dwarfs so (unless the matching is erroneous) we have S. Z. Sakall as the Dopey counterpart, Leonid Kinskey as Sneezy, Richard Haydn as Bashful (I recognized his voice from a Tex Avery cartoon), Henry Travers as Sleepy, Aubrey Mather as Happy, Tully Marshall as Grouchy and Oskar Homolka as Doc.
Now I get back to my equation. Seven and one are eight (and not make eight as grammarian Professor Bertram Potts would point out), so there's the eighth scientist who towers over his distinguished colleagued. His bow-tie is as much a lousily disguised attempt to make him unattractive by Hollywood standards, but just like Cary Grant's glasses in "Bringing Up Baby", they just don't fool us. However, Grant brought some electricity to that movie and didn't let Kate Hepburn steal the thunder, Gary Cooper won an Oscar in 1941 for "Sergeant York", I wish it was for "Meet John Doe", but I'm glad it wasn't for "Ball of Fire", it was like that bow tie strangled the nerve of crispation to the point he was more emasculated than the seven dwarfs.
Could it work anyway? I doubt so. I think Gary Cooper is 'leading man' material in the purest and rawest sense, so when the lady leads the show, which is the case here, he's desperately colorless and passive despite the film's attempts to portray him as a mix between Doc and the Charming Prince. We know he'll get "Snow White" anyway but it occurred me to that the rules of screwball comedy are to make attraction grow between the characters with a genuine sense of plausible reciprocity. It's easy to fall in love with the lovely, street-smart, zany and sexy "Sugarpuss" O'Shea, but what did she find in Potts that the others couldn't present? You got it, the "sexy leading man" package.
My main problem with "Ball of Fire" isn't much its predictability as a screwball comedy, but the fact that for all its attempt to pass as a deep and intelligent comedy, which in the writing department shows some real talent from Wilder and Monroe (and uncredited Charles Brackett), the film is disappointingly shallow and superficial. It doesn't help either that it was released the same year as "Meet John Doe" and "The Lady Eve", two movies from 1941 where Barbara Stanwyck exploited the trust of two honest but naive good-looking men who fell in love with her, before making amends in the name of love and Hays Code' ethical requirements. Stanwyck was also the most interesting character in these films and she deserved her Oscar nomination here, but unlike Cooper, she could have gotten it from any of the 1941 movies she starred in.
As reminders for movie buffs, Gary Cooper played the honest average Joe John Doe and Henry Fonda was the nerdy snake expert, as Bertram Potts (perhaps the most possibly unappealing leading man name), Cooper plays the perfect combo between the two likable fools. Stanwyck is still the same but boy, she's quite a hoot once again, and she would make any chemistry work because she's literally "sexy for two" and in all fairness, "Ball of Fire" has its moments, many of them are compacted in her "boogie" song, her wisecracks and a few subtle comedic moments involving the Encyclopedia men and their attempt to comprehend the rules of slang and other street-smart subtleties. And all Gary Cooper has to do in the midst of that intellectual recreation of Snow White, is to pose as the handsome Charming Prince and get the girl at the end.
The film does a great service to the perception of intellectuals proving that they're as able to be seduced by a real woman but it tends also to show the castrating effect of knowledge and makes it like a coincidental accident that a woman like Sugarpussy O'Shea would fall in love with a man, but come on, when you've got the "yummy" looks of Gary Cooper, half the work is done. Cooper, like Peck, belongs to that breed of actors who are too good looking, too heroic for their own good. Great actors can do anything but you can't say the same for popular actors. Cooper was the most popular around, and maybe had he lived longer, he would have tried a few villainous roles.
Speaking of villains, the film also allows the bad guys, Dana Andrews and Dan Dureya to chew the scenery as much as they can and there's that commanding maid played by Kathleen Howard but I'm not sure about the way the gangster subplot tie the plot together and the film is almost two hours long, and it's too much asking for a story where we know how it's going to end. "Ball of Fire" is said to be the last screwball comedy, I can see why, it seems like all the inspiration was used up and Stanwyck would make a brilliant reconversion in the next popular film genre: noir movies.
Cooper will always be Cooper but this film isn't his finest hour. You want his best shot of 1941, watch "Sergeant York", you want his finest performance, "Meet John Doe", a close to perfect film if it wasn't for its ending, but just forget this 'ball of misfire' if you want to enjoy him in a comedic role.
As long as we can pick up passengers, no road will lead to a dead end...
The man is driving his Range Rover across the deserted wasteland near Teheran but if it wasn't for the sights of a few veiled women, the setting could belong to any random impoverished Islamic country in the Middle-East. Not to deprive the film from its cultural texture but it's important to know this is not a political comment of any sort but a character study.... of the most puzzling kind, raising more questions than it provides answers, leaving us viewers the privilege or the burden to figure out what happens next.
"The Taste of Cherry" is a metaphor for the sweet taste of life only someone at the edge of death can truly appreciate, like a beautiful sunset, a colorful sunrise, the sight of children playing and smiling, a comforting thought, any sign of kindness... which the film is stingy of, deliberately, until its final act. Abbas Kiarostami doesn't paint the canvas of a happy nation because its focus is the sad face of a man named Mr. Badil, selfishly resigned to commit suicide and looking for someone to bury his corpse after he finds him dead in a pre-digged hole. Everything's planned except for that last formality.
To use a hackneyed expression, the destination here doesn't matter, only the car journey of a man trying to pick up a helper to fulfill his last wish. Over the course of this sad odyssey, he'll meet a young and shy soldier from Kurdistan, an Afghani seminarian and an aged taxidermist, the young man feels entrapped in a situation whose awkwardness go beyond the realm of ordinary problems he's used to live. The second embodies the religious side of the story and expectedly reminds Badil that suicide is taboo in religion and wouldn't make himself an accomplice, his tone is not preachy but rather amiable and friendly.
But Badil is a stubborn man, and for each argument finds a verbal counterattack, a job is a job, why would a poor man refuse the opportunity of a six-month wage for burying a corpse. Why would God punish someone whose unhappiness will only cause more harm to the beloved ones? Till, the tone changes and Badil gets more eloquent until he finds the wise old man who embodies our own vision: life is just too precious and valuable, he evokes what makes things worth to life, he tells a joke, he sings but finally agrees to do the job, hoping that Badil will do the right choice and choose not to kill himself.
Let's get back to Badil and more importantly, the car, which is inseparable from the story, as both a means to a morbid end and its paradoxical obstacle. The car is his life, it represents the only zone of comfort left in his supposedly meaningless life, through the windshield, he offers us a glimpse of a seldom seen Iran, not too religious, struck by employment, full of life and can only offer his Range Rover as a sign of his wealth, completely oblivious to the social realities of his own country. Badil doesn't even realize that his invitations sound like sexual pick-ups in a country where homosexuality is more taboo than suicide. He never finds the proper words to get to the point, maybe too focused on the road, to be able to empathize with his passengers' point of view. The car is his life, the road is his death.
But we're embarked as passengers in the car of life and from the regular external shots of the car driving through the deserted area, we see that the man is circling around the same road, and understand how truly lost he is. Badil the man in the car is hard to life and it's only after he meets the old man that he wises up a little, leaves the car and seems to have clear directions. Before, he joined a guardian up his little tower and enjoyed the sight while the guardian deemed it as dust and earth. For once, it's Badil who sees the half-full glass, all good things come from dust and earth while the guardian mentions everything gets back to dust. Outside the car, Badil can taste a few things, if not cherries, in the car, he doesn't even acknowledge the help of the workers who gave him a lift when one wheel fell near a ravine.
Kiarostami plunges us in the mind of someone who doesn't know where to go, it's not much a study on Badil but on the state of mind of suicidal persons. The film demands some patience and I'm not sure the ending rewards it but I guess it conveys the same sense of nothingness inherent to the lost soul. The ending is rather brave in the way it polarizes viewers but as someone who went through the same questioning, I know suicide is no kidding matter and I could feel the pain of Homayoun Ershadi, his desperation, his anger, his sadness, and after the man accepted to do the job, the realization that it was up to him, now.
Whether he succeeded or not belongs to another movie and I'm not sure I would have loved a clear ending, in a way a satisfying study ends when the arc is fully closed, but the real focus isn't the driver, or the car, but the road. I know road movies can be wonderfully existential so this is a film that gets the perfect setting and road to contain these states of mind.
I used the word "existential dead end" for movies like "Magnolia" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", the expression can apply for Badil's road. The whole irony is that as long as we can pick up passengers, no road will lead to a dead end.
Simple but not simplistic, complex but not complicated, straightforward in a circular war, the Golden Palm Winner is a special movie, not easy to watch but fascinating to contemplate.
Adam McKay's "Vice" is the exciting and captivating biopic of one of the most enigmatic men of the last twenty years. So enigmatic that I couldn't even despise him because I almost admired the way he fooled everyone from within and from outside, and pulled the strings of America's policy during the controversial years of Bush administration.
Now everyone would agree that the War on Iraq wasn't worth it, that it sowed the seeds that made local terrorism grow into monstrosities like ISIS, but the film doesn't try to preach a choir, it just tells us the story of a man who wanted to be important and powerful in order to please his wife who believed in him at the lowest point of his life. He could get to that highest point precisely when he knew he was at the right time (September 11), the right place (VP Office)... with the right president (W.).
For Godfather fans, Dick Cheney is exactly as if Michael Corleone's archenemy Hyman Roth became the consiglieri of Fredo , he spent all his life getting all the connections and networks with business corporations, lobbies and think-thank organizations, consolidating his power and his wealth and then, it was like the whole purpose of his life was served on a silver platter with four hi-jacked planes for starters. Whether served to fulfill his selfish desires, you've got to admire the opportunistic genius of the man and his mastery of Machiavellian arithmetics.
His method to get what he wants is fool-proof, if he wants it, it must be right, if it serves his power, it's legit, if USA does "x", then "x" is good, if he needs to bomb Iraq, then anything that harms or attacks USA comes from Iraq. The only justification is the end. And Adam McKay chronicles the slow but patient ascension of a man who knew how to wait for his turn, who thought when other acted and made the craziest and deadliest move sound reasonable thanks to an extraordinary capability to manipulate words and distort facts. Still, for what it's worth, he was a good and loving husband, and a good father to his daughters. The man had a brain, and a heart, albeit a fragile one.
And you've got to hand it to Adam McKay to make such a spellbinding character study of a man who strikes first as a boring and sinister bureaucratic. Some men carry auras with them, when they enter a room, you can't help but look at them with respect and admiration. Cheney is overweight, bald, not too good looking and his average looks work like the perfect cloak of invisibility, he doesn't have the wisecracking flamboyance of Rummy (Steve Carrell steals the show as Donald Rumsfeld) or the federative amiability of W. (sorry Carrell but Rockwell got the nomination) but since he was born to be that man in the shadows, he knew too well how to use it.
If anything, the film is a school-case for all of us Tom Hagen wannabe who despise their statuses as advisers because you never feel the real thrill of power, while the reality is that the power doesn't belong to the hand but to whatever orders the move. Cheney not only guides the hand but also knows how to manipulate the law and prevent the legislative or judiciary power to interfere, believing there can be a way to exercice power unilaterally. There's something almost satirical in his rise to power but no matter the artistic licenses taken by McKay, the numbers and facts never lie, and let's see what the other "Don" is holding for us in his pocket.
I liked the film, I love that every once in a while, there's a POTUS whose reign is so rich and controversial that it works as inspiration for great movies, seems like good old W. is the new Nixon and many films set during his administration prove to be valuable. But there's just something about McKay, I don't know if he's the best director, but he's the best storyteller out there, and from the very first minutes, I was literally glued to the screen with a wide grin on my face. I enjoyed every minute of the film, and I reacted to some outburst of directing genius with such loud laughs I was surprised the film wasn't tagged as a comedy.
Christian Bale totally disappears behind his character so it's almost an insult to talk about performance, he's not the favorite but it takes a lot of talent to play a character so used to act in the shadow that he almost seems inhabited by a shadow, always talking in secrecy, choosing every single word with calculated carefulness. Amy Adams is good that goes without saying but offers an interesting "mise en abime" dimension to the film as the woman behind the man behind the great man, the VP's VP so to speak. She's the kind of woman every man would love to have, we wouldn't change for ourselves but we'd do the impossible for someone we love. In its own right, "Vice" is a great love story.
Of course, one can't ignore the documentary value of the film, it's a companion piece to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" but it's far more entertaining thanks to McKay's unique tone and surrealistic intrusions, not as flashy as "The Big Short" but you just have to appreciate the way McKay loosens up a little without affecting the seriousness of his movie. These McKay-isms tend to disappear during the last act and the film becomes so solemn in tone that I was going to rate it a 9 instead of 10 unless McKay blew my mind one last time. And he did!
Speaking for myself, this is the best film of 2018. Clearly, Adam McKay had nothing to envy from Oliver Stone or Spike Lee, he makes political movies, intelligent movies and he makes you laugh, what more could you ask for?
How strange. I had just finished reviewing "Magnolia" and one of the terms I used to refer to its protagonists' mental state was "existential claustrophobia". And after watching "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", that expression sounds almost too obscene. Indeed, what should I call the state a man victim of the "locked in" syndrome? Existential dead end? Of course it would be an insult to the memory of the man who made the book and inspired the film to use such an inappropriate term.
To my defense, existential claustrophobia was employed in order to describe people who tried to transcend their conditions only to feel entrapped by their past memories and chained by their emotionally affecting regrets. However, in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", we have a man who can't do anything and even worse, he's fully aware of his disability. At one point of the movie, he's called a vegetable and he has an ironic reaction to that word "what kind of vegetables?". If he was one, surely he wouldn't be suffering.
The man is capable of conscience like any other human being, of perceptions such as sight and hearing but trapped in a body incapable to make the slightest move. Such a cruel irony for someone who lived life to the fullest, satisfying his libido, his ambitions, -he was the successful director of Elle magazine- to find himself locked in his body. In his case, it's not a matter of will. We're not in the realm of symbolism but in reality in its livid and implacable cruelty. The man can't move and can't speak.
But in a magnanimous twist of fate, the only luxury he's still got is the ability to move an eye, to blink it. And like a rudimentary "Morse", that simple movement will make all the difference and will allow Jean-Dominique Bauby to write his memoir of the same name. The so-called existential dead-end as anyone in good shape would perceive, starting with his inner healthy counterpart, allowed him to overcome each boundary and learn how to communicate, step by step. And this isn't your average inspirational learning that an old-fashioned Hollywood montage will display.
No, you've got to see the learning from the very first beginning. It takes first to learn how to answer simple "Yes/No" questions, one blink means "yes", two mean "no". Then one of the two nurses (all young and pretty as if it was meant to provide some visual comfort) come with an alphabet that ranks the letters in orders of frequency. By the end of the film, I was so used of that E-S-A-R-I-N-T-U-L-O that I wondered why it wasn't used as a title. So, Jean-Do, as he's called, must blink when the speaker gets to the right letter, and one by one, a word is formed, then a sentence, sometimes intuition accelerates the process and the message is well-received.
Halfway through the film, he's got enough learning to be able to dictate a memoir. But that would be limitative to describe the film, this is not your typical crowd pleaser. Empathy and admiration we're likely to feel for Jean-Do, but these emotional triggers couldn't have worked if it wasn't for Julian Schnabel's immersion into the "locked in" state. Perhaps the three quarters of the film, including the whole first act are shown from his very perspective, and it's not just a matter of POV.
We don't see Jean-Do, we see what he sees. When the film opens, the sight is all blurry and we can guess his state from the medical staff's reactions. Schnabel doesn't try to make a documentary; with the magic of his camera, he offers us a bridge to Jean-Do's thoughts. From the obligatory "where am I? what's wrong with me?" to the "well, duh" reactions and even the naughty glimpses on the nurse's cleavages and a few internal remarks proving that the man inside has kept his good senses.
Schnabel doesn't gratify us with his thoughts to simplify the narrative, he puts us in the same existential confinement as Jean-Do. We know what he feels or thinks not to appreciate his normality as the "man inside" but to undergo his struggle to communicate. Here's an example, there's a moment where a medic is feeding him by injection and a football game is playing in the background. We hear Jean-Do's thoughts, he wants to watch the game, we just wait for the man to get out. Then he goes out but turns off the TV, leaving us in the same frustrating state of powerlessness.
It's not just about the handicap, but also about the sums of all these little struggles. But all pathos put aside, and the film can't do without pathos, the story speaks some loud and powerful statements about life, about the meaning of being alive through many aspects we take for granted: memory, imagination, dreams. What could be worse? Losing your body or your memory? Jean-Do's brains hasn't been damaged at all and that light of hope, as fragile and feeble as it was, was enough to guide him through a symbolic salvation. He stayed alive enough to share his experience.
And the performance of Mathieu Amalric doesn't just rely on that catatonic-looking state, we can also see the man before the accident, with his mistresses, his father (Max Von Sydow) his children, his staff, we can see the product of his imagination and his memory, his dreams and fantasies. So many times I find myself stuck in a painful situation and I just escape by the power of my mind, a temporary relief but sometimes, it's fun to forget you have a body. Maybe it's indispensable.
The film can be regarded as a contemplation of the limitations of the body and the power of consciousness, a hymn to the power of the will and how the simple ability to blink made a difference. A cathartic lesson to those who don't live in borrowed time.
A Harrowing (but not flawless) Journey into Existential Claustrophobia...
While many of us are looking for air pockets of creativity within the abundance of reboots, remakes, superhero movies and crowd-pleasers that try to check all the boxes of political correctness, let's all remember the 90s, a decade that brought the air of freshness cinema is so severely lacking today,
And I wouldn't call 1999, its creative pinnacle, the "year that changed movies" but rather the year "that questioned life" through so many unprecedented angles and scopes, whether intimate or epic, dramatic or ironic. What if someone could live in another body? What if bored office clerks could transcend their conditions? What if our reality wasn't real?
It seemed like many directing newcomers decided to find new directions to life, questioning the very certitudes that shape our vision of society and people, allowing us to free ourselves from every preconceived notion to embark us to unforgettable existential journeys. But "Magnolia", unlike "American Beauty", "The Matrix" or "Fight Club" shows us a gallery characters who seem forever trapped in their beings and go through a real existential struggle.
Two of them are dying men, their dice are cast and that goes for their "victims" who're grown-ups now. One of them is played by Jason Robards. Julianne Moore play his cheating trophy wife who realized only too late that she loved him, this very man abandoned his first wife and turned his estranged son (Tom Cruise) into a motivational speaker whose misogynistic views would never find any echo today. The other man is a Kids Show's host (Philip Baker Hall) who's turned his girl (Melona Waters) into a cocaine addict and is not even sure he molested her when she was young. These men brought happiness to millions of viewers but couldn't satisfy the most important persons in their world.
All some can't bring happiness to themselves. William H. Macy plays a former star of a kids show begging to reconquer his lost fame through love, while the newest child prodigy of the show can't see behind his popularity such sings as lack of respect and abuse from his father. Thankfully, there are Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly playing men who care, who're here to show support and empathy as police officer and nurse man. And what all these characters tell us, is that we all prisoners of the past because of the mistakes we've done or that were done at our expenses.
And there's a feeling of existential entrapment conveyed by that "Wise Up" song every protagonist sings at the second third of the film, as if that was the pivotal make-it or break-it moment. I agree it depends on the mood you're put into to decide whether it's deep or corny, but I was so attentive to the lyrics I didn't pay attention to the awkwardness. It looks like a positive message but the "It's not going to stop" was repeated three times more than "Until you wise up" so the balance doesn't play in favor of optimism.
But don't get it wrong, "Magnolia" isn't a puzzling movie, it's a cinematic jigsaw puzzle without any final picture, the reassembling process of these pieces of life matters more than the outcome. And that's an important point, I guess there are two schools of movie goers, those who expect a "final picture", and those who care for the experience, those who care for the destination, those who care for the journey. So there's a reason why the film is so polarizing.
But to say that it doesn't have an arc isn't true either. The interlocking stories are all set in the same time span 24 hours in San Fernando Valley, characters are connected through family, friendship, occasional or accidental encounters and each ones goes through a specific arc, though some are left unanswered. What does statement the sum of all these arcs speak? Well, maybe that we're all connected one way or another and that life is made of coincidences that go beyond our anticipations. But to be frank, I'm not buying this whole "coincidence" shtick.
I won't spoil the content of the introduction with the three "coincidence" stories, but although I love that part, I don't think it foreshadows anything The film is about paralleled stories where the only coincidences are in the way we discover the way characters seem chained together. Personally, I don't believe in coincidences because there's always something intentional in every perception, we see what we want, and the elements that form a coincidence were chosen in order to turn it into a certitude. I don't think anything in "Magnolia" is coincidental because the protagonists where chosen on the basis of their connection, weren't they?
When you write a story, you play God and Paul Thomas Anderson was wrapping his baby project with a metaphysical package and a little ribbon consisting of its climax. I hated that climax first, I like it more now, it doesn't make any more sense, but yes, it ties the whole plot together in a way that seems to fit the spirit that came up with such a unique film. Still, as much as I respect and admire Paul Thomas Anderson, I can see why the film earned him a nomination for Best Writing and not Directing. The way I see it, it's a series of brilliantly written and acted (Cruise should have won his Best Supporting Oscar) but disjointed vignettes made by a gifted and realistic observer of human nature.
And at the last minute, Anderson tried to find the common thread. "Magnolia" is a flawed hyperlink film because it's a brilliant anthology film, another of these movies victim of their own storytelling devices, so that instead of discussing the core, we talk about how long or how pretentious it is. I won't use these words but near the end, I was wondering whether I felt satisfied because the final monologue tied the plot together or because it meant the harrowing journey was over.
An enchanting movie, highly recommended for kids between 5 and 10 (and their accompanying parents)
Strange. I don't think there's one thing I saw in the film that didn't remind of another movie yet I don't think I've seen anything like "Minuscule 2: Mandibles From Far Away" in recent years. Not even "Minuscule". It's not the 'animated movie of the year', and yet it provides a constant feeling of relaxed satisfaction despite my frustration for not having seen the original.
I missed it for two reasons: it wasn't from any major animated studios and didn't get any awards buzz and I wasn't yet a father. Indeed, this is one of these instances where having a child can be beneficial in the way it makes you venture in the kind of movies you wouldn't even have dared to watch. And what I got was something with some hypnotic backgrounds of a National Geographic documentary and an old-school cartoonish inventiveness, not to mention the heart and thrills that have nothing to envy from any Disney or Miyazaki productions.
So the film started and I think I was misled by the opening shot, it looked so real I was afraid I went in the wrong room. Then the majestic panoramic shot of the mountain followed by the forest ended with a ladybug that couldn't have been more cartoonish-looking, two eyes, two rounds and the rest is all schematic simplicity. The design is so rudimentary it looks incongruous in the middle of such realistic magnificence. I was reminded me of an early 90s cartoon paying tribute to La Fontaine's fables, it was one of these first 3D cartoon and the title was "The Geometric Fables of La Fontaine".
And like in that cartoon, there was no dialogue, only a narrator. In "Minuscule 2", I realized the communication would be all buzzing, and I noticed many kids laughing during the first humming sounds, it was like they reminded them of farting or raspberry sounds. Personally, I was annoyed, I couldn't imagine enduring one hour and half without any intelligible dialogue. But two minutes after, the lack of words sounded as natural as if it was dialogue. And I'm glad that the human part were kept without dialogue or with speeches sounding like gibberish, à la Chaplin's "City Lights", like a silent film.
So there's a friendship between a ladybug and a black ant, so it seems. I guess this is what I missed from the first film. But I just love the way the insects are portrayed with a fauna and flora of their own with and each species with its rules of behavior and communication devices. And then nothing prepares us for the fantastic trip to the Guadeloupian islands. I wouldn't spoil that because the set-up is one of the creative highlights of the film, which is saying a lot. But take word "creative" in its loose meaning: many parents and even children will see a connection with "A Bug's Life" for the animals and the setting, "Wall-E", especially the first part for the silent dialogue or for the cockroach cameo and "Up" or Miyazaki for an unforgettable flying device (the spider looking uncannily like one of Miyazaki's black soot sprites).
So the film while not a masterpiece is a fun piece of animated in its own right, not in the plot, not in the setting, but in the way it manages to be a pleasing experience for a children and their accompanying parents I saw the film with my daughter, she is five and she just loved it. She smiled at the buzzing sounds, had a jump scare with the spider, asked me if the poisonous caterpillar really existed and she enjoyed the film. There's nothing too sophisticated about it or too fancy but it manages to hit a sensitive chord to both adults and kids.
I don't know if it has the pretension to be anything more than a sweet and simple little film but within that modest ambition, it succeed admirably. In fact, it succeeds so much I would highly recommend it, it seems like the perfect movie for kids between 4 or 10. Beyond that age, they might be a bit too blasé about animated films but it would be worth giving it a try, it's not even too long to be felt like a waste of time.
So speaking for myself and my daughter, "Minuscule 2" will not be a waste of your time.
Okay, this calls for another kind of reviewing, doesn't it?
I guess I went through as many stages of appreciation as acid pills taken during the making. Did they try to make a punk version of 'Dangerous Liaisons' or was the director channelling Darren Aronofsky making 'The Madness of Queen Anne', I can't articulate my feelings in order to form a general appreciation, not now anyway. I have to enumerate all my key-reactions in chronological order.
1st minute:. It's got quite a nice look, the costumes are all right. I know like period movies, I like 18th century, Barry Lyndon, The Duchess, and all that. I think I'm gonna like thi.
1st minute 10 seconds: I'm suddenly not so 100% sure that it's gonna be your average costume movie. I should have figured that with the credits and titles' display.
2nd minute: what's with my camera-lens trick? Another "And Now For Something's Completely Different" moment and I'll be groaning.
10 minutes: (groaning)
15 minutes: feeling like that judge in the trial films: "this is better getting somewhere"....
25 minutes: the slap! finally, this got somewhere after all. Cool I waited for it.My faith is restored.
25 minutes, 10 seconds: Not so fast. Never mind the profanity but I didn't know the term "OK" was used in the 18th century England.
25 minutes, 20 seconds: playing with the wheelchair... what the bloody hell?!
25 minutes, 30 seconds: OK, they might as well kiss each other, nothing will surprise me...
25 minutes, 45 seconds: What did I say?!
30 minutes: at that point, I would see Weisz sticking her booger on a Stone's face, I wouldn't be surprised, seems like randomness is mistaken for pointlessness, or is it the other way around, I don't think I care anymore ... my brain is telling me "Mama, I wanna go home!"
40 minutes: OK, characters are well-established, Im getting used to the overall iconoclast tone and there were a few genuinely good parts (even genius at time) and the acting is truly Oscar-worthy..
1hour 20 minutes: OK if I forget about that naked man with the tomatoes thrown at his body, we've had almost an hour of cinematic consistency where I could appreciate better the performances of both Stone, Weisz and understand why Colman is credited as the lead.
1hour 40 minutes: my mind is processing, is it supposed to say something about women in power or the different layers of power with the favorite playing like consiglieri, is it about women power or just the way power corrupts everyone so there's no reason for women to be least corruptible... or maybe we have just a fantastic duel between two rivals who want to be the one who pulls the strings even if it means strangling the other with them. Seems like we already have a winner then, right?
1hout 55 minutes: that scene is dragging on and on, it'd be better be the ending... oh so it's finished. She did win but was it the "she" I expected? not really. Well, the film outgrew its initial bizarreness, was consistently interesting, made me think and had a satisfying ending. I can see the hype was somewhat deserved after all. But I can't say I had an instant liking, it's really demanding in terms of patience but maybe it's a film that takes time to grow on you.
Not for any taste or audience, but definitely a memorable experience, and so unpleasant at times you've got to admire its daringness, you can say it's over-stylized but that's the kind of thing you say about film that are all flash and no substance, this one has both and sometimes, flash and substance act like the two favourites in the film. And the story oddly enough acts like the Queen, it looks weak, flawed and flobby but it' got more strength inside and more personality than you'd think.
8 seems like the right rating, but it was a close call.
"Into the Wild" is the inspirational albeit heartbreaking story of a brilliant young man named Christopher McCandless who abandoned the premise of a wealthy existence to follow the footsteps of his hero Jack London and answer the call of the wild. He eventually died of starvation after two years of a journey that ended in Alaska where he spent 110 days in a bus lost in the middle of an ancient mining town named Stampede Trail. The bus is still there with Chris' remaining belongings, his diary and his aura.
It's a sad story but not a tragedy. Chris chose chose his destiny and gave it its full meaning. He didn't know what he was seeking but knew what he was rejecting, believing the journey mattered more than the destination. Such a story called for a movie and of all directors, it was Sean Penn who adapted the book of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, rightfully believing the material would still find a profound echo in people's hearts 15 years after Chris' death. His movie is not only served by a breathtaking cinematography and a haunting performance by Emile Hirsch, it also benefits from a clever editing, ironically the only category to be Oscar-nominated besides Hal Holbrook's supporting performance.
The editing matters because one can't look at Chris' odyssey as something linear, the film opens by swinging back and forth between the "Magic Bus" discovery and family flashbacks, respectively the "beginning of the end" and "the end of the beginning". The non-linear storytelling creates the same startling puzzlement as the people who met Chris the adventurer when they discovered where he came from: a wealthy family with two highly educated parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) who tried to shape his future with their "present" as a model. So when we see this young hiker barely accepting a pair of boots before getting in the middle of the wild nowhere, we know something failed in the McCandless' educational project.
The contrast is even more striking as Hirsch suffers from the same cruel syndrome than many young men who, beardless, look ten years younger despite the fact that the stories are set only two years apart. So we can see both the plant of rebellion growing and the roots in Chris' past. And Penn chooses the right way to relate the process, Chris couldn't be the narrator, he's a man of action and his actions speak for his rejections: refusing a car as a gift, gives his entire $24,000 savings to charity, burning money, cutting his credit card, everything that superficially defined him.
So it's through his sister's monologue that we understand what sowed the seeds of his non-conformist: his father's infidelity, domestic violence and the way his parents' materialistic achievements alienated them from their two children and painted a forever disgraceful portrait of success in the mind of Chris. The sister is played by Jena Malone. So Chris expressed his disagreement many times until it was time to walk the walk. So we can clearly see the initial motives and the end of the journey.
And the middle-story is indirectly told by someone who only left behind him a series of encounters with strangers that Krakauer could track in order to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle. Chris didn't write anything until he came to the bus because it represented the edge of his adventure, the real challenge he was seeking. During the last two years where he was still looking for himself, he met a couple of hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) a farmer (Vince Vaughn), a couple of Danish tourists and finally Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz.In every case, something immediately caught their hearts, they shaped his vision but so he did with his genuine sincerity, brave approach to life and optimism. And though Hirsch gave a great performance, bizarrely snubbed, the real Chris looked even more sympathetic.
Speaking from experience, I had my share of friends in business school who were acting like pseudo rebels, rejecting the comfort of modernity, career, family and wealth, only to get back in the ranks once the diploma obtained. Young privileged ones like Chris are numerous but a few of them dare to act according to their thoughts and that's why Chris immediately cuts to our heart, he's a man of his word. And go figure why, I was thinking of Anne Frank while finishing the film. Maybe it's because I saw the film recently but here are the points of comparisons.
Both died in their youth and became universal symbols of a spirit resisting the pressure of the world and seeking honesty, purity and peace. Both had a diary they couldn't finish. Both depended on the kindness of people and it's a real shame for Franz who couldn't adopt Chris (Holbrook melted my heart in his last scene). Finally, both have universal posthumous legacies and we can only picture them with a smile on their faces. Of course, Anne didn't chose her life but she lived tragedy with her family while Chris lived happiness he couldn't share.
Happiness indeed. Chris' last picture shows him with a smile on his face, looking gaunt like a Concentration Camp survivor but smiling nonetheless. He didn't want to die, he might have expected when he realized he couldn't get back anywhere and never let enough hints to be found, but his survival journey into the wild made him an instant icon in the hearts of young people who felt an instant need to discover themselves while discovering the world.
Chris could learn a few things before getting back and coming to terms with his family but he didn't have time to practice what he learned. Still, what he lived taught the world a lesson, a practical one about survival, a universal one about being true to yourself and a timeless one about dreams and happiness, achieving dreams is important but dreaming alone can be dangerous.
Too clean, too civilized, too anticlimactic even by the 50s and Wyler's standards...
Families or households could be either happy or dysfunctional, in William Wyler, they always found the right painter to their complex relationships especially with war or conflicts as emotional canvases. Either like peas in a pod or not amounting to a hill of beans, Wyler always knew how to draw individuals as family members, generally getting the best out of actors.
But even by Wyler's standards, there's something too conventional in that bucolic portrayal of a Quaker homesteader's family: the Birdwells, starring Gary Cooper as the reassuring patriarch, Dorothy McGuire the straight-laced holier-than-thou mother who bans as much fun as possible it's a wonder she got such goofy kids: Little Jess with his love-and-hate relationship with a pet-goose, Phyllis Love as Mattie enamored with one of the neighbors' son and Anthony Perkins as the awkward-mannered son. What we've got in the beginning is literally "Little Quaker House in the Prairie".
The first act establishes the major conflict between the Quakers' pacifist philosophy and the ongoing Civil war threatening their peaceful life and calling for every man, old or young, to defend their properties, their lives. Watching Gary Cooper playing a Quaker naturally takes us back to "High Noon" where his bride played by Grace Kelly refused to see him confront Frank Miller, the score from Dimitri Tiomkin and the Oscar-nominated song makes the parallel even more inevitable. But there's a reason why "High Noon" is a classic and why "Friendly Persuasions is only an acceptable finished product made in Hollywood.
The major conflict set-up during a powerful church sequence is cancelled out by the sense of unshakable sitcom-like unity within the Birdwells' family and diluted in many debatable episodic moments involving the buying of an organ or a horse. I understand it's supposed to show that the Birdwells aren't equally zealous, that Jess has a knack for sport and music but by the time the action really picks up, we're only a twenty minutes away from the ending and the climax didn't leave up to the expectations the tag-line inspired. I read Wyler didn't know whether Cooper should have used a gun or not and that hesitation shows up. Even Cooper was displeased with his character believing it didn't fit his reputation.
It's like the real dilemma wasn't much between God's precepts and the war but how to handle actors' images for the sake of the film' publicity. So it's no wonder the film failed to deliver a definite answer to its issue if the director was more cautious about the public's response. Wyler is one of the best of his generation but I have a feeling the film might have been different if it was directed by Elia Kazan. It's a real shame because you can see how Anthony Perkins (the only Oscar-nominated cast-member, which is saying a lot for a Wyler picture) is too tortured deep inside, to be drowned in the middle of anecdotal sequences. Perkins made such a sensation that he was branded the new 'James Dean' and I could see why, his shy and awkward manners, his lanky demeanor and his expressive eyes made the film.
But there's so few of him the film leaves you hungry for something that never happens. It's all starters but no main course. Maybe I expected a little more from a film that won the Golden Palm, something more provocative, more thought-provoking, Wyler just plays it on the safe side and leaves it warm. Even Phyllis Love as the girl in love made me expect some twist in her romantic subplot but the camera was unnecessarily enamored with Cooper and McGuire who bored the hell out of me as the eternal killjoy.
So granted the film has its outdated charm, its postcard look of Indiana Valley, the cute rivalries between neighbors, the moments where you could see Quakers becoming outcasts from the rest of the fighting men, I wish Perkins could become a sort of outcast too, a black sheep or someone who'd confront Cooper like Dean confronted his fathers in "Rebel Without a Cause" or "East of Eden". It could have been more daring but it was too clean, too civilized, too anticlimactic. It's exactly as if the Bridge on the River Kwai didn't explode, that's how I felt.
I don't think I have ever been disappointed by a William Wyler movie, even his most conventional works carried interesting depths beneath their well-directed, well-photographed and Hollywood-correct look. But "Friendly Persuasion" suffers from an uneven pacing and no specific direction, made by a William Wyler whose pair of Best Picture winners put him in a zone of commercial comfort, this film doesn't standout as one of his best, it's not even one of his memorable lesser movies.
I'm glad Wyler could pull himself together and make his final masterpiece: "Ben-Hur" three years later, and Perkins would get a role that would fit his acting talent in "Psycho". So the best achievement of "Friendly Persuasion" is that at least it persuaded Hollywood that Perkins was a talent on which to invest.
Interestingly, the 50s started and ended with two modernizations of the famous myth, both from French directors, Cocteau's black-and-white "Orpheus" and Marcel Camus' "Black Orpheus". I had vague memories from my Latin years, remembering Orpheus, the Lyre player who was allowed a visit the love of his life at the time of her death and could leave the Underworld if he didn't turn back his head. Tragedy sealed the myth as Orpheus surrendered to men's most tragic flaw: curiosity. What makes myths so eternal and universal is their anticlimactic simplicity.
And in a way, "Black Orpheus" also turned out to be a cinematic myth. It might not be the first Brazilian movie to come to mind -that privilege will certainly go to "City of God"- but at the time of its release, the film made quite a sensation and started a real Bossa Nova craze, and I feel so ignorant to be only familiar with the Quincy Jones hit song. The context is crucial indeed: the country was undergoing an economical metamorphosis, a young prodigy named Pelé made it win its first football World Cup so it seems that the world was ready to dance at the crazy rhythm of the samba. Or am I being caricatural?
I feel like regenerating the infamous episode of "The Simpsons" when it took a Conga line to go to the hotel and where grooms handled luggage like footballs. I guess Brazil is so colorful it's easy to fall in the trap of clichés and "Black Orpheus" is victim of its own backdrop. I read that Brazilians didn't get an instant liking on it because it was about everything Brazil was supposed to be about: a never-ending party with nothing really substantial to say about society. Sixty years after, it is more obvious the film wasn't meant to provide a social commentary but provoke a sensation. On that level, one can't deny its musical inventiveness and what could strike as flaws become an unforgettable capsule. I was literally hypnotized by the opening with the favelistas dancing to the Samba rhythm under a beautiful blue sky above the bay of Rio de Janeiro.
We often say that "black and white" can serve a movie, there was no way the film could work in monochrome. The carnival, the avalanche of colors, the dancing crowds are integral to its appeal, it's a film that never ceases to live so that the moment where Death strikes (it's the Orpheus myth after all) we're caught by a thermal shock. Colors and music are like the flesh and blood of the film whose heart pound at the real rhythm of Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn, two unknown faces immortalized as Orfeu and Eurydice. Two persons who in the midst of the Carnival, the most important event of the year, become for each other their own event, "like a samba in their heart and no one's invited" but it plays like a romantic ballad more than any frantic rythm.
We know the party will be over, we know jealousy will raise its ugly head through the breathtakingly beautiful Lourdes de Oliveira who plays Orfeu's fiancée and the occurrence of a Death-masked character who stalks the beautiful Euridyce for no particular reason. It's fun to find the modern parallels between the myth and the background of Rio de Janeiro but the myth is almost secondary because there's something almost documentary-like that catches the eye and the ears. No matter how limited the budget was, there was no flaw in the actors' performance and even the extras. The film is based on a myth and a few clichés but the purity of the actors' sort of redeem the little "lies by omission".
It's also very interesting to have a film with unknown actors and all of African background which can be regarded as a cliché since Brazil is a cosmopolite population but it's also thought-provoking and refreshing in the very context of 1959. The the film isn't about the modern Brasilia but the more exotic and postcard-like Rio that Carmen Miranda has embodied, there are no fruits-hat or Copacabana but there's enough Samba, football and beautiful shots on the Corcovado. It's a film of fabricated authenticity but so genuinely Brazilian you regret the French director's name. Marcel Camus who made this on a shoestring budget does a great disservice to the very film he made, like condemning it to be forever regarded as a Frenchman's film set in Brazil.
But there's another way to look at it. The film won the Golden Palm, the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for France, as if it belonged to France, to the world, except its own country. You know how they call something from you that doesn't belong to you? A gift. And it's the best compliment the film can have, "Black Orpheus" is a Brazilian gift to the world. We don't choose what defines us, a Brazilian might pick twenty movies before that one and yet the film does honor Brazil like no other movie did because the background stole the story's thunder. Even the descent to hell is replaced by a Macumba trance sequence, highlighting another aspect of Brazil, its attachment to religion and traditions. Even carnival is a quasi-sanctified tradition allowing the system of classes to be reversed and have a beautiful black woman dressed as a French aristocrat.
An image speaks a thousand words and there are thousands images in the film... and at a time where cinema longed for realism, here's a movie that dares to go against the current. And that' the beauty of cinema, it's simply unpredictable. The film ends with children dancing on an optimistic and enchanting note, ignolring that the future could look like "City of God" unlike Orpheus, it doesn't turn its head back, but it doesn't look at the future either, this is a film with a vision and a uniqueness of its own.
From conflicts of interest to interest of conflicts...
I don't believe in objectivity. An opinion can be based on facts and hidden truths but one can't simply dictate a 'proper' attitude when it comes to freedom of expression, let alone accusation... and "Fahrenheit 911", an American "J'Accuse" from Michael Moore, perfectly captured the post-September 11 'mood whiplash' from shock, fear and "eye for an eye" vengeance to disillusion, anger and "blood for oil" frustration.
Michael Moore is subjective all right but he has every single right to hate George W. Bush and his policy. He has every right to use sarcastic comments and ridiculing clips, the same rights his detractors would use to mock his weight or his friendship with Harvey Weinstein who helped finance the film. Still, if we come to a point where even the most hardcore conservatives wouldn't give the benefit of the doubt for this documentary just because they're blinded by patriotism, because they hate Moore's guts, or because the credits feature the now-infamous Wenstein's name, then I have lost all faith in mankind.
Indeed, if all "Fahrenheit 9/11" can inspire is tomatoes thrown at the face of Moore because adversaries find something ugly and abominable about him and push everything under the binary prism of "liberals" vs. "conservatives", then as a human being, I wouldn't care if the West, the East or the insect overlords end up dominating the world, the cause is lost, and our minds are as easy to manipulate as the days Bush launched his 'war on terror' like a new detergent formula. And I guess that's why I avoided the documentary for years, it didn't change anything and made its fans furious for their powerlessness and the critics even more for its one-sidedness.
Besides, I didn't think I'd learn anything new. That Bush was a lousy president, that his election was a holdup, that he knew Saddam wasn't behind September 11. Still there were a few things I wasn't quite aware of. I didn't know they tried to shut down representatives who protested against what they perceived as election fraud because they didn't get signatures from senators. I didn't know Bush authorized the Bin Ladens to leave America after the attacks instead of questioning them. I didn't know about Bush' friend who managed the Bin Laden's fortune. I didn't know the Halburton company and the ugly ramifications that made the war on terror not only ugly and hypocrite but also profitable. "Follow the money", said Deepthroat in "All the President's Men".
In a way, I'm glad Moore was funny and humoristic because this is the kind of sickening and infuriating experiences that needed to be toned down to prevent our nerves from cracking. As someone who hates injustice and longs for truth and goodness I can't tolerate the waste on human lives; and that has nothing to do with political bias. Many Republicans should be shocked about the bonds between Bush family and the Saudi regime, many patriots lost their faith after the war on Iraq, many Americans deserve to know that Bush was warned about the attacks. Basically, Bush' incompetence created a favorable context for his enemies and his greed an even more favorable one for his friends.
So Moore's anger is 100% legitimate and find an area of expression in the most objective terms, through facts and documents. Images can be distorted but their contents never lie, the film isn't a mockumentary because Bush himself is a mockery of a president and make Nixon look like Lincoln. His sarcastic whips when asked about his policy betray a profound political emptiness, he makes jokes because he's got nothing substantial to say. And the reason why people loved him is because of that straightforwardness that paid off lately with Trump. From experience, self-criticism and introspection never paid off, and if Bush didn't have the charisma, he had enough powerful friends and money to buy himself one.
And the documentary exposed the way that very influence earned him an election for starters, the way media acted like cheerleaders and supporters like sheep for the main course and a war could finally be served for dessert. It features two memorable moments: Bush's seven minutes of silence reading "My Pet Goat" to children while learning about the two attacks and a mother Lila Lipscomb reading the letter of his son from Iraq, before he was killed and where he accused Bush and stated the pointlessness of the war. Two years between the two reading moments that overarch that descent into hell and make us ask ourselves: how did that escalate so quickly?
Another question that came to my mind was what was Bush's intimate thought in the school moment? Was he weeping for his country? Cursing his friends? Realizing his incompetence? Tasting the thrill of destiny? Maybe he felt dwarfed by the magnitude of the event. Jf he was Chaplin's dictator, he could have started an honest speech with "I'm sorry, I'm not the man you need" but he didn't. And what he did was exposed admirably in the other Dictator's brilliant speech by Sacha Baron Cohen.
Meanwhile, things kept on escalating, a new war on Syria made ISIS possible, and this time, many countries that didn't join the 'Freedom' forces for Iraq became zealous "Human Rights" enforcers.
Movies like "American Sniper" would rather be celebrated than "Fahrenheit 9/11" because patriotism is still a value to be tickled and maybe because Clint Eastwood is an American icon and he's more good-looking than Michael Moore.
And no need to get that far in time, Bush had already been reelected at the film's release, the war went on and nothing really changed, Bush never said he's sorry, something he probably learned from his Daddy.
The film won the Golden Palm in 2005 and it's the second documentary to win the prize, and it's a tragicomic coincidence that the first one was named "The Silent World".
There's a heartbreaking moment in "Land Before Time" where Littlefoot mistakes a huge shadow for his mother's until he realizes it was his own, small and unimpressive. I guess the metaphor works the opposite way for Don Bluth's film, it looks modest by today's standards but the place it occupies in any child born more than twenty-five years ago is as big as Littlefoot's mother shadow. That it was produced by Uncle Steven and Uncle George say a lot.
A long time ago in our own galaxy, actually our own planet... "The Land Before Time" gave a new meaning to that so-overused "long time ago": it is set in our good old Earth before all the cute animals that populated Disney's movies ever existed. I am toying with chronology I know but only because the film takes me back to a more personal "long time ago", one where we didn't care much about logos but about the enchantment that would come off a TV screen on a grey Sunday or Saturday afternoon.
It was the dawn of the Renaissance era but we didn't know it yet, "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" were still doodles or embryo of ideas, and yet many animated movies were still released and they all had that same sketchy look we can find in the 70s/80s Disney. This was an interesting era that allowed many Western animators to prove their worth without any complex and huge marketing push, especially Don Bluth who had left Disney studios, unsatisfied with its evolution, to fly with his own wings. Whether he succeeded or not is a matter of opinion.
Indeed, "The Little Mermaid" is perhaps more celebrated than "All Dogs Go to Heavan", however if you asked any child who grew up in the 80s about the better memory from 1988, the story of a little dinosaur with friends of different species looking for a great valley would beat Disney's "Oliver's Company" (which I didn't even see anyway). Now I don't want to fill the review of a sweet children's movie with sterile comparisons, but it's only to highlight the technical and narrative achievement of an underrated gem.
And since Disney became the ultimate reference, I can say that the opening of "Land Before Time" carries some of the best imagery I can think of, opening with a sort of primitive soup and the delicate and touching vignettes of birth, a hymn-to-life sequence resurrecting the universal and almost religious aura of "Bambi". As a child, watching the birth of Littlefoot, listening to the narrator describing the different species defined by their characteristic: the meat-eaters, the herbivores, the long-necks, the three-horns, I could feel myself vibrating with excitement and interest.
Sure I knew I was in a familiar territory. I guess I expected either the mother to die or Littlefoot to be lost or abandoned, I expected a kids' adventure where they would learn to overcome their fear, swallow their pride, trust each other and defeat a bad guy before the ultimate triumph. Everything was so new that it didn't matter if the story felt familiar, the dinosaurs looked good and realistic enough. The hand-drawn animation hand-drawn is so particular that even its grainy aspect gives it a sort of obsolete charm lacking in the clean-looking computer-aided imagery. Yes, Don Bluth's film has aged nicely.
The bubbles, the colors, the sights of dinosaurs' herds echoing the Evolution sequence in "Fantasia" were all eye-candies but what makes the film works is its sweet and tender story. Yes, it's all familiar even sometimes corny, Littlefoot must find the great valley, "some things are invisible with the eyes and you can only see them with the hearts", death is part of the great circle of life (and the film came before "The Lion King") but still, there's something straightforward, unsophisticated about the film that works even better than if it had to surrender to cynicism.
Today's animated movies try too much to teach kids to be what they want to be, to inculcate individualistic values, here "children" are moved by survival and the need to stick together, and that's the stuff good kids' movie are made of. And so we follow a gallery of different personalities, there's Littlefoot as the orphan dinosaur, Cera as the stubborn three-horn and the closest to a friendly antagonist, Ducky is the loud and cheerful one (voiced by the late Judith Barsi), Spike and Petrie, the flyer who can't fly (and we suspect he'll fly at the right moment).
The film also provides a nice villain in Sharp-Tooth the T-Rex responsible for the mother's demise, who for some reason doesn't speak and seems to act like a "real" animal. The film doesn't overplay his vileness and uses him as a necessary driver to the kids' coming-of-age story, told as smoothly and inventively as possible despite a few bits of predictability.
But if "Land Before Time" doesn't reinvent the wheel , it accomplishes a lot, it provides a coherent and constant story with the nice amount of thrills and fun and tenderness and is short enough not to depend on cheap twists.
And after so many reviews, where I felt so guilty not to have dedicated one to a Don Bluth's film, I'm glad the injustice has been repaired, and I'm glad I could rediscover a film. Yup, yup, yup!
It was in 1995 when I discovered the extent of the Nazi barbarity, watching "The Great Dictator" in French class helped a little, that and the 50th anniversary celebrations but it was my discovery of Anne Frank's story that sealed it. I was 13 by then, the same age than Anne when she entered the attic except that she didn't have the luxury I had: she lived history rather than learning it.
My discovery of her story had nothing to do with school, or not quite. We had a student exchange program and it was the first night I spent in my French host's home, the mother was divorced and her children were asleep and I watched with her a movie about Anne Frank, not the 1959 version but a made-for-TV movie. I forgot a lot of things except for a few meaningful details.
I remembered Anne's smile and cheerful nature. I remembered the date with the handsome 'cousin'. I remembered a claustrophobic setting in greyish shades of brown. I remembered a final scene where everyone held hands while hearing approaching footsteps. And I never forgot that ending where we could hear in voice-over "in spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart", then the father closed the diary, saying how ashamed he was.
Watching George Stevens' version, I was wondering whether it addressed an audience aware of Anne's life (and death). I figured the equation was simple, if they didn't know, then they had embarked an emotional ride with a shocking reveal at the end, though it's pretty much implied by the opening shot. If they knew, it didn't matter because once the journey in the attic unfolds, we understand that it's a family drama picture focused on what happens while there's still life, this is not a film concerned by death.
Death is never too far and you can't make a cheerful picture with a life-threatening situation such as the Nazi occupation, but in a way the film works like that funny moment in "Schindler's List", where a woman is confined in a small room, and her husband says "it can't be worse" and then a numerous family joins them. The film is lucid enough about its content to save it from drowning in the easy trap of sentimentality, and opts for a lighthearted tone to better highlight the more stressful instants.
It opens with their discovery of the room and their rules: no noise the whole day while the workers work downstairs. So the more relevant (and memorable) moments are set at night, during holidays and family celebrations during which personalities are expressed to the fullest. The patriarch Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) i wise, diplomatic and in charge of the organization along with his protectors Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and Miep (Dodie Heath) while Edith and Margot Frank (Gusti Huber and Diane Baker) are relegated to supporting characters since Millie Perkins steals the show as Anne Frank, the perky little brunette.
A few words about Annele: she's like a cross between Liz Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Liza Minelli, maybe her pretty looks can be distracting at times especially that thing she does with the eyebrows but I saw pictures of the real Anne Frank and Perkins did capture the innocence and precociousness of a girl in her blossoming teens. I don't know if she was the character of Anne, but she was the character I would believe she'd have a diary and say exactly what she wrote about becoming a woman, falling in love with Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) and having to deal with his "obnoxious" parents (Shelley Winters and Lou Jacobi).
The Van Daans are interesting as they try to keep a low profile first but quickly turn out to be a less discreet and dignified presence than the Franks. And to complete the gallery, there's Ed Wynn as Mr. Dussler the dentist who provide another interesting touch as the outsider who has no family to care and can speak his heart without fearing to hurt anyone. Winters won the Oscar and Wynn was nominated but I just wished Schildkraut was nominated and even had won the Oscar. Do we need scene-stealers for a nomination? His composure and dignity maintained even in the most harrowing situations made the film the masterful drama it was.
And if Mr. Frank is the unsung hero, Anne is the heart of the story as the girl whose pivotal years were caught in the worst possible timing without ever undermining her optimism, her belief in a brighter future she could look upon that roof window, or that romance with Peter. Her life is tragic of course, but thinking about it, she would have been 90 today, but by dying so young, her youth was immortalized and she became the symbol an eternally optimistic youth that even the height of barbarity didn't soil.
We'd never know whether her spirit was broken. But she lives forever and so dothe Franks, the Van Daans or Mr. Dussell, they all survived through the legacy of the diary and became among the most memorable victims of the Holocaust. Another more trivial aspect is that their "death" saved "The Diary of Anne Frank" from being a kitschy melodrama.
Sometimes the black-and-white cinematography makes the film too beautiful for its own good (while a 90s TV film quality looks more appropriate), some kisses are too passionate, some monologue too eloquent but it all comes down to that bleak and ugly ending where the father comes back alone, looking ten years older despite a two-year absence. Reality doesn't work like a movie and this was one reality the film couldn't avoid and this is why it's a great film, because it couldn't surrender to Hollywood.
And because for all the ugliness we witnessed, it still invites us to believe in goodness, perhaps the only thing worth being deified in this crazy world.
Otto Preminger's 'Anatomy of a Murder" was released at a time where most trial movies followed melodramatic threads or tended to infantilize its adult audience. Even an indisputable masterpiece like "12 Angry Men" seems guilty of patronizing sentimentality unless we accept that Juror #8 is a manipulation expert. But what is difficult to swallow with Henry Fonda miraculously works with the ultimate likable actor James Stewart whose Paul Biegler constitutes his most complete and complex character he ever played.
Paul Biegler is a fascinating character indeed because unlike his contemporaries, he doesn't try to earn our sympathy. He's a trickster and he knows it, toying with any helpful technicality, resorting to objectionable objections in order to leave the witness more time to come up with an answer or using calculated mistakes or wisecracks to sow doubt in the jurors' minds. Biegler turns the court into an arena where the defendant's sympathy depends on the lawyer's showmanship as much as his credibility.
In this big circus under a façade of protocoled respectability, we're as excited by Biegler as if we were watching a magician showing the tricks and then making an act. As far as the legal system goes, we see 'how it works' and 'how it works'. This is why the film is certainly the most accomplished movie from Preminger and one of the all-time best courtroom dramas: it's entertaining and insightful, thrilling and intelligent, linear and complex, but the best compliment I can give it is that it is new and fresh.
The film uses familiar elements all right but it was the first to open the trash bin, literally. The film's last shot shows a high-heel open-toe pump and cans of beer in a trash-bin in the middle of a trailer park. This is not exactly the inspirational imagery legal movies seek, but it encapsulates the main idea of the film: victims aren't always innocent and we haven't much followed justice but a job being done. And that's about it. We learn a lot about the truth of justice but neither about the truth or justice, only the sharp intelligence of lawyers, prosecutors, judges and defendants.
And this is one of the few films where every single player is memorable, besides Stewart, there's Joseph N. Welsh as the benevolent deadpan snarker judge and also a few newcomers who proved that a great story can do with fresh new faces. There's Ben Gazzara as hot-tempered and overly confident Lieutenant Manion, Lee Remick as his sexy trophy wife Laura, and naturally George C. Scott as Claude Dancer, the competent, rarely failed by his intuition, and moderately cynical attorney from New York, the Dragon as he's only an Assistant. But seriously, who's a bad guy anyway, you could make the same film from Dancer's perspective and it'd work.
Cynical a bit? You bet. But this was a different kind of cynicism, one that sealed the crepuscular conformism of the 50s, and put the nails on the American Dream's coffin with the beatnik and jazz revolution. It had started in France with the "400 Blows" and "Elevator to the Gallows". In America, Cassavetes had pioneered independent cinema with his ground-breaking "Shadows", a small masterpiece that used jazz and characters with grey morality. "Anatomy of a Murder" is a studio picture that ignored Hollywood dogma as well, using Duke Ellington's soundtrack and the iconoclast simplicity of a minimalist poster, one of the most iconic of all time.
Obviously, the film is an exercise in style but you've got to admire its guts and the way it addresses the hypocrisy of our times, calling a spade a spade and panties panties. Before "Psycho" would show a toilet bowl, this film literally flushed all the conventions and presented the ugliest realities of men and women's relationships. And what could be uglier than a case of sexual assault that ended with murder. The prosecution ignores the rape and makes it a case of jealousy while Biegler finds out with the help of his alcoholic colleague (Arthur O'Connell) precedents of temporary insanity, he's still got to prove that it was Manion's state at the time of murder.
All the irony of the film is that while we follow Biegler trying to convince the jury that Laura was raped and Manion avenged her, their attitudes push our minds into opposite intuititions. Laura doesn't act shell-shocked when she meets Biegler and notices how tall he is. As for Manion, although he doesn't play his suave middle-age magnetism from Cassavetes movie, you can't watch Gazzara and believe this is a man that can be taken by any irresistible impulse. We can tell Biegler smells something fishy (isn't he an expert fisherman of the Michigan lakes) but he's a man of his job and that might be the only area of respectability in an overall delightfully subversive film.
So, "Anatomy of a Muder" is certainly a pioneer in the way it made the trial play like a game with tactics and strategy, like the way Dancer brings an inmate to testimony against Manion so that Biegler can call Manion again and allow Dancer to cross examine him. Both Stewart and Dancer are delights to shows and at parts you can tell they're playing with their egos, the body language of Scott is so subtly perfect that the film would seriously benefit from several viewings. It's quite fitting that jazz is the overarching sound of a film which is moody, full of technicality and leaving enough room to improvisation.
But I'm not a jazz expert (à la Chazelle). However I know quite a lot about drinks and I can say "Anatomy of a Murder" shakes and stirs minds like Bond's martinis, with a straightforwardness served 'scotch neat'-style and a James Stewart who's aged like a good French wine. Moreover, the film accomplishes another miracle: it respects both the intelligence and the maturity of the viewer.
It's an old misconception that opposites attract each other. Why should they anyway? We welcome personalities that comforts us, reassure us, if they differ from the way we are, I can only imagine the situation where the strong attracts the weak, but you can't make a buddy movie picture with one weak character, you'd be like splitting in half the entertaining value of the film. Fortunately, Peter Farrelly's "Green Book" is about two characters, with sharply defined personalities, who are only opposite on the cinematic surface, the difference is the silver platter on which the meal is served.
But we can't overlook the platter, can we? A Caucasian middle-aged man and a young black man, a colorful Italian-American man with a well-spoken, highly educated and cultured man or if you prefer a street-smart larger-than-life robust-looking average Joe and a misunderstood sissy-looking genius, a family man and a bachelor... finding a common denominator between Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip aka running-gag-first-name Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley is tougher than spotting Waldo in a bazaar.
But for all these superficial differences, the two guys were meant to form a pair, especially when the story of their road-trip and building friendship has 1962 in the backdrop, when we know that the South is part of the itinerary and that it's based on a true story. That's pure Hollywood Oscar-bait stuff, in fact opposite don't attract each other but they certainly attract audiences. So the film is formulaic but the dynamic chemistry between Ali and Mortensen elevates it to an enjoyable, heart-warming feel-good picture worthy of all the applauses at the end despite its 'obvious' significance, the film feels calculated to please but I would lie if I said I didn't like it.
And the theater was quite crowded tonight and when it began and I was trying to counterattack any attempt to move me with emotional tricks, I was quickly drawn into the simple straight-forwardness of the story and the fact that (and that's a pattern I noticed in many great friendship stories), no matter how different Doc and Tony are, they strike as nice and decent guys, and on the basis of these characteristics, they attract each other. Tony is so particularly sympathetic that he makes Doc look arrogant by pure contrast, so much that I was questioning the choice of that scene where he put two glasses in the trash bin after his wife (Linda Cardellini) gave them to two Black workers.
Yes, that scene was welcomed with a few gasps and many laughs but retrospectively it doesn't quite hold up with the personality of Tony Lip who could be a caricature if Viggo Mortensen wasn't so damn hilarious. The fact that his behavior all through the film belies this character-establishing made me wonder whether it was meant to mislead us of it was an actual flaw in the narrative. Anyway, I liked Tony. We don't know exactly what he used to do for a living: bouncers for night clubs, occasional muscle man, driver for pick-ups or plows, he's obviously a man who can do anything and can't afford to be broke. The set-up to his unemployment is rather confusing, it only allows us to visit his family and neighborhood before it gets quickly and thankfully to to the point, the man's hired as a driver for Doc Shirley during a tour in the South that would end before Christmas Eve.
The film might be set in 1962 but we've seen enough movies to anticipate crucial scenes from the the first incident to the Christmas celebration and the introduction of a new friend, yes, it doesn't help if you've seen "Planes, Trains and Automobiles". But let's not kid ourselves, the film that is more likely to be compared to "Green Book" is obviously the Best Picture winner of 1989 "Driving Miss Daisy" which had moved me so much that I could bet a fortune there would be a scene with the Mississippi Police and even one where urination would be an issue. It's also interesting the way the film switches traditional roles by having the literate Doc teach his driver how to write letters, in "Miss Daisy", it was Tandy teaching Freeman. I'm not trying to diminish the film's originality, many scenes play out fairly well because of the atypical aura of Doc and how Tony plays it like Joe Pesci with the appetite of Homer Simpson (his comical timing is perfect) and yet has a somewhat dignified constancy forcing our respect.
And that's the film's miracle, it only relies on the acting power of these two giants, they're so good that the plot hardly matters, the two of them make the most predictable, even contrived situations such as a bar brawl, an arrest or a simple conversation a pure delight. And as if the film was aware of that force in the characterization, I had the feeling that it tried to reach some spectacular climax near the end, make some political and social comment and yet halfway through the final act it changed its mind and provided a fun, nice anticlimactic ending, convincing us that the film is meant to feel us good, and we do need sometimes a good feel-good film.
A few hours before getting to the theater, I was controlled by three police offers, I was confused by the hostility I could read in one's eyes, why was he acting that way, what was wrong with me? And maybe that's one of the thing with the film, people judged for the way they look, the way they behave and the way it just doesn't seem to fit. It's possible that the best trick of "Green Brook" is just when you think it's Tony who'll be taught a lesson, you have another thing coming. The arch is rather obvious when you think about it, but I don't mind the kind of obviousness that would made me feel good at the end.
We all have moments in our lives when we know a step has just been taken and there is no coming back. It can't be marriage because we can divorce. A birth is different.
Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" reminded of the birth of my daughter, the moment I saw that little creature wondering what the hell was going, so fragile and scared, I needed a minute for myself, to cry. It wasn't sadness but the overwhelming realization that from that moment, there would be someone who'd matter more than anything in my life. Any father can relate to that and I guess being the father of a girl, who might be my only girl since I'm divorced, made me emotionally bond with the character of Stanley Banks, the man from the title, played by acting legend Spencer Tracy.
I still have fifteen years to go before she'd reach her twentieth birthday, but I was listening to his opening monologue and taking mental notes, forgetting the sight of the wreckage from the wedding party and the tired old man massaging his feet after what was one of the busiest days of his life, I was focused on his story. It's not the marriage, it's witnessing the transition of your child to adulthood, meaning that you've done your job and that now you've been upgraded to the status of potential grandparent, you're a senior now. And it also means that your days of being the most important man in her life are over because she soon will have her own children... and that's the circle of life.
There's not much to say about the film which is a competently directed and old-fashioned picture with the reasonable ratio of memorable characters, the father, the wife (Joan Bennett), the daughter (Elizabeth Taylor) and some peripheral players, most notably Leo G. Carroll as the caterer. They're so good that they make the groom (Don Taylor) irrelevant despite his importance but I don't think it's a casting flaw, he would have stolen our attention from the real deal: the relationship between Stanley and Kay. Likewise, Katharine Hepburn wasn't cast (despite Tracy's request) so their natural chemistry didn't steal the show from that central relationship. That one would be more relevant to Tracy's epitaph movie: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner".
So the film doesn't belie the title, it's about the bride and it's about the father, and the order is the right one. With the cozy and pleasing backdrop of an upper-middle class family, it follows all the organization of the wedding with the obligatory steps: learning about the groom's existence, meeting him, meeting the parents, trying the old suits to spare some money, the argument that cancels everything out, the consolation, the planning and eventually the wedding. The structure is rather conventional but so was effective it was reused in the remake with Steve Martin (which I saw many years ago and enjoyed). The story is as linear as one could be and so oblivious to the idea of creating false thrills that I took it as a confidence on the actors' talent.
Indeed, you don't need antagonists, cheap plot devices or sitcom jokes when all you've got to witness is something that resonates like the five stages of grief only for a better occasion. For "anger", you can count on Tracy to get off his steady rock-façade and goes all berserk when his ego is challenged by his little princess. Of course, behind anger there's fear, and a father never says no to his daughter, she knows the tricks, he knows she knows but he plays the game. The fear is conveyed through more powerful moments. When Stanley tells Kay to put on a coat, she declines but then can't say no to her fiancée. See how the roles are reversed, and the look on Stanley didn't even need the narration to state the obvious. Fear is also shown through a nightmare sequence that was a stylish departure from the film's tone. I liked that little surreal digression before we'd get back to normality.
And then of course, nothing could beat the resignation moment and the internal monologue while Stanley tries to look solemn while "something started to hurt inside". That was the bingo of the film, the one that should touch anyone. It's not marriage, it's not commitment or lack of independence, who cares if Kay wants to become a housewife or not, the film is meant to make us feel for Stanley and his transition... and a significant one since it's also the transition of Tracy from a romantic lead to older and paternal figures and Liz Taylor from a child star to a woman (the next year she'd star in "The Place in the Sun"). But it's only for Tracy that this film should be watched no matter how delightful for the eyes Liz is. Tracy Oscar nominated for that role, gives a spectacular performance in a non-spectacular film.
Naturally, patriarchy, marriage, religion aren't just outdated, but they strike as prehistoric values if we believe that modernity started with the sixties and for some cynical minds, only a sort of documentary value can redeem "Father of the Bride". Like watching Disney's "History of Menstruation" or "Molly Grows Up". I could see this film see being screened in a feminist meeting to show the progress of female liberation. And I can truly relate to girls or women whose dream doesn't necessarily involve marriage and if it ever is an option, without any permission from parents (let alone fathers). I can understand.
But I refuse to believe that this film wouldn't melt a few hearts even those connected to the brains of modernity. For a simple reason is that the film is driven by great performances and its statement isn't much about marriage, wedding and all the whole enchilada, the film is about relationships, and about life-changing transitions. And it's a fun comedy as well.
A controversial Best Picture win but a deserved one nonetheless.
"Munich", "Capote", "Good Night and Good Luck" and the favorite "Brokeback Mountain" were all great and daring movies but they never challenged cinematic conventions the way Paul Haggis' passion-project did. His "Crash" defies tropes and genres not in a politically but also socially incorrect way, through interlocking stories all set in the canvas of a post-September 11 Los Angeles. I had said about Cassavetes' "Faces" that it felt like a slap in our faces, "Crash" doesn't just slap, it literally crashes reality into our faces.
The title gives you the right idea by using the metaphor of the car, it is introduced by Don Cheadle's monologue about people needing a crash sometimes to get a sense of touch, to forget how remote they are one to another. This is the same L.A. Tom Cruise had just panned the same year in "Collateral", a town of cold selfishness where cars eventually play a pivotal role in the way they make various intrusion possible, not all of them are providential of course. Indeed, either for a carjacking, a ride, a police control or a rescue, every action has its consequences, some tragic, some inspiring, some driven by the best intentions yet causing unfortunate collateral damages, and vice versa.
Collateral, that word again. Not every intrusion has a cause or serve a point, most of them are accidental yet they have an effect, and the way each effect seems to make some statement about our humanity is a credit to the triumphant intelligence of Haggis' script. And since I don't want to spoil the film, I will only focus on one character, Matt Dillon as a LAPD officer. This is a man whose establishing moment consists on humiliating a black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) during a control. In any lesser movie, such a despicable character would get a Karmic revenge. "Crash" ironically makes him the most human. It all works by contrast, most characters dodge prejudices or racism while having them printed in their subconscious, Dillon's character doesn't cheat with his views.
And that's "Crash" power, it dares to challenge our perceptions of the ugliest symptoms of prejudice by showing us how deeply rooted they are in reality and experience, it's not beautiful but at least it's real. A rich white woman (Sandra Bullock) acts scared when crossing the path of two black kids on the pavement, what happens next actually proves her right and she even uses it as an "I told you" argument to her husband (Brendan Fraser). Yet one of the carjackers is clearly not as ethically challenged as his partner and in the end, he's hitchhiked by Dillon's rookie police partner (Ryan Philippe) who was shocked by his colleagues' behavior and asked for a new assignment. What emerges from that encounter serves a painful but valuable lesson to anyone who believes his conscience is cleaner than everyone else's.
Indeed, "Crash" isn't about feelings, intentions or motives but plain actions, and reactions that translate themselves into action, and car crashes are the right metaphors for these revealing moments in our lives when we stop being trapped by our inhibitions. Consequently, so many brutal things happen that we might miss the little touches. Take the locksmith (Michael Pena), he's mistaken for a thug by both the rich white woman and the Iranian man who was insulted by a gun store owner who must have taken for an Arab. Yet Pena plays the least troublemaking character in the film, but even he isn't immune to danger or violent misunderstanding.
The film isn't all dark and gritty and there a a few guardian angels here and there, which is appropriate in Los Angeles, but so many devilish vibes poison relationships between people who have so much in common. The Persian man is obviously worn-down by all the prejudice he might have suffered from and the irony is that it made him more unstable and threatening. Another irony is that some black characters use racism as an excuse to act no better than the oppressors they accuse. The film is full of ironies where people become attackers in the name of victimhood. And that did remind me of another urban drama classic.
In a way, "Crash" plays out like a "Do The Right Thing" for the 2000s, with people doing the thing they think is right, allowing tragedy to burst out the most random and anticlimactic moments. In fact, it's not about doing the right or the bad thing, but the fact that some people we know to be good can commit reprehensible acts, and then you have Dillon's character first depicted as a hateful cop first but then a caring son to his ill father and a hero, this speaks a thousand words, and dig a thousand truths, many of them quite inconvenient for our mentalities.
Yes, today, we live in a world or a culture of plain victimization, it's all about white vs. minorities, women vs. men etc. and the problem with "Crash" is that it was set at a time where there was no smart phone, where most of these things wouldn't happen without someone immediately denouncing it, which is good in theory but who knows how disastrous the consequences can be when everything is shown in a binary black-or-white way. No need to get further; if there ever is one thing "Crash" shows is that the accused ones can be victims and victims aren't always innocent.
We all have public faces and backgrounds, some aspects of us are known, others are not, but we also don't know the real content of our characters until we're confronted to the most extreme situations like crashes or similar car encounters. "Crash" is mostly about people learning about themselves, to be better. Today's world is too binary and obtuse, even accusing "Crash" of being manipulative, and while I'm wondering how we could take so many step back, I'll always consider the film a humanistic masterpiece
That's the French title and I think I like it better than "Adam's Rib" if only because the idea of a woman coming from a man is ludicrous, cavemen figured out quickly that men came from women and not the opposite but I guess the title would have worked a little less with "Jupiter's Thigh" and can you imagine Spencer Tracy, the quintessential average Joe playing a guy named Jupiter?
It's interesting though that two films released in a one-year interval featured Adam and Eve in their title. "All About Eve" was a movie about women trying to adapt their ambition and life dreams to the standards of a male-driven and the competition from women who knew they had to play with men's rules if they wanted to rule someday. "Adam's Rib" swims in the same water only closer to the judicial border and is as much about Adam as the woman who got off his rib, and on his nerves too. There is something of Amanda in Adam and something of Adam in Amanda (spelling-wise at least).
So in the span of two years, two progressive movies about the relationships between men and women were released and the least that can be said is that they captured the inner tension within the battle of the sexes, so well that I can see them part of the same DVD box-set. Still, "Adam's Rib" has a little edge over "All About Eve", the film was written not by a man, and not even by a woman, but by a couple (Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), and the level of wit and realism displayed in the script has clearly been written by a couple and for a couple, investing in the chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn that makes every single interaction work even when it is silly, and the film goes for a few cheap laughs here and there.
As District Attorney Adam Bonner, Tracy is the steady and self-confident rock who believes in justice's blindness etc. and as his wife and lawyer Amanda, Hepburn is the impetuous and free-spiritied butterfly, she believes that justice is a product of a society losing its objectivity when it comes to gender matters. And the two become opponents to the court when Amanda defends Doris, a housewife played by Judy Holliday, accused of attempted murder on her husband (Tom Ewell) after she saw him in a room with his mistress (Jean Hagen). The case is rather serious and Holliday plays her part as if it was a courtroom drama. I'd go back to he acting but right now, I'm perplex, is it a flaw or a masterstroke, but Tracy and Hepburn are so good they really steal our attention from the case.
Indeed, "Adam's Rib" was listed in the AFI's Top 10 Romantic comedies (and Top 100 Laughs), but I found the film to be more relevant as a trial case. I guess it didn't make it in the Top 10 Courtroom Dramas because it took a serious situation and played it for laughs. If the film tried to denounce such a double standard implying a man could cheat on his wife and a woman couldn't, maybe it had to be dealt with with more gravity. The film is surprisingly progressive except when the treatment gets too comical for the message's own sake. Tracy plays it straight, as he believes any attempted murder must be severely punished. Hepburn plays it like in a screwball comedy.
Now without being experts on judicial matters, I found it surprising that she didn't cover the attenuating circumstances more deeply instead of using the trial as a tribune to shout about women's rights and claims for equality. The way the trial turns into a circus show I'm afraid- sometimes does a great disservice to the feminist cause and makes a fool out of the same man who could have defended Doris with en equal zeal if she was the accused one, while Amanda only cared because the victim was a woman. Once again, Judy Holliday gives a unique and magnificent performance as a beaten down woman, lucid about herself, and who seems to accept things not in a submissive but a resigned way, and Ewell plays the kind of prick who exemplifies the worst aspects of machismo.
I was just blown away by Holliday's performance and in the central scene with her lawyer Amanda, you could tell she was the one who pulled Hepburn to her level and made her realize some unsuspected aspects of the problem: it's not much a man's thing but women have their share of responsibility by being so submissive in their subconscious. And yet I'm surprised by the angle she took to defend Doris, her invitation to reverse roles was interesting to the degree that we believed it was the double standards that morally condemned her, but her feminist argumentation was so overplayed that it diluted the social message in some comedic requirements.
I guess what emerges out the film (beyond that so catchy "Farewell Amanda" song) is its pioneering and modern reflection on the mentalities that governed the relationships between men and women, showed under the prism of a married couple. The material is handled in a rather light-hearted way by George Cukor who takes us from the trial to the house through 'And That Evening' captions and many intimate scenes where you can see Amanda being slightly hypocritical: from her reaction to the infamous butt-slapping, to David Wayne's advances and the way she uses emotional tricks and crocodile tears to get her point.
The thing is that all these bits of criticism are already demonstrated by Spencer Tracy, if there's any flaw, the script written by a couple is much aware of them, and you could almost sense Ruth Gordon arguing with Garson Keike about the way their couple would argue, and you know a word for argument in French, it's "Différent", so as Tracy would shout: "Vive la Différence".
When carelessness kills faster than machetes, one good man emerged out to restore our faith in mankind...
I believe in goodness, I don't know about any other Holy entity but if there's anything pure and eternal in this world, in this history we share for the better or the worse, it's definitely "goodness". In the same train of thoughts, I believe hatred is more devastating than any devils or divine wraths. Sorry if I sound too metaphysical but that's the emotional state "Hotel Rwanda" left me in.
The film was directed by Terry George ten years after the Rwanda massacre. At that time, most viewers knew the numbers but didn't take their full measure. Indeed, why do we insist so much on World War II lessons if no one cares about the last genocide of the twentieth century? Has the African setting something to do with it? Is Africa so connected in the international subconscious to poverty, famine and civil wars that there would never be enough corpses to make the world care? History seemed to proved this right.
No one cared about the genocide and the genocide emerged out of that carelessness, that's its most tragic equation. The film is told from the perspective of a hotel manager who uses the 'Milles Collines' hotel to shelter refugees, protecting them from the Hutus who wish to settle a historical record with their 'enemies'. The man will witness savagery and horror from the view of a hotel balcony before walking among piles of dead bodies, but the toughest lesson of all would be that the victims weren't worth the help of Western countries and that obliviousness killed much faster than machetes.
It's very ironical that it was the Belgian colony that sowed the seeds of the very racism between Hutus and Tutsis, they ruled by dividing before division would implode like a volcano of blood. In a necessary expositional scene, a journalist played by Joaquin Phoenix (who represents our POV) learns that Belgians made the Tutsis the privileged ones on the basis of their tallness, lighter features and even the size of their nostrils. Tutsis would indeed rule Hutus and have more than a few altercations, but in 1994, for any newcomer, these considerations were silly: the journalist sees two girls in the bar, one Hutu, one Tutsi, but they could be twins.
The film doesn't hide the tacit responsibility of the European colonization and makes the absences of reactions from Western countries accessories to mass murders. The film doesn't point an accusing finger because facts speak for themselves, but it shows us the two sides of the same coin. Hutu and Tutsi living, working together, forming families and living in harmony and a radio program alimenting the hatred and asking the Hutu population to get out and "cut the tall trees" or kill the "cockroaches". The word is used so many times that we almost get used to it.
And naturally, these ugly terms of reference have a strong resonance and remind us of the darkest hours. And it's a credit to the film's central character to have been capable to save so many lives with so little help, the UN contribution was acknowledged through the character of Nick Nolte, a UN peacekeeper left powerless when there was no peace to maintain but who knew when it's necessary to show a gun. But let's get back to the film's hero, because he's a hero. The man is a Hutu, Paul Rusasebegina (Don Cheadle) and married to a Tutsi Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) and together they have children.
Their chances of survival are thin but Paul, once abandoned by his Belgian bosses, knew he couldn't make profits because it meant betraying his family or buying their lives by selling others. Paul chose to jeopardize his life and his family's to save a thousands of Tutsi refugees from the altar of ethnocentric madness, using his hotel as a true oasis of peace. What was a publicity stunt became a reality of "matter and death" significance just like the factory in "Schindler's List" and it's true the film borrows a lot of elements in he narrative but there's a singular difference.
Indeed, Paul is directly concerned by the tragedy and the hotel is only a temporary situation and he knows it, at any time, the army can come, rebels can attack and his refugees massacred, Paul has no help but only time and skills. And this is what makes the film so riveting: to see this man who's only a civilian, uses what he knows best as a hotel manager to handle the most life-threatening situations. He needs ten minutes to put on a suit and these ten minutes are used to save hundreds of refugee, all it takes is to serve the guests a beer, to be a hotel manager, patient, polite, well-dressed, aware that war makes many profiteers and carpet baggers and you can make business with them.
In a more painful scene where he's asked to shoot at his family, he manages to bargain lives in exchange of money. Paul knows that for as long as he works as a manager and never loses his capability to negotiate, to bribe and even to blackmail with diplomacy, there might be a chance of survival.That's what "Hotel Rwanda" is a character study with a horrific war in the backdrop. And it doesn't leave us much time to catch our breath, it's truly a powerful and emotional journey that makes you wish you'd never have to live such a tragedy with your own beloved ones.
As Tatiana, Sophie Okonedo gives a magnificent performance of a mother who's always at the verge of a breakdown and yet keeps enough strength to protect her children, I could feel my heart pounding at the sight of her trembling body. And as Paul, Don Cheadle shines as a man whose best asset is his professionalism and self-control in the middle of chaos. And since I decided to deify goodness, I would call this man not a hero, but a Saint.
"The Tin Drum" shared its Golden Palm with "Apocalypse Now", another hypnotic milestone that pushed its anti-war imagery to the most unexpected, extreme and revulsive areas.
And you've got to hand it to Volker Schlöndorff, in Günter Grass' novel, he had on his hands some material a few directors would have dared to approach and yet he was able to pull off a sort of cinematic profanity with an obsessively absorbing effect.
Indeed, the imagery is disgusting but effective, repulsive in a hypnotic way, it finds such a way to fascinate that I was wondering whether it was genuinely good, utterly manipulative or just an empty piggy-bank waiting for snobbish viewers to throw their fifty cents of interpretations into.
Quite an irony that a film had so much nakedness it blinded viewers over the emperor's own, if there ever is a naked emperor. Maybe there is, but I'd take that nakedness over any pale and insipid costume... especially since I have a connection with this film, and a fitting one since I saw it as a child. I was twelve, it was in Morocco and even in the 'progressive' channel, you better believe every sexual stuff has been left in the editing room.
However, some nasty bits like the spitting game between adolescent Oskar and his nurse Maria was kept and I remember I was quite turned on by these interactions. Overall, I loved that story of a little tin-drum named Oskar, I liked that David Bennent actor with his cherubic face and devilishly big blue eyes, not to mention that scream that shatter glasses.
The film had something almost cartoonish about itself that grabbed my attention. And it coincided with the rise of my awareness over the facts of history, especially from the twentieth century and the backdrop of Germany and WWII enriched my appreciation.
In a way it's very telling that I enjoyed the film as a kid, even though it was deprived of any mature content, as a matter of fact, I remember my little brother sneaking into the living room to watch it (I guess it was holidays back then), so as incongruous as it sounds, there might be some kiddy appeal in the film and maybe that says a lot about the way Oskar's plan to never grow up and become an adult succeed gracefully.
Since that infamous day where he jumped from the cellar stairs to interrupt his growth, he became the eternal embodiment of childhood in the worst possible age: three.
I'll never forget that age through the experience of having my daughter burst into shrill screams and hot tears whenever one caprice wasn't fully satisfied, you could say "yes" 99 times and "no" once and the game was over, it lasted for a few weeks and we almost called a psychiatrist.
I can understand why Oskar got on Roger Ebert's nerves, he's everything he wasn't stingy on colorful epithets to describe him: "an obnoxious little boy", "an unsavory brat", "spiteful, egocentric, cold and calculating" and to conclude on "a pious little b******", since he occupies most of the screen, I gather that the film was quite an unpleasant experience.
Now, I don't want to fall in the cliché saying Oskar embodies Germany that refuses to witness the decrepitude of its moral order, but somewhat I could see the same denunciation of the rotten bourgeois society during the Republic of Weimar than in Fritz Lang's "M". It's by witnessing the decadence of his own mother Agnes (Angela Winkler) that Oskar decides to stay a child.
But even that answer is unsatisfying, the film is set in Danzig and shows Germans and Poles actually cohabiting peacefully. Oskar is like the seal of this truce with two potential fathers, Agnes' cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychskithe) and Alfred (Mario Adorf), naturally each one will side with one country at the outbreak of WWII. But the two men lived in contentment with Oskar's mother and if that revolted Oskar, does that make him the Nazi?
Quite a theory but the little prick inseparable with a military symbol? Isn't he the ultimate troll and killjoy? Isn't he responsible for the death of his two potential fathers? Isn't her mother eating herself to death by throwing fish in her stomach because she saw it crawling out of a dead cow's head? Isn't she putting back that same rot as if she was punishing the womb that produced that little freak? Isn't he wearing the Nazi uniform out of sheer opportunism? Isn't he stuck as a child, which is perhaps the cruelest possible age?
There is a scene where we see children boiling water, putting frogs in it, urinating on it and forcing Oskar to swallow the soup, I'm not seeing allegories everywhere, but maybe Oskar was Germany in the sense that he tried to reject one order, only to find himself in a worse possible situation. A sort of remedy worse than the disease.
I don't see any empathy in Oskar but maybe because he doesn't see anything worthy of respect in the adult world expect for people who are genuinely oppressed and here comes the contradiction. I want to think of him as a spoiled brat but there are moments of tenderness like his relationship with Markus the Jewish toy manufacturer played by the late Charles Aznavour. The downfall of Markus shows that breaking point where Germany assassinated its own soul and I refuse to believe that Oskar only mourned the man because he made his drums.
The film is a contradiction by itself and a wet dream for symbolist experts, I give up because maybe the big picture or the look of the film speaks more than every detail, you can spot ironies, symbolism even in the most disturbing and repulsive moments, but with some perspective you're able to grab the raw beauty of the film. At least on an aesthetic level.
Maybe the title is the film's problem (so to speak)...
Warning, iconoclast review ahead...
Okay, this is the fifth movie on the British Film Institute's Top 100, one of Charles Dickens' most acclaimed adaptations, a Best Picture nomination that made many distinguished critics agree on its being one of the finest British movies ever made.
Okay, that's a film that quite holds up to its title and I don't think I expected anything other than greatness with David Lean's "Great Expectations". I don't think I was disappointed either but to say the film was flawless would betray an intimate conviction I can't get rid of, well, I'll try to explicit my point without offending the fans.
It started well actually, the Philip Pirrup introduction reminded me of an episode of "Growing Pains" (yes, the Vermont one from Season One) and I never thought that "Pip" guy was an invention of Charles Dickens. I was like "oh, that's where it comes from". Then there's the ominous sight of the little boy (Tony Wager) wandering into the graveyard to put flowers in his parents' tombstone, and encountering Magwitch (Finaly Currie) the convict.
Great start. Both actors were so convincing and that scene alone heightened my expectations, I felt like it was the encounter between Cosette and Jean Valjean, anything but greatness would come from this encounter. The surrounding characters didn't disappoint either, the bossy and annoying sister (Freda Jackson), her patient and good-hearted blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles), all these Dickensian vibes transcended by a haunting black-and-white cinematography made me wish the childhood parts could last as long as possible, like "Oliver Twist" I guess.
And the childhood part kept on grabbing my interest with the part set at Mrs Havisham's mansion where Pip was invited to be the playmate of her adopted daughter Estella (an adolescent Jean Simmons) only to deal with her arrogance and verbal cruelty. What is it with this child only attracting people of the creepiest sort? Indeed, just when you expect some puppy romance to pop up, poor little Pip is constantly belittled and physically harassed by a cruel and harsh girl who can't see his love for her or just sees it too well and toys with it like a doll she expects to throw out.
And poor little Pip was too coarsely gentle, too shy to react properly and she was the first girl he ever knew so his heart was stolen forever but after that first disastrous day, he swears not to ever cry because of her and learn to get along with his new friend Herbert with whom he enjoys a few fighting games. But I make the film sound like something only about characters, but there's a whole atmosphere haunting it and everything seems to be rather contradictory in Pip's journey.
Indeed, in a scary graveyard he meets a dangerous criminal and yet this inspires Pip a strong outburst of generosity. In a beautiful mansion, he finds an old woman wearing wedding clothes and leaving the remains of a wedding ceremony to decay, and at that point, we're waiting for the answers. Yes, there must be a reason for Havisham's attitude, not to mention Estella's. "Great Expectations" did leave me with plenty of them.
The first twist of "Great Expectations" comes with the intrusion of a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) when Pip inherits some allowance from some unknown benefactor and becomes a true gentleman over the years, even a pure English snob through the mentorship of Herbert Pocket (a youngish Alec Guinness) and while the film doesn't lose any of its entertaining value there are just a few little problematic points that I can't ignore. I couldn't simply buy that this little boy could turn to John Mills, if anyone it should have been Guinness.
John Mills strikes me as the nicest actor ever but couldn't they have a younger actor? Guinness or how about a young Anthony Quayle? Mills was 38 years old and you can't make him pass as a 22 years let alone a 16-year old chap. Valeria Hobson plays a more believable Estella though it's hard to see her as the same girl played by Simmons. The casting was my main problem though Mills gave a great performance, he was just too old to be the counterpart of that kid. But there was another problem which is in the storytelling.
Cinema complicates everything, I know we were supposed to believe that Miss Havisham was the mysterious benefactor but I was convinced it was Magwitch from the start, otherwise why would the opening introduce us to him? I knew it was a matter of time before he would come up again and then I kept waiting for him while watching Pip enjoy his idle wealth in a sequence that was nothing new when you've seen many William Wyler movies, it was well done, well acted, well photographed but for some reason, it just left me cold.
Maybe it's because the material was too old or too conventional. 1946 was the year of a true English masterpiece: "A Matter of Life and Death", if you see "Great Expectations" after that, you're likely to be disappointed and feel yourself forced to praise the editing, the cinematography but was that new after "Rebecca"? I feel kind of guilty to diminish this film but it was obviously a case of compacting a rich and multilayered story into two hours of cinematic banality punctuated by some genuinely powerful scenes and a nice introduction. Maybe I should have lowered my expectations.
A great victory can be a matter of reconciling yourself with a few defeats...
On the ring of its four-decade spanning narrative, the greatest opponent to the 'Rocky/Creed' franchise has always been formula. The reason why the original "Rocky" was such an endearing movie (and the series' best) is that it didn't end with the expected victory and yet Rocky Balboa became the underdogs' patron saint.
So no matter how good or entertaining the sequels were, something was missing or maybe too visible not to undermine the film's believability. It became all about rematches and revenges, the formulas divided the movies into three clear acts the starting point with "everything's doing great" then "everything's falling apart" leading to self-questioning and existential crises and finally "everything's great again" with the final game, final bell music etc.
Yet the series had found its own antidote against these schematic structures: heart. In "II", Rocky proposed to Adrian, she lapsed into coma, they had their son, in "III, Mickey died and Rocky's friendship with Apollo was sealed, there was always a way to look at another direction, but then something changed, the audiences became vaccinated against these emotional tricks. That could pass with "Rocky IV" but "Rocky V" was the one disgrace too many.
Now let's be honest, "Rocky Balboa" and "Creed" aimed higher than their predecessors but they weren't that original. In "Creed", it was the legacy of Apollo that made us care for young Adonis, Michael B. Jordan's spectacular performance did the rest and drew us into caring for his mother (Philycia Rashad) and Bianca (Tessa Thompson). But story-wise, neither of "Rocky Balboa" or "Creed" reinvented the wheel and owed their popularity to the whole series and the fact that time make characters like a good wine.
The reason of this lengthy preamble is that "Creed II", as anticipated as it was, didn't exactly start on solid ground. The 'surprise effect' was over, Adonis didn't have any major demons to fight anymore. Only the 'Rocky' situation with his son was left pending but after Stallone's nomination, it was time to remind viewers that it was about Adonis. And when I learned that the film would feature the son of Ivan Drago, the shadow of revenges and rematches began to haunt this movie.
Formulas again. I expected history to repeat itself, the two games, one to lose, one to win. I expect the whole doubting about himself and fighting his demons, I even expected the emotional stuff, positive like the birth of the baby and negative with a little misunderstanding with Rocky. I could see this coming a mile way. Then why did I leave the theater so overwhelmed by emotion? Why did the film hit me so hard that it even lured me into taking some decisions with a few demons of mine? Why did I cry?
Emotions can't lie, I love the 'Rocky' franchise but not to the point of blinding myself when it comes to flaws, this film isn't without a few missed shots but seriously, it's as good as the first "Creed", if not better at times. Now, I have a dilemma. Should I go deeper in my analysis at the risk of making this a non spoiler-free review and preach a choir? Or should I just kept this vague enough to encourage the skeptics.
You know what? Let's just spoil the whole thing because fans don't need anyone's blessing (kind of like any climactic fight in the series). I refuse to believe someone would need a review's endorsement so let's just that I loved it because it surprised me. And when the greatest opponent of a series is formula, "surprise" can only be a victory. And I don't mean the overused "going the distance", I mean the truly unexpected ones with an emotional impact, narratively, these are knock-out victories.
The first surprise is that the film might have the best opponent after Apollo Creed. Clubber Lang was tough and raw but he too one-dimensional even in his colorfulness to be taken seriously, Ivan Drago was a killing machine who only needed a humbling experience, nothing substantial could come from him in a movie whose biggest shock was the loss of Apollo. Tommy Gunn was just a joke, and even in the last two films the opponents were only foils.
But "Creed II" had the master trump: Drago's son. It was risky because of the whole "son against son" thing (sounds like a damn monster movie, as would Apollo said, 'rest his soul) but it works because as the movie progresses, we start to understand Drago's motives and they're interesting, then we draw parallels with Adonis' own motives and they're fascinating.
Indeed, the film starts as your usual sequel and in a way you didn't see coming, becomes a film that makes you think not about victory, but about failing, about the poisoning effect of loss and abandonment in one's self-confidence, and even Rocky's backstory with his son joins the emotional band wagon and we don't have two but three plots that tie up together in a satisfying way, one that made me think of myself and made me realize that sometimes, the biggest victory is also to reconcile yourself with defeat.
And for that, the film offers not just one but two powerful surprising outcomes, one where Adonis "wins" on a technicality while lying on the ring after a real massacre, and another where Viktor Drago loses on a thrown towel, one of the best moments in the franchise, and in itself a victory that redeems the two Russians. Going the distance works in mysterious ways, it's one thing to keep moving forward, but knowing when to throw it can be the sum of all wisdoms.
In a way that's what Rocky did when he went to see his son and grandson at the end, a sweet touch that made me realize it was time for him to leave gracefully and I'm sure that "Creed" franchise is 'gonna fly' with its own wings.