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Tender Mercies

Just because you don't trust happiness doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a shot!
I re-read my review of "Crazy Heart" with Jeff Bridges (and Robert Duvall) and it's curious how most of it could apply to "Tender Mercies". You would think that movies about Country & Western music are identical, stories about misfits with a heavy burden exiling themselves to the most remote towns, so small that the motel, the gas station and the bar make one, something about the last ambassadors of the frontier spirit, laid-back drifters who go to the end of the road to start a new one.

It's possible that "Tender Mercies" provides such elements that will give the inevitable texture of deep America, men in stetsons, women with double first names, all white God-fearing Christians. It's possible that the film, beyond its minimalist simplicity is a little more than that and that maybe one viewing could make you miss the essential. Heck, just take the opening. Two men quarrel over a bottle, one ends up on the floor, he wakes up with a combo of a headache and hangover. He's got no money to pay the owner, a young widower and her kid. He offers help, she says yes. The man's got demons but he'll be damned if he hadn't manners.

And so he picks garbage, fills gas tanks and then asks for more days, has dinner with the little family and a few ellipses later, he asks the woman to marry her in a masterstroke of economical writing from Horton Foote who had won the Oscar for "To Kill a Mockingbird" starring Robert Duvall in his breakthrough role (both would win an Oscar for this film). I don't think the dialogues needed more than what we could read between Duvall and Tess Harper, something echoed in a famous "Rocky" quote about Adrian filling his gap and him filling hers. Mac Sledge was the kind of presence Rosa Lee longed for, a man to bring the bacon or help bringing it or to cook the bacon for... arms for comfort, protection and a little bit of tenderness.

That she's a faithful christian, singing at a choir, is no colorful detail either, such woman would believe in signs... and the sight of a man proposing to pay his debt, trying to quit the bottle sure wasn't one not to evaluate. And Duvall isn't a sorry sight either, looking masculine, gentle and not too expansive. Rosa Lee is a woman who married at 16, got pregnant at 17 and became a widow at 18, her life hasn't been a free ride. And from the demons Mac's trying to overcome, it seems that together they would row to the same direction on the existential boat. Mac wasn't Prince Charming material but at least he was willing to move forward.

Eventually, we learn that there's a reason why Mac was carrying a guitar all along and the intrusion of a nosy journalist (Paul Gleason) breaks the routine. He tells Mac that his ex-wife Dixie (Betsy Buckley) sings in Austin and he knows the chord to hit when he adds that his (estranged) daughter might be there. Some would expect cheap twists or infidelity subplots... but Mac and Rosa Lee are beyond these clichés. Mac wouldn't cheat with money let alone with love and Rosa Lee doesn't even suspect anything but is just mildly jealous. Besides, Mac's history with Dixie makes any reconciliation unconceivable.

Music is the only possible catharsis and the film is more about the man reconciling with the best part of his past and finding a new audience to his songs, some recently composed, some old but played by a new band of amateurs.... Duvall is a fine (and convincing) singer but I wasn't as impressed by the music than by his performance because his eyes, his smiles spoke more words than all the songs' lyrics put together. There's an extended sequence where he's expelled by Dixie, where his manager and friend (Wilford Brimley) tells him she wouldn't sing his music. In a fit of rage, he disappears the whole day... any lesser movie would have ended that sequence in jail, with a marital argument or Mac surrendering to booze.

That he doesn't and that Rosa Lee proposes to reheat some soup tells you that "Tender Mercies" has deeper horizons than that. And Tess Harper gives one of these subdued performances where emotions like patience, quiet anger and resignation don't translate into showy acting, but she should have got an Oscar nomination.

It is a wonderful and absorbing drama told by Australian director Bruce Beresford, something about the absence and its conditioning effect. On that level, one shouldn't ignore Allan Hubbard as Rosa Lee's boy, who keeps asking questions about his lost father: how was he killed in Nam? When did he die? Did he take drugs? As if the road to his self-understanding had to pass through his own roots. And there's Ellen Barkin as Mac's daughter, the branches of the tree... she's an enigmatic character but for reasons. Mac doesn't evaluate his failure as a father from the way she evolved, nor his success, that he can't see anything highlights his condition as a man who's been so absent for someone who meant a lot that he lost the meaning of his first life... that wasn't even the first. There's more than one secret behind that stetson.

And so the past comes haunting him back. And troubles ensues when the man of the past tries to fit in with the woman of his present... Indeed, the past might be tough, painful, even tragic, but it's gone. The present might be happy but who knows what goes next? And what about when you don't trust happiness... the film concludes with Rosa Lee looking at both Mac and Allan playing catch with a football and that pretty much sums it... let's just keep faith on happier times, on the occasional mercifulness of God, on tenderness... and music to wrap all this up!

(500) Days of Summer

The Millennial Graduate...
I don't know what makes "(500) Days of Summer" so compelling and fascinating, there's no secret recipe for that kind of effects.

My guess is that with love stories, it all comes down to the way you relate to the struggles of one of the two protagonists (preferably both). Yes, the voice-over insists this is not a love story, but it is crueler than that: it's a one-sided one; and that I could relate to. On a pure personal level, the film -especially the final act- worked so well it was almost painful.

Yes, not every love story ends happily. Yes, there are people who sneak into your life and before you know it, you start developing unprecedented symptoms. And at the end, you feel betrayed, cheated and hold a grudge against movies and their earn-your-happy-ending scam (that reminded me of Gena Rowlands' similar rant in "Minnie and Moskowtiz"). Marc Webb's film doesn't try to tell you how love works, but why it doesn't. And that it sums it up with "these things just happen" without making it sound like a copout is perhaps the screenplay's most miraculous achievement.

(And I refuse to believe it isn't a heartbreak that inspired either Scott Neustadter or Michael H. Weber)

Now, the film isn't deprived of routine comedy tropes: you have the sidekick friends (Geoffrey Arendt and Ian Reed Kessler) who draw a fine line between cynical and dim-witted. You have the precocious kid played by a pre-"Kick Ass" Chloe Grace Moretz, who delivers the kind of wisecracks worthy of someone thrice her age. You have some savvy musical interludes whose clip-like edge hide the sappiness in a way that would content the MTV generation. And you have some probably intentionally unsubtle homages to directors like Fellini and Bergman and an obsession with "The Graduate" (one of my all-time favorite) that plays like the "Casablanca" leitmotif for Harry and Sally.

But even these stylistic touches are nothing compared to the incredible chemistry between Joseph Gordon Levitt as Tom and Zooey Deschanel as Summer. He's the average-looking boy who learned to develop a charm of his own, relying on humor because he has no athletic package to sell, and she's your bubbly, independent, free-spirited attractive girl-next-door who attract eyes like magnet. Their meet-cute moment couldn't have been truer-to-life, she overhears the music in his earphones, says she likes it and leaves him speechless... I could read his mind instantly. If at that moment, she asked him to marry her, he'd say "yes".

The film then takes us to the 500-day journey of their relationship with days picked randomly to highlight the irregularity of meaningfulness in a couple, not every day is an emotional momentum and what's left for memories are either the happy or sad or angry moments: the little kiss, meeting friends, sensual intercourses in the Xerox room, traveling together, laughing and pretending to act like a couple, sex of course... with a constant warning sticker: she doesn't want to be anyone's girlfriend. Tom doesn't understand that this actually means she doesn't feel the 'heat' with him, but hanging on the illusion of "things going well", he tacitly consents to it.

I could relate to Tom... to a degree. I understood his frustration when after getting punched for her, she didn't exactly demonstrate gratitude (what did he expect? "My hero!". In fact, the womanizer's line "I can't believe he's your boyfriend" might have hit a sensitive chord. There's just a limit to how many punch a man can take. And anyone who went through a heartbreak can see that this is a relationship that is doomed, except for the one who's right inside the tornado's eye.

It is not a matter of good vs. Evil, rules of attraction are extremely capricious, there's no more reason for one love to be mutual than one to meet a soulmate in the next restaurant seat... and yet these things happen. Tom, like a Woody Allen younger alter ego, starts looking for signs and then for reasons, which amounts to the same. When the relationship is over, he blames it on the great Hollywood lie and the cult of positiveness. He quit his position at a greeting card company, feeling it would be hypocritical to pretend to inspire people where he's just lack faith.

And somehow the film embodies that mission by not sticking to the 'happy ending' and committing a worse mistake; which would have been a reenactment of "The Graduate". ... not that the films ends on a happy note, but I liked the ending and its respect to our maturity. It basically made the very point of "When Harry Met Sally" before it contradicted it with the happy ending.

It so happens that last week, I was recalling what it took for me to meet my ex-wife, it was at a convention and our stands were next to each other. Two years later, we had a child. Two years after, we had moved to her country. Four years later, she wanted a divorce. I found a new job to try to save my marriage and this is where I met my new companion. And I have a second child. And I'm still in another country. That's all it took... if I didn't go to that convention, or if I had picked another stand... my life would have been radically different... I didn't get it first but now, I do. It's one thing to be driven by love but not to take it for granted.

I felt entitled. Tom felt entitled. That's the problem with us, millennials.

I wish with all my heart that my actual relationship never ends but I know it can.. these things happen... I reconciled with that idea and stopped looking for excuses... that film is about a similar process of a millennial growing up and overcoming his disillusion through a reality-checked that was a failed love story.

Well "(500) Days for Summer" might not be a love story but it's a great story about love.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The sincere eyes with the false lashes...
A few months ago, it was Oscar season and naturally biopics were parts of the main offerings. And I still remember when the frontrunners were Lady Gaga for her part as Patrizia Gucci and Nicole Kidman as Lucy Ricardo... but ultimately, it was Jessica Chastain who took the statuette for "The Eyes of Tammy Fayes", where she plays the title character.

Tammy was the famous or infamous televangelist of humble beginnings who was as generous in love in her little Christian heart as her face was in heavy makeup. When we're introduced to her, she's got weirdly outlined lips and eyelashes so big they would put to shame Alex De Large. We get it, the woman took care of her trademarks and was plenty aware of her public image. Vanity? No. Only putting the show in show business while her husband Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) took part of the business part.

But Tammy didn't care much about business, about building a theme park, about politicizing religion. Her main concern was 'love', she wanted to make sure that there was at least one Christian who thought that God loved everyone, including homosexuals. When she gave a memorable interview to AIDS-stricken pastor Steve Pieters (Randy Havens) wishing to hug him, she was as ahead of her time as Princess Diana who touched a patient when the disease was still taboo.

That interview comes rather late in the film after we saw her enjoying the comfortable life bought by all the money raised with Jim Bakker, from their debuts as little puppeteers in local towns to their religious TV broadcast, she learned to make it with TV. She enjoyed it and she didn't care about the money, a heart so generous can only blind the mind. And "In The Eyes of Tammy Faye" it's a rather intriguing portrait of a woman who's the perfect target to caricature coming from her own side or outside (mocking heavy eyeliners she never wore) and from the big shots like Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio) who served as fund-raisers for the republican party.

America is shown into their extremes and Tammy Faye is caught between the two with her vulnerability and rather convenient naivety. The first acts seem to hesitate between her status as a victim or an accomplice, she's as capable as sinning as her husband and her obliviousness to the financial ongoings confine to stupidity. And so the middle-act doesn't feature a karmic comeuppance, nor a triumphant wake-up call allowing her to speak her voice. She gets a little bit of both but not enough to allow her to shine beyond her status as hometown little religious doll.

The film is style-wise a sort of mixture of "Elmer Gantry" and "American Hustle" combined with all these cinematic jabs at TV à la "Quiz Show"... Jessica Chastain totally vanishes in a role that requires a long transformation in make up and even more singing, but I'm wondering if Andrew Garfield didn't just miss an Oscar nomination as he had gotten already one with "Tick, Tick Boom", his mimics, his shyness, his awkwardness are delivered with a sort of elasticity that befits the actor who played Spider-Man.

But Chastain is such a powerful presence, like a tiny little mouse elbowing her way through a crowd of big elephants, by the sole power of her likability and her power of love. This is a creature we'd love to make fun at, but for some reason, her fragility, her pleas make it impossible. We get a little glimpse of her childhood where she's forbidden to go to church because her mother wasn't married... but she goes nonetheless, pretending to be touched by the grace or maybe she was, I suspect truth is a little of both, she didn't get the proper love from her mother (Cherry Jones) and yet she could find it by bringing it to the other. You don't need to ask for love when you're there to bring it.... To infuse it to people, inspiring them to love God, their country, their fellow humans... and in the process, to love her.

That's how she easily falls in love with Jim and how her relationship instantly collapses when he's taken by his obligations and some flirting with his assistant Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi) and in a world where we know the place of a woman was, she couldn't do anything. It was still nothing combined to the status of another community, to which Tammy Faye remains if not an icon, an unsung heroine.

There's a lot of good things going in the film, it doesn't try to attack religion, as much as it shows a certain reality of times and its evolution from the conservative 50s to the swinging 60s and then the groovy 70s until the 80s and AIDS and its painful hangover... something makes these films rather enjoyable on an assumed superficial way, and if the film doesn't bring something especially new, it highlights the talent of Chastain who should focused on these projects rather than some lousy action thrillers that are so beneath her.

Her Oscar was long overdue and as Oscar-bait and flashy as the role was, I was surprised by how immersed and engaged I was, and one thought occurred to me, they're not supposed to be entertainers (somehow) and yet I liked them even better than Lucy and Desi who were supposed to be comedians. That's the tone and style "The Ricardos" should have.

I guess there's something about comedic directors like Michael Showalter when they're making biopics (like Adam McKay with "Vice"), they go right to the point, they cut the dull bits and even a life full of prayers and awkwardness can be made out to look flashy and entertaining. Or maybe there's just something innately flashy about religion that televangelist could spot... flashes you repeat so many times you mistake them for the light.

King Richard

The real test of talent lies in the capability not to waste it...
Behind every great man there is a woman... good thing real life could finally subvert that hackneyed phrase... twice.

Richard Williams (Will Smith) was the father of Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton), two of the greatest female tennis players of all-time. He made them. Literally.

Approaching my forties, I'm old enough to remember an early documentary about an African-American man coaching his two daughters to become future champions. I saw it with my mum and from that point, whenever two two would play on TV, she'd say: "remember, that father who said they were going to make it?". Their success story was indissociable from their father, to the point that their guest starring in their "Simpsons" included a moment where they called out Homer for dumping his own daughter (Venus seemed less disgusted calling it "low" instead of "horrible").

Back to Richard, he is the true unsung hero of his daughters' rise stardom, if it wasn't for his dedication, the passion, his rigor and a stubbornness that put him at odds with supporting pros, they might not have made it to the top... or they might only to fall as hard as some ephemeral prodigies. Anyway that's the conclusion Reinaldo Marcus Green's film -written by Zach Baylin from an original screenplay (not an adaptation of some biography)- drove me to. Talent is indispensable but its true measure lies in one's ability not to waste it. And young kids lack the perspective to spot the little corners where failure hide its ugly head, as Richard says: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

And Richard's got everything so figured out it's scary. And Smith strikes again as a father who teaches the 'pursuit of happiness within success' the hard way... as the man in his early 50s, with his back arched by so many burdens he had to carry. As he brings it to the attention of rather indifferent professionals, he grew up in Louisana, a time where the Klan was real, he took hits, got broke, had failed relationships. He'd later confess that his own father abandoned him at the mercy of white men as they were hitting him... The point isn't to inspire sympathy but to highlight his very perception of his daughters, potential champions but potential preys as well.

Basically, Richard doesn't want his past to be their future and as willing as he is to make her champions, he also insists on education and good grades. As he points it out to a social worker who got complaint calls about Rchard's abuse, his daughters are so busy getting good grades or perfecting their games that they will never make the headlines for some drive-by shooting or police-related violence . Set in the early 90s, the film shows these realities did exist in Compton, or L. A. Richard might have an iron hand but he's not rushing to get to the podium, any extreme can lead to another one, and if there's one extreme to conquer, how about the most WASP-ish of all the sports? (after golf).

Indeed, there is one excellent scene where he meets publicity agents and you can feel the rising tension as one of them insists once too many on the incredibleness of his achievement. The film has the same bone-chilling effect of the clown scene in "Goodfellas" and Richard is such an unpredictable character that you're always on your guard when something 'new' comes in the picture. What if something contradicts his "Big Plan"? Anyway, he doesn't take offense from a "no", but he does smell patronizing words one mile away... and if he wants Venus to inspire other African-American girls, he wouldn't let anyone call her a "Ghetto Cinderella". The one thing to have in common with the fairy tale is the heroine's humility.

Another interesting scene has him cutting short his daughters' victory celebration because they were "bragging". His wife Oracene tells him he's going too far and she never hesitates to put the red flag for her daughters' sake. As Oracene, Aunjalue Ellis delivers a fantastic performance not as the woman behind the great man, but the one by his side. There's a scene where Venus' coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) learns that she won't play the pro game and ask Oracene if she knew. She says nothing, she just waits for him to leave so she can tell Richard that it's the last time he takes a decision without consulting her. If the family should function as a team, she doesn't tolerate Richard's individual playing.

And this is why before being a sports film, this is a great family drama and my only problem is with the title. Even if it's supposed to carry some irony or like a new Shakespeare adaptation. The French title is the "The 'Williams' Method" and I loved the sound of it. It overarches the whole journey from his harassment by a group of thugs in the neighborhood thugs, from the courses with Sampras and McEnroe's coach from a remote court in the neighborhood to being trained by Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), to the "play or no play with the juniors" to the many offers to up with potential sponsors. In fact, the man is not hungry so that he would eat up the first bite spoon-fed to it, instead of checking the menu. You don't build tremendous talents like that and just because you're being helped doesn't mean you should feel grateful and in debt for everything.

The girls' acting does justice to the sisters' legacy and the tennis games pretty convincing, building up to that climactic game where a dirty trick from the opponent taught the kind of lesson even Richard's well-oiled plan couldn't anticipate. I'm glad Will Smith finally won an Oscar but I can't ignore the irony that playing a man who turned his back to provocation and taught his girls not to waste their talent didn't prevent Smith not to waste his own.


Frivolous Liaisons...
While not superior, Milos Forman's take on Choderlos de Laclos "Dangerous Liaisons" is a most interesting companion piece to its predecessor directed by Stephen Frears' version. Both films are so distinct that they actually complete each other and enrich one's vision of the sulphurous epistolary novel, extending the reading of Merteuil and Valmont's actions beyond the usual battle-of-egos.

The 1988 version is more faithful to the original; Mme de Merteuil is an aging aristocrat who built cynical coldness less as a hard-to-get but a hard-to-earn man's trap and Valmont is the womanizer so used to "get" that he enjoys the challening thrills of the "hard" part. Both form a rather Machiavellian pair with generally one man's honor to defeat and a woman's hymen to conquer. That's where their true power lies: tempting, soiling and spoiling with the prose of cursive letters as a currency and the delights of flesh as the final price.

Frears portrayed two characters whose cynicism could only call for come-uppance: when there was nothing to taint anymore, it was Valmont's conscience to clean with his own blood shed by the sword of Chevalier D'Arceny... his death marking the posthumous defeat of Merteuil, having lost -ironically- the one man she could only love. Forman's "Valmont" doesn't digress from the spirit of the novel, but his rejuvenation of the two leads can't be fortuitous. Indeed, watching the two characters being played by Annette Bening and Colin Firth, much younger than Glenn Close and John Malkovich -and arguably more attractive- left me no doubt about the angle taken by the director of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus"

Forman is less interested by the dark side of his characters than their personal ideals. Salieri didn't want to kill Mozart as much as he wanted to take a share of his glory for posterity. His vileness was an act of desperation driven by the awareness of his own mortality. Even the evil Nurse Ratched didn't want to drive a patient into killing himself but was blinded by the invigorating effect of her power. Merteuil enjoys such power, one that allows her to toy with love and lust like so many dolls and puppets. She doesn't want to soil her innocent 15-year old cousin Cécile de Volanges, played by Fairuza Balk, but to humiliate Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones) who dared abandoning her. In a society where a man can marry a teenager one third his age after she's been kept in a convent with the complicity of her mother (Sian Philips.) what's more damage could be inflicted to Cécile anyway?

Meanwhile Bening brings a youthful charm to Merteuil, sitting on the throne of her self-confidence, she smiles a lot, never frowns. In fact one can only see the extent of her personality through the mayhem that ensues from her little schemes. And Firth inserts so much youthful likability in his Valmont that one can't picture him as an accomplice of Merteuil but as a fool or a tool to her own schemes. His courting of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) is so passionate and zealous that one can't deny his sincerity ... In fact, what I'm getting at; is that that Valmont never seems to be in Merteuil's league at all. Even his fake sincerity feels genuine.

So the film is less about Merteuil than the lives she plays with like so many disposable pawns on a chessboard. One of the film's earliest scenee establishes the three main characters in a subtle way: Valmont seems to be courting the delicate Cécile in her first night at the opera, Cécile always gives that "what should I say?" look to her chaperone. But shortly after, she dares ask Merteuil if she's got a lover. Merteuil denies with a smile that couldn't fool anyone. Seduction, naivety and deception, in one scene you get the three pillars of "Dangerous Liaisons". But there's more in the film, there's something typical of Forman whose movies are set in universes that dictate a certain set of attitudes.

The decadence of the French aristocracy can only be processed if we keep in mind all these men and women didn't know a revolution would sweep off these frivolities in less than a decade. Like in "Ridicule" or "Barry Lyndon", "Valmont" is the study of the mores of a declining society with the swampy hypocrisy emanating from the courts' corridors as the exhilarating gases pushing individuals like Merteuil to abuse her ranking, and mothers like Madame de Volange to check the private letters of her own daughter.

However, there are also some delicate moments like a dance scene, where Valmont chose carefully his steps with each woman, sober with the aging and good-hearted Madame de Rosemonde (Fabia Drake), playful with Cécile, and more quietly sensual with Tourvel and Merteuil. Other notable moments include a lengthy conversation about the "rules of attraction" and one long and awkward rendezvous between the two teenagers who, oddly enough, act their age, despite the whole pressure put on them. Such moments were so brilliant in their simplicity that maybe the limit to Forman's approach is that the leads were too likable for the film's own good.

And so when it came to the final act, and both becoming enemies, the dramatic tempo didn't close Cécile and Tourvel's arcs in a way that respected the weight they were previously given. And Valmont's attempt to reach Merteuil turned at times into vaudeville than a true descent into the hearts of darkness.. Much worse, Benign is so dilettante the whole time that I could hardly believe in her solemn an face at the end of the film. The final act gave me the impression of Forman rushing to catch up to the original version, it might have created a certain feeling of redundancy... that might explain the film's fail to garner Oscars, even BAFTA nomination, except for the usual Costume Design.

(Well, there's more than pretty costumes in the film)

The Jungle Book

When the earlier "live action" remakes brought something new and original...
This is a film I would have dismissed if I wanted to stay consistent with my instinctive dislike of that new wave of "live-action" remakes.

But after watching "The Lion King", I realize that "The Jungle Book" has at least one merit: it didn't try to recycle the same material with that trendy photorealism. In fact, it reinvented it, bringing either new characters or new depths to known characters or tracing new storylines, anyway it did its job as a remake and what's more by being faithful to Rudyard Kipling's book... and having been marked by the 'Water Truce' episode from the anime series, I was pleasantly surprised by its inclusion in the new Disney version, way to go, Disney screenwriters!

First of all, I must say "The Jungle Book" is my favorite Disney animated feature for sentimental reasons, but even my sentimentalism doesn't prevent me from recognizing the many loose ends in the film. Shere Khan is presented like an indomitable monster and as soon as his name is mentioned, the earth literally shakes... but that's only information we've got to take at face value. And then Mowgli is taken away in his sleep without having paid goodbye to the family he spent ten years with.

In this version, like in the anime or the book, the relationship with the herd is codified and solidified and shown with characters like Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) whose sense of diplomacy with the tiger, confines to the Munich syndrome while the mother Rakhsa (Lupita Nyong'o) is more willing to to protect her son. There's a cute addition with Gray (Brighton Rose Favreau), the little runt of the family and Mowgli's brother.

Another improvement from the book is the character of Shere Khan, from whom we get some backstory about his phobia of fire and defiance to men in general and Mowgli in particular, it's all the more fitting that it is told in a hallucinatory moment from Kaa, the secondary antagonist, voiced by Scarlett Johannsen. In the 1967 version, as suave and charismatic as he was, Shere Khan's last-minute appearance was almost accidental and didn't make for a long awaited climax. Now I'm glad the same studio extended it to a level where Shere Khan does have a personal record to settle with Mowgli and seem to have reasons to judge Mowgli.

I liked that approach even more since Shere Khan voiced by idris Elba and Baghera by Ben Kingsley and both make for a great good vs. Evil feline duo, unlike James Earl Jones who tried to duplicate his Mufasa with the understandably tired voice of his nineties... these new actors brought their personal touch. I won't compare the two films more, because "Jungle Book" was still made in the early years of the 'trend' where they were looking for a purpose, a reason to be. Watching these two films back-to-back made me think; if Scar had half the charisma of Shere Khan in the film, it would have been better. The animals weren't less expressive but there was something deeply intimidating in that Shere Khan, something in his voice, his growl, his manners that meant business and contributed to some scary and heart-pounding moments. Bagheera also makes for a bad-ass companion and mentor-figure.

Naturally, the film didn't spare us from the 'comedic' figures and through Baloo (Bill Murray) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) they reinvented the characters without depriving them from their comical style. Baloo doesn't develop an instant liking on Mowgli but the bond is formed after a certain manipulation into getting honey from atop a cliff, and perhaps by not caring so much for his safety, Baloo learned to care about him ... it's not immediate on-the-nose father-and-son love. King Louie is more of a scary figure wishing to know the figure of fire but it's the voice of Walken that adds to the creepy value. I don't know how they got the voices but I applaud the boldness of these choices and the fact that they used their trademark songs with slight updates.

A last word about Mowgli, the actor Neel Sethi his best with what he has and working with invisible and green screen isn't easy... but allow me to be partial to Rohan Chend from Netflix' "Mowgli". I did appreciate that the film showed that his being a man cub gave him a little edge over the animals, he learned to be handy with his hands, which reveals itself a true Chekov's Gun.... Naturally, I expected the voice of Shanti to come out and interrupt the celebration of the victory, but then that ending also made sense... and proved that remaking isn't always about duplication.

If not flawless, "The Jungle Book" is at least a proper remake intelligently made and that knew where to take departure and where to keep resemblances to please the fans of the original but not just be a remake for the sake of remaking. In fact it's precisely because I'm consistent with my cirticms of "The Lion King" that I feel this deserves a higher rating.

Au hasard Balthazar

The Passion of the Donkey...
Once again, a French film comfort me in a position I held for many years: the greatest accomplishment of the New Wave was to inspire New Hollywood: movies with the right amount of realism but with a priority given to the story.

I actually agree with one of IMDb reviewers who said that "Au Hasard, Balthazar" for all its spiritual allegories and hidden messages, commits a major sin within its uneven pacing. Having listened to Bresson's interviews, I found some deep contradictions between his attempt at cinematic purity and the way the sequences flow or maybe their randomness actually fits the "au hasard" in the title. Still, what did Robert Bresson want to show with? Life itself? Is life bleak, cruel and dismal? Wouldn't the beautiful Pyrenees countryside leave a little room for happiness?

The story actually starts on a happy note. Jacques and his sister buy a baby donkey and baptize him with the name "Balthazar". Marie, Jacques's sweetheart from the neighboring farm, join them in their games with the new mascot. But tragedy raises its ugly head: one of the sisters dies, Jacques' family leave the farm, and Balthazar's state of grace ends when he starts working for local farmers who give him the harsh treatment we might have feared. There starts the misfortunes of a poor donkey, from one hand carrying a stick or a leash to a more understanding soul.

At some point he goes back to Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) who became a bitter, insecure and pessimistic girl despite her breathtaking beauty. She develops an instant liking to Gérard (François Lafarge); a detestable gang leader who spills oil in the road to make car crash, who steals money and cruelly treats Balthazar during his bakery daily deliveries. It is hinted that it's because he's jealous of Marie's love for the animal, but Gérard never strikes as someone capable of such feelings.

Odlly enough, when the adult Jacques (Walter Green) comes back and proposes to Marie, she rebukes him, preferring the bad boy. Meanwhile, his father (Philippe Asselin) is having legal troubles and refuse to follow the procedures out of a misguided pride. The film is basically a tale of unhappy people, making bad and irrational choices, following a certain twisted vision of reality.... And a poor donkey kept as a hostage of these fateful decisions. The real protagonists are human and Balthazar is only accessory to their action, never a catalyst, often an undergoer.

This is a rather uncompromising portrait of human cruelty, apparently meant as a religious allegory from a hardcore Christian. The Passion of the Donkey? Maybe. I wish the acting could go in line with these ideas, for I can't envision any pathos delivered with this flatlining tonality. Bresson drew a line between cinema and theatricality... that made his film neither cinematic or theatrical and too unconventional for its own good.

There was so much potential with the segment involving the convict Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert)... but so many loose ends undermine a reasonable comprehension. The span of time is imprecise and what seems to be crucial plot points are left unclear through a tedious editing that seems as random as the story it involves. At some point Arnold is a confident tough guy but then seems totally dominated by the young punk, then a subplot involving a new fortune is treated as briefly as the circus episode. And in a very strange scene, Gérard crashes the bottles in a bar and everyone keeps dancing as if nothing happened, certainly the most Nouvelle-Vaguesque moment of the whole film.

I was fascinated by the interpretation of Roger Ebert who dedicated one of his best-written reviews to that film, making Balthazar the allegory of our own condition. It's true there's something of us in that donkey, a pinball syndrome that always keeps under the control or influence of a higher instance... it is also true that the film is capable of true depth and confront us to characters whose nihilism seems like the only answer to a life whose randm cruelty can only call for defensive reclusion.

One of Balthazar's last owners, the miller (Pierre Klossowski) tells Marie that her father's pride made him even more suspicious for the 'good villagers' while many other cynical men could reach happiness because they had the nerve to embrace their corruption. In a universe where Gérard can get away with his actions, the miller speaks the gospel.

Indeed, there's no place for goodness in the word, and that's magnificently captured in that final shot , that consecrates the martyrdom of Balthazar, a Saint according to Marie's mother (Nathalie Joyaut); laying among the sheep, in a moment of pure communion with nature... perhaps the most beautiful moment of the film because there was no humans and no acting to be analyzed... Analyzing indeed, "Au Hasard Balthazar" confronts me to a Cornelian dilemma: should I embrace Robert Bresson's Spartan directorial minimalism, or dismiss it as another overvalued artifact of the French Nouvelle Vague?

As much as I was deeply moved by the harrowing journey of Balthazar, I can't pretend these moments I was puzzled by Bresson's approach to acting didn't exist. By multiplying the takes until he could squeeze out the cinematic juice from the actors' deliveries, Bresson made his "Balthazar" a rather disorienting experience; and let me warn those who expect documentary-like naturalism: you're candidates for disappointment.

The actors' performances are the antithesis of method acting. Bresson's idea, as I gathered from his interviews, was to deprive the scenes from any potential 'cinematic' momentum until they could generate a semblance of cohesion when put together. This is why the lasting effect of "Au Hasard Balthazar" is more agreeable than the overall experience. I didn't enjoy the film much until it ended and gave me a feeling of closure... but to say that I'm in a hurry to watch it again would be a lie.

The Longest Day

A "longest" day that will never feel too long ...
"The Longest Day" was released in 1962, 18 years after the real thing. This is not exactly what you can call a giant chronological leap for many of those who hadn't been slaughtered by the German artillery in the Normandy coast hadn't entered their forties when they saw it on the big screen, and some of them were even parts of the cast and crew. You couldn't cheat with the subject, let alone romanticize it.

And in the writing department, the number of survivors was enough from both sides to provide screenwriters plenty of material to make "The Longest Day", a masterpiece of recreation and one of the last war epics of Hollywood Golden Age, with such a testosterone-star-studded cast that the question isn't: which actor stars in it but who doesn't? John Wayne, Richard Burton, Rod Steiger, Sal Mineo, Paul Anka ourvil, Gert Frobe and Sean Connery before they'd star in "Goldfinger", it's a real who's who of the male stars of the 60s. And yet what struck me for a film written and directed by the winners is how dispassionate it is.

As if it embodied the spirit of that fine generation of young men who didn't even feel they were doing something noble, the directors just tried to get the job done. That it's a team of relatively unknown names is a fitting coincidence for "The Longest Day" is certainly the triumph of a collective effort that didn't need the additional value of a household name. Patriotic undertones in the form of triumphant fanfares are reduced to the minimum, and deaths aren't treated like emotional momentums, except for some memorable bits such as the wiping on the paratroopers who landed near Sainte-Mere-Eglise church, a scene shot through the shocked and teary POV of Red Buttons whose life hung with his canopy on a providential gargoyle.

I was even surprised by the absence of a monologue about the necessity to triumph over evil, which would have been perfectly suitable for any audience. In fact, the Overlord operation is treated a decisive set of tactical moves, and a logistic nightmare for both sides. What is more remarkable is that these aspects are treated from each of the Allies and German side. The film actually opens with all the preparations set by the Germans under the commandment of Erwin Rommel and before the first notes of the "Fifth Symphony" ominously resonate, the Desert Fox guarantees that the Allies will land somewhere in the North coast of France, that's for the mathematical certainty. And whether they pierce the Atlantic wall or not will be the move that will make or break the war.

Whatever happens that day is unknown but that day for sure will be the longest. Eisenhower certainly thought the same, he who had a special speech ready in case of failure.

The first major obstacle is the weather: would the Ally land on June during one of the worst springs in decades after having stalled for a more merciful May? The Germans didn't believe it precisely because he held Eisenhower in high regards, but there are times where common sense and emergency don't pair up very well. The weather prospects were low but just as the American troops moral after so many weeks of stalling under the British climate... occasional glimpses on the French and British perspective allow us to remember that Europeans have been 'there' for two extra years. The landing was itching everyone and was the talk in every platoon and maybe the Allies should be grateful that the absence of sun kept soldiers on guard.

Regarding the portrayal of the Germans, it's interesting that the film doesn't treat them through the prism of their evil ideology but like an army with its own ordeals and that is so remote from the tumultuous headquarters it tries to act rationally. And by being so miraculously detached, if not neutral, as far as warfare is concerned, "The Longest Day" actually highlights the military prowesses and turns out to be one of the few war movies that has something to say about war, on a pure educational level. The D-Day wasn't just about crossing a beach but holding positions the night before and like in a game of chess, luring the enemy into the wrong anticipations. If the Germans in the blockhaüses didn't open their eyes wide at the sight of the Allies' fleet, then the mission would fail.

And apart from that unmistakable little tune from Maurice Jarre, music is scarcely used, never to enhance the spectacularity of the action. The film in its monochromatic format is a meticulous recollection of every single operation as so many tiny pieces of a puzzle that form the 'big picture' of the D-Day. And so we learn about the little "click" signal, the Ruperts, the codes for the Resistance, from obscure mentions of one's mustache to a Verlaine's poem... and in a sort of self-referential prose, we have a Nazi officer who promptly states that they will lose the war because the Fuërher is not to be awakened. Which made me realize that this Day didn't wait for the passing of years' hindsight to raise awareness on its historical magnitude. Eisenhower's name could have lived in infamy...

And it is indeed a long day that starts in the middle of night and concludes with a cigar-chomping Mitchum,. But no star ever outshines the other, they're all like little lead soldiers disposed in the right place and right moment, sometimes at the wrong ones, for more tragic effects... but still far from the carnage a certain movie from a certain director about a certain private to save... released 36 years.

At that time, fewer directors were even born during the war and as a mark of gratitude, the new generation felt the need to remind us the deadly price of victory. More emotions, more heart-pounding tension, more patriotism, more spectacle... but somehow I prefer the straight-to-the-point approach of "The Longest Day".

The Lion King

It's the circle of cash... and it moves us all... out to the theaters...
If only it could move us inside...

Let's be honest, Disney has never been a non profit-making organization and Uncle Walt was a man of vision AND economical flair. Still, before turning into a voracious corporate blob, Disney was still the quintessential dream factory and nostalgia builder for many, many, many generations. And even for these direct-to-video sequels that spread all over the 2000s like a bad cold, some brain cells of imaginations were mobilized.

But now Disney's not even trying to pretend, investing all the efforts on a pure technical level and the kind of marketing-that-speaks-for-itself. It is one thing to adapt fairy tales into live-actions, before "Cinderella", there was "Enchanted", "Maleficent" or even Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland". And yet Disney executives found the trick: it's not about adapting the fairy tale but the Disney version of it. Thorns are still invisible over the head with the two round ears but right now in 2022, it seems that "awakening your inner child" isn't a motto anymore but a formula.

The formula could have interesting results: the 2016 "Jungle Book" film could center on little Mowgli and diverged from the 1967 film. Same with "Dumbo" or "Aladdin". But exclusively animal-centered movies like "The Lion King", "Bambi" or "The Lady and the Tramp" are a different challenge. You've got to humanize the way animals could act, react or display emotions. Take the kiss between Lady and the Tramp, the magic is not within the moment their mouths meet but the cute and genuine embarrassment that follows. You can't "animate" these emotions with live-action animals with all the technology of the world.

Indeed if your purpose is that your lion looks real, you can't expand the range of facial expressions: remember in "One Hundred and One Dalmatians" the way Pongo and Perdita looked at each other at the end of the garden scene: reproducing that with real-looking animals is inconceivable, couldn't work, wouldn't work. And that's the ultimate wager of photorealistic remakes: achieve documentary-like realism with storylines that were designed for hand-drawn or at the very least CGI animation, "Toy Story" CGI I mean.

And that leads to even more perplexing results when it comes to 'surreal' sequences like "I Just Can't Wait to Be The King" where two normal-looking cubs are casually running across pink flamingoes, or the moment that precedes Simba's epiphany where the figure of Mufasa is barely visible in the sky (not to mention that some lines were cut from the original). Now, maybe Disney takes for granted our passion for the "Lion King" and considers that we're there to "fill the gaps". It's true I did enjoy the film to the degree that it reminded of "The Lion King", which is a high point of my childhood, but at the end of the day, my mind was full of afterthoughts. To put it simple, I realized it was an enjoyment by proxy.

The problem of "The Lion King" isn't that it's good or bad. It is certainly a remarkable achievement on the field of animation. The problem is that it is problematic. Yes I'm talking in circles but that's a circle Disney has just taken us into and that makes it rather impossible to figure what is wrong with these photorealistic films, we know there's something that doesn't look right, maybe on a pure reason-to-be way.

"The Lion King" is one of the classics of animation, a masterpiece that speaks highhy of the dedication of old-school Disney team of animators. 1995 would change the games with the first CGI and so in a way, "The Lion King" was the culmination of that traditional hand-drawn art. Not only that but its story, very simple and straightforward carried the gravitas and dramas or movie classics. Characters like Scar, Mufasa, Simba are all printed in our memories, the songs became pop culture monuments, scenes have been parodied countless times. "The Lion King" became a household name for Disney excellence. And certainly one of the greatest opening sequences of history, the shivers down your spine sent by the sight of Rafiki carrying little Simba is one of these moments you can't just 'duplicate'.

As viewers pointed out, many things are missing: where is the friendly nod Mufasa gives Zazu? Or that hug between Rafiki and Mufasa? Mufasa comes across as a stone-faced patriarch posing like a library statue... and waiting for our nostalgic pheromones to instill some life in him .... Maybe we were just curious to see how they'd pull this out. I guess if I was told about an animated version of "The Godfather" no matter how ludricrous it sounds I would have given a shot. "The Lion King" was such a big deal, viewers did came to see and made it one of the highest grossing films of the year.

Fair enough, but what's that does say exactly? That half the job was done and make a copy of something great to make something of equally promising greatness? The purpose of a remake is to bring something new. But "The Lion King 2019" doesn't bring anything new except for the realistic animation that doesn't look like an improvement anyway.. Scar looks like a washed out lion who shampooed his mane with paint thinner, without one tenth the suave charisma of the original. James Earl Jones' voice looks like he was only testing the microphone or was bored to death, which actually matched the look of the used-to-be majestic lion.

And I swear the savannah and jungle never looked so dismal with tones of beige and yellowish green that reminded me of that Water Truce sequence in "The Jungle Book". So much for the bright colors and the escapism.... And the only thing visible right now are the thorns on the head, and the round ears have turned pointy... no it's not the devil, but a cow, a cash-cow.


George Sanders and Elizabeth Taylor steal the show...
Richard Thorpe's 1952 "Ivanhoe" opens with a déjà vu feeling: King Richard hadn't come back from the crusades yet. He's prisoner of Leopold of Austria. Meanwhile, England lives under the tyrannic reign of his brother Prince John and the domination of the Normans against the Saxons. Passing as a minstrel and singing a familiar theme for the real king, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe manages to spot his 'whereabouts' and learns that a ransom of 150 000 marks is claimed in exchanged of the royal prisoner.

Now, if it wasn't for the time span of fourteen years that separated the two films, "Ivanhoe" would have been the perfect twin brother of Michael Curtiz's "The Adventures of Robin Hood". At the very least it is a fine companion piece of the 1938 swashbuckler classic, a spectacular item of entertainment that captures in all old-fashioned Technicolor the charm of medieval epics and the exhilarating effect of the very kind of films; TV in its black-and-white dawn, couldn't compete with.

Indeed, to anyone who expect helms, armors and honor, sword fights, duels and knight tournaments, castles being stormed, arrow thrown, sumptuous banquets, treacherous nobles, podgy priests, wisecracking jesters, and wooing damsels, "Ivanhoe" is almost a trope codifier of the genre. And to those who'd say that Robert Taylor's no-nonsense portrayal lacks the little glee that Errol Flynn brought to Robin Hood, that he brings too much solemnity to Ivanhoe, I found it the more adequate approach and here's why.

The straightness of the hero is precisely the prism that brings colors to all the surrounding characters. Ivanhoe is so brave, perfect and polished that he allows everyone else to shine with their imperfections. Prince John (Guy Rolfe) as the treacherous brother, the father Cedric, a proud Saxon with the patriotic pride and fierce temper of old curmudgeon (Finlay Currie) or Brian de Bois-Guilbert, the nemesis played by George Sanders, whose passion for Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor in his earliest mature roles) carries more life, tragedy and poignancy than the dull and bland courtship between Ivanhoe and Rowena (Joan Fontaine) who is not Maid Marian either.

That the film doesn't duplicate "Robin Hood" while having Robin Hood (Harrold Warrender) himself making more than a simple cameo proves that Walter Scott's 1819 novel was meant to treated with a little more gravity, which is understandable for a tale that handles the theme of anti-semitism and offers an interesting historical perspective. There's an interesting moment where Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) is confronted to a dilemma: save his daughter with the money he collected for King Richard or sacrifice her for the bigger cause, knowing perfectly well that the fact these two ransoms are exactly the same is no coincidence. His answer perfectly encapsulates the specific struggles of the diaspora torn between the obligations of serving God, a country and leaving the things of the heart behind, which is somehow a form of chivalry code.

Naturally, one shouldn't overthink the film which is far from being an essay on German expressionism. It brings up the right palette of colors contrasting with the darker shades of later realistic films, being closer to "The Sword in the Stone " than "Lion in Winter" with a hero that is impeccably clean, pure and heroic. And you know what, truth be told, there are times where we're just looking for a hero, a figure whose nobility and principles overpower his personal instinct, and where the line between the hero and the villain is drawn by a certain capability to see beyond the individual. Prince John is obviously driven by his insecurity and inferiority complex to Richard who's to be kept as far as possible, Bois-Guilbert is the obligatory villain of a nobler ilk who's capable of the worst treachery in order to defeat Ivanhoe and yet accepts to sacrifice his honor and suffer a disgrace by forfeiting if Rebecca, whose life is at the stakes of the climactic duel, gives her heart. It's all the more awesome when we know that Ivanhoe's heart doesn't even belong to her..

"Invanhoe" is populated by others memorable characters: Wamba the jester who is upgraded to squire, played by Emelyn Williams, and other supporters of Prince John like Hugh de Bracy (Robert Douglas) and the well-built Front de Boeuf (Francis de Wollff), both gave me some Aramis and Porthos' vibes to the Athos who was Bois-Guibert. But I might have a few words about Ivanhoe after all: he comes the closest to humanity through his physical vulnerability. After besting the first four Norman knights, he ends severely wounded by Bois-Guilbert who dominates him during the climactic duel. Another flaw of Ivanhoe might be his judgement toward women: since at the end, he still prefers Rowena to Rebecca.

I haven't read the novel, and I read that liberties were taken. Still, I was surprised by how enjoyable the film was. It gratifies us with three sequences that are as spectacular and heart-pounding as if they belonged to a modern movie, the first jousts between Ivanhoe and the five knights of Edward, then the attack of the fort (if we except a few soldiers dying with raised arms) and finally the ultimate duel... and the score from Miklos Rozsa accompanies the action and brings the energy and the spirit of the medieval times without surrendering to the predictable triumphant trumpets. Like a beautiful tapestry, you wouldn't even notice it, but it does give a soul to a film that already had the heart... and the muscle.

Rio Bravo

Bravo, Mr. Hawks for this tale of pure bravado filled with so many bravura performances...
"High Noon" is one of my all-time favorite westerns and I really believed a film couldn't be the antithesis of a masterpiece and a masterpiece. I was a fool and "Rio Bravo" was a fantastic experience.

I can't recall one scene that didn't grab me or touch me or made me laugh or smile. The acting and writing blended into a flawless story, smoothly directed by Howard Hawks at the top of his game. Each episode enriches the psychology of the characters -villains included- exploring every Western trope while deviating from the tiresome norms... and basically retelling the "High Noon" story with a new angle. A successful one.

It's common knowledge that Hawks loathed "High Noon" because of its portrayal of a marshal asking townspeople to help him, a move he deemed as unprofessional. Wayne didn't beat around the bush and called it "un-American". Whether the two were right or wrong is irrelevant, Hawks applied the 'Godard' principle: the best way to criticize a film is to make one. After "Rio Bravo", I finally could hear what he and Wayne kept saying.

Now, "Rio Bravo" doesn't open with a catchy ballad like its rival but its opening is nonetheless brilliant by pure cinematic standards. No words spoken for five minutes. Dean Martin enters the bar, his eye language suggests a lost man at the verge of breaking down. We gather he needs a fuel. He's Dude and Martin's acting was so incredible I hardly recognized the glamorous singer. A man, Joe Burdette (Claude Atkins) asks him if it's about drinking -no words spoken again- Dude nods, Joe throws a coin in the spittoon. Dude kneels down to take it but is stopped by a Winchester, the extension of a body that can only belong to one man: John Wayne. He shakes his head and kick the vase out of Dude's reach.

Dimitri Tiomkin's music that has followed the action rhythm like in old silent films, goes crescendo as violence escalates. Dude knocks the Duke down, a fight ensues and a man who tried to interfere is brutally shot by Joe. The ruthless killer goes to another saloon where he's finally arrested by Sherif Chance (Wayne) with Dude's help. Je is taken to the jail where we meet Stumpy, the two-teeth limping deputy played by the unique Walter Brennan, the actor who always seems in his element when he plays supporting comedic characters. And that's it, in a school-case of minimalist directing we get half the cast established and whole set-up. Joe's got a brother and many supporters in town. Until he's taken to the marshal, surveillance is needed, it's the "High Noon" situation stretched for days.

The plot builds up to the part where an old friend of Chance, Ward Bond in his final role, offers his help but Chance dismisses it: men are paid to free Burdette, why would he make widows or orphans for such a worthless sacrifice? (A subtle "Take That" to "High Noon") Then there's Ricky Nelson as Colorado Ryan, one of Bond's employees. Nelson is as believable a cowboy as if they had cast Elvis instead, but he is just as cool as James Coburn in "The Magnificent Seven". When Wayne talks about him in his presence, Ryan says "I understand English, you can ask me", and when offered the chance to help, he'd rather "mind his own business", this is not cowardice, but pragmatism.

And Chance admires a man so capable he doesn't feel like proving it. In a film where even the little Mexican hotel owner Carlos (Pedro Rodriguez) ends up proving he's more than a comic relief, we get the point: men you can count on need no "calling", if you need them, they will come. And as if the story wasn't multilayered enough, and to spice it up with a romance with the Duke, Hawks gratifies us with one strong female character played by Angie Dickinson. The beautiful and flirtatious Feathers knows she's dealing with a poker-faced man, one of few words; and so she carefully chooses hers, loading them with the right amount of wit and sexual innuendo. The dialogue between Dickinson and Wayne, reminded me of Hawks' laws of attraction in his screwball classics and movies like "To Have and Have Not" or "The Big Sleep". Wayne never makes the moves, but gives enough rope to be reached little by little, not good at acting but at reacting.

Indeed, I praised Dean Martin's acting not just because of the poignantly sinuous road of his redemption or his total insecurity, but also because it inspired the best of Wayne's reacting skills. Don't let his seeming expressionlessness fool you: the trick with Wayne is to never show that he's scared or worried while allowing the attentive viewers to sense a certain vulnerability. "Rio Bravo" is full of subtle moments, generally silent, that'd make you believe this one of the Duke's best performances... also one where he can gives a big kiss to Brennan's head before getting kicked with a broom. You never get too much sentimental.

Now, to the villains: they're not the one-dimensional ominous-looking trigger-happy thugs: Joe's brother (John Russel) tries to lay the diplomatic card while maneuvering in the shadows. But as Chance warns him, if something ever goes wrong, his sibling might be "accidentally" shot before anyone frees him, Stumpy approves with a glee that shows that they mean business. And what if things escalate? It wouldn't matter, they'll all be dead. The arrogance is calculated but pays off in the way it makes the enemy equally cautious and ingenuous and the whole confrontation a little more a battle of guns. In fact, everything in "Rio Bravo" is a little more than what you'd expect ... and if I concluded my "High Noon" review saying "with all due respect, Mr. Hawks, Wayne and Ebert, "High Noon" is perfect the way it is". Let me add with the same due respect:

"So is "Rio Bravo".

Turning Red

Big Trouble Inside/Out Little China Girl...
I'm an avid watcher -consumer I should say- of 'First Time Watching' reactions on Youtube. And so when "Turning Red" specials started popping by the dozens in a span of only two or three days, I knew I was dealing with a phenomenon. Indeed, unlike the more-marketed and Oscar-buzzed "Encanto", "Turning Red" seemed to come out of nowhere and if it wasn't for my stepson urging me to watch it, I might have waited ... at least one day more.

Now I kind of understand its popularity but also why it's only rated 7.1 on IMDb. Despite the flashy premise, the coming-of-age story of girl turning into an animal after a strong emotion, isn't exactly a novelty, not after "Brave" or "Inside Out" anyway. To rise above its inspirations, the film makes an honorable effort to push many boundaries and highlight the ordeal of being a teenage girl raised by immigrant parents. However, if there's nothing in "Turning Red" that should make director Domee Shi 'turn red', I deplore once again a case where the pencil is so sharpened the lead seems almost at the verge of breaking.

Naturally', Shi's totally entitled to tell the story of her adolescence and experience as a Sino-Canadian in 2002, like Greta Gerwig did with "Lady Bird", Toronto replacing Sacramento. But then the choice of the 'red' leitmotif left me perplex ... Shi explains it in the 'making of' interview and you get it from the "turning" word, subtlety isn't exactly 'Turning Red''s strongest suit or maybe it wasn't intended as a nuanced film to begin with since it deals with the most turbulent and tumultuous phase of our life. Still, I didn't necessarily needed her to reveal that the Panda metaphor wasn't just about natural characteristics (laziness, nonchalance) that could echo adolescence but other aspects such as hair, weight and (ugh!) smell.

The trouble with "Turning Red" is that the writers (including Shi) seemed so invigorated by an apparent taboo-breaking mission that it took the story to very improbable territories. Indeed, the trick with Disney and Pixar is that sometimes they take our suspension of disbelief for granted. In fact, that it would be the first Disney Pixar to refer to pads didn't bother me as much as "Psycho" showing a toilet seat for the first time, but that a mother would be so overprotective she would bring these things to her daughter's school was more ludicrous than the panda-thing. And keep in mind my skepticism is mostly driven by my sympathy to all the well-introduced main characters.

There's Mei (Rosalie Chiang) a smart, high on life, full of promises and confident girl turning 13, caught between the new codes of adolescence and peer pressure and her desire to please her mother equally proportional to her fear to disappoint. The mother is Mei Ling, voiced by Sandra Oh. Mei has friends of course, Miriam, labeled as a tomboy (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park) and deadpan Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). And for once, the Asian friend isn't the minority member although according to Wikipedia, Abby is Korean and Myriam Jewish. Nothing against that but sometimes, the paradox of inclusiveness is that the further you take it, the closer it gets you to a reverse form of exclusion.

Anyway, Mei is basically stuck between two ages, two cultures, two life options, she's still that little child who should honor her parents, help her mother clean the temple but trapped in an Oedipal dilemma, she tries to find the strength to 'kill' symbolically her mother without hurting much her feelings. It's a mother-and-daughter-driven film where the father (Orion Lee) is reduced to a non-entity with a talent for cooking. Even as the "good cop" of the parental duo, he's overpowered by the Panda-connection that struck the female members of the family since the ancestor who awakened the inner panda that could protect the clan in the absence of men.

But before the whole furry freak-outs, the film goes well. I started cringing when Ming Lee found her daughter's cute drawings of her 17-year old crush... and what can I say about her reaction? Well, I had to undergo helicopter-parenting, this is NOT helicopter parenting except if you consider the offspring being tied to the blades. Mei feels humiliated, rightfully so, and the next day, she turns into a Panda. The trouble is that the film had made such a good effort to build characters that you expect a real discussion between the mother and the daughter but you know that wouldn't happen before the emotional climax... and so we need to have a little fun with the fur.

"Turning Red" oscillates between some genuine moments that are so effective in their depiction of adolescence in 2002, the boys-band (although it struck me that these girls wouldn't be the kind to idolize them), tamagotchis, and first-generation cell-phones... a blessing for Mei (can you imagine her situation in 2020?) The depiction of the year I was 20 in was so spot-on that I regretted it had to waste its time on tropes we've seen in many Disney so far: a magic circle, a ritual, a transformation, not to mention the climactic fight manga style. The inner Panda becomes the metaphor for the beast inside exxcept the trigger isn't an army of invaders but an overbearing mother (technically an invader)... and the panda represents the emancipation from emotional restriction, the freedom to let your ego shout as loud as possible and that might be least 2002-esque aspect of the film. More 2020 in fact.

Speaking of which, reading many negative reviews on IMDb, I was wondering whether parents didn't feel 'triggered' a little but, some for the right reasons: yes, even at 13, kids should listen to their parents. Some for the wrong ones: maybe they wish they could have rebelled too and as a 'vengeance' keep the same toxic control on their children. I guess for all its imperfections, "Turning Red" does hit a sensitive chord... if it turned so many parents anger-red.


I liked Mirabel. I hated the Madrigals.
"Encanto" is about the Madrigals, a Hispanic family from some picturesque village that looks like a composite of South-American clichés. A magical and hereditary spell (contained in one never-extinguishing candle) blesses each member with a particular gift, all but third-generation born Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), the outcast or black sheep (along with the one we don't talk about).

The film is a tribute to South America's 'magical realism' (of course, nothing to do with being a Disney film) and so there's a great deal of magic. But there's one illusion too: you'd think it's about proving your worth in a family, about power not being the ultimate thing, but no, magic is the true overarching element of the journey with three questions: why no magical power for Mirabel? Why are magical powers fading? How can we magically restore them?

Mirabel is actually a sweet, confident and jovial person who means well and has no problem to accept herself, she's got no lesson to learn. In fact the problem comes from the other Madrigals. And they're quite a gallery of eccentrics covering every possible ethnicity of the Latin melting-pot and with a cast that looks like a who's-who of the Latin stars-of-the-day. The times of Speedy Gonzales and Agador Spartacus are definitely over and God forbid a Caucasian throat ever tried to pull an accent... we don't cast a non-Latino, no, no, no...

The family is shown in one expositional song that must have given many headaches to the 5000 writers and made me figure how would a "Godfather" musical works: "this is Sonny, his temper is hot like a plate of macaroni, and here's Fredo, we still trying to figure what he can do etc." The song that lingers on maybe one minute and half too many, has Mirabel describing the family to a trio of kids (one of them drinking coffee!) and the whole song was so full of images, lyrics, people that I felt I had watched the whole first act in fast-forward.

And so from Mirabel's perspective, there's the mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda) who can heal people, she had two other girls with normal-Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama) : the beautiful Isabela (Diane Guerrero) who can conjure flowers and the bulky Luisa (Jessica Darrow) who's got super-strength.. There's Aunt Pepa (Carolina Gaitan) whose mood affects the weather and could never joyfully sing in the rain, she's married to normal-Felix (Mauro Castillo) and together they have two boys Camilo (Rhenzy Feliz) who can transform himself, Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) whose gift is yet to be known and Dolores (Adassa) who looks like one of these stereotypical 'conchitas' from old pineapple juice commercials... and yet I found her cuter than Isabela. As for Alma's son, well, at that point, you already know, know, know, know...

I liked Mirabel. I liked her a lot, actually. And I was saddened by the way she was treated by her family, with the special "not so special" joke that wasn't special by the way... Disney's new tendency of not having clear antagonists is detrimental to the whole story. In that case, Mirabel being the outcast lead to the inevitable aspect of making the family Madrigal acting like a bunch of pricks. With the exception of Luisa who's got a great musical moment where she shares her fears about the pressure about being at the top,

I understand the Madrigal family has a sort of aura and is like the town benefactor, I also understand that all these superpowers must have affected Abuella Alma (María Cecilia Botero) who acts like a Prima Donna (in real terms) and has no time for Mirabel, the powerless one. But then, during the ceremony that established Little Antonio's power (talking with animals), why didn't they even let Mirabel take part to the photo album make them come across as intolerant self-centered bigots who can't accept someone entering in their norm, norm, norm, norm...

Suspension of disbelief works in mysterious ways indeed... I could buy the life in the house "casita" and Luisa juggling with donkeys without making any of them barf, but that Mirabel wouldn't appear in a photo album. It totally killed the likability factor built by the opening song and its ode to old-fashioned family the film tries to be. Such injustice had to be undone and so Mirabel's malaise made one with Casita and cracking started to appear, leading to another moment where Abuella who knows the truth would rather ostracize her granddaughter again.

It all comes down to one key; there must be something about "Bruno" but Bruno is probably the most hyped character ever... he's certainly the name that keeps popping the most and there's such an anticipation that when we see him, being that goofy guy voiced by John Leguizamo, mo, mo, mo...

Problem with "Encanto" is that it sets up so many great characters and yet their powers never really come to any use during the climax where Mirabel, all alone, saves the day, even little Antonio who talks animal doesn't help her, why would he do little with that great power (pun intended).

And the ending is like a copout proving that once again, with magic you can toy with the rules anytime, for the sake of an emotional climax, and maybe it was up to Julieta, the mother to have a daughter-and-mother confrontation with her... and so the trick with the soothing Spanish music didn't get me. Abuella got off too easy.

I didn't like the magic, the whole Maracas shaking "Viva la Familia" thing was overused (would they play Can Can if they were French?).... And the craziest trick is to set a new milestone with Disney songs. I can't believe that. I'm not a big fan of "Frozen" but "We don't talk about bruno" is still nothing compared to let it go, go, go!

Superman II

"Superman II": the legend continues...
There's a crucial moment during the epic battle over Metropolis where General Zod (Terence Stamp) is baffled by the tenacity of Superman, "He cares. He actually cares". Ursa, the female member of the trio of Kryptonian criminals dismisses it as "sentimental idiocy". I think that exchanges sums up the power of "Superman II": it is sentimental, it has some elements of sheer corniness, but it's got a heart, and it cares about the essential: the characters.

This is why "Superman II" is not a sequel. In fact almost three quarters of the film consist of scenes that were already shot when the first opus was released but that's not the point. Even if the film starts just where the first ended, I wouldn't call it a continuation but an enrichment. I'm not saying Richard Lester did a better job than Richard Donner (the quality of "Superman III", THE real sequel would give more weight to Donner's legacy) but "Superman II" cares about what made the film such an endearing experience.

The first film set the stage: it took a chunk of one hour to show the infancy and then youth of Superman, his Kryptonian roots, and it ended with Superman symbolically' killing the father by disobeying one order, in order to save Lois. Lois who'd fallen in love with him and started to have some weird thoughts about Clark Kent. The whole film was an excellent set-up leaving us hungry for more.

The initial "Superman" did had such an impact on me when I saw it at the age of 8 that I had the second recorded on VHS when it came on TV. It stayed a little while until it was taped over (cartoons always had the final edge) but I kept it long enough and it so happens that I know "Superman II" more than the first, and somehow consider it a more enjoyable maybe because I didn't enjoy the Krypton part that much. But for the sake of continuity, we see the three villains again being put into that Phantom Zone wandering in space.

Meanwhile, all not so quiet in the Free World, we find terrorists terrorizing, Lois investigating and Clark Kent Clarkkenting. The film opens with a bomb hydrogen threatening to destroy Paris. And Superman saves the day by throwing the elevator into space, the shockwaves resulting from the explosion free the three Kryptonians and makes a starting point to two parallel storylines that will coexist during one good hour before converging for the final showdown.

Terence Stamp is the egomaniac General Zod, former rival of Jor El, surrounded by the coldblooded Ursa who has the physique of a Tarantino femme fatale and Non (Jack O'Halloran) whose grunts and growls would have made a great Bond villain's henchman. They first get to the moon and finally land on Earth mistaking it for 'Houston'. And with the curiosity of New World explorers, gains more confidence at each encounter.. and more publicity. Their arrival is handled with mild gravity and mostly humor starting with two cops betting the three black-leather clad Kryptonians to come from Los Angeles. It doesn't take them long to settle in Washington D. C and after that, there's not much to do.

It takes Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to offer them Superman in exchange of one piece of territory, just Australia... he knows a woman who knows where Superman is. Speaking of Superman, where was he?

He spent a whole long weekend with Lois without even checking the TV, at Niagara Falls, Lois Lane gets more and more certain about Kent's identity ad his bluffing doesn't fool us. I loved that she's so certain that she bets her life on it by making herself in distress. Clark dodges the trap but when he falls on fire without getting burnt, his cover is blown. What happens after that is a masterstroke of acting from Reeve, he manages to be Superman dressed like Kent and in the romantic interlude in the fortress of solitude concluding with his turning into a mortal, he becomes a sort of hybrid between Kent and Superman that looks like the composite of the two.

The film never falls into sappiness as rapidly after the fight in the bar, he sees his blood spilling and realize that he didn't make the right choice. In fact it never seemed as if Lois told him to do that. Wasn't she in love with the strong man who saved her after all? The romance is beautiful although a little sketchy on some plot points... and his recovery too easy not to feel like a deus ex machina. I didn't know about the deleted scene with Brando.... but becoming Superman again wasn't the hardest part. There's one last fight to conduct, and that part is simply epic.

Cars and buses are thrown like pillows on a sorority party, and the whole three-to-one fight looks like a big cartoon with some silly slapstick gags that, so I heard, Donner hated... I can see why, but I could forgive them because they coexisted within a world where a man like Clark and a woman like Lois discover they're in love, where Lois trades her know-it-all slickness to wide-eyed fairy-tale believer and where Clark mans up a little... and if we start overanalyzing things, we'll soon see Superman as a man wearing blue pajamas.

I heard the Donner's cut tied the plot together, had more gravitas, and yet I'd stick to the "sentimental idiocy" choice, you know what? Because a strange smile was drawn on my face like a response to Christophe Reeve's final salute before the ending credits, something in his smile that seemed to say "it was fun, thrilling, romantic and even corny (that so convenient forget-me kiss?), but you did have a good time, didn't you?".

My smile was a way to say yes.


The spectacle of mundane banality transcended by the passing of time...
I must admit I'm a sucker for all these 'archive footage' videos. Give me ten minutes of anonymous faces wandering in Parisian streets in 1927 and I will watch it with the fascinated scrutiny of a little boy over an anthill. Or New York, or Beijing, in fact I enjoyed Chaplin's "Kids Auto Races in Venice" less for Chaplin's constant interfering than for the time capsule it represented. A few years later, I started watching clips of Moroccan cities in the 50s, 60s, I was surprised by a talkie from the 30s where the language was similar to the one I grew up with and I just enjoyed the sight of modernity dating as far back as 1968... There's just something about the passing of time that totally sublimates banality.

And so on that simple basic level, I enjoyed John Schlesinger's documentary "Terminus" (quite a name for a career-starter!) The film is a 24-hour on the life going into the Waterloo station, the living and the mechanical. From the early arrivant to the late-comers, from those commuting between towns to join their workplaces to simple passer-bys, in half and hour, the film covers a wide range of travellers and shuttlers and workers, typical Englishmen with their bowler hats and umbrellas who seem to directly come out of a Magritte picture, women taking forever to kiss themselves goodbye, challenging the patience of the controller, and so many closeups on the marvels of the Industrial age, reminding us of the masterstroke of engineering the London Railroad or Underground were. One of the pictures checking out the complex mechanisms underneath the train, captivated by the intermittent bursts of smokes, his curiosity echoes ours while watching the film.

1961 indeed, seems like yesterday, Queen Elizabeth was 35, John Cleese was 22 and Princess Diana was just born... 1961, but it was 61 years ago, which means that the document is as close to the year 1900 as it is to today. No need to imagine the changes, they're tremendous, and I looked at the film like a historical document, the way Britain used to be... I am not British but for thirty minutes the film made me feel part of that urban life where the stressful necessities of scheduling met the British legendary phlegm. Schlesinger as if he was visionary enough to understand the film didn't need any 'drama' doesn't go for the scoop or the sensation, so the closest we get to 'something' special is the annoying laugh of a young man and a little boy who lost his mother. The camera sticks a little too long on his face, perhaps the only time Schemesinger yielded to a voyreurist pulsion, from the big picture to the little fellow.

But it is a documentary after all, and a good one at that. Schlesinger he didn't just let the camera roll, the angles were deliberate, so were the ellipses, the travellings shots, the close-ups and ultimately the elaborate editing. Some choices of background musics are fitting, one can question the use of "Jamaica" when a group of Black people is shpowed, but nevertheless, there's not one moment where our attention isn't caught by the things that have changed, whether the way people dressed or the way they behaved or the way they spent time when cellphones didn't exist. Still, witnessing the things that haven't changed is equally heartwarming. We still feel a load in our hearts when paying goodbye to close ones and losing a child is still a parent's nightmare...

The film ends on a strange 'noirish' tone, during the night, showing a whole other reality and foreshadowing the sleazy nocturnal universes depicted in Schelesinger's "Darling", "Billy Liar" or "Midnight Cowboy". It's a misinterpretation to regard Schelsineger as a documentary-style director, despite him figuring among the 'British New Wave' pioneers like Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson. While his attention to mundane details is integral to the realism of kitchen sink dramas, there are some elements of quirkiness, humor and transgression that regularly pop up in "Terminus" and that are so subtle they might either be missed or be the figment of my over-analysis. But I doubt Schlesinger made a documentary for the sake of realism.

Documentary isn't an "unnatural" way to film normality, and coming from a director who made a normality out of things deemed unnatural, it's quite a delightful irony .

A World Apart

The girl torn between two ages, two worlds...
Nelson Mandela had spent a good quarter of a century behind bars and the blood poured at the Soweto uprising had not dried yet when "A World Apart" was released. And yet movies made at the pinacle of the anti-apartheid sentiment became quickly outdated by the march of history, right down to being prejudicial to the spirit of reconciliation advocated by the Nobel Prize Winner after his liberation. As if his aura was so powerful it could erase the bad memories... or the film that retold them.

Yet it so happens that I saw that unknown little gem, directed by Chris Menges, in 1992. I found it by chance on Amazon Prime, the title rang a bell, the girl's face and her name 'Molly' left no doubt: it was THAT film, my earliest memory of something that made me took racism seriously. I was 10. And so before the second viewing, second after 30 years, I decided to challenge my memory. How many scenes did I remember after all that time? Three plus the final image, which isn't bad. In fact, the film impacted me more than I thought.

I remembered the scene where Molly's snotty friend was calling the waiter by a patronizing "boy" much to her embarrassment, I remembered the line "he's got a name". For some reason, I also had in mind little moment when she's distracted by a butterfly and the teacher asks her "are you with us?", to which an anonymous voice dryly answers "no she's against us" (and the sense wasn't lost in the French version). I remembered the passionate speech from Albee Lesotho, punctuated by these 'Amandla' cheers with the resonance of vocal spears and that taken me back to the title of a comic-book: "Dr. Justice: Amandla!". Finally, the image that was engraved in my memory was the last shot of a young man throwing a rock in slow motion toward the white men's tanks under the pulsating rhythm Hans Zimmer's first score.

Now I'm trying to find a common denominator, why did I remember these scenes in particular? Maybe because as a kid I could relate to what seemed like a good coming-of-age story, one about an introverted girl who grew up in the vicinity of one of the most atrocious regimes of the last century: the apartheid. In appearance, the film is less about the apartheid than the way it affects the girl and the relationship with her family. Oddly enough, that the apartheid is "only" in the backdrop doesn't make it any less visible, it's as discreet as a foundation on a severe burn.

And so Molly, the 'heroine' played by Jodhi May, lives in the bourgeois comfort of her suburban house, made even bigger by the casual absence of her parents. She is surrounded by dolls, posters, a little sister, but the closest to a friend is the Africain maid (Linda Mvusi). Molly goes to school, takes flamenco lessons, listens to rock music and yet she's closer to the Apartheid than she thinks, for her mother Diana Roth is an actual militant undergoing severe harassment by the police until her eventual arrest, she's based on Ruth First whose story was written by her daughter Shawn Slovo. She's played by Barbara Hershey in a performance where pathos never goes in the way of dignity, Hershey doesn't go for the easy tears à la Sally Field. Maybe it's for that reason that I didn't remember any of the mother's part or the relationship with a more comprehensive police officer (David Suchet).

And thinking about it, these things escape the attention of a child and maybe an adult. One would expect a film about a South-African pacifist to explore the dark corridors of unofficial jails. In fact, the film is never as interesting as when it shows things from Molly's perspective. And Jodhi May has that melancholic vibe of a seemingly privileged girl who can't stand living in a country that made a routine out of injustice starting with the horrific sight of a cyclist laying on the street after the driver who collided with him left at full speed.

By being so attentive to details of childhood and matters so trivial compared to the real deal, the film is actually more immersive and efficient, through the keyhole of peculiar details, a New Year's Eve party interrupted because Blacks and White are together, a singing moment with her nanny, harassment from girls accusing her parents to be traitors, we have as many relevant elements as if the film was made with the epic scope à la "Gandhi". Sometimes you don't need to show violence, the reaction of the nanny after losing someone dear speaks as loudly. In fact, the secrecy heightens the horror of the death.

Indeed, crowds scenes can be tricky because of that very anonymousness and the choice of painting this in all intimacy enhances the tragedy of the apartheid. And Jodhi May doesn't play an easy part as a girl also caught between two worlds and two ages, a moment of her life where she most needs her mother and blames her for being absent. It's a coming-of-age story embedded in the political turmoil of the fight for African civil rights, it starts with Molly and ends with the man throwing the stone, the key is within that change of perspective: Molly understands the real priorities.

Its interesting to see Suchet in another role than Hercule Poirot. Jodhi May might not be instantly recognized as the actress who played the youngest sister in "The Last of the Mohicans" four years later, ad Tim Roth has an interesting part as a young militant. Still, when it comes to anti-apartheid films, chances are that "Lethal Weapon 2" is a more famous example than "A World Apart" or "Cry Freedom" while some of us can still recall these "free apartheid" posters in TV sitcoms' and "Scatterlings Of Africa".

Tropic Thunder

There's the dude you play, there's the dude you are, there's what the dude you play says about the dude you are...
Now this is a film I knew all about or so I thought... I knew about Robert Downey Jr's. Blackface (which highly speaks of the latitudes of humor that were still prevalent as far back as 2008!), I knew about the whole 'full retard' speech (let's hope that word's inclusion won't slow down the publication of that review) and more unbelievable than a black Downey Jr., an ugly Tom Cruise.

Both Cruise and Downey Jr. Got Golden Globe nominated but only the latter would get the Oscar nomination the year Ledger's Oscar was undeniable. Never compete against a poshtumous role or against an actor that is 8-nomination overdue, might be as precious a piece of advice from Downey Jr. As the whole 'retard' speech from his Australian alter-ego Kirk Lazarus. Still, while it would have made for a sensational case of reality imitating fiction (an Oscar-bait role awarded an Oscar) Downey winning would have tarnished the film's legacy and the Academy that had yet to go through the OscarsSoWhite turbulences.

Now, no need to waste a whole paragraph to say that the blackface is part of the the point to be made about a certain exaggerated level of dedication to acting, one that earned Lazarus five Oscars. It's precisely because an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis spent months in the wilderness to play 'Hawkeye' or that De Niro drove an actual taxi before playing a certain Travis Bickle that the blackface joke works.

And Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" (yes, he's the director) hides behind its parodic façade a very smart examination of the limits of method acting and what it says about actors' psyche. In fact, the 'full retard' speech refers to that state of desperation for the sake of an award or at the very least a recognition from the peers, or the more serious branches. The embodiment of that trope is action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) playing in the failed wannabe "Forrest Gump", "Simple Jack". Alas he went on 'full retard' and take it from someone who did see "I am Sam", this is indeed the one-dimensional way to approach a mentally challenged character.

Now I have always figured "Tropic Thunder" was a parody of action pictures but it goes deeper than that, it's about actors trying to push the envelope to the point of self-parodying. When the film was over, I realized the most important quote wasn't the 'full retard' speech but "I'm the dude, playing the dude disguised as another dude". In fact, you can transpose the quote by saying this ia film about a film disguised as another film, it's a "real" action picture about actors thinking they are in a "false" action picture that is in fact real. Ultimately, they are themselves, they are their roles, and they are what their roles reveal about them. Three levels of mise en abime so smartly imbricated that I was surprised the film didn't garner any nominations for Best Writing for Stiller, Justin Theroux and Ethan Cohen (not Coen).

The main characters are introduced by false trailers and it's a remarkable exposition device that sets the tone about the film being a blow against Hollywood money-making machine with a spirit functioning like a South Park episode. Starring Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), the sexist rap clip with booties being frenetically shaken, Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is the hero of the never-ending franchise swearing every time that that time, it will be different, the one-note raunchy family comedy à la Nutty Professor making you thank God Odorama doesn't exist, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and, the intellectual transgressive Oscar-bait tackling two of the Holy Trinity of forbidden traits: sex and religion. These guys are all ridicule but never as much as when they try to detach themselves from their 'image'.

Speedman believes he'll never be taken seriously unless he plays a truly dramatic role. Lazarus is the Meryl Streep of actors, embodying so many characters he feels at home in the otherness. Speedman hates the way Lazarus keeps outshining him, but as his agent (Matthew McConaughey) told him: "if he cries, just cry more". Both Lazarus and Speedman highlight some interesting paradoxes about actors: the less recognizable they are, the more recognition they get.

Actor is the only works where you shine by the way you disappear, it's one that digs a certain talent to be anyone but you. It's no wonder one of the best lines comes from Jay Baruchel's character:"the level of insecurity" here. Similar cases of insecurity can be spotted in Alpa Chino who's so busy blaming Lazarus for his cultural appropriation he doesn't realize it makes him wish to be no less than a token black, and there's also an interesting reveal about the Vietnam vet played by Nick Nolte. Now, don't get me started on the insecurity level of Jeff Portnoy. In fact, nothing is to be taken seriously, and even the one real death of the film is played for laughs, and the best laughs.

I know the film references "Platoon" with the iconic arm-raising scene but I found a sort of an indirect jab at "Saving Private Ryan", a film that made it a point of honor to have every single character death as gruesomely as possible and I was amused by the scenes where a character was trying to articulate some well-chosen dying words with his intestines springing out of his ravaged body.

Now, "Tropic Thunder" is close to parody but I wouldn't label it so, because it exaggerates effects but never at the expenses of plausibility, the stuff can happen and because it does it funny.. and it is funny, and Tom Cruise dancing in a fat suit is so funny... I was surprised he didn't get the nomination as well, maybe he went full 'funny'?


Get Busy Leaving, Get Busy Driving...
"Nomadland" is one of these movies that challenge the expectations in a way that resurrects the unpredictable charm of the New Hollywood period, and as far as my spirit was concerned, it felt really good.

Indeed, there's a time for comedies, one for action blockbusters and one for another form of escapism, where we'd rather be transported into unsuspected dimensions of the existing reality (the pleonasm is intentional), so far from our usual filmic universes and yet so close to us. Maybe it's the miracle of camera to restore an overdue visibility to people who are just "passing through"... they don't ask for glorification, they don't want our pity either, all they want is to be understood, occasionally helped with a salary, a temporary job, any occupation to make ends meet, and the whole thing enrobed with respect and curtesy. They're called nomads.

The heroine of the movie is Fern, Frances McDormand in her third Oscar-winning role. With the right cast, half the job is done, by casting McDormand, director Chloé Zhao didn't gamble much. This is a film about a woman who lost a job, a husband but not the willingness to overcome that ordeal. It's not that simple, she used to work in a company town whose economical collapse had a tragic domino effect on the employees' lives, and so she tumbled, almost literally, from an enviable human resources jobs to non-viable jobs as temporary workforce or occupational teacher. We meet her working in Amazon, surrounded by many other employers whose history -we suspect- isn't more glamorous.

One should experience social downgrading to measure how truly affecting it is, and I am among the few underprivileged who went through streak of bad decisions and bad luck... I'm only recovering right now as (guess what?) a teacher, making twice as less money as I used to but twice more sense job-wise. The trick with Fern and other baby-boomers is that they're past their prime and they've come to a point of their existence where they should be enjoying the fruits of a successful life. Instead, they're starting from scratch and must constantly endure the conveniently contrite looks of people who mistake them for homeless.

As Fern points out, she's houseless not homeless, her van (the Vanguard as she baptized it) is her house. But there's something in McDormand's eyes that doesn't fool us, she does make the best to 'customize' the van and make it look like a true house and yet she's sad... not because it's still a van, but because she's aware of becoming a subject of curiosity, having exiled herself from the norm, only one level beyond true homelessness. I'm only conjecturing, it is possible that McDormand channelled other emotions but that's how I felt her performance.

Now, "Nomadland" could have taken many directions and I'm puzzled by the criticism about the lack of story. It's true the film, adapted from Jessica Bruder's novel and experience, doesn't embarrass itself with a clear narrative and let just events flow in a sequence of back-and-forth trips between A, B and C points with conventional plot points voided in the process. But there's a reason: Fern is a woman whose life is way behind her, whose past the best chapters of her life. Et. The point of a story is to have a meaning, Fern's life is too rooted in the present: instantaneous or routinely to trouble itself with the meaningfulness usually provided by introspection or aspiration. Fern is busier trying to fix a flat tyre, repairing her van or just fighting some stomachache. Her paradox is rather heartbreaking: she's got all the time in the world but no time at all.

The semblance of meaning can only be found in the collective experience of nomadism in the key scene set in Quartzsite where she meets other people of her generation, including real nomads like Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells and some younger ones who chose the path of marginalization... as if there was a meaning to it after all. Fern is mentored by nomads and over the course of her journey meets Dave (David Strathairn) another sexagenarian with a tough-past-to-heal.

"Nomadland" was released amidst the confinement, and oddly enough it provided a whole new appreciation of nomads. I saw in them people immune to any curfew or confinement, perhaps the one privilege of houseless people. They had the luxury to admire these beautiful taints of pink and blue of sunset. Sometimes the cinematography rendered by Joshua James Richards is so graceful we would indeed find poetry in nomadism. And maybe that was Zhao's intention to paint a portrait of people without the dark grim tones, the hardest part of their lives was over. No happiness in the horizon, but no sadness either, fair enough.

Frances McDormand, the all-American actress who played average women often lost in the Dust Bowl, doesn't have fancy scenes, she just carries the she doesn't have fancy scenes, she just carries the story enough not to exteriorize her feelings, except for a few moments, where her precious China was broken or where an ill-advised bourgeois mentions the recovery of the estate business. The answer of Fern's sister (Melissa Smith) relieves the tension by making a parallel with the 19th century pioneers, making voyage and migration one of the defining traits of America. America was built by settlers, people who moved to greener valleys, and it is possible that "Nomadland" is the film that shows that reality like John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" in 1940.

However there's no Californian dream, no oranges, no sun... it's perhaps the first instance of a travel without any destination... they say the journey matters more... For us for for Fern? While we hope the best for her, the film does invite us to contemplate our luck (or lack thereof) and ask the question: would there be a situation pushing us to nomadism, and if it did happen, would we do it?

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

The Dog's Presence That Makes You Feel the Master's Absence...
In a 'talk-about-your-hero' session, a young boy writes down the name Hachiko on the board, it's a dog's name and everyone's laughing. Wait till the story ends and the laughs will give way to long and mourning faces.

Ever since Walt Disney's "Old Yeller", dogs have been indissociable elements of the "unofficial quadrifecta for manly tears", along with sports, fathers and death. Ask any man about the movie that made him cry the most, chances are that it featured at least one or two of these elements, in "Hatchi: A Dog's Tale"'s case two, just like another lachrymose classic "Field of Dreams".

And it figures: dog is man's best friend, a millennia-old friendship and who can forget that quote from "Lady and the Tramp": "In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy... to wit the wag of a dog's tail". Dogs' undivided feeling toward their master and their undying loyalty make great material for tearjerking stories, whether real or fictional. "Hatchi" is adapted by Stephen P. Lindsey from a 1987 Japanese film directed by Seijiro Koyama, itself deriving from the real tale of an Akita dog who kept 'waiting' for his master, 9 years after his death. Basically, the real-life "Jurassic Bark".

The novelty is interesting indeed: while it's the natural progression within the great scheme of life that the canine companion dies first, like losing a parent, "Hatchi" goes the other way round as we're invited to look into the grieving process from the perspective of a dog, only to realize that dogs don't know such thing as 'five stages of grief'. The story in itself, beyond the treatment is heartbreaking, but Lasse Hallström's execution does justice to it, and if you think a live-action film can't make the sadness of a dog as poignant as in animation, you've got another thing coming.

Indeed, "Hatchi" isn't a movie you easily recover from. When my little brother, ten years ago, told me that he had just seen "one of the saddest films ever, a quick glimpse on the poster and the synopsis on IMDb made me figure out the kind of emotional trajectories it would take, and I didn't want to be "Jurassic Barked" again. In fact, I was wrong, the reactions to the climax of the Futurama episode covered a wide range of emotions: from sadness to anger. "Hatchi"'s sadness had a curiously soothing side-effect. Indeed, it's one of these instances where you find brights spots in the darkest lows, sure the man died, but happiness was brought to him in the form of a little puppy coming out of nowhere.

The man, an Arts professor, named Parker Wilson (Richard Gere) was the only human being to kneel over him, ignoring that at that very moment, Hatchi had already chosen him. Somehow the feeling looks mutual because the way Parker negotiates Hatchi's staying in the house with his reluctant wife Cate (Joan Allen) feels more like stalling. And just when her patience is at end, she sees her husband, a respectable man in his fifties so enthusiastic while teaching his dog how to catch a tennis ball that he grabs it himself by the mouth. She knows she's lost the game.

And so the whole first act is about a bond that deepens with the passing of seasons, and gets enriched with new rituals that find precious witnesses in the regular presences of the train station, from the master played by Jason Alexander to the bookstore owner (Davennia McFaydden) and the Indian hotdog cart vendor (Erick Avari), obviously even some passengers recognize the dogs after a while. We also get the inevitable facts of family life: meeting the boyfriend, marriage, pregnancy and the approach is simple, but effective, Hallström only indulges to some POV shot in black-and-white representing the dog's perspective and thankfully doesn't overdo the 'mystical' value of the name Hatchi (the eight symbolizes good fortune in Japanese tradition). In fact, the insights about the Akita breed provided by Parker's Japanese friend (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) feel like obligatory nods to the original story.

Now, I read some critics on Rotten Tomatoes and some complained about the lack of drama. I was wondering what these persons expected for the sake of drama: a divorce? Cancer? That the dog would be attacked by a rabid wolf... no, wait that's "Old Yeller"... drama means 'action' in Greek, and there are films where the drama triggers the emotions and others where even action shouldn't come in the way of emotions. Eventually, Parker dies, and as expected the dog goes back to the train station everyday, Parker's daughter (Sarah Roemer) can't fight against the animal's instinct and lets him go. Ten years later, Cate comes to the train and is shocked to see an old Hatchi still there, "waiting".

At that point, introducing the emotional climax, she truly measures the degree of loyalty of a dog as we wonder whether we should cry for her realization or for Hatchi having turned so old. As tempting as it may be to accuse the film of extreme sentimentalism (which it's not devoid of) I guess I'd rather remember that that sad dog's face wasn't CGI, and that the story was real. The final picture of the statue erected in homage to the real Hachiko is a tribute to how powerful the dog's tale is and maybe overthinking is weakening it.

Take this piano score by Jan A. P. Kacsmazrek, I was almost tempted to think it was too safe a choice but then again, a little music doesn't hurt when the central character is a dog who can only express emotion, through his eyes. And God, what eyes! Through his very presence, Hatchi made me feel his master's absence ... and the biggest mystery of all isn't where he comes from but if he knows about the meaning of death?

Either ways, the dog deserves to be the grandson's hero.


A cinematic triumph!
I may be not a hardcore fan of superhero movies but Richard Donner's "Superman" happens to be one of my earliest memories of live-action films and one of my fondest. I still remember it as if it was yesterday, at my aunt's house, a certain night in the early days of Mach 1990... when a 1978 film still felt like present... 1978 or 1990, hard to believe there were times where you had one superhero movie every two or three years, and when good sequels didn't even guarantee franchise longevity.

I remember that time where references of the genre were "Superman" (the title couldn't be mixed up with another film), the first sequel and Tim Burton's "Batman" one decade later. Back then, superheoes were the stuff of made-for-TV movies and cartoons, as classic as campy. The new millennium changed everything, the CGI revolution, Nolan's "Batman" combined with the success of the first "Spider-Man" paved the way to the avalanche of superhero movies whose highest momentums were the first "Avengers" in 2012 and the "Star Wars" reboot in 2015. Marvel and DC became the emblems of a super cinematic power igniting the ire of the old druids like Scorsese and Coppola.

And I wouldn't rebuke their contempt or call it 'senile' jealousy. To their defense, it is their buddy George Lucas who created a whole new mythology through "Star Wars" and who'd have thought Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay of "Superman"? They condemned the trend not the spirit. The spirit is the one of a film that thinks of itself as an origins story without the need of a prequel. I said in "Batman Begins" that Burton's Batman appears way too early while "Begins" takes us to his childhood, his trauma, his initiation so that the anticipated "I'm Batman" comes long after the first hour and has the effect of a winning goal scored at the last minute. The entrance rewarded our patience and once he popped up, a fully dimensional character was there.

"Superman" initiated that pattern, the introduction of "Krypton" that takes 20 seconds in the classic Fleischer cartoon occupies one big chunk of the first hour, starring Jor-El (Marlon Brando, more pedantic than ever) sentencing the villainous trio that will star in the sequel (Zod, Non and Ursa), exchanging some pious trivialities with the planet's patricians and then sending his son (Kal-El) to the Earth, before the red sun's death engulfs the planet in its apocalyptic demise, quite a shock for my seven-year old eyes. But I was glad little Superman was saved and I remember his growth during the travel to planet Earth and his discovery by Mr. And Mrs. Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter).

I admire the way Donner trusts our patience by giving its chapter its deserved narrative height, including Clark's youth when he's played by Jeff East. His journey echoes the destiny of Luke Skywalker with the death of his foster parents and his discovery of the secret of his existence. After all, why shouldn't he be the first to question himself before everyone else does? The long flight-like preamble eventually lands home at Metropolis, that urban landscape inhabited by Pop Culture brandnames: the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and Clark Kent. But Donner is persistently confident that Superman should be the last to be seen that it's Reeve as Kent who occupies the screen, readjusting his glasses, trying to impress a blasé wisecracking Lois Lane... and in the process saving her without even removing his suit.

Ever since his creation by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Kent was as integral to the character's success than his alter-ego, allowing us poor schmucks to see ourselves as potentiel supermen. But nothing beats the real thing and so comes the helicopter rescue scene with Lois hanging over a tall building and screaming her lungs out and Clark looking for a phone booth only to realize there's no glass, that self-awareness is the spice that gives the film its flavor. And when Clark unbuttons his shirt to show the first S, the exhilaration is indescriptible and so is Lois Lane's reaction at the last-second rescue "you've got me but who's got you?".

Reeve and Kidder's chemistry is almost magical and its superpower shines in the magnificent interview in the balcony scene. I wouldn't use the word 'perfect' in vain, but the writing of that scene is perfect, the snarks about the lingerie color, the slip of the tongue with the 'how big' and finally the 'do you eat?', so awkward without being forced and. "If I had a girlfriend you'd tbe the first to know" is the most cleverly ambiguous lines ever written. The sequence culminates with the romantic flight, the "read my mind" monologue and John Williams' "love theme" that even manages to steal the thunder of the iconic score. Anyway Kidder and Reeve, who sadly left us years ago, are the ultimate Lois and Clark.

And yet they didn't even get first billing, the honor going to to Brando and Gene Hackman who plays Lex Luthor. What can I say about his performance? He's so into his character that he's grandiloquently malevolent when he stands before Superman and turns into a cartoonish villain with his comical sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty), his delivery of "Otisburg?" still gets me.. Hackman plays a sort of debonair Bond super-villain which is the perfect match for Superman's humility. Valerie Perrine makes also for a memorable Mrs. Tessmacher!. The final acts, served by impressive special effects does highlight that we shouldn't have underestimated Luthor, nor Superman. Till now, I'll never forget my first discovery of the scary effects of an earthquake, and "Superman" scream when he did the impossible.

AFI named him hero and nominated his quote "I fight for truth, justice and the American way" I often thought it was a rather corny line but the film seems to acknowledge that with Lois' smart retort about elected officials. In fact, that's the power of Superman, it embraces the values of the character but with enough self-derision, warmth and character-building that basically, the harder part was over for the sequel.

Eye for an Eye

When the film isn't manipulative, it's plain stupid...
"Eye for an Eye" cheats with its own premise and with the viewer in such an offensive way it's perhaps the worst of its kind since "The Life of David Gale"'. Coincidentally, both deal with crime and punishment and pretend to follow a trajectory that, as predictable as it is, seems to take a courageous stance until it raises the ugly head of its real intentions: shock value. I wouldn't have expected that from John Schlesinger, one of the most important British directors of the second half of the century but maybe -like Alan Parker, there's a sad syndrome of brilliant directors getting fooled by the most awful scripts.

The opening is conventional but it works. We have a little family composed of Helen McCann (Sally Field), her husband Mack (Ed Harris) and their two daughters, the older -Julie- from a previous marriage and little Megan (Alexandra Kyle). Helen is an executive woman and a busy mother (it's Sally Field after all) taking lunch breaks with her colleague and friend Dolly (Beverly d'Angelo) and having balloons and ice sculptures for Megan's sixth birthday. I won't joke on that because after comes one of the most horrific rape scenes (and I've seen "Deliverance" and "The Accused").

Imagine hearing on the other end of the line your daughter assaulted by a stranger, imagine being totally hopeless in a traffic jam where you're too panicked to communicate sense to puzzled drivers, and imagine hearing silence after a big "no" and then no answers to your calls. Schlesinger didn't sugarcoat the nightmare. Fair enough but the viewer was owed a fair treatment of the subject. Indeed, Helen didn't just learn about the news of her daughter's murder, she heard her suffer, even Charles Bronson in "Death Wish" was spared the atrocity.

At that moment the film had me hooked, it was ugly, disgusting, but I figured that film is trying to make a pioint that needs to go through that turf, it had to do it in a responsible way. It didn't take me long to lower my expectations. In the obligatory police interrogation scene, we see Helen and Mack as shocked as if their dog was ran over by a car and Joe Mantegna asking the routine questions. For some reason, Mack seems angry toward the cop, "you should do your job instead of wasting our time?". Hasn't it occurred to him that Helen wasn't just a victim's mother but a witness, too? Or was he secretly blaming her for not asking Julie to describe her aggressor?

Then you have little Megan waking up and asking about her sister. Mack tries to find the right words and it starts well but then he's interrupted by Dolly's entrance in the kitchen and before you know it, cut to the funeral. Seriously, if you go as far as showing the horror of a teenager being killed, how about showing how hard and tough it is to tell her sister about it.

That cheap ellipse skips an important point: did they tell Megan that there are evil men out there and she shouldn't even get close to them, let alone talk. That what normal parents would do, and that would have prevented that stupid scene where Megan keeps running off her mother's attention and get close to the most suspicious looking men, that Mack is more concerned with his wife's growing paranoia also made me wonder what was the point of him being just a stepfather to Julie. But what takes the cake is when Robert Doob, the actual perpetrator, approaches Megan and have a little chit-chat with her. Wouldn't at least she know how the killer look like? And how could he avoid school surveillance? Everything goes so conveniently bad for the heroine and so well for the villain, the film is outsmarted by "Kindergarten Cop".

The trick is that Schlesinger shoots it in a sort of autopilot mode following the pattern dictated by the success of family thrillers à la "Fatal Attraction". Yes, it also got the shower scene and the fight in the stairs and I didn't even bring the whole procedural aspect. At that point, I wish I could ask screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver all these questions. All right, Doob, the delivery man is the only one who came to the house -which makes him a prime suspect- and yet is cleared from the rape and murder although they know he left 'evidence'? Couldn't they at least consider that he was the only one to know there was someone in the house?

Then a second woman is raped and killed and he's freed again because that time he didn't leave body fluid (fingerprints were found but since he was the delivery man that made sense). Didn't they find blood? Saliva? Sweat? Or some of his own DNA in his victim's nails? Also, wouldn't a rapist and killer who miraculously escaped from a death penalty keep a low profile? Not only Doob doesn't but everything in his attitude suggests that delivering groceries is his second job after "look evil", no need to develop, Kiefer Sutherland plays the unique instance of a villain who's half-dimensional.

And even that could have served the plot, to make Sally Field pull the trigger, one must really be a bad guy and so we follow her toughening up, learning how to shoot, neutralizing a man she mistook for an aggressor and feeling so proud about it she had 'angry' sexy with Mack. We kind of feel the whole rush of adrenaline driven by a legitimate thirst for vengeance and then there's that little twist that Ebert described as a copout, the only moment where of course Doob's luck runs out.

Ebert kept mentioning "Dead Man Walking" in his review, I was surprised he didn't talk about "A Time to Kill", similar theme, a predictably evil Sutherland and a script that was too manipulative... still, a masterpiece in comparison with "Eye for an Eye".

To Be or Not to Be

Play it again, Mel!
I guess the measure of a good remake is to retell a story and surpass it if not globally, but in enough occasions to make us feel it was worth the effort. Indeed the most remarkable stories aren't necessarily the most "remakable". And the original "To Be or Not To Be" starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny was a remarkable movie.

Now, to be or not to be... remakable... is the rhetorical question. Ernst Lubitsch made the funniest movie that could mock the Nazis in good taste at Hitler's very expense and lifetime, after Charles Chaplin's "Great Dictator" of course. But while Chaplin used slapstick and silent humor, Lubitch let his unmistakable sophisticated touch hit the Nazis at their most vulnerable spots: their sense of humor. They couldn't understand humor because humor is two things at once: good spirit and intelligence and that doesn't mix well with evil and barbarity.

Now, Lubtisch made the film when America had just entered the war and to add a layer of poignancy, Carole Lombard had just finished the shooting when she joined a war rally bond that lead her to the fatal plane crash (and the post-production cutting of her line 'what can go wrong in a crash?'). The original film can't be separated from its context which is not just the war, but the war... before the Camps. Indeed, had Lubtisch known the extent of Nazi's barbarity, he might have considered them beyond the reach of humor... humor is sometimes too human to target barbarity and maybe Mel Brooks was the only one to go that far with the Nazis.

Now, where does Brooks fit in that preamble? Well, isn't he the performer who made his breakthrough in Hollywood by breaking the ultimate taboo; making fun of Hitler and prove that one could ridicule the Nazis even by knowing what they did. In a way, he completed Lubitsch and he could afford it, he who "rose below vulgarity" and somehow, could find the right balance in that remake. It's not that the film is better, each one belongs to different times, Lubtisch was a master of the screwball and gave a dimension of classy mundanity to all.... Brooks seizes the occasion to showcase once again how versatile he is and reminding the snobbish few that he's an EGOT winner after all.

His musical number: "A Little Peace" where he mocks the Nazi's so-called peaceful nature isn't in the same league than "Springtime for Hitler" but it comes closer. As for the Bronski theater that he owns , it is just a big love letter to the world of stage with variety shows, clown numbers and maybe the greatest dream of any comedy: being believable as a Shakespearien actor.

It's not about playing Shakespeare and his ultimate tormented character but be convincing in the realm of seriousness. Maybe laughs are just such easy and predictable emotions to command that they give enough rope for actors to cheat with it and indulge to overacting. However with drama it's all a matter of nuances and subduing while still deploying energy, ridicule isn't an option. With comedy, it is. I'm glad that, like the original, the Mel Brooks' remake made me think about the purpose of humor. Ironically, the iconic Hamlet soliloquy is precisely played for laughs, it's perhaps the most famous running gag: whenever he says "to be or not to be", the handsome pilot Lieutenant Andrei Sobinski (Tim Matheson) crosses an entire row to join his secret love, Frederick's wife Anna, played by his real-life wife Anne Bancroft.

Bancroft pulls a Mrs. Robinson on Mel Brooks but the adultery is purely secondary in the great scheme of things. When the same pilot tells Bronski that there's a spy (Jose Ferrer) threatening the lives of several Polish resistants, his only concern is to stay consistent in his position as the 'protective husband'. At first it seems that the film has no intent for 'seriousness' but the way I look at it, the film's stance is the following: poignancy is not a matter of timing like comedy. It just comes when you don't expect it. I didn't see coming the mention of the other 'yellow star', the pink triangle worn by the dresser Sasha (James Haake) There's also that cute moment where Bronski made the greatest act of his life, one that fooled S. S. Colonel Erhardt (Oscar-nominated Charles Durning) and he simply wish somebody could have seen it.

(it reminded me of that Jewish joke where God punishes a Rabbi who played golf during Yom Kippur by making him accomplish the greatest shot ever, Moses asks God how that is a punishment, and God says that he can't tell anyone about it.

Naturally it all comes down to the ultimate moment of poignancy, so great I had to check if it wasn't in the remake (it wasn't). It happens when the old Jewish woman (Estelle Reiner) is panicking at the sight of a full Nazi audience. The quick reaction of Sasha and shows three things: talent is one thing, but improvising is the measure of a genius,. That little moment encapsulates the essence of that Jewish humor that made Brooks such a relevant comedian: self-derision and quick wit.

I liked the casting of Charles Durning (and Christopher Lloyd as Schultz) and I thoroughly enjoyed his mimics and grimaces. Now, some would say that it's downright impossible that such a goofy character coexist in the same world where such atrocities happened. But here's news for viewers: it's a comedy and setting it in a real Poland would be indecent.

Now, as I was writing the review, I realized I was misinformed, this is not a Mel Brooks' film but one from his former choreographer Alan Jackson. Well, in spirit and in content, it's as Brooksians as Herbert Ross' "Play it Again, Sam" was Allenian. And Im glad Brooks could 'play 'Springtime for Hitler' again... albeit in a different way.

Dersu Uzala

The more you respect and understand nature, the more you learn to love your fellow humans...
How strange. I would not consider "Dersu Uzala" among Akira Kurosawa's best and yet I'm convinced it's one of the greatest and most important movies ever.

At the risk of sounding too mystical, I'd say this is not the work of a director but an artist willing to be directed by forces that surpass Art. The film was released after "Do Des-Kaden" whose flop made Kurosawa contemplate suicide, that's how seriously he took his work, ceasing to trust his own inspiration and consider a potential salvation within Mosfilm's project in the Soviet Union.

It was an adaptation of 1923 memoir "Dersu Uzala" from Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev, about his topographic expeditions in the early 20th century in the Siberian tundra and taiga. Coincidentally, Kurosawa wanted to concretize that project after he read the book in the late 30s (but couldn't because of locations issues). And there he was, thinking about ending his life when in fact it had come full circle. Like Nature I guess. The prospect of making a film in a new country coincided with the Master's doubt journey, a doubt that would be swept off by one of his most memorable characters: the diminutive but grizzled Goldi trapper Dersu, played by Maxim Munzuk.

Dersu is the ultimate mountain or forest guide, making his skills look so effortless you wouldn't notice them. He's capable to identify people's ages from the tracks they leave, to repair a hut and leave some provisions for eventual newcomers, he's a man who knows the wild taiga like the back of his hand and can shoot on a swinging thread tied to a bottle (instead of wasting the bottle). I wouldn't dare to make second-rate analyses by comparing Kurosawa with his Dersu but I found a lot of the Master's self-doubt in Dersu once his eyesight started declined and his ultimate feelings of uselessness in the civilized world. Or am I simply projecting my fascination for the character and the director and look upon both as equally powerful sources of great inspiration.

In fact, whatever defines 'great' is made of such broad notions they turn out to be either too vague or too specific for a special breed of films. But I'll try to rephrase it, even some of the best movies operate in a realm of predictability but some not only surprise you but they do so in a surprising way, movies like "Apocalypto" or "Dersu Uzala". They don't take you to new worlds, they show you the natural world and make you realize how precious and fragile it is. "Dersu Uzala" doesn't even bother with a plot, a chase or dangerous stunts, just 'men' and 'nature' simply put together in situations where it comes to one simple choice: osmosis or death. Nature is not a villain, but an ally.

And that's the film's inspirational message: Dersu's devotion for nature echoes his own empathy for his fellow 'humans', he respects Captain Arsenyev (Yury Solomin) but Nature, first. And it's because the respect is mutual and the friendship between the two men undeniable that everything works in perfect harmony. The underlying message would be that: the more you love or espect nature, the more you learn to love humans. Interestingly the film is told from the perspective of the Captain who treats him like an equal. Seldom movies show brotherly love without having it spoiled by some trivial adversity. There's no room for some complex of racial superiority not that Dersu is portrayed as a 'magical native'.

Indeed, the two men are friends because they think similarly despite their opposite backgrounds. Both value their competence but are aware of their limitations. Dersu gives a meaning to his experience by sharing it and the Captain relies on it and so the whole story unfolds as a mentor-friendship relationship blossoming during two expeditions in 1902 and 1907 while Nature, the true unsung heroine, is shot as if Kurosawa was himself being inhabited by Dersu's spirit. And from his previous filmography, we knew he never let nature being just a backdrop thing.

There's a magnificent moment where we the moon and the sun coexist in the same frame. Dersu refers them as good fellow, without which we'd be dead, the sun is setting in a palette of pinkish red while the left side of the frame is blue night, the image is too marvelous for words and defines in one single world what the film is about: or harmony. Nature is all a mature of balance and it's up to the man to fit in and there are two key sequences that show Dersu's adaptation.

When he and the Captain are caught in the frozen lake amidst a terrifying blizzard, Dersu immediately orders the Captain to work, the two men must cut as many grass to make a shelter of straw. It's not the order itself but Arseniev's prompt reaction: he doesn't hesitate one second as he knows salvation lies within Dersu, the sum of all wisdom. And a second life-threatening situation occurs when their raft is threatened by crushing rapids, Dersu pushes the Captain off the water and while hanging to a tree told the men which tree to cut so he could reach it. He stayed calm and collected and directed his own rescue.

I was wondering whether Dersu didn't inspire Lucas's Master Yoda (George Lucas was a notorious fan ok Kurosawa) it turned out my intution was true but there's more to that, the film is perhaps the work of a director who was doubting himself so much he made a film about the ultimate guide (or director). Maybe Dersu isn't Kurosawa but the man Kurosawa wished he could be. And Nature was for Dersu was Art for Kurosawa, a necessity, a life-defining thing...

Dersu or Akira? I don't know but from the way Solomin was referring to Kurosawa in his interview, I could swear it was Arseniev talking about his good old friend, Dersu.

Les trois frères, le retour

No review on IMDb? I'll rectify this... but not in a way that'll serve the film...
"The Return of the Three Brothers" was a depressing experience, it made me realize how badly my favorite comedians have aged and how I've aged too in the process.

The film had me meditating on that famous De Gaulle phrase "old age is a wreck"... that wreck reaches Titanic proportions when it comes to comedy... it struck the comical legend Louis De Funès who had lost half of his physicality by the time the Gendarmes films only made hardcore fans chuckle. It didn't spare the Splendid Troop whose third opus "Les Bronzés: Friends For Life" was a cataclysmic turkey. But who could have ever thought that the most emblematic trio of the 1990s: Bernard Campan, Pascal Légitimus and Didier Bourdon aka the Unknowns would be responsible for that series of comedic platitudes, running gags that get short of breath after the second occurrence and funny twists you can see coming like a clown running with a big custard pie... There were occasional laughs and a few good ones, so I laughed at times, I cringed even more...

The film is set twenty years after the events that had the three half-brothers but full-rascals end up serving a sentence in an orphan house. Twenty years is long enough a span to expand the possibility of their becoming, and in a way we're not surprised to see that old habits died hard. Pascal has struck gold again and lives in a luxuruous villa with a sexagenarian (Vivienne Vernes), Didier is like La Fontaine's fox depending on a naive woman he despises but keeps on flattering, betting on the coming death of her wealthy mother like the Galipeau's in "The Annuity" and well Bernard has moved beyond the sleaze industry but that's not saying much, he's doing a one-man show in one of these diner clubs when you serve one punchline between the gratin for table 22 and the mimosa eggs of the 13 (they did that joke in a sketch called "Parisian shows").

It seems like the three brothers have difficulties to cut the ombilical chords, two depend on 'nurturing' women and one is still a big child. It doesn't get better when you dig on their situations. Pascal has turned into a gigolo for a woman whose gargantuesque sexual appetite forces him to drink one shot of 'energizer'. Bernard pretends to be a teacher in a prestigious Parisian prep school while he's just selling sex toys on line. These backdrops set us up for some funny gags but I expected more. In the first film (and yes, there had to be comparaison), each brother had his own circle, with the exception of Bernard but that was the point, he was the only true underachiever and the least hypocritical of his status as a parasite. Anyway, when these 'worlds' clashes, they mades spark of hilarity. Think of Didier when he terminates his contract with the stuck-up, conservative Rougemont (Pierre Meyrand) before kicking the dog, or Pascal's disastrous dinner with his boss (Bernard Farcy), a moment of pure hilarious awkwardness.

Such moments lacked in the film. As pivotal life-changing moments, you get Pascal speaking at the worst possible moment and obligatory "she's not behind me, is she?" trope, as for Bourdon's family, the darkness of the humor might unsettle a few viewers, Didier might be greedy but with murderous impulses? The biggest mistake the film commits is to take for granted our sympathy toward the three brothers, mixing them with their real-life players. It's precisely because I like and admire the three comedians that I hate to see them mixed up in projects that insult their intelligence before getting to ours. They might overestimated their popularity and thought the come-back was enough an argument to bring viewers to theaters.

As the film seems to have been written with that opportunistic mindset in mind and inevitably, it forgot to have others characters, that's what the first film had. It wasn't about Les Inconnus, but Farcy, Meyrand, Elie Semoun, the notary, the judicial officer... there were no small parts. In the sequel, even the bigger parts don't work. The idea of adding an unknown daughter through Sara (Sofia Lesaffre) needed more work. Did we need another representative of the French hood? Was she there to represent the youth perspective? Or just for the sake of the gag that involved her mother and the secret loves she secretly had with the three brothers? Or was she there to fill the ethnic quotas? Couldn't they just stick to Antoine du Merle who makes his come-back as Michaël too late in the film to make us care, and he was actually good in his part.

The film had an interesting way to recycle the plot with another administrative mishmash about the heritage (and a cameo from comedian Jarry as a banker) and perhaps the best running gag is that no matter how hard they'll try, they'll never get a break, the final gag I must admit it was a fun conclusion despite or maybe because of its cheerful corniness. Still, the path to that conclusion is made of many uninspired moments, or wrongly inspired from what made the first film. I'm sorry but I found nothing funny in the sight of Bourdon (who's gained at least forty pounds) ululating like a harem girl and teasing a scared Arab couple, it's not offensive except if you considered good taste as the offended thing. A running gag involves some slogans behind a bank and is wasted for one simple reason: it would have worked better if they didn't notice it. But no, that gag insisted upon itself to the point I could see that the Unknowns had lost their comedic flair.

Ironically, right after the film, the channel rerun the first opus and I could see how infinitely superior it was, they were younger, not too subtler and their message was carried by the gags. That poor sequel unfortunately had no message, and not many gags..

Top Hat

One of the few musicals where the talking parts feel like 'fillers'...
Some day, Hollywood might find the secret ingredient to resurrect the good old-fashioned charm of Golden Age musicals, a stunt French director Michel Hazanavicius achieved with "The Artist". And it's even possible that a new generation of composers, choreographers or lyricists would emerge and make musical sequences that would rival with "Cheek to Cheek" or "Singin' in the Rain". And maybe, maybe they will even find faces as glamorous as Ginger Rogers or legs as agile as Fred Astaire. Still, there's one thing Hollywood will never duplicate from the old days: Fred Astaire himself.

Ginger Rogers was unique but Fred Astaire's uniqueness even more.

Astaire was the mystery guest in a "What's My Line?" episode and Dorothy Kilgallen asked if he was a singer, he retorted with a modest and urban "yeah" but John Daly warned that the answer could be misleading, to which Bennett Cerf asked if he wasn't a dancer too. Finally when they guessed him right, Dorothy said she believed he was actually one of the best singers out there and Bennett Cerf stated he was the best of everything. And that just sums it up: Astaire was a natural talent and a national treasure: that man could act, he could sing and dance and had the facetious little smile of a naughty little boy with an early receding hairline. Ìn his first scene in "Top Hat" in a sinister London gentleman club where noise is strictly prohibited, Astaire makes folding a newspaper without making the cracking noises a gag worthy of the best silent comedians.

Fred Astaire's comedic flair is so natural that the attempt to write a storyline between the musical interludes seems almost worthless. But for the sake of "talking about the film", let's say that Astaire plays Jerry a tap dancer who comes to London to play in show produced by his friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). An impromptu tap dance routine awakens the neighbor below Dale (Rogers), and so we get the obligatory meet-cute and the start of quid-prod-quo where she'd take him for Horace who's the husband of her friend (Helen Broderick) and naturally their conversations are written in such a way the misunderstanding will never be cleared until the end. Anyway, they meet again in Venice where Dale accompanies her dandy fashion-designer, a caricatural Italian named Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and one mistake too many leads to a rushed marriage... and I kept thinking, why making it so damn complicated?

That's the paradox of Mark Sadrich' film, Astaire is such a gifted actor for comedy that you put him in any serious storyline and he can just transcend it through his charming playfulness and his sense of humor,, he's so good at not taking things seriously that there's no plot muddled enough that would stop him to play his usual self... the film tries way too hard with all these mistaken identities, these rivalries that I felt the dancing moments were sidetracked by the plot, not the opposite. Yes, it's the first time that the talking moments feel like fillers.

And naturally, the magic finally operated with perhaps one of the greatest musical moment after "Singin' in the Rain" , "Cheek to Cheek" one that became such a staple of American pop culture it was used not in one but countless films to define Hollywood, naturally, you all think of "The Green Mile" but how about "The Purple Rose of Cairo" with Mia Farrow's marveled eyes .... The magic of Astaire is so great that you wouldn't even notice that Rogers is reluctant at first and is finally smiling in the great finale. I guess I wasn't the only one who thought it would be the final number. The scene is so magical that it was shown countless times through the dazzled eyes of viewers, and that's how anyone would watch that scene.

Now, would it be unfair to review the film on the basis of that scene only? I would say that it would be unfair to consider it the only worthy dancing moment, there's a fun solo number with Astaire. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" where he uses canes as arrows, and the famous Picolino... but the "Cheek to Cheek" does capture the magic of old Hollywood and is certainly the reason why "Top Hat" is the most famous collaboration.

Now, I didn't see "The Gay Divorcee" but I watched "Swing Time" and I wrote that on my review:

" I didn't pick "Swing Time" because it's the most celebrated Astaire-Rogers film (or is it "Top Hat"?), I picked it because of its inclusion in the American Film Institute's Top 100 Movies (the latest edition). I had never heard about it so when I saw the title on the list, I was like "OK, but why not "Top Hat"?". Not that I've seen it either, but the film was listed in AFI's Musicals List and "Cheek to Cheek" among the Top 100 most iconic songs, not to mention that the dance sequence was a staple of Hollywood, used in many contemporary movies to define the Golden Age."

I maintain my opinion on "Cheek to Cheek" but I still can understand why "Swing Time" was selected.

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