Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
ListsAn error has ocurred. Please try again
(related to trucks, truck drivers, the Teamsters Union or where one or many trucks play a significant part to the plot)
After voting, you might discuss your vote here
Which of these Oscar-nominated performances is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
What's your most beloved film where a "past participle" is featured in the title?
After having made your vote, your choice can be discussed here
No, I'm not talking of an umpteenth parody of An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) or another use of Psycho (1960) screeching violins, but an entire plot that is inspired by a classic movie. If you can count at least 3 sitcom episodes based on a film (even in a loose way), they're in for the poll...
Overall, which of these movie plots that inspired sitcom episodes worked the best?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
After voting, you might discuss the list here
* post-70s films (duh!) where the 70s occupies the most central part of the narrative
Which of these 22 sci-fi movies that fit the description is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
All the following blockbusters, indie movies, remakes and reboots have four things in common: their genre-tags include sci-fi, they're rated higher than 7.5, they have more than 100,000 votes and they were all released at a time where E.T. could iPhone Home, in other words:
Which of these 2010s sci-fi movies is your favorite?
After voting, discuss the list here
Which of these 12 dances "from the stars" have you performed the most or (if you haven't) would you love to perform?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Frozen II (2019)
Why Disney studios should stick to animation...
1939, 69, 79, 99... There's something about years ending with -9, like punctual peaks of cinematic excellence before a decade fades. A coincidence maybe but so far, 2019 showed many directors at the top of their game like Tarantino or Scorsese to name. And Disney had just turned our ending year into something as spectacular and memorable as the climactic finale of the "Let it go" sequence. Yes, "Frozen II" is a sequel but it's classic Disney and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I rarely make sounds in the theater but I did let many chuckles, belly laughs, "oooow" and "woah" slip during the film. That's what we call an experience.
And to call it a sequel is extremely reducing, the film from the very start takes us to new discoveries, like the "Harry Potter" saga condensed in two hours (minus a quarter). No new hidden character popping out of nowhere, the discovery relies on an enchanted forest and the story of Elsa and Anna's parents and the film finds the perfect tone to make the expositional flashback not too forced, it does it through a heart-warming and poignant family scene: the father tells a story leaving a few blanks and the mother sings a lullaby that filled them with music and a hidden message.
It's also a good moment because it gives more dimension to the parents and a few hints about the origins of Elsa's power. It starts with a mysterious peace treaty between Arendelle and the tribe of Northuldra that yet awakened the brutal forces of Nature, killing their grandfather, the previous king, knocking out the Prince (their father) and the identity of the little girl who saved him is easily guessable. The sequence echoes the first film's opening with Elsa and Anna playing with snow and little Anna's comments prevent it from being too sappy.
And so the film takes us back to Arendelle the kingdom, its people, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf. I thought Olaf was a comic relief but in that opus, we need relief from the laughs he provides. I lost track at the number of gags and his tender goofiness is irresistible (though there's a sort of Charmander lookalike who's too cute for words). So we see Olaf playing mime games with Kristoff and Sven as teammates and the fun is interrupted when Elsa starts hearing a mysterious melody, a sound I kept humming when I left the theater. It's perhaps the 2019 version of the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" tune, culminating with the "Into the Unknown" song.
To be fair, a "Let it Go" it ain't but that doesn't say much because there are a lot of great songs in the film and while I enjoyed the one near the climax, my favorite is the one that offers Kristoff his shining moment, a hilarious parody of these cheesy boys' band ballads from the 90s, both Kristoff and Sven were hilarious and I suspect adults laughed a little more than kids. And it says a lot about the writers, smart enough not to take music for granted and some situations not too seriously. There's even a moment where Elsa encounters her icy counterpart shouting "Let it go" and she shudders, even in that universe, the song becomes a massive annoyance.
Speaking of "Let it Go", it became a mantra to female empowerment, generating a new breed of heroines and that's how I summed it up in my review of the first film, saying that it "knew how to be significant". My main concern wasn't exactly that the film was subverting tropes about Charming Princes dreaming princesses but that it was so focused on the major twist at the end that it had a rather weak middle-act and a weak villain. The merit of "Frozen II" is that it's got all the characters it needs already established, with their strengths and personalities and from that solid starting point, the writers move on with an inventive plot in a terrific setting.
I'll finish by saying that "Frozen" has always had a place in my heart although I rated it 'sven': the film was released at my daughter's birth year, she knew the 'Let it Go" song at 3, she dressed as Elsa in the school fete the same year, I made a video for her 4th birthday with the "Let it Go" theme, and I saw the film so many times, it became a part of my life. I confess I was alone at the theater but watching the film took me back to a not so distant past. And I loved it because it was sweet, moving, it had self-referential comedy and nothing to get too over-analytical about (some will find questionable that one officer doesn't exactly look like a Scandinavian but let it go).
The film also had a magnificent imagery. I could comment on the spectacular "facing-the-wave" moment that could work as a metaphor for encouraging people to face the so-called barriers that undermine their rise, but I was impressed by more modest stuff, like how realistic the animation looked at smaller moments: the sisters' gasp when they see their parents last stand, Anna's perplexed look when Kristoff's attempt to ask her for marriage fails miserably, and even the way Anna sneezed when she was crying... the reason I mention is this is because I believe the purpose of animation is to look as close to reality but by still having that edgy look over realism.
In an era overloaded by live-animation version of Disney classics, even CGI feels like traditional animation, even the story is pure fairy tale material, it even ends with a marriage and maybe, maybe that's what this little voice thing is about and Disney studios should listen to it and get back to their roots. Finding answers in the past to build the future, maybe "Frozen II" is a metaphor for what Disney movies should seek.
The Big Shave (1967)
Understanding "The Big Shave" is understanding the roots of Scorsese's torment and ultimately his genius.
"The Big Shave" is disturbingly bold, brave and of course, bloody... but no one would certainly have remembered it had it not been the first film of director Martin Scorsese.
The various parts of an ordinary bathrooms are shown through a stylish editing and under a smooth and relaxed 30's jazz music that will be the film's only sound. Then a young man enters, nothing special about him, he's young, not bad-looking and still dazed of sleepiness, he puts some shaving foam, takes his razor and so begins the shave. Not so big at first, it goes well and then he puts more foam and repeats the same modus operandi then it goes on... and on, the first drops of blood soils the immaculate white porcelain. The man is tracing horizontal lines of blood all over his cheeks, drops of blood have been replaced by red flooding on the sink and the film climaxes with the man cutting (not slitting) his throat, from ear to ear, making vertical lines of blood on his chest and as he (finally) puts his razor, the images fades to a red screen. And whoever provided that (fake?) blood deserved to be mentioned in the credits.
By the way, the alternate title is given at the end credits and it's Viet '67.
Obviously, it's a metaphor of the Vietnam War but instead of sticking to the obvious (since the director mentions it), I appreciate how the use of jazz music, shockingly casual and relaxed, fits the relative indifference of the exterior eye toward the conflict, especially if jazz reflects the "older" generation. But more disturbing is the man's own indifference. This is a fine man, at the peak of his youth and watching him mutilating himself isn't just horrific because of the graphicness but because it feels like a terrible waste, extremely pointless. In fact, he didn't even look like he needed a shave... and that's the point for the movie whose name's Viet 67. Marty was of the same generation of the youth sacrificed in Nam and this his angst cry.
It's by the way interesting that Marty would also be present in Woodstock as an editor and it's only fitting that he could witness the most iconic artistic expression of that anger because was also destined to become one of the greatest artists of his generation and his legacy immortalized the film. And what a legacy! I won't drop titles right now because I'll use them to make my points.
Now, a few days ago, I was watching "The Irishman" and I observed how desensitized I was to the effect of gunshots, but still, the big picture affected me, it's not the use of violence that shocks but its pointlessness. Indeed, just because there's a cause to violence doesn't make it reasonable for all that... Travis Bickle did use violence to save a young prostitute but let's not forget it was Plan B after failing to assassinate a politician, just because he gave violence a meaning (and even justification) didn't make his motives any nobler. There's always an element of ego and hubris in these characters, something that confines to self-destruction... Hoffa not getting the threats, Tommy De Vito or Nicky Santoro escalating in violence, La Motta getting increasingly jealous and taking all the hits against Sugar Ray Robinson, it all started with that man that keeps shaving as if blood had no effect whatsoever.
And why do we shave? To look clean or good. It's America's obsession, how do we look in front of the world, it's not an obsession for violence, but a self-obsession that Marty exorcizes because, maybe, he feels concerned by the own thing he denounces. Indeed, the film might betray a sort of hypnotic gaze toward blood, the young sickly director who couldn't become a priest and became famous by portraying sinners, insisting that it's only in the streets that you could find redemption, not in church. It goes back to his deep belief in Jesus Christ and I couldn't help but think of Willem Defoe's relieved smile in "Last Temptation of Christ", when he realizes he's being crucified (renouncing the other path), he doesn't even feel the suffering, he almost savors it.
The Christ's blood has been part of the Catholic symbolism, and behind the condemnation of violence, there's a weird and hypnotic fascination of Marty's eye for blood, not violence but blood... as if Scorsese was intoxicated by the Christ's own blood. This artistic inebriation foreshadows the unique style of a director who didn't make violence cool, but he didn't make it ugly either. Violence by essence can't be boring, Tarantino knows it too, but Scorsese gives violence a meaning that cuts straight to your soul.
And "The Big Shave" is fascinating in the way it contains the core of Scorsese's movies, that mix of fascination and revulsion for violence, echoed in each of his films and rooted in his Catholic upbringing, his New Yorker heart... and his conscience as an American who can't stand watching his country sacrificing its youth. Marty's not a pacifist or a conscience objector but a man who knows too much the cathartic value of violence to see it used in vain... and understanding "The Big Shave" is understanding the roots of his torment and ultimately his genius.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Suffering or getting foretaste of death before the big bite... meanwhile, we suffer for a lack of meaningfulness...
"Bringing Out the Dead" plunges into the tormented psyche of Frank Pierce, a paramedic who's witnessed so much misery he's at the verge of imploding. The title has the resonance of a horror movie but the film goes far beyond the ax-wielding slasher tropes, it's another kind of horror, one we never suspect its existence until we're confronted to it, a parent who's got a heart attack, an assault in the street, a car accident, it's waiting for us and we know it. For Frank, it's a daily routine.
Played by Nicolas Cage, Frank has the burned-out look of a man who didn't sleep in a couple of days, a man entranced by his constant immersion into death, crime, sickness and alerts coming from faceless dispatchers (one of them voiced by Martin Scorsese himself). It's not much death that has turned into a banality than his ultimate powerlessness on the long run. Frank is totally defeated as he witnessed deaths more than he prevented them. In fact, he might be the most troubled of all Scorsese's characters, which is saying a lot.
The comparison with Travis Bickle is the most tempting and the most obvious, especially since the film is adapted from Joe Connolly's novel by Paul Schradder. Like Bickle, he doesn't sleep, he keeps his eyes wide open and sees humanity in its ugliest traits, but this is where the comparison stops in my opinion. Bickle had his mind focused but not Frank, to me he comes the closest to Alex DeLarge in "A Clockwork Orange" during the Ludovico treatment when he was forced to watch the screen, except that his job replaced the needles. He is forced to watch people dying, suffering, and committing suicides (at their own paces) and can't do nothing about it. He can quit but for some reason as if within every revulsion, there's a fascination... of the morbid sort.
There's still a big mystery within Frank, maybe to know Frank is to drive with him and so each night he's assigned a different partner who provides one of the keys to open the door of his soul. John Goodman is the man looking forward to climb the professional hierarchy, he enjoys his job to the limit that he can see it ending. Ving Rhames's character has probably wasted his vocation as he would have made a terrific apostle, like Frank, he embraces the metaphysical aspect of this job, there must be something of an omnipotent force picking the souls to save and those to take and so he translates his powerlessness into the deep faith that there's an almighty God. Finally, there's Tom Sizemore who enjoys Frank's antics until he sees him reaching his breaking point.
And each night team takes us to various places, from goth clubs to drugs houses, encountering hoboes and prostitutes, with punctual halts to the hospital where patient are thrown like garbage in a dump, dealers die, old men fall in coma, and even a miraculous birth doesn't dodge the shadow of death. Each 'episode' pushes Frank a little more into the same desperation to be helpful while his mind is being invaded by hallucinations, all the dead he couldn't save, among them a teenager named Rose who has the lion-share of random popping. The journey is also driven by a growing romance with Mary, Patricia Arquette as a comatose man's daughter. She hadn't talk with her father when he had his infarctus, and her own guilt pulls her back in her drugs habits.
Guilt is a recurring theme in Scorsese's movies but it's a cause rather than a consequence, his characters, plain or mild, sinners try to find redemption in any way whatsoever. But Frank didn't do anything wrong, Rose anything at all, whatever redemption they seek is inaccessible because they're passive observers in the great scheme of things. Their relationships is tied by the father who's both the source of Rose's guilt and Frank's angst, he almost saved this man's life through a providential use of Frank Sinatra music (or was it a coincidence?) and he can't command himself to let this man die though he feels that's what he wants... it's as if people's lives and deaths conditioned his own existential mindset. He's a Travis Bickle without an enemy apart from himself, he's quite a puzzling character indeed.
"Bringing Out the Dead" is inhabited by such haunting imagery and morbid philosophy that it almost undermines the film, we're as powerless as its main character and as puzzled as it is... the film doesn't have a clear plot but a storyline would have reduced its efforts to nil because it would have an artificial meaning. What can you say when your life consists of saving people and yet you never get the upper hand? When you help people and they destroy themselves? I guess it all depends on Scorsese's mindset, from a director who believes in God, we can only empathize with his hero's desperation to give suffering a meaning, as an observer of a world falling part, we see what suffering means, a foretaste of death before the big bite. The Greek word pathos (meaning suffering) gave the word "empathize" and maybe Frank empathized so much with the dead that he became a living dead himself, wondering in Hell's Kitchen streets like a ghost.
It's a rather nightmarish vision that would have disconcerted the fans in a year that didn't lack existential movies ("Fight Club", "American Beauty", "Magnolia" to name these...) I didn't like the film at the first viewing, it puzzled me even more at the second but I guess this is the type you can't really appreciate because it's not about appreciation but acceptance of our own impotence in life and death situations. To appreciate something is to find a meaning and maybe Scorsese or Schrader are too honest to come up with artificial meaningfulness.
New York, New York (1977)
A minor albeit-classic Scorsese whose highlight is obviously the theme song ...
"Start spreading the news... I am leaving today..."
Well, the best thing about Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York", directed in 1977, is Frank Sinatra's song of the same name that became the trope identifier of Manhattan, in the same way than a certain iconic Rhapsody. But apart from the musical numbers and the flamboyant rendering of the mood and texture of the 40s big-band era, there's nothing much to say about it. It's a solid and laudable attempt from Marty to recreate a New York City that diverges from the gritty more Goya-like portrait in "Taxi Driver", but there's a reason why the film hasn't gotten the same reception than its glorious predecessor, it's a story with potential but not that good a story to begin with.
Here's why, Scorsese is a director of atmospheres and settings, the former are generally the causes of the protagonists' states of mind (whether choleric or melancholic) and the latter the operating theaters of their actions. Take "Taxi Driver" again, it's not much New York City that is highlighted but its nightmarish perception from Travis Bickle without which his climactic actions wouldn't make sense. Ultimately, it's all about characters, visions and action. As said before, "New York, New York" intends to be a tribute to the roaring second half of the forties, with the explosion of jazz music and solo artists, combined with a passionate love story, so if anything the film should be boisterous and flamboyant with a zest of sorrow, but if the ingredients are all there, the recipe doesn't work.
The major problem of the film has been pinpointed before, it's like the two characters were written by different persons. De Niro is Jimmy Dugan, the hot-headed sax-tenor player and as Pauline Kael says, there's something reminding of Cassavetes' movies in De Niro's approach. He's a man who always at the verge of exploding, a paradoxical man who loves to improvise but in his own calculated way, a man whose doesn't take no as an answer no matter how hard to get Francine Evans is (or plays. That they end up together is quite the stunt the film makes hard to believe. And as Francine, Minnelli plays it sweet and tender like a woman who means well but never seems to satisfy her man, even when she gives a pep talk to the band, all she gets is a nasty tap in the bottoms.
Watching Minnelli and De Niro together, I was reminded of Liza's mother Judy Garland in her defining role "A Star is Born" while De Niro reminded me of Bosley Crowther's obnoxious and hair-trigger tempered husband in "Born Yesterday" ,there are so many scenes of conflicts, arguments and shouting, punctuated by a few intimate moments that the film left me with two alternate opinions, both negatives. Either the film insists too much on the fact that this relationships is doomed from the start and they're too talented to stay together and have converging careers or maybe Scorsese intended to paint a true romance but we've never given the single clue about whatever Francine found in Jimmy. And that's because the expositional party during the Victory Day celebration sets very well the characters and gives Minnelli an aura she's never seen with ever after.
De Niro carries the movie with a bravura performance that outshines everyone else, but his Jimmy is so unpleasant in the long run that we never connect with him and neither do we with Francine whose portrayal by Minnelli seems marked by that uncertainty of feeling. The irony is that De Niro acts better but as a character it's impossible to root for, because we never see whatever he sees to understand his actions. Even in "Raging Bull", we were given some perspective on La Motta's chronic jealousy. There are too many things to take for granted in "New York, New York" and the only that work are the musical numbers and the swinging homage to Hollywood Golden Age.
But let's not kid ourselves, as soon as the first notes are hummed or played by De Niro's saw, we know the film is headed toward a big finale with "New York, New York", we're overdue a "Life is Cabaret"-like ending but the film isn't "Cabaret" and Scorsese isn't Bob Fosse, which is all right, he's still one of the best but Scorsese is a man of moods and atmospheres and his nostalgic view of New York City is rendered beautifully but there's too much a gap between Scorsese's artistic ambitions and the requirements of a genre that's not his strongest suit in the first place. The gap is too big between the recreation of "New York" and its deliberate factice look and a raw energetic performance such as De Niro's.
I talked of Bob Fosse, his "Cabaret" conveyed the impending doom and the last outbursts of fun before darkness would envelop German life, it had a meaning and the relationships felt genuine. "New York, New York" starts right after that era, the celebration gives us appreciations of the two characters but nothing that justifies a relationship, let alone a marriage, and after the pregnancy, I kind of lost it and waited for the big finale with "New York, New York". The film had the look, the music but not the meaning and for Scorsese, it's quite a sin.
The Irishman (2019)
The stuff Scorsesian greatness is made off...
"In the Still of the Night" is playing as the ending credits are rolling; I can't process my thoughts to express how beautiful "The Irishman" was. True I'm a Scorsese, Pacino and De Niro fan, a gangster movie buff too but it sincerely doesn't take these predispositions to appreciate the film.
Its historical value is undeniable. In fact, "The Irishman" is a fine companion piece to movies like "Nixon", JFK", the original "Hoffa" of course and Scorsese's gangster biopics and you got to credit Hollywood directors like Oliver Stone and Scorsese to have enlightened us about the intricacies of the political underworld and their connections with the mob during the second half of the last century. And "The Irishman" came to fill a few blanks about Hoffa's disappearance with a little detour through JFK's election and elements barely suggested in Hyman Roth's speech in "The Godfather Part II" (hey, another film starring Al and Bobby).
Still, "The Irishman" is also the spiritual successor of gangster or mob-related biography classics that made Scorsese's legend, decade by decade, from "Mean Streets" to "Raging Bull", from "Goodfellas" and "Casino" to the Best Picture winner "The Departed" in 2006 though (for me) the closest he ever came to his stylish and turbulent creativity was "The Wolf of Wall Street". It was a close call but Scorsese had a last trick under his sleeve for the 2010s, making a last but instant classic. And "last" is the word and that's why I was submerged by bittersweet feelings when the film ended.
Scorsese accomplished the miracle to reunite again false-acting-rivals but real-pals-in-life Pacino and De Niro, he also got Pesci here (who's extraordinary) and hell, he even got Harvey Keitel, the star of his directorial debut. There's a sense of coming full circle with "The Irishman" as the film isn't just about but it IS the end of an era, for we might never see these actors together again. But it was worth it. No trailer, no teaser could ever do justice to how great and extremely nuanced this film is, not even that revie.. And I guess it took time for Scorsese to get back to his roots because he needed it to gain some wisdom, something subtler than maturity.
Scorsese understood that style is one thing, but when we get an ordinary story but well-played and well-written characters, their arcs is the best storyteller. Still, "The Irishman" is full of Scorsesian archetypes, the narration: less an artistic license but a necessary device to insert vital information so we keep track on who's-who, the music is full of melancholic romantic ballades and generic doo-bah songs, the editing takes us back and forth from a decade to another... and we never feel dizzy, there's just something solid and smooth in the way the story goes. And it doesn't take more than one viewing to get the big picture.
The film tells the story of a hitman named Frank Sheeran, a steak truck driver who meets Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), and later answering phone calls starting with one of the most memorable lines of 2019, the title of Charles Brandt's original biography actually, "I heard you paint houses" and I felt stupid not to get it before Scorsese gave the clue. The film is wise enough not to sugarcoat Frank's action, but we see him from his relationship with his mentor and father-figure played again by an extraordinary Pesci. Both are men of a few words so they choose them carefully, sometimes they elevates them to unlimited and delightful euphemistic summits, sometimes they just talk like gangsters (you know "the thing or the other thing", "which Tony?", the "summer" line echoing the "how am I funny?" scene etc.). Sure Marty has wised up, and so did we, but there's something cozy and "enjoyable" about the film, we feel like family watching it.
But if "Mean Streets" had Johnny Boy and "Goodfellas" Tommy De Vito, "The Irishman" had Jimmy Hoffa. As usual with Pacino, and he's my favorite actor, it takes a while to appreciate his work, you always feel as he's at the edge of overacting a little or letting some weird reading pop up erupting, with that rapsy voice of his and his menacing eyes even when he's friendly, but no, after a few minutes, I was at ease because despite the showiness of his role (speeches, anger, monologues, intimidations), we could perceive the vulnerability behind his tough charismatic façade, Pacino can be heartbreaking in this film.
So is De Niro. His Frank is just a guy whose job has brought a sense of belonging that gave a full meaning to his life (more than his family and his daughter Peggy played by Anna Paquin), that's what we all long for, belonging and meaning. In a certain way, that's what drove Hoffa to wherever his body is, some would call it hubris: he didn't listen, his death is tragic because inevitable but also stupid because avoidable, but as Hoffa repeated, it's his union and he couldn't imagine being stepped over. Ironically what also drove these two men was friendship, Frank and "Russ", Jimmy and Frank, but to one friendship he owed more, nothing personal, strictly business.
"The Irishman" concludes on that deep and melancholic note that makes you wonder what the purpose of all this was after all, but so do many Martin's movies that starts with a glamorous and flashy observation of the mob world even (some inserted titles giving us the eventual fate of a local mobster reminded me of these boxing stats appearing in the "Creed" film) but at the end everyone dies, with more or less natural causes and what's left are regrets, pity and sorrow... the stuff Scorsesian greatness is made off.
I don't want to mix this review with Oscar considerations, I'll just use one of the film's irresistible euphemisms and hope that the Academy won't demonstrate a failure to show appreciation...
Scary Movie (2000)
The Millennium's "Airplane!"..
Recently I was reviewing "Jaws 2" and I mentioned that it was with "Halloween" one of the early precursors of the "dead teenagers" slasher sub-genre before the "Friday the 13th" series would turn them into a joke and long before the "Scream" or "Final Destination" series would provide a more qualitative approach and until "American Pie" would prove that you can make good comedies about teenagers or young people as characters without insulting their intelligence as viewers.
It is in that particular context that "Scary Movie" was released in 2000 and on the surface, its success is due to its avalanche of gags mocking a genre that had it coming. It was Jon Abrahams who stars in the film as Bobby who said it better: "It's enjoyable to make fun of those movies because I think they're just silly to begin with. They're just so serious that everything becomes a joke." I'm pretty sure the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team thought similarly about the disaster genre before they made "Airplane!".
And till the early 90s, the parody genre belonged to the Zuckers with a peak reached in 1991 with the second "Naked Gun" film and "Hot Shots!"; two sequels were made after but didn't get the same success. Mel Brooks tried to revive his starlight with "Robin Hood: Men in Tights" but it turned out a disaster. It didn't mean parody was dead but that it couldn't be the material to build the whole edifice, an artistic license at the very least but not a narrative-structuring thing. That's why Jim Carrey's, Tom Shadyac and the Farrelly brothers' movies did better in the decade's second half, they relied on absurd premises and over-the-top jokes, they had parody elements but the films tried to provide references of their own before building their fame on pre-existing ones.
And I guess that's the difference between a good and a bad parody movie, a good one has its own breath, it depends on viewers' appreciation of a few classics but in its own right, it's valuable, that's the difference between "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles" (a film with a few hilarious gags but that grows rapidly tiresome), or the difference between the early and late ZAZ movies. It seems like the parody genre has its outbursts of creativity and needs a few pauses to reload the battery or to wait for a new turn of generation to find the power of its legs again. There were the early 70s with Brooks and the early 80s and 90s with the ZAZ team, these directors understood their audience and so did the Wayans, finally, in the 2000s.
Directed by Keened Ivory Wayans and starring Marlon and Shawn, "Scary Movie" was the sensation of the new millennial, so big that it spanned not one but four sequels... but so did "American Pie" (is it a coincidence that Shannon Elizabeth stars in both?)... not sure I care for the sequels but at least I can say I enjoyed the original: even the lousiest gags have their beat, it's a film that shamelessly rips off from classic or cult or recent horror movies but it does it like "South Park" would do without the satire, in the least tactful or the most childish way and yet it works. The phone calls from "Scream" and its unforgettable cameo from then-Baywatch star Carmen Electra", the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" parody, the close up from "Blair Witch project", they all remind us of the mood and atmosphere of the 2000s to the point that it's almost an era-defining movie.
Indeed, the film plays on the teenage movies clichés just as much as the horror, and that's why it's far superior than "Not Another Teen Movie", to name this one. "The Naked Gun" worked in the same way because it was a spoof of the cop genre but also corny romances, I guess parody needs to run on two legs and never be reliant on one specific genre, otherwise, it turns out to be a sort of one-note movie. "Scary Movie" surfs two waves at once and succeeds. And the casting is part of it, there's Anna Faris who plays the heroine with the right amount of goofiness, Shawn Wayans is a jock who can barely conceal his homosexual tendencies (and is responsible for many gags that wouldn't be accepted today), Regina Hall is his loud girlfriend who heckles the projection of "Shakespeare in Love" (and is also responsible for many gags that wouldn't be accepted today) and Marlon Wayans is simply the comic counterpart of his character in "Requiem for a Dream".
The film is also surrounded by great supporting characters, including two policemen but speaking of them might give away a few jokes. Anyway, the real star is Ghostface who actually makes many faces through the film. In fact, it's a credit that you'd wonder which version of the villain is the most famous, the real from "Scream" or the funny whose tongue appears during the "Wazzaaaa" parody or with that tripping smile during a pot party? But that would be like asking which is the most famous between "Airplane!:" or "Airport"? Pretty obvious, huh? My guess is that horror is a genre that attracts young people waiting to grab their girlfriends' arms, but maybe the Wayans understood that what kids wanted in 2000 was to laugh their a- off.
To conclude, there's a hilarious moment involving the killing of the pretty female character (it's a horror parody, people are expected to die, aren't they?) and she's laughing at Ghostface whenever he stabs her ("now I'm supposed to scream?", "now I'm supposed to cry for help?"), this is a brilliant moment that captures the silliness of the horror genre's overused tropes. So it's possible that parody is a poor man's comedy but that's when it lacks the inspiration, "Scary Movie" is the kind that take ingredients from recipes and make something different (if not better) out of them.
A Single Man (2009)
If you can't envision a bright future, trust the present's small moments to take you there...
It was French poet and writer Lamartine who said "one person is missing and the whole word seems depopulated". George Falconer lives in such a world as he's mourning the man who has shared his life for sixteen years... and the grieving process has taken him to an existential dead-end. His Jim (Matthew Goode) whom we see lying in a snowy road after a car accident was more than a life companion but a soul-mate. With him, George had found as perfect contentment as perfect could get, and with that tragic accident, a part of himself died too; the loss is so overwhelming that George intends to kill himself. Colin Firth is the titular single man, resigned to end a life that has lost all purpose.
It is a bleak introduction to Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel, a powerful examination of the struggle to get over a loss but what would you expect from a movie whose first screen title is "Fade to Black"? The movie is emotionally loaded and restrains itself so much you can sense the electricity before the storm, but we get to have a few sunny flashbacks to understand that George wasn't born a misanthropic sourpuss. That the film features a same-sex couple is almost incidental, there's no sex scene and the smaller moments the better: a cozy conversation on a sofa, a discussion about the past in a beach, yet "A Single Man" couldn't have been as powerful with a man and a woman and for that, you can't do without the film's context.
The story is set in the midst of the Cuba missiles crisis when the world's future was hanging on a thread and America was the leader of the Free World, but with a rather selective approach of freedom as far as personal lifestyles went. A man couldn't live his sexuality if it wasn't the "right one", living as a homosexual was an ordeal in the public sphere and in private, it was tougher to find someone. Yet George found one and could conceal under a façade of pure clean-cut British rigidity his real self. With Jim, he found not just love but authenticity in a world that relied too much on slogans (mostly political), appearances and hypocrisy. It's interesting that the couple in this film can work as a metaphor for being free or true to our nature under a society not much traditional as it was reactionary (American values against the Red Scare).
There's an important scene where George lectures his student about fear, using World War II and racism as examples, and the notion of fear is connected to causes that can be either real or factice. The point is that everything has a cause, not all the causes are real, but they exist as fabricated. What matters then is the truth, tending to it, whether through History or from experience: one of his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) hates the past and is scared by the future (during the Cuban crisis, many people were), what's left from it? Maybe the present and the way it might build him to his own realizations and understanding of the world. This is basically the premise of that harrowing journey where George contemplates his life and the probability of its termination.
And if anything, the film isn't about the struggles of homosexuals in the 60s, though there are references to the prevailing homophobia, it's about someone who lost the balance of his life, the personal tunnel to his own truth, the link between the present and the future, and condemned himself to isolation then suicide because there was no future to conceive with anyone. He has a friend named Charley (Julianne Moore), she's divorced, disillusioned about life, but she loves him and for all the joyful and fun moments they spend together (Firth and Moore have great chemistry), George can't connect the present with her to any bright vision of the future. The film says something about the value of the present as one step that makes you climb the stairs of your life. It's only after he meets again Kenny, the student who admires him (and a little more) that he starts feeling the stairs can be worth climbing.
But that's only an interpretation of the story, one must take the film at face value and appreciate its "present"; a man drowning in an ocean of loneliness that gives its full meaning to the title, so isolated a man that he actually raises the interest of people around him because -and maybe George doesn't realize it himself- he's still part of his world. The film makes no secret about George's planned suicide but it's expressed in an interesting way: he lives the last day at its fullest, staring at muscular tennis players' bodies as if he was photographing them in his mind, a beautiful blonde girl's hair, he caresses a dog who reminds him of his friend's. These moments are so intense that it might leave the impression that Tom Ford over-designed his film, made it too stylish for its own good as if he was trying to channel Bergman.
I didn't mind that actually, it's interesting that the more intensely George looked at his world, the more it meant his preparation to death, looking at the pink smog of L.A., he says that even the ugliest thing have a beautiful side, as if people focused on beauty had the ugliest thoughts and missed the best part of what living is about. When he meets the young Spanish model, it's romantic in an artificial and abrupt way, when he meets Kenny again, they go swimming, the present doesn't reveal any truth but shows him a way like it almost saved his life at a tragicomic moment involving a gun and the right pillow position to pull the trigger. If you can't envision a bright future, trust the present's small moments to take you there...
Up in the Air (2009)
Firing people, a business that knows no crisis... in fact, it counts on it!
"Up in the Air", from 'hip' director Jason Reitman, takes us back to that traumatizing year of 2009 where the future couldn't look any grimmer and anyone with a job felt like belonging to a Forbes club. I'm talking from experience, following that hypocritical euphemism, P&G "let me go" at the end of 2008 and for six months, I couldn't count how many jobs I've applied to, how many fresh alumni friends I reached out to, and the same answer kept popping up: right now, we don't hire. I finally got me a job but that was a close call and it wasn't in Europe anyway; the crisis hadn't spread yet to North Africa.
But how about Ryan Bingham's job? Surely one that was begging for a film adaptation: his mission is to travel all around American big cities... to fire people! Their bosses don't have the guts to do the dirty work, it might seem ludicrous but it's not that easy firing someone, it means a lot of paperwork, many legal ordeals, the kind of stuff you'd better leave to a specialist with a smile as polished as his briefcase. And that job reminded me of a gag from the "Simpsons" episode when Bart's "Angry Dad" was published on the Internet; realizing the company went bankrupt, he's socked that "Bubbles can burst" and one of the workers who came to collect the furniture say "It's a Golden Age for the repo business". In the worst financial crisis after a certain Black Thursday in 1929, Bingham's company is living a real Golden Age.
The merit of Reitman is to deal with a very unpleasant subject, one about people's lives being ruined basically in a rather tactful manner, and still making Ryan's job exciting to some degree, after all, it's not exactly life and death situation (although...). The film starts with a visually delightful opening sequence showing many air-view landscapes of American cities, the sequence provides the sort of dreamy imagery that might even cure someone who's got fear of flying (including myself). These are the sights Ryan enjoys on a daily basis, spending more days aboard planes under cotton-like clouds than Irish people under a rainy sky. The sequence provides us comforting images before we discover what the game is about.
The film opens with various documentary-like reactions of people seeing their existential edifices collapse, It's touching and poignant but never pathetic, a sequence with Zach Galifianakis sets up the job in a didactic way, it's all about selling the same speech, telling people that anyone who "build an empire" sat in a similar place and that's what strengthened them. Looking at these people's devastated faces, we know they don't buy the line, but somewhat they accept it because they're at such a low point that anything cheerful is welcome. In another wonderfully written scene with J.K. Simmons, his character says at one point "you're supposed to cheer me up". Bingham knows he's got to deal with adult and rational people but in a very irrational and emotionally fragile situation. It's a tough job and he takes it very seriously.
And one thing for sure, after the first expositional act, we get the idea; Bingham travels across airport check-points as smoothly and confidently as Henry Hill taking Karen from the side-entrance to the restaurant in "Goodfellas", it's his territory, his reason to be, as he says "to know me is to fly with me". Hotels are his second domain, in one of them, he meets Alex (Vera Ferniga) a woman whose job is never explicated, but all we know is that it exposes her to the same routine than Bingham. After a few introductions, they compare their bank cards and their experiences with car rentals and hotels and Bingham reveals his lifelong dream, collecting one million miles, and the dialogue in that scene, with all its double entendre is one of the film's delights. There's a reason Clooney was perfect for that role.
There's a lot of 2009 Clooney in that competent man but estranged to his family or the very notion of family living occasional romances with no tomorrows. It's a hackneyed sentence but it fits him perfectly, he's the man "married to his job". But one woman might contradict this plan, a pint-sized ambitious newcomer who came up with a new idea: in-sourcing. Why go to the extent of travelling all around the world when everything can be settled through videoconference? The boss (Jason Bateman) finds the idea interesting, but Bingham finds the right way to tell her that technology isn't exactly the best way to handle human relationships and suggest an initiating tour so she can understand the real intricacies of the business. As Natalie, Kendrick plays the opposite of Alex, she goes from confidence to disillusion while the more mature Alex is confident but resigned. In many aspects, they're the most human characters of the film and the indirect triggers to Bingham's hidden humanity hidden under his cynical armor.
There's a little running gag involving a miniature picture of his sister and future husband he carries in various places like that gnome in "Amelie", but it takes the relationships with both Natalie and Alex to grasp the emptiness of his life. Natalie's idealism might be shaken but never turn into cynicism, as for Nathalie, a scene had me scared: when Clooney left one of his darling conferences about his 'backpack' metaphor, racing across the airport, I was afraid it would be one of these contrived 'declaration' scenes but it's fascinating the way the film tie the two themes together: love and jobs.
The final montage shows fired people saying how they went through it thanks to their family or their beloved one, it's not just a light of hope but a challenging ending after a fascinating character study: can you live without a job? Or without love? One is for a living? But is living possible without the other?
A harrowing but ultimately inspirational journey into the ugliness of life, beyond the corny 'inner beauty' formula...
To call "Precious" harrowing, gripping or scarily realistic would be an understatement, the film is nothing like we've seen before and I can't recall a more hellish life endured by a movie protagonist than what poor Claireece "Precious" Jones went through. In fact, I can't recall a movie heroine (if that's the right word) like Precious.
Played by Gabourey Sidibe in her breakthrough role, Precious is an overweight, illiterate and abused teen (she's 16 though Sidibe is 10 years older), mother of a child and pregnant with a second one, both pregnancies resulting by rapes from her father (of all the people). Her first child suffered from Down's Syndrome and the nickname she's given speaks a thousand words about how casual poor Precious is to the daily tragedies of life. And to make her ordeal worse, she's constantly abused by her mother Mary (Mo'Nique) who spends time smoking, watching TV, insulting and beating her while collecting welfare and pretending to be looking for a job. And just when you think it couldn't be worse, the film comes off with a revelation about the father being HIV positive.
That the film manages to grab you many smiles and fill your heart with hope at the ending is nothing short of a miracle that speaks highly about Daniels' directing and the original book "Push", written by Sapphire in 1996. Because for the most part of it, it's like looking through a vast horizon of despair, forever engraved in my memory through Sidibe's deadpan expression. Her look too speaks thousand words, she has the look you can see in many passengers if you take the subway or the bus early enough to spot them: blue-collar workers beaten down by overwhelming responsibilities, poor slobs who make money to spend it in the next bottles or retired people growing fat and ugly on pensions. Precious has the look of people who hate their lives and we can't blame her for that.
It's a masterstroke of casting to have given that ungrateful role of an ill-fated Harlem teen to Sidibe, any lesser director would have looked to a pretty or glamorous actress and made her look unattractive (actually what Daniels did with Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball") but Daniels knows that the story was such a raw material it couldn't surrender to Hollywood requirements and I salute him for having the guts not to sugarcoat or whitewash it (so to speak). Not only is Sidibe convincing but even in her film's early scene where she carries the same resigned and depressed stare, it never feels like acting. We've know these faces we tend to reject them or that make us feel better but "Precious" plays ugliness straightforwardly precisely because it believes in beauty as well.
That's the point. To give an example, many people don't believe in God. I do but I can explain it. I believe in God because I believe in Satan, let's call it evil. Evil exists and that's something we can all agree about. Mo'Nique's character isn't just an antagonist in the "narrative" sense, she's a truly selfish, despicable and yes, evil, person. It's not enough that her daughter was raped by her husband but she actually blames her for 'stealing' her man. The worst part isn't the abuse itself but that she feels it's deserved and she doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs, she has no attenuating circumstances whatsoever. The act she puts during the welfare interview is pure malevolence. And I'm not even talking of the physical abuse, which is horrific enough.
Christoph Waltz won an Oscar in 2010 for his Hans Landa, he was an antagonist, Mo'Nique won the Oscar, not because she played an evil person but because she showed what evilness was about, something with roots, "reasons" to exists, causes not without an effect. If Mary felt victim of her own life, instead of protecting her child, she vented her anger on her and Precious was at the verge of turning bad, being brutal, stealing food and not believing in her potential. The most horrific trick of 'evil' is that it generates more 'evil', and many abused people turn into abusers, that's the cycle denounced by the film and that we're glad to see being ended.
Ultimately, the good triumphs not because it has to be, but because that's the essence of living. Sooner or later, there's a justice being made and that's why I do believe in a Great Instance that makes these things possible. And "Precious" isn't just about a woman that brutalizes her daughter but two other women who believe in her: Ms. Rain, a teacher in alternative school played by Paula Patton and Ms. Weiss (an unrecognizable Mariah Carey) a social worker. Daniels' directing is interesting in the way he not only directs new faces with an uncompromising (even Lenny Kravitz is good as the male nurse and one could argue that Carey gives a great performance) but in the way he shows a derailed girl's life being 'switched' to the right direction.
The film is punctuated with many fantasy sequences showing Precious being loved, popular, dressing in all flashiness, and they serve as existential escapism, but they're not overplayed and only make us wish to a more sober but real escape from hell, which we get at the end. In fact, through her long journey, Sidibe's performance evolves as her character blossoms, she smiles and laughs a lot more with the other girls, she stands to her mother, she speaks better and she even refuses to be relegated to a dead job just because "she comes back from the dead", she starts to have high ambitions because she starts to think highly of her.
It was a quite a long way to go from the first scenes to that triumphant ending, that goes beyond the 'inner beauty' hackneyed formula, like someone said: "Precious" is like witnessing the birth of a soul.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Meals to an End...
Nora Ephron's "Julie & Julia" is designed to delight fans of cooking and pastry, it really does a wonderful job at that, I swear I had a craving for a delicious and buttery Sole Meniere when I saw that first scene.
The success of Master Chef and Gordon Ramsay's show has proven that people in the 2000s were asking for qualitative food, if not by the taste, at least by looking at it, that the film is set in the aftermath of September 11 might not be a hazard. Depression makes you hungry for something good, or hungry period. Julie Powell's existence was trapped into an insurance agency cubicle where she powerlessly listened to the pleas and cries of people beaten by tough circumstances, so cooking wasn't just escapism but a way to achieve something good for herself, her friends and her husband (Chris Messina).
One day, she decided to push her passion a little further, blogging for 365 days during which she made more than 500 recipes from the legendary Julia Child (the 6'2 eccentric lady who exported French cuisine to the American public). She became a renowned amateur cook, a writer and the inspiration for a little movie in 2009, that earned Meryl Streep one of her numerous Oscar-nomination for a chameleonic performance. I'll get back to Streep but I have a theory about why it took many years for the film to be made.
¨Producers might have figured that the audience wouldn't be interested on a film based on cooking but the success of "Ratatouille" in 2007 must have had a bearing in the decision. Besides, Streep is such a versatile actress she can pass as a giant woman towering over her meek and devoted husband played by Stanley Tucci and Amy Adams has such a likable doll-face quality that there's no way we can resist to that tough cookie who decides one day to raise her voice and launch herself a challenge that would not only make her famous but complete Julia's work five decades before.
"Julie & Julia" obviously insists on the parallels between the two women, the way both women weren't taken seriously at first, the resistance they met and the support they finally received with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The two stories are pleasant to watch and enjoyable, but to a limit. It took me a few scenes to accept Streep's falsetto voice and accent and while Adams as Julie had won me first, there came a point where she gets so wrapped up in her own ego that she becomes unbearable, and so does Julia. My guess is that Ephron wanted to show two strong-willed women beating the odds and achieving their dreams, the problem is that by handling two stories in the same time, the treatment stays rather superficial and Streep is no more leading than Adams.
I understand that Julia is a sort of overarching influence on Julie challenge but by switching back and forth between the two women, we come to a sort of world of artificiality with two colorful persons but the entourage is only there for the colors. I first thought the film would be a sort of whimsical enchanting story à la "Chocolat", allowing us to discover the secret between a woman and her passion, but the film shows the passions without digging too deep. We first see Julia being transported by the taste of French food, but the character is so diluted in her desire to achieve her book that it feels like a waste not to have dedicated one single scene to a moment where she would explain why French food means so much to her.
As good as Streep is, her performance covers a range that goes from eccentric, happy, motivated, serious but that never crosses the surface, and if Julie is a bit more developed, that doesn't say much. Indeed, what we gather from her is that she's a young woman with dreams, who doesn't want to be stuck in a cubicle all her life and decides to challenge herself, the blog idea was suggested by her husband.
Unfortunately, Julie only shines through her personal accomplishment, there are many beautiful close-ups on food and she's a rather impressive cook for someone living in a small apartment and with a heavy schedule... but still, why cooking? As someone for which cooking is a great passion after drawing and movie watching, I find hard to believe that her food looks so beautiful as if it was meant to look good on the camera. The film shows a lot but never tells, it's all about Julie applying Julia's advice and making French recipes. It's all about the end.
But I don't know if "Julie & Julia" is on the same caliber than "Ratatouille". Disney made a film that played like a tribute to French cooking, here it's French cooking that plays like a tribute to the spirit of two strong-willed women, cooking is accessory, but offers the dressing on two parallel stories that are cute but in a way that doesn't leave you with a transcending feeling, it even sounds artificial in its portrayal of France as a postcard little country where everything about food is played damn seriously, it's as naïve about France as French persons seem to be about Americans in the film.
On a last note, I'm one of these height buffs and though I know Meryl Streep could even play a Sudanese truck driver but seriously how many women over 6 feet could dream of playing a leading role, especially since Julia had a rather homely look. Of course, there's no way such a movie would've been carried by an unknown actress... oh well, at least, every meal looks extremely tasty... Streep is funny, Adams is adorable but that's that.
The Last Samurai (2003)
Watanabe the warrior-poet, a man of conservation... and conversations...
In Kurosawa movies, what characterized Samurais was that were both men of action and men from a bygone time as if fighting could only draw the future with the ink of the past. Samurais were the last embodiments of a heritage whose relevance was fading at the dawn of modernity. Maybe that awareness forged their resignation for death for only dishonor they feared. The men lived and perished by the sword, whomever it came from.
But remember in "Seven Samurai", four of the warriors fell under fired bullets, deaths that actually dishonored the enemy but also marked the beginning of the end. In "The Last Samurai", it's not a few bullets but gatling guns that annihilate the glorious but suicidal ride of the last Shogun warriors, including their leader Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, a composite of many historical figures; supposedly the last Samurai. Still, the film has no pretension to be true to history, but to a philosophy that forged Japan's history for centuries and that more or less prevailed even after the reforms.
"The Last Samurai" was directed by Edward Zwick, the name might not ring a bell, he was the director of "Glory" in 1989. And as much as "Glory" wasn't about fighting in the Civil War but the idea of fighting for a cause worth dying for, "The Last Samurai" also questions the virtues of fighting by confronting two different approaches of warfare, two philosophies of life. It does so with such a contemplative patience that we realize the Western and Oriental civilizations have a lot in common. Or might it be that every civilization built its definition of honor in a way that only a battlefield could give that abstract word its fullest meaning? Is it a blessing or a curse, history provides arguments for both sides, but where does the film stand?
It's interesting that the most riveting scenes in the film involve sacrifices, as to show that there was a greater nobility in losing for a just cause than winning. But the film's hero Nathan Algren, Civil War and Indian wars veteran, doesn't start with that mindset. He survived the infamous Little Big Horn massacre and saw Custer's madness killing thousands of Natives. Yet for all the atrocities Algren witnessed, maybe what he resented was the idea that men like Custer were capable to draw other men to their cause in all blind loyalty, history would prove that good causes didn't have the monopoly of sacrifices. and that's a thought-provoking issue the film raises.
Ironically, when Algren tells Katsumoto that Custer was "a murderer who fell in love with his own legend. And his troopers died for it.", the warrior-poet responds it's a "very good death". The Samurai is so impregnated by the idea of dying rather than living in shame that anyone accepting the necessity of death is worth admiration. That's not exactly how winning is done but when you follow Katsumoto, you find out life isn't about the cause but about its guidance to find your own truth. When we first see Algren, he's an alcoholic, bitter and war-weary man, channeling a 'Ron Kovic' version of the Civil War vet but later, after a long immersion into the traditional Japan, he gains wisdom and a deeper and more balanced vision of things.
The film takes place in 1878, during the Meiji era that turned the old feudal Japan into an industrialized country and an Imperialist nation in the turn of the century. The young Emperor (Shichinosuke Nakamura) is confronted to a rebellion from Samurais who reject the new order for the nation's own good though Katsumoto would die for the Emperor if he ordered him so. Japan seeks help from the U.S. Army and so Algren can leave his existential dead-end and train the fresh new Japanese troops under the supervision of Captain Bagley (Tony Goldwyn) his previous commanding officer, a wannabe Custer who despises the savagery of the Orient as much as he did with Natives. He finds an ally in Omura (Masata Harado), a wealthy Westernized industrial and corrupt bureaucrat who takes advantage from the Emperor's age to influence his decisions and allow the U.S artillery to wipe out the Samurai rebellion.
So the film is driven by two contrasting moves: Japanese politicians emulating the Western world, and Algren rediscovering the Japanese tradition and within it a salvation for his own soul, as if he could exorcise the very demons that stained America's history and march toward progress, the very one that inspired the Meiji. He owes his survival for his tenacity during a one-to-one fight, won in-extremis, raising the interest of Katsumoto who wants to study the stranger. Watanebe was rightfully Oscar-nominated for a quiet but intense performance as a man in constant quest for truth, not victory, a righteous man who'd die with honor in a lost battle against the tides of history.
The film is filled with spectacular fighting sequences but is at its most absorbing during the quiet and introspective moments, when we see Algren's gradual immersion into Japan's roots, learning the language and the art of Kendo, befriending Katsumoto's son, falling in love with his sister Taka (the beautiful Koyuki Kato) whom husband he killed and in an honorable duel. The film doesn't overplay the nobility and righteousness of the Japanese and makes Katsumoto an accessible fellow, with wit and humor, and his 'conversations' with Cruise provide the best moments and raise intriguing but deep philosophical questions about fights and causes.
Near the end, the film seems to give in to Hollywood spectacle requirements, the only aspect Roger Ebert criticized but I don't think it ever betrayed the film's soul. And it's not in every movie that you see soldiers respectfully bowing down to the fighters they just killed as if deep inside, they knew it was a page of history that was just turned, and turned Japan to a modern country with all the best to come... and the worst, too.
Jaws 2 (1978)
Just when Martin Brody thought he was out...
How do you get from Steven Spielberg to Jeannot Szwarc? No offense to the director who made a decent thriller, but his name put in the same sentence than Spielberg has quite an awkward effect and confirms the crucial weight of a director's vision and the line it draws between the average and the awesome. Szwarc didn't make a sequel for the ages, but let's at least give him credit for taking the best from what was at his hands: a good cast, a good writer (Carl Gottlieb) and decent special effects and didn't make something as bad as "Jaws 3D" or its infamous "Revenge" sequel.
Naturally, "Jaws 2" is nowhere close to the magic of the original film and that's a fact, but that shouldn't distract from the other fact which is that as far as horrifying special effects, jump scares and sudden deaths go, it delivers, without trying to emerge from the "horror thriller" surface, taking for granted the presence of Roy Scheider replaying the shark-weary Martin Brody and a few characters from the first film, including Murray Hamilton as the unethical Mayor Vaughan and Loraine Gary as the comforting wife. It is a good continuation of the first "Jaws" to the degree it makes us feel at home in Amity Island and if we were to compare it to the next sequels, it's got what it takes to leave us satisfied.
So maybe "Jaws 2" is one of these movies that deserve a second look because 'after all', they're not so bad despite the elements of badness they have. But what elements are we talking about? Some say the film's Achilles' fin so to speak is the shark itself as we see too much of it. Remember in the original film (of course the review is likely to mention it), we never see Bruce until perhaps the third or fourth on-screen death and its most impacting moment comes near the climax, when Brody turns his face to the camera and is muttering some wisecracks while Bruce says hello right behind, that was the rewarding pay-off of such a long wait and it's perhaps one of the most terrifying moment of cinema's history followed by the iconic "You're gonna need a bigger boat".
I'm not sure the shark should have been kept off-screen, some critics and Youtube reviewers pointed out that it would have helped to leave some doubt over Brody, depicting him as a shell-shocked man trying not to succumb to paranoia, until the disastrous bluefish mix-up, in fact that's exactly the way it goes in the film when we take the Amity perspective. But the director (forgot his name) seems to go straight to the point with the terror, there's a shark, he knows it, we know it and he's not kidding us viewers. I like that straightforward approach in the way it kept everyone in Amity Island but Brody clueless for the most part, even the first deaths with the two scuba divers, the water skier and her driver didn't leave any "hint" that would suggest a shark's presence.
Yes, the shark is quite a tricky fellow, but the catch of that choice is that the shark is more of a monster-like villain collecting victims with such an unappeasable appetite it seems to kill for fun, and the more we see it, the 'faker' it looks from a biological perspective and the more cinematic as cheaply-designed to terrorize it definitely is. Let's not forget Spielberg didn't show the shark just for artistic license but also technical reasons. In "Jaws 2, we never see any real eating or biting and the horror is more suggested than shown, a honorable discretion that prevented the film from turning into a grotesque gore feast.
However, a more problematic aspect on the field of realism is that it's hard to imagine after all they've gone through, no one would in the city council would really believe Brody... even if nothing points out that it's a shark who made all this mess... it's also hard to believe that a guy like Vaughan would be elected again. There is more than a stretch of imagination the film could withhold if you add the fact that Brody's sons have aged dramatically in the span of three or four years so maybe these are the elements that spoils the film a little, but the angle taken by "Jaws 2" is so different from the original than one should watch it as a movie in the same vein than these "dead teenagers" movies where kids are trapped by a mysterious killer in an isolated place.
What would be adapted ad nauseam through the "Friday XIII" series (and other cheap 80s slashers) was still a new horror trope the same year than "Halloween" was made and watching these wealthy kids being capsized, eaten or terrorized by a shark with no holds barred as far as who'd die is responsible for many effective moments. They might not all be the best actors but within the limitations of their role, they do find the right tone when they're supposed to play scary. It's not much a youth driven film than an adaptation of "Jaws" in a more specific context: young kids going sailing and one of the bad-ass Daddies to the rescue, and what a rescue!
The special effects are modest but effective when they have to be, the film doesn't leave any lasting impact apart from a series of shocks and thrills, but it's a good production of its time and a good sequel on its own right and last but not least, it's got one of the best tag-lines with "Just when you thought it was safe to go back to water again..."
A difficult but necessary and somewhat cathartic experience...
"The Apostle" is a problematic film to review because it cut so straight to my heart I can't examine it without examining my own conscience.
Cheyenne Caron's film is likely to be labeled as Anti-Muslim but not because it's about a Muslim man who converts to Christianity (which is controversial enough) but because it dares to express the reasons that drive the conversion. Akim, a Muslim and aspiring Imam, finds in Jesus' teachings a universality that seemed to lack in Islam, I say "seemed" because I've never read the Quran entirely yet I consider myself a Muslim. But just as I'm aware that Islam is a universal religion, preaching good values such as charity, generosity and forgiveness, I know many Muslims who'll argue that the applications of these virtues shouldn't go outside the Muslim world, or in the best case, that Muslims should take care of their brothers first whereas Jesus saw everyone as a brother.
That's why Akim is instantly taken by Christianism, and it was bound to happen. First, we see him practicing Islam, praying at the right time, going to the mosque every Friday, all under the careful supervision of his hot-headed and more bigot brother Youssef and yet he seems like a fish out of the water. He answers the phone call during a prayer, he salutes a man considered a traitor because he changed his faith (while his brother refused to shake his hand), and he accepts an invitation to a baptism. Akim is a strong-willed fellow, resisting peer and family pressure and doing what seems to be the right thing to do, when he goes to church, it's not out of curiosity but out of politeness for a friend who did him a favor.
And the film escapes from the kind of Manicheism à la "Not Without My Daughter" by taking the right approach and not making Akim's family a hostile field with the exception of the brother, his sister doesn't wear the headscarf, his father is a meek and gentle fellow and the mother is obviously a French convert. So Akim's choice can't be seen as a rejection to his background but as some tiny pocket of introspection that lead him to a personal epiphany: the idea that there's a religion where (ironically) someone's religion doesn't matter. I don't think it's totally true and Christianism has it shares of rules (and in some aspects Islam can be more permissive if not progressive) but what matters is Akim's perception and one must know what it feels for a Muslim to visit a church for the first time.
Last time I did, it was during a funeral, the same year had started with another death and I could compare the two ceremonies; while in Muslim tradition, the psalms seem to beg God for mercy not to let the dead's soul rot in Hell, in the church, there was a sort of peacefulness making you believe that we'd all meet some day in a cloud of serenity at the Heaven's Gate. Now, is the film siding with converts? I guess it just tells the two perspectives and no one can deny that the worst thing that can happen in a Muslim community is someone's conversion. The real question isn't why Muslims can't stand it but why Christians don't mind? That's the point. Why are Muslims so visceral about faith? Maybe there's something of an insecurity going one, the idea that the best thing about religion is what keeps people together... as if nothing else could do the same, not even pure brotherhood or being part of the same planet.
"The Apostle" follows a slow escalation from curiosity to mild interest and then the progression seems inevitable and yet we dread the crucial moment where Akim will tell his family that he's a Christian, the climactic scene is one of the most intense I had to witness and not just because it was devastating but also because it features an interesting twist within the father's reaction, a man who once was told that Christians were more tolerant and for the first time was given a chance to subvert that comparison by showing tolerance toward his son's choice. That scene was so intense that maybe the film didn't need to venture into some displays of violence, from the shocking opening to the attack against Akim but those things exist and happen so ordinarily that it would have been naive to deny them, and they're actually downplayed in the film, so much that even those who criticize the "anti-Islam" stance would find the happy end incongruous.
I am still a Muslim after the film but I reckon it can be quite an ordeal as faith is like riding over in a bumpy road with so many up and downs, they call it doubt journey is Islam, one day, you're the most devoted believer and another, you're just watching terrorist attacks and feel tempted to throw everything away. Sometimes, it's just a matter of hazard, my ex-wife was raised by a Catholic mother but embraced her deceased father's religion Islam because she couldn't take the Trinity seriously. Akim uses it to reassure the young Imam, as if it was an inside joke within the community. It's true Muslims couldn't consider anyone as the son of God or find the idea of God fathering someone ludicrous, which made me wonder, if Christians didn't believe in Trinity or if Islam were open to other, which religion would have the most faiths?
"Apostle" is an eye-opening experience about the way religion is affecting lives and creates divisions despite its primal ambitions to bring people together. It doesn't give definite answers but the questions raised are so accurate that they exorcise the demons that are right not devouring French society... and the film was made before the Charlie Hebdo attacks and November 13, which makes it eerily prophetic.
J-Lo as a hooker with a heart of gold... and balls of steel ...
I really went tiptoeing to the movie theaters, if it wasn't for the huge acclaim J-Lo got for her performance and her being the actual frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress category, I might have thrown this film thinking it would be a retread of last year's overrated "Widows" or maybe a cross between "Ocean's 8" and "Showgirls" or maybe I expected another male-bashing film using its hustle premise to deliver some feminist message etc.
While the film comments on some corners women are driven to in order to make a decent living (sometimes a more-than-decent one), it's not a women vs. men thing but a dirty game where everyone plays with what he or she's got the best. Some with a fountain pen and contracts, some with tight skirts and high heels.... and a mixture of euphoriants and black-outs inducing drugs. That's the fish-and-bait process: target the yuppie prick, bring friends, make him drink the special cocktail, pretend to drink as well and accept whatever drugs he gives you and get him to the strip club to wear his credit cards out.
It's like "The Sting" repeated a hundred times until an expertise is acquired, until the art of seducing, drugging and taking the money turns to a real business with commissions, percentages on a club's outcome and even outsourcing. And in a game where women are told to undress and exhibit their bodies, it's only fair according to them to make men empty their pockets, there's some kind of inner poetry in that. The idea is that those who have access to these strip clubs are privileged enough to get over a scam and corrupt enough to have had it coming anyway. We're not forced to agree with that but we can't totally dismiss the reasoning either.
The plot was orchestrated by Destiny (Constance Wu) and Rosana (J-Lo) who was the true ringleader. But for Ramona, I would paraphrase what Roger Ebert said about Frank Lucas in "American Gangster": apart from the detail that she was a stripper and a hustler, Ramona's career would be an ideal case study for a business school. And in another life, she could have gone much further by staying in the good side. About Ramona, I would also say that she's the pillar of the film and J-Lo can win the Oscar, she delivered the kind of raw energy that makes a performance look so natural it eclipses all the others... maybe she was so good that Constance Wu was almost invisible.
I understand Wu was supposed to play an insecure woman in awe of her new friend but it took me a while to really appreciate her performance and it seems that the director Lorene Scafaria needed to fill her role with some scenes of crying and breakdowns while J-Lo didn't need any, she could walk or smile and still steal the show. And so far, she provided what I consider the most memorable moment of 2019, her entrance where she makes such an impact she literally swims in a pool of green bills is one of the sexiest scene of recent times, and it awakened the inner teenage who admired J-Lo's body in her "Let's Get Down"live concert or her "Jenny from the Block" clip.
The film contains many sexy moments (perhaps a tad too many) but J-Lo couldn't have a better character-establishing moment if we include the tender way she gets the frail Destiny under her aisle (and furry coat) and teach her the tricks of the business. The two had great chemistry and the film is also a great friendship story, which is saying a lot because the hustle story is still the best part. And while Scafaria lets herself sometimes carried away by some desire to replicate the "Casino" style and overplays the slo-mo big entrances, the plot flows smoothly, going from a few tricks to little games to bigger games until we get to the big scheme that consist on fishing and ruining the Wall Street guys. By the time it starts, we know everyone and the way it works.
Now, should we feel sorry for the guys or happy when the girls are emptying bottle of champagnes in penthouse's sofas? I guess reading an article about the real story made me realize that the film is about unhappy girls hustling unhappy guys, at the end they get their money but they gamble it anyway for superficial stuff. It's a doomed to end spiral when there's one victim too many. The film follows the Scorsesian narrative with the obligatory betrayal and downfall, but I don't think Scafaria intended it as an exercise in style, the editing makes sense and although I had troubles understanding the purpose of the interview with the journalist played by Julia Stiles, it does tie the plot together in a surprisingly moving way.
The film's not perfect but the failures of "Showgirls" and Demi Moore's "Strip-Tease" have proven that it's not that easy to center movies on that particular world and strippers have been so often reduced to poor victims or struggling mothers, which Wu is to a certain degree, that I was blown away by the way Ramona totally subverts the trope, playing a confident and smart woman with guts and ambitions, and that's why J-Lo deserved more praise again. And I applaud the film for not making saints of these women either, showing that even they can be cowardly or treacherous.
Any lesser director or writer would have fallen in that trap but Scafaria did a solid and entertaining film with an intelligent approach, a woman-centered film that even men would enjoy, though I suspect many would for the wrong reasons. I must confess I was turned on by J-Lo's entrance, and I wonder if she'd do the same knee-hook or leg-hook or carousel moves turn in the Oscars with a giant replica of the statuette, sorry... give her the small one, that'd be enough.
Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
Starring Eddie Murphy, a groovy and flamboyant "Blaxploitation Ed Wood"... and that's a compliment!
Craig Brewer's "Dolemite is my Name" is a fantastic biopic driven by the groovy and delirious spirit of the 70s about a forgotten icon of that era named Rudy Ray Moore, a stand-up comedian turned actor who created a character named "Dolemite". Dolemite can be summed up as a composite of Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali and Huggy Bear impersonating Willy Wonka and he belongs to the Blaxploitation pantheon along with Shaft, Foxy Brown, Superfly ("can you dig it?") and Black Caesar.
In fact, the film can be summed up as a blaxploitation version of Ed Wood and I would mean that as a compliment. This is a cheerful film full of positive energy that shows that you can make the silliest, crassest, raunchiest and ethnic-centered movies but if you have fun doing it and the actors have fun playing in it and if you do achieve something you, your friends or a fistful of fans judge big enough, well, that's enough. Not anyone can afford to be a Hitchcock or a John Ford but how many potential Fords or Hitchcocks ended up without releasing a single film. At least, Moore did it and his "Dolemite" if not a tribute to cinematic excellence, is a tribute to a certain American black culture representative of its era.
This is why a film like "Dolemite is my Name" is necessary: it shows that some so-called 'silly' things do have an importance of their own in the bigger historical scope. I'm not familiar with Blaxploitation films, I know about "Shaft" and "Foxy Brown", I love "Car Wash" and never heard about Rudy Ray Moore and Dolemite so I'm glad a film could educate me about the spirit beneath these movies. They obviously were a liberation from directors, artists or performers who couldn't be part of the system, not even the Hollywood auteurship, because society figured there was movies for White and movies for Black audiences... interestingly, the film doesn't contradict this idea and embraces its era by showing it was true. So much for PC!
On a side note, the film also provides an interesting hint about the success of blockbuster movies in the way they reconciled both audiences. Moore mentions "The Exorcist" in the film, which we suspect he might have enjoyed more than "The Front Page" (with Matthau and Lemmon), the film was ne of the highest-grossing of its time after "The Godfather" and before "Jaws" and "Star Wars" would change the game forever. But in 1975, there was still a cultural gap between Black and White audiences and by deciding to make his own movies, no matter how silly it is, and full of Kung-Fu moves, cartoonish gags and over-the-top violence, but great one-liners and smooth and groovy music, Moore made a film that a whole audience can relate to... and for two reasons.
First, Moore put his heart in the film and jeopardized his royalties to get the film done, there's an interesting moment where D'Urville Martin, the film's director (and actor) played by a scene-stealing Wesley Snipes mentions his "Rosemary's Baby" co-star John Cassavetes as a fine example of dedication to his passion: making movies, and a great reminder to many wannabe filmmakers: it's good to make a good film but sometimes, it's good enough to make a film, just try to get a writer, a director of photography, enough juice to makes the lights work, and even having enough celluloid can be an ordeal. The film is also an inspiring ode to team-work.
Also just be honest and truthful to your vision and that's the second reason of "Dolemite" success, within its own silliness, it has a note of truth... and truth pays off and ultimately attract the big cinema owners who are White. Black people make fun of White people and at the end, both get the money, it's a win-win situation. Still, the film doesn't kid itself about who is exploiting who, but it says something crucial: as long as you keep expressing yourself in total honesty, without any self-censorship, there's no exploitation ... especially when you can make some good green with it. After all, isn't money part of that urban culture?
The film stars Eddie Murphy in one of these come-back roles that remind us every once in a while what a comedic gift he is for cinema and how highly capable he is to convey subtle layers of depth and poignancy behind the street-smart cockiness of his irresistible laugh. I'm afraid that e might get unnoticed if the talk is all about Leo in QT's love-letter to Hollywood, but that would be a shame because if "Dolemite is My Name" is less ambitious in its content, it's no less relevant in the conversation about the appeal of B-movies and I'd love to know what QT thought about it. If anything, QT is a Rudy Ray Moore in the sense that he too makes the film he wants , that he knows his audience wants, and gets all Hollywood at his feet.
Which Rudy Ray "Dolemite" Moore did... his film is a joke by cinematic standards but even jokes can reflect the attitudes of their times bettr than any sociological essay. Watching "Dolemite is My Name" is to understand the "Blaxploitation" culture which means understanding the rise of stand-up comedians such as Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle and naturally Eddie Murphy. His Moore is a tribute to his own role models and I would love to see him getting an Oscar nomination, he's funny, exuberant, gentle and sweet at times and never over-the-top.
Speaking for the Oscars, I hope a Best Supporting Actor nod to Wesley Snipes who steals the show as the campy, self-conscious and utterly sophisticated Martin (and it's time to recognize his talent), a nomination for Best Screenplay and th film should be a lock for Best Costume Design... if the story of four little (white) woman doesn't spoil the party.
The Equalizer (2014)
The Old Timer Who Masters Time...
"What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you."
The infamous monologue taken from the movie of the same name set a new milestone in action pictures, reinventing the vigilante figure with the additional "special sets of kills" and replacing the 'crusade against violence' by a less high-scaled and more personal-oriented fight, like saving young and vulnerable girls from the claws of male predators and abusing pimps. It's quite a bold move in an era where 'damsels in distresses' and urban violence have stopped to be popular tropes, but I guess this is why it took the talent of versatile and quality actors such as Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington to elevate the film about the level of pure macho-power exaltation.
Audiences would accept these men as role models rather than regular action movies stars maybe because they bring a dimension of humanity and fatherly warmth. Not that it lacked in Arnie, Sly or Bruce Willis but I'm talking about 2010s standards where it's not too cool to sound cool anymore. As Robert McCall, Washington doesn't replay Bryan Mills but gives his own depth in a role that could have been rather two-dimensional, that he made it to finance his "Fences" or make a departure from his award-baity performances doesn't matter, he's quite the man in a performance that isn't too showy even in the showiest parts. And you've got to credit the patience Antoine Fuqua demonstrates in the exposition.
McCall is the bookworm, getting through the Top 100 must-read Books, he works in a home depot shop, gets along with his colleagues, coaches one of them to lose weight to pass a security job test and befriends a young prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz. It all builds up to the crucial moment where he makes his 'Mills' offer to Russian hoodlums who showed that women's welfare wasn't their priority. They're all drowning in vodka and cocky arrogance, with every inch of their bodies harboring intimidating skulls and tattoos but naturally, no one takes "Dedushka" seriously... so the old-timer has no other choice than teaching them a lesson or two about time efficiency. It takes twenty seconds of a nasty fight to make his point but since he aimed for sixteen, we get the idea that he's slipping. Still, it's the establishing moment we've all waited for.
The act isn't without consequences and brought the attention to a Russian Mafia "Don" named Vladimir Pushkin (quite the name) who sends his best dragon "Teddy" (Marton Csokas) to hunt the killer. This is a standard action picture about a man singlehandedly defeating the almighty Russian mafia and while the film does find ingenuous ways to avoid the obvious comparisons with "Taken", it's the charismatic presence of Denzel Washington that makes the difference. And it's not a detail, when you have a title that doesn't say much about the film but sound cool enough to make you curious, you've got to have a "name" to press the play button.
It seems crazy said like this but choosing the right movie to pick on Netflix is such a patience-demanding ordeal that all it takes is a title and a charismatic actor. Say what you want about Denzel Washington, his movies aren't all on the same caliber than "Malcolm X" but he always delivers a memorable performance even in a role that doesn't aim for award and where cinematic excellence consists on dodging caricature and being believable as a skilled fighter. And that's the power a few actors can pretend to have, something that makes Washington equal to Clint Eastwood, his "presence" is more vital than his "words". But even Eastwood couldn't do without worthy antagonist and Washington's presence is enhanced by a solid villain.
And maybe that's the aspect that gives the film a slight edge over "Taken", which is that the villain always possesses a special set of skills and doesn't let himself intimidated as well. And so we follow a cat-and-mouse chase where the roles are alternatingly reversed and where the chasers become the chased ones and we don't know if the film is as good as the hero or the villain So the film follows a long storyline where we see a lot of fighting, some remarkably gruesome that reminded me of "A History of Violence", but even violence can get routinely and the most memorable parts turn out to be the quieter ones, which all takes us to a dinner conversation and the closest to a great confrontation the film ever got.
When McCall confronts "Teddy" to his own past in Soviet Union, the writing is brilliant, in fact it's so good that the fact that the film chose the safe way and end with a climactic confrontation set in McCall's job area, his own comfort zone, left me disappointed. It seems that Fuqua wasn't so confident about his material that he thought he had to keep on the track and makes the violence an escalating process... but think of a film like "First Blood", once we know that Rambo is a man not to mess with, the film surprises us with the heartbreaking Vietnam monologue, revealing a hidden depth in Rambo's personality, I wish "Equalizer" could find a way to take us off-guard.
It's a sign of lack of maturity when a film doesn't try to surprise you, even a film like "Taken" chose to have a shocking moment where Mills' mission proved not to be a complete success, but in "Equalizer" even when McCall's friends and colleagues are taken as hostages, it's hard to believe that none of them was killed just to make a point. So, either the bad guys underestimate McCall to the end, or act dumber than they should or get too soft it's almost off-character. I guess it makes the fiim as good as the hero... after all.
"In Cold Blood" with a Romance...
"Badlands" marks Terrence Malick's film debut and most certainly one of the many peaks of artistic creation during that glorious era referred to now as "New Hollywood", that started with another romance on the run in 1967, the groundbreaking "Bonnie and Clyde".
But that's where the comparison ends for "Badlands" is embedded in a vision that goes beyond the pretension of entertainment Arthur Penn could be accused of, it's filled with such a dazzling imagery and hypnotic amazement toward the world of nature that it has created an experience that stands above the usual tropes of the criminal romance, it's not much the story of Kit and Holly we follow but a sort of nihilistic escape from common morality as if even the troubles of two little people wouldn't amount to much in a world that has so much beauty, and poetry, to offer.
It doesn't make the experience any easier because there's something disturbing in the way Kit, played by a James Dean-like Martin Sheen, embraces violence, it's not a form of expression, it's not rebellion, in a marginal way, he can eventually invoke a twisted interpretation of self-defense and it's not even sadistic enjoyment because he seems like a rather emotionless man and when he does display emotions, he becomes an easily relatable fellow. One of the key moments in the film shows him going along very well with the cops who arrested him, "Good luck, Kit", says the younger of them, "I mean it", he needs to add. At the end, everyone grows a liking on Kit. Should we as well?
How about Holly then? She's played by Sissy Spacek who's nine-year older than her character, foreshadowing her following iconic role as Carrie. Holly is a sweet freckle-faced teenager who should venerate Paul Anka and Pat Boon but she chose that greaser named Kit, she never tried to stop Kit, and never showed any remorse. This is not your usual crush on a bad boy, in her total dedication to Kit, there's something even more disturbing, more sociopathic about her psyche. As a matter of fact, she's the one providing the narration, and it sounds like some bucolic description of a summer romance, something a dreamy teenage girl would write in her diary. The ambivalence in Kit and Holly, 25 and 15 respectively is in the way they seem capable to express feelings toward each other but never uses their heart one second to feel for their victims, including her own father.
The film was loosely based on the real-life case of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate but I found a kinship with another masterpiece of 1967, Richard Brook's "In Cold Blood", the recollection of a family massacre committed by two young hoodlums who never looked like they could pull such a horrific crime. Scott Wilson played Dick Hicock, the most easy-going one and yet during the fateful night, he wanted to rape the daughter while Peter Blake's Perry Smith "prevented" the act, but to dramatic results anyway. Truman Capote came to the conclusion that the two alone couldn't have killed anyone but together they formed a third personality that did. I endorse that diagnosis to the point I would consider "Badlands" an "In Cold Blood" with a romance, it's just as horrific but with a detached cynicism that disguises powerfully as a poetry of evil.
I guess the key is in that opening scene in a small town of South Dakota, Kit just left his garbage job and meets Holly who's practicing baton twirling in the front lawn. What she found in him: a boy who found her pretty enough to exchange a few words, which is more than what her estranged widower father, played by Warren Oates, ever did. What he found was a mature person who spoke more and better than girls her age and she could listen. They weren't special to the world, but special to each other. In another universe they might have spent a romance together and lived happily ever after in that cabin in the wood, just like Tarzan and Jane, masters of their own territory and destiny. Man is a wolf to man and so became Kit and by association, Holly. It just took the opposition of her father and Kit had no other choice than kill him, set the house in fire and take a toaster with him. Interfering with either their territory or destiny meant death, those who escaped could praise their good stars.
The rest is a classical road movie taking us in places where a girl like Holly would never have dreamed to visit, from the Montana landscapes to some exotic countries in her father's Stereopticon. Malick nourishes his film with lyrical photography showing plants, flowers and insects, what became his trademark (to a point I criticized in "Tree of Life") but there might be a statement, a sort of alibi to the whole amorality. Maybe there's so much beauty in this world, that the actions of Kit and Holly become incidental, even beyond their own conception of evil. In a crucial scene, Holly talks to man who's just been shot in the guts and is living his last moment, she doesn't realize death perhaps maybe because she doesn't even grasp the essence of life. Maybe the only solution is to hang on nature and accept it as the overarching force of the film, the true canvas of whatever goodness can make this world worth living.
Of course one can't ignore the beautiful piece of music from Carl Off and George Delerue, one of the melancholic ballads inspired Hans Zimmer"s "True Romance", but in comparison, Alabama and Clarence are boy scouts. The real mystery of "Badlands" is how could we make a film so beautiful about such despicable characters but how can such a beautiful place be ever called "Badlands", that belongs to cinematic metaphysics.
Danny and Arnie... or when comedies had warmth and innocence.
1953, a super-secret scientific experiment aims to make a perfect man out of six "contributors" who include Nobel Prize winners and athletes and a beautiful woman to be inoculated with the seminal milkshake. But as usual when men play sorcerer apprentices, science finds its way to trick them and when the super-baby raises his cute little nose, it's revealed a few seconds later that Mommy carried a clandestine passenger all along.
Life found a way in a little boy who's nothing like his big brother is (literally) and there comes another comedy relying on science and the mysteries of life from Ivan Reitman, after "Ghosbusters" and before "Junior". The title shot says it all, the big blonde baby is Arnold Schwarzenegger and the little one who kicks him in the leg is Danny De Vito, such a cute and tender moment for a blockbuster comedy... because it's a comedy. Boys separated at birth and reuniting for a vengeance has been an excuse for lousy action pictures but who needs action when characters are driven by family love.
What "Twins" accomplishes is remarkable in its simplicity, it takes the established comedic persona of Danny De Vito and associates it to one no viewer would have anticipated in 1988. Consider that in '87, Arnie had played one of his ultimate action roles in "Predator" and it was right after "Terminator", "Commando" and the "Conan" series. Just when he was about to be typecast, Arnie takes a 180° turn and plays a man who's strong and muscular all right but never at the expenses of his good nature, his endless love for his brother and his nerdy attributes. Remember that McBain gag in "The Simpsons" where he played a nerd, it's a credit for Arnie to never make his Julius Benedict a similar subject of ridicule, he's genuinely funny because he never means to. For the same reason, even the preposterous premise of having him pregnant in "Junior" worked beautifully.
But "Twins" accomplishes something more, it pairs up the most two different possible actors, body and personality-wise to make it part of the plot, it's one thing to make them brothers, but talk about suspension of disbelief when we're asked to believe they're twins. That's the stuff comedic gold can be made of and in the crucial moment where Julius reveals his identity to Vincent, from each sides of a visiting room, Vincent's reaction is priceless: "it was like looking in the mirror", "we're not identical twins" retorts Julius and Vincent's face is another credit to De Vito's talent, it says "oh that explains it all" with a hint of "no kidding?". And apart from a few moments that insist on their telepathic connections (scratching their bottom in the same time, Vincent naming his cat Julius and Julius naming his computer Vincent) the film never overplays it to the point it becomes a cheap gimmick, and in the 80s, it's quite an achievement.
I guess that's the third accomplishment of "Twins", it has a deep and touching warmth of its own that plays like a wonderful tribute to brotherhood that transcends the differences. Danny and Arnie share the screen literally as they never try to steal one scene from another. And when Julius tries to follow his brothers' steps: how to make up with girls, how to flirt, to dance, to prepare for the big night (because Julius is a virgin) it's funny and goofy but it's played with balance by Arnie who's got a lot of comedic potential, certainly more than his rival Stallone. I criticized Sly for being too "straight" even in comedic roles such as "Demolition Man", but that same year, Arnie delivered a great self-parodic performance in "Last Action Hero" and hints of that truetalent is displayed in "Twins". Take that scene when he's teased by the beautiful Kelly Preston, he knows he is but he plays his Julius as an embarrassed man, never embarrassing. Naturally, she stops playing with him and takes full rein.
"Twins" contains two romances, Arnie and Preston while De Vito is with the more jovial and ordinary-looking Chloe Webb and together they have a great chemistry. Heart is something that never deserts the film and contributes to some weirdly effective serious moments, Julius' childish joy meeting the athletic dad, Vincent learning that he was the undeserved one by the doctor prick followed by the heartwarming moment when Julius comforts him by reminding him that it's not just a matter of nature but nurture as well, he lived in a Pacific Island surrounded by love while he grew up in an orphanage thinking his mom abandoned him.
It's all natural that one brother would learn the tricks of modern life and the other to be a little less rough when it comes to handle the sweet aspects of life. Isolated they were alone and marginal, together they form a great duo immortalized by that iconic moment where they cockily walk across the street with the same suit, certainly one of the 80's most instantly identifiable moments. Of course, the crime plot is here to give some spice to the narrative but it never indulges to the basic clichés, no chase, no shootouts, and Arnie is only strong when necessary but despises violence. It all comes down to the real climax of the film not being about action or money but a magical reunion between a mother and her lost sons.
"Twins" takes me back to the early 90s when Saturdays evening featured comedies and comedies of that era had such an innocence I truly miss them (though Kelly Preston awakened one of my earliest pre-teen impulses and her presence is one of the things I most cherish about the film).
(and for the first time, I post the 100th review of a film)
A Matter of Responsibility...
"Flight" is one of these experiences so intense and dramatic that you both the movie to be over soon and can't get enough of it in the same time, like the immediate effect on some invigorating drug.
Denzel Washington is "Whip" Withaker, an experienced and respected pilot but also an alcoholic man who depends on cocaine-boosts to get back on the track. The first contradiction he embodies is how he's in total control of himself and fully confident about his skills while his whole life is a wreck, to say the least. He's divorced, hardly sees his son, doesn't even care about calling, definitely no father of the year material, and he's a party animal enjoying the side pleasures of his professions, including sleepovers in luxurious hotels and with the sexiest flight attendant.
When we first see him, he's lying around on a bed, visibly hung-over, while his night playmate gets up, in all frontal nudity and puts on a sexy G-string, there' something sleazy about this man and yet when he pulls on his sunglasses and uniform, we're reminded that it takes a lot to make Denzel Washington 'pathetic', he looks like the man of the job. He might be a prick, but he sure is a pro. And so the film embarks to its most gripping part and what must be one of the most spectacular crashing sequences ever, the one I feared the most as someone who takes the bus since the last couple of years, dreading the take-off and turbulences more than anything in the world.
Right now, I'm ready to kill three days of my next holiday to travel by bus just to avoid a few minutes of turbulence. "Planes are safer than road transportations" say everybody, well, I give a chance to the road anyway. I'm not mentioning my personal phobia to make myself interesting but to highlight how the crash part operated in my mind and body. I was shaking like the passengers; I could sense the nervousness of the co-pilot each time Whip was acting weird. And like many people who fear flying, I'm drawn into crash stories and I couldn't get my eyes off the screen during the take-off and "landing" sequence, one where Whip assembled all his skills to allow the plan to slide on the ground while a few minutes earlier, it was simply nose-diving.
I expected some investigation-thriller whose climax would be in the reveal that Whip's condition didn't cause the crash or maybe a more slowly-driven study in guilt and trauma with Whip trying to make amends for his actions. When we see him throwing all his alcohol and drugs and getting sober in the trashcan, I was kind of disappointed to see that 'persona' leaving, I felt I didn't get enough of the real Whip, but it takes Whip a lot more to change, especially since the investigations' result come off quite early. It's a mechanical malfunction in the gear that didn't get repaired and caused the nosedive and if it wasn't for Whip's instinctive decision to cancel the fall by turning the plane upside down, a move that required three actions from Whip, the co-pilot and the chief flight attendant and a lot of guts and self-control, the plane would have crashed and killed 102 souls. As a matter of fact, ten pilots tried to prevent the same crash on simulator tests, all have failed.
Whip is the hero of the day, saving all but six people, including two flight attendants, one of them he got up with in that fateful day and who, he doesn't know it then, might work as a cover for the investigation on Whip's intoxication during the flight. The irony in Whip's state is that it didn't cause the mechanical problem, and might have given enough resistance to the pressure to bring out the best of him, it either had a positive effect or no effect whatsoever with Whip simply being an ace pilot. But it's not about responsibilities but about principles. The whole film doesn't involve the investigation but Whip's own introspection, just because he's not guilty, and he's not, doesn't make him any less accountable for his actions.
He could dodge criticism while he had a job but after the disaster, he couldn't prevent the convergence of his professional and private life and it's ironic that till the end, he could maintain a cool façade, being hailed as a hero while destroying himself with booze. The second act is a character study of self-questioning and the aspects of our persona we refuse to confront because they undermine our path to success, how far we can go by disdaining the values we should proudly stand for. It doesn't do that with patronizing speeches or heavy sentiment but under the psychological endurance of Whip, who seems full or resentment but resists and vent his anger on his ex-wife, his son and Nicole (Kelly Reilly) drug-addict with enough guts to fight her inner demons and empathy to help her lover... Whip insists that drinking is his choice, he's got nothing to blame himself for and that goes until he's driven to the one extreme that could compromise his self-esteem, when he must answer for one little action during that ill-fated flight.
And when it does happen, we finally see the edifice crash, and not through tear-jerking artifices because Washington is such a charismatic presence he doesn't need that. His character is a rock of man who seems to resist the eroding effect of his own insecurities, until he found out that admitting your weaknesses is the liberating force and the ending couldn't have been more satisfying.
Robert Zemeckis is back at form with this "Flight", honorable mention to Don Cheadle as a sleazy lawyer capable to toy with the bureaucratic intricacies to save a client he actually hates, and John Goodman as a fixer that gives a little edge to the film. Not that the film needed any.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Ich bin ein Billy Wilder...
In 1959, Billy Wilder painted the Mona Lisa of screwball comedy with "Some Like it Hot". He outdid himself again in 1960 with "The Apartment", a witty romantic comedy and sharp satire against office mentalities and lust-driven careerism, the film took home the Best Picture Oscar. If all good things went in three, the appropriately titled "One, Two, Three", third comedy in a consecutive year, from the Wilder-Diamond partnership should have been a masterpiece. In fact, it has the more modestly-designed set of a little dessert, after two copious meals.
But for a dessert, it's still 'rich' enough to be enjoyed with its machine-gun dialogues worthy of Hawks and Cukor' classics that makes you wonder if you didn't accidentally fast-forward the film at 1.5 speed. And there is such vaudevillian streak of incongruous events and improbable coincidence that it provides the right canvas for safe hilarity, in other words so many things happen in the film that even the lousiest gag doesn't have time to fall flat, another comes at the rescue. And as Coca-Cola executive McNamara, James Cagney delivers a painstakingly energetic performance that exhausted him so much he retired from acting for 20 years until his cameo in "Ragtime", that's how demanding his role was... and you can feel it in the screen.
Cagney didn't get along with Horst Bucholz who plays Otto the young idealist communist who marries the Coca Cola's top man's daughter (Pamela Tiffin) and wished he could kick his ass to calm down his scene-stealing impulses. These incidences reminded me of Fonda not getting along with Ford during the shooting of "Mister Roberts", starring Cagney as well, but that didn't affect the film since it's all meant to be a big joke and in the scenery-chewing contest, Cagney and Bucholz are equally hammy and funny if you look at the film with indulgent eyes. Maybe Cagney was too old and Jack Lemmon would have been a more fitting choice as a middle-aged executive in one of the most emblematic American brands. We'll never know.
The real problem in "One, Two, Three" is that it starts brilliantly, the whole first act where we see "Mac" handling Germans' manners and double-edged efficiency draws a pattern of cultural clashes' gags that found an echo in both the Cold War context and the difference of mentalities between America and the European world, as if there was a second curtain behind the infamous iron one (though much lighter). But even if if the non-existence of the Berlin wall (only mentioned at the beginning) dates the film, made ironically the exact year of its building, the film also managed to be ahead of its time prophesizing the missiles crisis with a Russian executive saying about Cuban, "they give us cigars, we give them missiles".
The dialogues with the Soviet representatives are nothing short of brilliant writing, reminding us of the wit that Wilder displayed when he wrote "Ninothcka", a film whose comedic efficiency also depend on a funny Soviet trio. The comment about the Swiss cheese being rejected because it had holes had me in tears, to name that one. The plot thickens to the point of convolution when it adds the romantic subplot but it makes up for the blandness of the two lovers (no matter how colorful they're made to be) when it adds another dimension of cultural shift between Southerners and Yankees, the flimsy Southern belle didn't realize the political meaning of "Yankee, go home" slogan nor what a house "with a short walk to the bathroom" implied.
But the best asset the film has to offer is its slice of life from both sides of the Iron curtain or the soon-to-be Berlin wall. For all the antagonism directed against US capitalism, there might be one thing no one can resist which is a bottle of Coca-Cola, the brand that perhaps sold the American dream more than any political operation. So watching Cagney playing diplomacy with the Russian provided the film's best moments culminating with that unforgettable Sabre Dance and barefeet Fraulein Ingebörg frenetically shaking her voluptuous body on a restaurant table in front of executives getting an exciting taste of the Western dream. That musical sequence might be one of my favorite from any Wilder films and it's crucially set at mid-point just when the plot started to drag.
As I said, Horst Bucholz was hammy only to the degree that it was the only possible way to go the distance with Cagney and I enjoyed watching the lovable Arlene Francis playing his resigned but not discouraged wife. Yet the film is so busy providing one liners right after another that it takes the safe side and injects lousy wedding-and-divorce segments where so much could have been done in the area of politics. But maybe Wilder was getting too old-fashioned leaving sharper tones to a certain Cold-War comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick, interestingly a movie that also pays a tribute to Coca Cola through one of its most memorable scenes. That level of wit is missing in the film already dated by its own context. One thing to its defense though, it offers the perfect response to Joan Crawford's complain of product placement and the perfect punchline with Pepsi Cola having the last word.
And to give a last word, if the film isn't in the same league that "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment" and marks the decline of Wilder's prestige and awards pretensions, it still works and maybe it does so because somewhere I could feel it didn't pretend to be anything but a farce and comedy of manners with the Cold War as the backdrop. A "Dr. Strangelove" it isn't but either you don't find it funny or you do. I did find it funny many times and brilliant in a few scenes.
Joaquin's no joke as the Joker...
Todd Philips' "Joker" has spread so many comments and controversy that I don't know exactly where to stand. The film reminded critics of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and while Joaquin Phoenix' performance channeled the inner angst and alienation that drove the driver Bickle to an extreme -and bloody- corner, I found so many other sources of inspiration that if anything, "Joker" is the best tribute to the New Hollywood period.
I found "Network" in the film, "Death Wish", references to "The King of Comedy", Marty's underrated movie about a man who wished to exist through the only talent he felt being endowed with... and naturally, there's something of "A Clockwork Orange" in the obscene stylishness the Joker embraces his new persona with. In a way, that the film met with controversy is logical, you can't make a social comment about violence and its dangerous appeal by sugarcoating it, violence like its enemies, use symbols and slogan, in fact, revolt is a mask that violence uses to operate undercover or is it the opposite? "Joker" is the slap today's audiences needed and that it used the Joker mask in our superhero era makes it even more relevant and accessible. But truth be said, any controversy the film should stir mustn't distract from the real deal.
Indeed, any viewer familiar with one tenth of Phoenix' filmography knows the actor's ability to portray enigmatic and troubled characters with a dark side barely hidden, but even with that in mind it's impossible not to be blown away by his performance and compelled by his suffering. He shouldn't be the dark horse of the awards season but the frontrunner because his performance is so rich, so powerful, so intense and so bizarre and grotesque in a captivating way that it's almost like watching a movie within a movie, as if his distortable face was the operation theatre to his acting force, as if his nervous smile slowly turning into cries made a true symphony of pathos and anger. That actor is a treasure to Hollywood and here he's given the kind of rangy performances that can't do without earning awards. His snubbing would be controversy material if you asked me.
Now, to the film. The first act immerses us in the life of Arthur Fleck, a clown and wannabe stand-up comedian. At first, I was afraid that the manic laughter scenes would be too redundant and turn themselves to cheap gimmicks, to remind us that we're dealing with the Joker, but no, Phoenix plays his Arthur as a man who's not a bad person. Raised by an over-protective and sickly mother, brutalized by kids who sees in a clown a living sign saying "kick me", humiliated by people who can't understand his medical condition, the point isn't to portray Joker as a martyr but a product of a specific environment and education, or lack thereof. Like anyone, he's got dreams, projects, but he's entrapped in a condition that makes it impossible to communicate or connect with the others except through hallucinations and would-happen moments, he's a misfit with a fragile condition that keeps worsening until it offers a platform for his dark psyche to perform.
Does the film excuse him? No. Does it justify his actions? Hell, no. It just clarifies the need to perform that way. There's a point of no return reached in that psychological journey, when one humiliation too many triggers a strong desire to express itself through a sort of showmanship, something relevant in our days where people seek any ways to reach posterity. Set in what seems to be the early 80s, it puts Arthur in the same urban alienation context than Travis Bickle but with a passion shared with Rupert Pumpkin's and a "mad-as-hell" prophetic rage with Howard Beale's role. Near the end, there's a shot that follows one of the film's most shocking moment and it's an obvious nod to the anticlimactic finale of Lumet's masterpiece.
But I can't insist too much on how good Phoenix his, one could see a few impersonations of Malcolm McDowell's dance when he "punished" his fellow droogs or get vibes from the two only performances that earned a posthumous Oscar, Peter Finch and Heath Ledger, still, there's something unique in that tormented role he inhabits with such a soul dedication that it makes Nicholon's Joker worse than the cartoon counterpart. ,
"Joker" isn't dangerous but brave enough to question violence in the way it seems like the only plausible answer, it might titillate a few demagogue instincts but that's an unfair trial in the light of the recent events all over the world and that preceded the film. I walk often at night and see homeless people living in impoverished conditions, drowning their sorrows in alcohol and losing their manners once there's nothing to lose... and perhaps that's leaders' responsibility, praising democratic values while its application contradicts its own ideal. Anything is allowed when nothing is possible, is perhaps the biggest joke of all, and that it goes all downhill when the social budget is cut is perhaps the film's boldest stance against the shift between leaders and people.
And that it used Bruce's father Thomas Wayne to connect the final act with a canon we're all familiar with is one of the many narrative delights of that character study and psychological thriller à la "Woman Under the Influence" where suspense doesn't come from a bomb but a ticking bomb of a soul. If De Niro's presence ties the plot with its chief inspirations, the film belongs to Joaquin Phoenix who gave a performance for ages, and a character who's relevant in the way he pits democratic ideals against urban reality. And my wish is to see another connection with De Niro with Phoenix winning an Oscar, it would be the second time for a character who already won one after De Niro with "The Godfather Part II".
As for the glorifying violence trial... we've been there already.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
When Lao Tseu meets Macchiavelli...
It's a cliché that many important business decisions are taken during lunchtime, and it's probably true. 'Charlie Wilson's War" is about a series of decisions, deals and agreements that didn't do much except change the course of history through phone calls, parties and improbable yet successful bargains, as if the trivialities of the world provided the best canvas to history-making decisions.
And who'd have thought that this man we see bathing in a Jacuzzi, holding a glass of champagne and surrounded by giggling strippers would do more for his country than what invasions in Cuba, a decade-spanning war in Vietnam and political coups couldn't? I guess this speaks volumes on the way a man's importance can be measured by the effect his decisions have on a geographical area and certain span of time rather than any so-called title. On that level, Charlie Wilson is more historically important than Ronald Reagan and if it wasn't for Mike Nichols' film, his role in the fall of the Soviet regime would have escaped our attention and made his work covert to the end.
French politician from the turn of century George Clemenceau said "war is too important a job to be given to military men", after watching that diplomatic satire, I couldn't agree more. It seems like the art of winning can pit Lao Tseu's warfare art against the intricate subtleties of diplomacy and make Machiavelli's teachings more relevant. Cynical much? No. Pragmatic, an epithet often been used by historians to describe Lenin's own economical policy and which applies for Wilson. This is a humble congressman who reigns over a Texan district and learned to be friendly and helpful, he doesn't keep a low profile but has no pretension whatsoever to be President material.
He knows one thing though, something like the Godfather: the value of friendship, and the way any help pays off sooner or later. What characterizes Charlie Wilson, despite his interest for politics is the way he's totally dispassionate yet professional, it's an interesting departure from Tom Hanks' usually goody-to-shoes roles to see him playing a man who's not an idealist but eager to succeed because that's how he built his reputation on. Of course he's sincerely moved when he visits a refugee camp, but he's a party animal, a womanizer, renown for pretty-looking secretaries with tight corsets and his philosophy of a job is to be able to mix pleasure in it, the kind of man who'd ask Pakistani generals if he could get a glass of whisky; but even when he puts his foot in his mouth, he lands on both.
Charlie's talent wouldn't be complete without the help of his assistant (Amy Adams) a rich Christian socialite and romantic interest named Joanne (Julia Roberts) and a CIA agent named Gust played by the so missed scene-stealing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gust is the kind of guy who's extremely competent but seems condemned to never get the credit he deserves, maybe it's the rough blue-collar looks, the outspoken manners or a certain attitude but it's for these flaws that he gets an instant liking on Charlie. "You're not James Bond", says Charlie "And you're not Thomas Jefferson so call it even" retorts Gust. Both are outcasts but accessible enough one to another to seal a partnership whose challenge would be to push the Russians out of Afghanistan.
The goal is crucial because it would give the Russians their own Vietnam war at a time where the balance was in favor of the West, it would be the overdue deathblow under the Reagan doctrine. But the art of warfare must obey a few principles and in order to make a "clean" war, the issue is to destroy the Russian helicopter gunship with a weaponry that couldn't be taken from Americans, which means Russian weapons themseves. Weapon is the key and the found shortcut involves an unlikely partnership between Israel, Egypt and Pakistan, one of these magic tricks that make you wonder if you should applaud the ingenuousness or cry at the tragedy.
Sure it's all handled in a lighthearted way and more than the explosion of a Soviet helicopter, the bewildered expression of the missile launchers makes it funny, but behind the laughs, there's a tragedy in march. We all know that the Russian defeat, followed by the fall of the Berlin wall, marked the victory of the liberal world but it's not only near the end that we realize the film was played like a joke without a punchline, but a catch. The mission was clandestine to the point that even the Mujahedeens didn't know who got them the weapons, they'll get back to poverty, cattle and illiteracy. It took billions to give weapons, but a few millions were needed to build schools and hospitals but no one cared about the Afghanistan or any -istan country for that matter, and so the final exchange between Gust and Charlie with the Zen master story foreshadows what would be the Karmic response to the administration's cynicism.
Indeed, they were cynical while Wilson and Gust were pragmatic, and it's for attitudes like that that the US policy has often been criticized. The film is like a delicious cake but without the cherry at the end. And what makes so tragic is that none of these lessons have been learned. In 2011, NATO bombed and destroyed Libya through a plan orchestrated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and philosopher Bernard-Henry Levi, a worse kind of Charlie Wilson. Today, a country is destroyed launching an immigration wave of dramatic results and allowing ISIS to take on the Maghreb.
"Charlie Wilson's War" might be a lighthearted comedy à la "Wag the Dog" but It's not that funny watching diplomats playing with matches as they can either burn their fingers or set the whole world in fire. I even hesitate calling it a comedy and that's how brilliant it is.
Atlantic City, USA (1980)
A fine twist on the "life giving lemons" saying set in Atlantic City...
An old Victorian building where croupiers use to throne and has-been stars to perform is majestically standing above the boardwalk, before being reduced to ruins. This is Atlantic City at the turn of the 80s, a poor man's Vegas for some, a forgotten Mecca for gangsters during the Prohibition, a town past its glorious days and whose inhabitants, for the most of them, can find contentment in cherishing that very past because they simply have nowhere else to go, nothing else to dream of.
There are two central protagonists in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City", three decades separate them and with that difference two totally different views of life. Sally (Susan Sarandon) is in her mid-thirties and dreams of being the first female croupier in Monte-Carlo, she's learning the ropes of the job while working as a seafood waitress, Atlantic City is a mean to an end and never would she consider spending her life in that ghost of a town. And Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a man in his late sixties, one we learn used to be a big shot in the old days, frequenting such illustrious names as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, a man past his prime who can only mourn his youthful days.
Things aren't as schematic as they seem, Sally is obviously looking forward to a better future but Lou isn't much turned toward the past from my reading of the opening sequence. The scene is so sensually and smoothly handled that there's more than sheer voyeurism in it, Lou watches with stunned yes the beautiful Sally opening her shirt, cutting lemons and cleaning her arms with each halves, it looks like some ritual but the explanation is rather trivial, she's only getting rid of the clam smell. But it doesn't matter, it's all in the expression in Lou's face, something is fascinating him in this woman and somewhat his gazing is indirectly turned to the present she represents.
Lou, as it happens, is in a relationship with Grace (Kate Reid), an old bed-ridden woman who came to the city in the 40s for a Betty Grable lookalike contest, and got stuck there. It's very telling when even the star that changed your life is rather unknown at the time being, and looking at the furniture of Kate's apartment, all full of picturesque bibelots, she's a woman who's rooted in the to the point of becoming its own past relics, broken down ornamental, but still there. Lou and Kate form a rather unconventional couple, she berates him, belittles his manhood and yet both seem to need each other for a reason: they each represent the other's past, they're their own existential landmark.
Lou and Kate are neighbors to Sally and all live in a building waiting for demolition, they're all in suspended sentences fully aware of the collapse of their living, only Sally nurture hopes while Kate is resigned and Lou seems to desperately hang on any occasion to prove his value, a final one at least. That opportunity comes with a rather bizarre sight (but plausible in the film's context), a man and a pregnant woman, dressed like immigrants who'd just embarked on Ellis Island come to visit Sally. The man (Robert Joy) happens to be her husband and he's impregnated her own sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren). Chrissie is a flower-child who believes in Karma and reincarnation and seems to live in the same bubble of peaceful naivety than Kate, no wonder that the two women get along together
The brother, however, had other goals in mind, involving a heroin sample he stole in Philadelphia, which he's planning to sell... for dramatic results. The turn of events all leads up to Lou handling the drug deals and getting more and more money, enough to buy a brand new suit, to seduce Sally, passing as a man of the same caliber than those he used to serve, until he encounters the killers who came to get their stuff back. I stop here because the plot, not intricate or complex but captivating in its linear format, is instrumental to the evolution of characters. The drug plot doesn't matter to the degree that it works as a social leverage for a man, Burt Lancaster in his best role, and a gateway for Sally. How it works is all handled by Louis Malle's distant and detached directing.
There's no fancy narrative in the film, no particular use of music, except for a fine cameo by Robert Goulet. What John Guare's screenplay accomplishes is simply to tell a story of a city from the perspective of people who want to escape from it, a woman who wants to find a true future and not just be pampered or pimped by a suave manager (Michael Piccoli) and a man who's constantly reminded by his girlfriend that he's a nobody who can only brag about approaching legendary men, if sharing an elevator can ever be called approaching. The end of the film gives a deep and emotionally satisfying feeling of closure to what can be considered a fascinating character study served by two tremendous and nuanced performances.
And Atlantic City, the city itself, belongs to that breed of places that are so peculiar that they offer a unique operation theatre for protagonists no matter how ordinary and harmless they are. I don't think there could ever be another masterpiece set in Atlantic City just like there could never be a movie like "In Bruges": the town, with its particular texture and old-fashioned charm, insufflates its spirit to the protagonists and gives an existential weight to their most benign actions while attenuating what could be spectacular but cheap plot tricks.
To put it simply, set elsewhere, the film, Best Picture nominee of 1981, would have lost half of its impact, but Malle proved two things: if you get the right casting, half the movie works and if you get the right setting, the other half works all the same.
American Gangster (2007)
Frank Lucas, the gangster who means business... literally.
"Every gangster's downfall will be his false sense of invincibility"
I found that quote in a Youtube comment from the clip showing Frank Lucas' arrest and that it belongs to notorious mobster Carmine Galante who ended up shot in his favorite restaurant, gives it such an eerily prophetic dimension it can work as a mantra of the gangster genre.
They all start with a fascination for the gangster-figure and end with the realization that sooner or later, wings get burned."Goodfellas", "Scarface", "Casino" etc. all follow that arc and even "The Godfather" if you consider the sequels, providing the perfect canvas for a captivating character studies. And as Lucas, Denzel Washington, intimidating in all calculated smoothness, encapsulates the 'initial reaction', exuding the kind of macho appeal we secretly long for in our boring and compromising lives like Pacino, De Niro or from the old days Cagney and Robinson.
It's a timeless story rooted in any decade of America's contemporary history, a gangster makes his bones, expands his territory, earning many friends, a few enemies and the dreamgirl. Gangster films are the antithesis of fairy tales for they have a happy beginning and all build up for the downfall that might come from greed, human mistakes, ambition, betrayal, sometimes even principles... there's always a price to pay. Lucas could keep his fortune and quit drug business while he was at the top, he chose to move on, ego was his downfall but he had understandable motives that show that gangsters storylines aren't schematic for the sake of it.
The genre is perhaps the best social commentator to the American dream, the irony that a man had to use capitalistic methods to reign over Harlem and restore order. He might be a killer and a heroin dealer, Lucas is a visionary businessman who learned from the 'best'. While Scorsese's films feature flawed characters, "American Gangster" is closer to "The Godfather" in its depiction of a brilliant man who took the wrong direction: a good manager whose "my man" catchphrase resonates as Brando's offer one can't refuse, so when it's time to get off the cover and pull the trigger, he won't hesitate. One of the most memorable scenes have him kill a rival in broad daylight and it's not much the boldness of the move than the certitude that no one will snitch on him.
Ridley Scott's biography of Frank Lucas' life accomplishes something I didn't think was possible, combining many elements of the gangster genre that, taken alone, would've been enough to make a great film. First mention to the organizational aspect: the death of Bumpy Johnson left Harlem chaotic and comforted the Italian mafia couldn't keep control. Lucas understands the necessity of leadership and in all admirable pragmatism, decides to sell a better product at a lower price, and the Vietnam war offers a perfect cover to smuggle heroin directly from the main source. On its own, his success is a marketing school-case enhanced by a memorable moment where he lectures a big customer (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on the value of brand and merchandising.
Another value that plays a key role in the film is family. Lucas isn't a womanizer, he believes in family ties, gives jobs to his relatives, buys a house for his mother (Ruby Dee), gets married and shares a Happy Thanksgiving dinner with everyone. But ike in "The Godfather", family is a double-edged sword as Lucas owes the most of his troubles to screw-ups from his relatives, including his nephew (Chewitel Ejiofor) and to counterbalance these effects, the crowning moment belongs to little Mama Lucas who prevents Frank from killing a corrupt cop (played by Josh Brolin) because even she knew it was personal and her angst toward her son spoke in subtext: "this has nothing to do with business!" Dee deserved her Oscar nomination for that scene alone.
And I guess Washington (who was perfect) was snubbed because we've seen a lot of that before, "The Departed" was still fresh in memories and other titles keep popping when you watch one scene or another: Lucas asking his nephew to keep a low-profile and not to be too loud fashion-wise channeled De Niro's warning after the Lufthansa heist in "Goodfellas", Lucas' shooting a man on the forehead being his "defining" moment echoed the restaurant scene when Michael shoots Sollozo. Still, the most significant parallel is the climax, set in a church where Lucas is sitting with his wife and mother intercut with shots where cops arrest the family members. The baptism was Michael's rise, the mass isn't much Lucas' downfall but the cops' triumph as the film isn't just about criminals but about the law. The film is both "The Godfather" and "The French Connection".
Though it occupies one tenth of this review, half the film belongs to the investigation lead by Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe as a cop who ostracized himself after refusing to keep a million dollar found in a car. It's only fair for a gangster reminding of Michael Corleone to have a "Serpico" against him. And I loved the way the film patiently waited for their two paths to converge at the conclusion and have them talk about a simple concept: "the right thing". A brilliant man did horrific things and lead a happy life (though briefly), a man acted straight and lived miserable. Lucas was a criminal but a self-made man, Richie served the law but without any reward whatsoever.
Washington and Crowe magnificently embody the contradictions of the American dream, making for a multilayered story of men acting according to their beliefs for right or wrong. It's easy of course to root for Roberts, as for Lucas, I guess all you've got to do is listen carefully to the lyrics of "Across the 110th Street", the song says everything, speaking from Harlem's heart of darkness, from the 'soul' before passing the torch to rap music at the end of the film... when Lucas was history already.
The Natural (1984)
Well, Mr. Redford has done it, the New York Knights have won it...
It all starts with the idyllic postcard-picture of an Iowa or a Nebraska farm, a kid named Roy Hobbs is playing baseball with Daddy, he pitches the ball in the same spot drawn by his father, he's a natural we get it, but that's not enough. I thought what was missing was something from the heart: guts or determination, how wrong I was: it's all about the elements. The lightning struck the mighty oak tree under which his father collapsed to death, splitting it in two (the tree, not the father) then Roy took a piece of wood and carved it out into a baseball bat, calling it "Wonderboy" with a lightning bolt à la AC/DC, at that moment, I kept hearing that name being whispered in my head: Home...r... no, not home-run but Homer like Homer Simpson.
The 'Wonderboy' sequence inspired the first act of the legendary "Homer at the Bat", the one that started the Golden Age, and the music was used in another episode where Homer fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams by scoring a perfect 300 at the bowling game. Yes, there's something magical about that story and that Randy Newman's triumphant Wagnerian score, something that inspired the highest point of the life of all American hero: Homer. There's a catch though (no pun intended), "The Simpsons" is made for laughs. I'm not too sure bout "The Natural", Barry Levinson's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's 1952 novel of the same name.
In many aspects, the film is similar to "Field of Dreams" and I must applaud its daringness. it embraces a sort of metaphysical vision of base-ball, revisiting America's favorite pastime through an almost mythological hero, a man with a gift for baseball and for troubles in the same time, a man whose aura carries some fantasy chosen-one element and yet for some reason, never seems to get even with Karma. Indeed, when we first see him at 19, striking the Babe-Ruth lookalike Whammer (Joe Don Baker) out on three pitches, it's like nothing can stop him, except maybe a silver bullet, cutting through his stomach and his promising career. I was caught off-guard by that moment and I thought the film had succeeded in its opening part... though it asks us a lot in terms of suspension of disbelief to make a 48-year old Redford pass for a young man, and it doesn't get better after.
For instance, when 16 year after the incident, he's hired to play for the New York Knights, the coach Pop (Wilford Brimley) never gives him a chance to show his talent and keeps him on the bench all the time. Granted he's the boss but when your club is sitting in last place, what can you lose? Roy could have pitched himself (so to speak), told the Whammer story, but no, we have to wait for the right moment so he can knock the cover off the baseball. Yes, it's spectacular, it's rewarding to some degree, but that's the film's problem: it always waits for the convenient moment, and even when it is effective and overwhelming but there's something a bit artificial about the pacing, and maybe worse, the characterization.
Robert Redford is heaven to look at and I'm straight like an "I" but Ebert is right in his assumption that the film is more enamored with the figure of Hobbs and his glowing blondish halo than it is with baseball, it's never Hobbs who's instrumental to the beauty of the sport but rather the opposite. And everyone around Hobbs is corrupt and malicious to a degree it gets ridiculous, the manager (Robert Prosky) uses bets against his own team (has anyone learned the lesson from 1919?), a beautiful woman (Kim Basinger) sees the best interests for her in a relationship with Hobbs and so does a manipulative bookie (Darren McGavin), and finally a cynical journalist (Robert Duvall) makes or breaks careers without any scruple as long as it makes good money.
In that microcosm, where the odds and the Gods are against him, Hobbs can only count on a few supporters: Farnsworth as the bench coach with a benevolent smile, Glenn Close as his sweetheart and lady-in-white Iris with a mysterious angel-like aura, enough to earn her an Oscar nomination, and don't get me started on the constantly smiling bat boy who looks like a picture you'd find in a peanut butter jar smile, that kid almost gave me ulcers. So for all its love letter to baseball, the bad guys have absolutely no redeeming qualities, the good guys believe in Hobbs in some saintly way, they're all as two-dimensional as an ad poster, and in that flood of good sentiment, somewhat I wished baseball could find a way and provide something a more intellectually challenging.
I read that the original novel was darker and had a more complex ending but "The Natural" seems to follow Hobbs' journey without even caring to explain anything. And many things do happen for no specific reason, there's a character played by Michael Madsen as star outfielder whose exit comes totally out of nowhere so I was wondering whether it was to be taken humorously or not, but of the many points that compromises the film's enjoyment and credibility, the worst is perhaps the ending. Say what you want, the deal was clear between Hobbs' choice to play... and the alternative and the final shot made me wonder if it was intended as a fantasy or reality, in both ways, it was a spectacular concession for fireworks but a bad move that contradicted the film's message. If there ever was.