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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!
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What is your favorite Best Picture winner of the 2010s?
After voting, you might discuss the list [link=]here[/link]
Celebrating the beginning of the new year... and the new decade, here's a poll dedicated to movies where one or many parties occupy a significant portion of the story or where the notions of partying and having fun play an overarching role plot-wise.
Which of these party-themed movies would you take inspiration from (costumes, music etc.) for a New Year's... and New Decade's celebration?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
... and Happy New Year!
Often venturing in the realm of fantasy, sci-fi, colorful universes or unfamiliar cinematic territories, these films (one per director) owed their success to their creativity, inventiveness, a smart concept and a capability to be as emotionally and intellectually appealing as any "normal" film... proving that cinema can still surprise us.
So, which of these movies do you think is the most original of the 2010s?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these non-Christmas movies would be the most potentially watchable for Christmas?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these classic wartime movies is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Saluting this remarkable achievement, which of these three talented performers is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these horror/winter movies is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here.
Which of these three figures do you immediately think of when you hear the world 'apple'?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
For which of these contest-movies would you say "no contest, it's the best"?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of them would you love to see win another Oscar in the next ceremony?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Trois couleurs: Blanc (1994)
The stranger who became stronger...
"White", the second opus of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Color" trilogy is strange, and I expected strangeness. I guess the immersion in the first film: "Blue" with Juliette Binoche was so powerful that I felt let down by Zbigniew Zamachowski who plays the central character: Karol, a loser with a likable face à la Tom Hulce but not the kind of screen presence you're ready to follow for eighty minutes, not after Binoche, not with the promising face of Julie Delpy in the poster. But since the film has something to say about equality, it's all natural for Kieslowski to challenge our own anticipations and make a compelling story out of unfamiliar faces and environment. "Blue" wasn't much about freedom but about grief, "White" isn't much about equality but about hope, it's all about giving a second chance to the future or to people.
And so, we give a chance to Karol, a man whose below part is introduced first: dirty shoes are wandering across the street, he's like a kid lost in a mall while a policeman's looking suspiciously at him until he's asked if it's the right place for a trial assignment. His wife Dominique (Delpy) wants a divorce, the reason is that the marriage wasn't consumed. From the trial, we learn that Karol is Polish, barely speaks French and is impotent. He lost his hairdresser's job, his credit card doesn't work and it's a matter of time before we find him lying in the subway, buzzing some Polish music with a handkerchief on a comb. The humiliation conga is so harsh that it almost flirts with caricature and at some point, I was wondering whether the director wasn't channeling "A Beautiful Era" made by and starring Gérard Jugnot in 1991.
But the two films are different, one was a social comment about poverty and how easy the road to marginality is, the latter is a rebound disguised as a downfall. Playing a Polish tune in the subway inevitably catches the ear of a fellow countryman, in his late forties or early fifties. Mikola likes Karol, together they talk about love, life and bridge, share some vodka and one thing leading to another, Mikolaj decides to take Karol to Poland to accomplish a job, not an easy one, it involves a gun. Karol is a man who's got nothing to lose so he accepts the deal. But long and tortuous will be his journey starting with the transportation, having lost his passport and having nothing but two francs in his pocket, he must hide in a big suitcase. The height of misery is when the object is stolen by Polish handlers and when they open it, they're not too happy to see a broke man speaking their language.
As a welcome, Karol is beaten and thrown in the snow with his two francs... and yet he's glad he's back and finds comfort in that vast and white landscape, Karol's home and slowly recovers. Snow is a recurring leitmotif, marking a return to sources and a resistance to any possible stain. Indeed, even the dirty implications of the job to be done are cleaned by the following scene: a playful moment between two grown men in the frozen lake. Karol and Mikolaj feel alive again. The symbolism of whiteness as rebirth, changes and new beginnings is reinforced by Karol's job as a hairdresser, as if the power of a man could grow back as simply hair, and sad memories reduced to missed haircuts or as if anyone can change radically without changing much.
In "Blue", Binoche played a woman who couldn't envision the future without burying the painful past, it's ironic that the same past in "White" isn't carried as a burden but leverages the hero's audacity into rebuilding his life. He can't forget it, he embraces it, takes it's a compass to his actions that pushes him even further than if he decided to work in his brother's salon. Binoche was ironically passive and observant in her contemplation of the future, Karol is active in his mourning of the past. Maybe because his past is "alive" within Dominique, maybe because this past can still be present. It makes the setting in post-Soviet Poland all the more fitting, this is a country rebuilding itself with people trying to make ends meet and others profits out of the remains of communism. Karol is decided to get his lion share, and be equal to the new powerful men. But this film isn't about that equality, Karol doesn't want to be equal to a man, but get even with Dominique.
"White" is startlingly dark as you see Karol's descent into another dimension of behavior, one that saves his existence while obscuring his soul, "beware of the nice ones" as they say. And for all my intention to judge the film on the same level of intellectuality as "Blue", I find a more tempting comparison. The "White" storyline is similar to "Scarface": Karol gets the money, then the power, then the girl, only he doesn't get her the way you'd expect. And Kieslovski makes a film that is both a drama encrusted with tragicomic elements, for all the mishaps that punctuate Karol's arc, each gag is one step forward in a quest of revenge, so elaborate that the director needed a heartwarming finale, that seals the "equality" between Karol and Dominique, their similarities are subtle but they're there all right.
But now, I realize there's no need to look for similarities too much between these movies and just embrace their style, their poetry and their humanism. "White" is also tribute to the director's homeland, served with haunting music, it's not as captivating as "Blue" but it's not unusual for a middle-segment to be the weaker one, and if THAT movie isn't the best, that might say something extremely positive about "Red". We'll see...
Space Jam (1996)
To put it simply, "Space Jam" is the twice successful revival of Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny's career.
At 33, Jordan was past his prime and his controversial retirement following the death of his father, for a baseball reconversion, prompted Warner Bros studios to find a new vehicle to a necessary come-back. Meanwhile, the Looney Tunes were a milestone of TV and pop culture, but in the 90s, Bart and Homer Simpson had stolen a big chunk of their thunder, they had to deal with 3D competition, not to mention the eternal rivalry with Disney. Warner Bros studios never had their Renaissance and they never really mastered the world of animated feature to begin with.
It's interesting that we're comparing one real character, who was perhaps the greatest and most iconic Michael of the 90s, after Jackson, and animated characters, but who would reduce Bugs Bunny to ink and paint? (And Daffy too) The legendary stinker and wisecracker (who was drawn that way) was the animated embodiment of Groucho Marx with a cooler look, perhaps the animated hero with the most personality before Bart. As a matter of fact, he's so good that if the film had been about Bugs visiting the human world, it would have worked as well. But then we wouldn't have Porky, Daffy, Tweety and all the gang and that would have been a shame because say what you want about Disney, zaniness isn't its strongest suit.
And when you see how animation can ruin even the best animated characters, take the "Tom and Jerry" movies for instances, one should applaud the way the film respects the spirit of these old cartoons whose "Merrie Melodies" theme have been one of the most instantly identifiable music for all generations, a real hymn to the Golden Age of animation and beyond. Even as a kid who grew up with MGM and Disney, I found an odd little charm in the Looney Tunes and if I preferred Donald over Daffy, between Mickey and Bugs, there was no contest. Remember when the two titan rodents met in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", equal screen time but who got the best line? Bugs!
"Space Jam" is no "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" however, but not every animation and live action crossover film has this pretension. Directed officially by Joe Pytka (Ivan Reitman is credited as producer), "Space Jam" is pretty straightforward in its marketing and since it decided to have a basketball player for the main role, it's obvious it didn't mean to sweep acting awards. But if Jordan is an amateur, his work is far beyond amateurish and the way he plays himself in a role that floats between two universes is remarkable. Working in a green screen and pretending to have interactions with some of the most beloved characters is a feat and his choice to play it straightforward as if he was mildly surprised is the right one, acting surprised might have put him in the way of his "character" and be a total distraction.
Once Michael gets in Looney Tunes' land, he faces the deal and learns he must coach the Toons to win a game against the Monstars, previously known as the (far less intimidating) Nerdlocks, small creatures who took their height and talent from other basketball icons: Patrick Ewing, Shawn Bradley, Charles Parker and Muggsy Bogues. So, there's not just Jordan's freedom at stakes but the career of four players and the whole future of the NBA jeopardized by an animated crook named Swackhammer and voiced by Danny De Vito. The plot is spiced up by two other characters who'd have nothing to do: Wayne Knight as an obsessed (almost enamored) publicist and Bill Murray playing himself as a guy who wants to have a shot at the game. That these characters end up serving purpose is a joke, but there's nothing better than a comedy that doesn't take itself seriously, it's all a matter of pay-offs.
And that's the spirit of the cartoon. The animation looks like something borrowed from an ad for Sprite of Nike but the film has no pretension either to hide its marketing value, there's even a scene where Daffy reminds that they are property of Warner Bros and a few other comments involving copyrights and "take that" nods to Disney. The film makes money through sponsors with the same wit than "Wayne's World" product placement but that's because everything is a product placement when you have characters not with names but brand names. But Jordan brings life to what could have been a dull and average performance and instead of showing off as the player with skills, he only becomes the guy who has fun playing with toons, avenges Tweety, act like a coach or a toon. Anyway, he's having fun and so are we.
The film has an enthusiasm that is communicative and catching and reminds of these times when everything was simpler even in its corniness, Jordan may not be the best actor but he's a presence as valuable as the other giant and he doesn't even try to overdo it, and it works, everyone plays his part perfectly and that goes for Bill Murray too. There's no message, no patronizing statement, though the human story carries a few drama elements and one can't ignore how magic and transporting "I Believe I Can Fly" works. Another 90s gem at a time where R. Kelly was still popular.
Still, even if the film grossed a quarter billion dollar, it didn't have the same lasting success like a Disney blockbuster or its obvious counterpart "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", maybe that's the limit of the marketed silliness, at the end, it lacks the universal touch, the timeless value, the fairy dust. Even the character of Lola Bunny was an interesting addition but a Jessica Rabbit she wasn't. It's certainly a pure product of the 90s, an era I'll forever cherish, my teen years, but it's a product nonetheless.
That's all, folks!
Amores perros (2000)
Every dog has his day...
Three separate stories connected by a horrific car accident and an unexpected involvement of dogs in each of them. Why dogs?
Maybe because dogs are men's best friends while men are wolves to men. It's as if men were seeking in dogs that kind of indisputable loyalty they don't find in their fellow beings. Some men deserve that loyalty more than others but they aren't always the best rewarded, hence the film's English title, and its spellbinding, furious and almost dizzyingly emotional directing. "Amores Perros" marks Alejandro G. Iñárritu's debut and only a passion project could make him reach such a level of cinematic excellence immediately. That, and one hell of a talent as a storyteller.
Now, is this a tribute to the canine species? We watch them so many times suffering, whimpering, being mauled, shot, massacred during painfully gruesome dogfighting sequences that they steal our empathy and let us observe the human protagonists with more neutral eyes. Indeed, while playing an intermediary role between protagonists and leitmotifs, dogs are only factors in complex relationships' equations, highlighting the best or unveiling the worst. At the end, even the most ruthless dog is innocent and the greatest harms are always from one human to another.
"Amores Perros" embraces the unpredictability and irony of life, the way harmony lies on fragile foundations that hubris, ego, disloyalty or sin can immediately break, no matter which class you belong to. From Octavio (Gael García Bernal), a rebellious street-smart kid in love with his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche), to upper-class magazine editor Daniel (Alvaro Guerrero) who abandons his family to live with the stunningly beautiful supermodel Valeria (Goya Toledo), and finally, El Chico Many (Emilio Echevarria) a vagrant with a terrible past. These characters operate in gray areas of morality only redeemed by love (for a person and for a dog), ironically the source of all troubles.
Octavio wants to leave Mexico with Susana, tired of seeing her mistreated by Ramiro (Marco Pérez) but that he's better than his bank-robbing and violent brother doesn't say much, you wonder whether he truly loves Susana or hates his brothers' guts. He sees an opportunity in Cofi, their Rottweiler who kills one of the dogfighting champ, making an enemy out of his master, Javocho, a local thug. One thing leading to another, Cofi becomes a sensation and earns a lot of money that would allow to start a new life. The incident that takes us back to the initial car crash resonates as immanent justice but how about Valeria who didn't deserve it?
Obviously, this is a woman who's far beyond the sordidness we've witnessed before: she's beautiful, young, loves her poodle Richie, but she did cause a man to leave his family. She probably thought she was worth it. Iñárritu shows us Daniel's boring routine with his nagging wife and noisy daughters in a way that any man would accept the idea of leaving this for a woman like Valeria: she's beautiful, she has a great body, her legs made even longer in a sublime ad poster that covers a whole building. When they reunite in a brand-new apartment (with a view on the ad), nothing can spoil their happiness. Except for a hole in the floorboard where Richie vanishes. Richie's disappearance poisons the life of a couple already undermined by handicap and unemployment. Quite a Karmic turn for Daniel.
That might be my favorite part of the film because it's the most minimalist but it speaks thousand statements about the way things can go wrong when you take them for granted and how some dreams you build can be derailed by a few ironic twists. One day, you have it all, and then you lose everything. That's the story set in the present (Octavio's was in the past) but the film seems to provide a light of hope with El Chico, a man who apparently lost everything until we learn his trend and the person that counts the most for him. The man is only a witness to the accident and his role is rather interesting, he's the only one who manages to learn a lesson from the dog he saves and if he doesn't redeem himself, the act he puts at the end when he confronts two brothers who wanted to kill each other by chaining them to a wall with a gun between them, is a right closure. Let men be wolves to men, he won't be part of it anymore.
The film was compared to "Reservoir Dogs" for a few similar scenes, men chained in a remote place, the back passenger bleeding in a speeding car, the word "Dog" itself or "Pulp Fiction", for the non-linear narrative. For my part, I could see another connection with a film from the same year "Requiem for a Dream" (Burneil and Leto could be twins) and the film does show people who lost meanings to their lives, dignity, love, and even a body part. But the film is more than a product of many influences, it's a standalone original and stylish movie and a remarkable example of Hyperlink Cinema that made Iñárritu's reputation, culminating with the humanistic "Babel".
It's so challenging to make movies with various destinies that affect each other, because that's the way life is, for the best or the worst, and we might have affected a few lives ourselves without noticing... not every influence is as notable as a car accident. But Iñárritu goes for the punchy way and shows these ramifications with a slightly cynical approach though he's no cynic. In fact, his statement about life is that no matter what we plan, we're only humans whose flaws precede us and if we're lucky enough, we can avoid mistakes, but whatever happens will happen because unlike dogs, we have a tendency to be blinded by our own loyalty to flawed plans. As Susana tells Octavio :"if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans".
Låt den rätte komma in (2008)
Trust the Swedish to beautifully and smartly reinvent the "vampire" genre...
I was reluctant to use "vampire" in the title for I thought the film was better left without any specific knowledge of its main theme... but then how could I properly review Tomas Alfredson's "Let The Right One In" without mentioning what it's all about?
But let's not beat around the bush: the film is a vampire movie and one of the best of its genres because it subverts every known archetype without averting any and that's only one of the facets of a multi-layered but not complex and surprisingly easy-to-follow movie, set in the early 80s.
Oskar is a young boy, 12 or 13, effeminate looking, the son of divorced parents, constantly bullied by a pint-sized kid named Conny and a few other followers who call him "pig" and make "squealing" noises and rude contacts whenever they have a chance. The film opens with the line "I bet you can squeal like a pig", that indicates how nightmarish Oskar's life is and makes us hope for a 'deliverance'. Watching him half-naked and reaching the window with his hand, I was reminded of that opening scene in "Persona" but Ebert rightfully recalls a similar moment in "The Silence" and I guess Bergman could have made that film, the hand to the window conveying the Bergmanian entrapment in a meaningless life.
Indeed, Oskar spends his time between his separated parents, neither of them appearing to be helpful or understanding, and his solo actions consists on imagining the right comeuppance to his bullies, which any kid in that situation might relate to. Now, why having a bullied kid in a vampire movie? The answer is in the question.
We don't see Eli before she meets Oskar and her peculiarity for some reason doesn't provide obvious clues about her nature. She doesn't dress warm, only appears at night and she shares her life with an adult named Hakan, who could be his father. She grows an immediate liking on Oskar, maybe because she feels as an outcast too, though she's far from the 'victim' type. Their relationships start as a strange puppy romance between a badass girl and a timid boy. Meanwhile, we see Hakan killing a man at night and hanging him upside down to drawn blood from his neck only to be interrupted by a dog. He's later reprimanded by a voice that seems to belong to an adult woman.
It's interesting how the mystery is kept until the second killing... that doesn't come too late after the first failed attempt when Eli decides to handle the matter herself and collect the blood through natural means, by killing one of the locals. Hakan's job Is to dispose the body and the ice helps.
So the narrative is divided into three separate parts: first, the viewer's discovery about Eli. Then, it's for Oskar to understand who "she" is and I say "she" because, as the romance grows, Eli reveals that she's not exactly a girl and being a vampire is beside the consideration of her gender. Finally, it's how the romance ties the bullying subplot together. Both are deeply connected anyway.
Consider the fact that we have two acts of gratuitous and horrific violence in the beginning, one isn't lethal but evil lies in both and so does blood. After all, Oskar imagines getting even with his tormentors not exactly in diplomatic ways. Bullying can either provoke, lead to, or make you fantasize about bloodshed.
Then we understand why Eli needs blood and the murders, while horrific and graphic, take a whole new perspective. It's a violence with reasons that asserts the bestial nature of vampires in a way that "Interview With the Vampire" expressed through Louis, a vampire who doesn't enjoy his ordeal but is left with no choice. The horror is the same and yet we're more affected by the bullying endured by Oskar for a simple reason: it has none. And the film draws the line between human nature and animals: the latter kill for survival and the former destroy for fun, for the sake of it. The film doesn't exactly take side by sugarcoating the killings as Eli's victims are all innocent people and we're also given some insights about the ordeal of being a vampire, like what happens when they enter a room uninvited or what a mortal decides to do when she turns into one. Anyway, let's get to the final pivot which is the reveal.
When Oskar understands what Eli is, he doesn't change his mind, being an outcast made him empathize even more with her and being in love sure helps. Finally, the director anticipates the viewer' expectations and gets a closure on both the bullying and the romance, if all Eli's victims are innocent, it's not like the film is deprived of villains (the book from John Ajvide Lindqvist had even more) that could make the "killings" enjoyable to a pervert degree.
For instance, Oskar tries to improve physically and defend himself, in a key scene, he does get the upper hand on Conny and I almost felt sorry for the little brat, especially when Oskar is taking delight from the blood on Conny's ear like Cartman with Scott Tenerman's tears, as if bullying had already started to plant the bad seeds, as if the coming-of-age aspect of the story was to be sealed in bloody letters.
I have just completed a "bullying" chapter in my English courses (I'm a teacher) and among the consequences of bullying, like moving, depression and suicide, I wish I could be more complete and have "violence" as one of them or maybe the sheer enjoyment of violence. If the film avoids the cliché of making the victim a bully, the way the two plots converge in the climax left me both shocked and satisfied, which was quite disturbing.
Trust the Swedish school to make a horror film that toys with the notions of villain and victim, and makes violence understandable and satisfying without it being pleasurable or entertaining.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Complicated rather than complex, creepy rather than cryptic...
"Donnie Darko" is so full of layers and interpretations (and it's so weird too) that I don't know by which end to take it. In fact, i would be a lie to say that I wasn't taken by its cryptic mood and the performance of Jake Gyllenhaal but another to tell you that I'm in a hurry to watch it again.
First, it took me time not to turn my eyes away and accept the nightmare-inducing face of Harvey's ugly cousin Frank (did he have to be some damn creepy though? It was like having a recurrent close-up on "The Shining"'s bear-man).
Also there's something rather disconcerting in that journey within Donnie's psyche, set in 1988 during the lapse of time between thee mysterious falling of a plane engine right in his room and the pre-announced end of the world, what makes the bridge between these two instances is interesting and Gyllenhaal delivers a great performance but a little less would have been a little more and the "blame" goes to young writer/director Richard Kelly.
The irony is that I'm not dismissing the film because I didn't get it, but because I did... or at least I think, but this is not a matter of getting the film than embracing its cryptic mood and creepy Lynchian psychological undertones. Because Kelly's film is a psychological thriller, but it's labeled as science fiction as well and this makes sense since the film uses many time-travel archetypes although the least famous bits, but I wish it could make a choice between Darko's mental illness and his "mission", or at least find the right balance. And this comes from a time-travel buff.
Indeed, 13 years before Nolan's "Interstellar", Kelly explores the possibility of travelling through time by using portals between two tangent universes that don't interact but can let some remains or artefacts appear where (and when) they were not expected. If the right factors are combined, it is theoretically possible to go from a point A in a time t, to a point B in a time t minus something... and affect the time space continuum. Fair enough, so we have the travel, all we've got is to turn it into a mission and this is where Frank intervenes.
The horrific giant bunny convinces Donnie to basically prevent the end of existence. How would Frank be trustworthy? Well, if it wasn't for him awakening Donnie at night when the engine fell in his room, Donnie would be dead. So, Frank isn't your usual imaginary friend, he's a blessing in his life only to reveal that the rest of the world is cursed. But how would Donnie, a high school kid, know what to do to prevent the cataclysm? In fact, the other clues are provided by his entourage, a school teacher played by Drew Barrymore who mention cellar doors, another teacher who gives a book about the "philosophy of time travel", it's like everyone is either luring Frank into his final destination or maybe they're manipulated by the very instance that jeopardized the future of the world. Donnie is still the chosen one.
It's interesting to see Gyllenhaal playing a kid with all the makings of an outcast and yet who's so immersed in his little suburban cocoon that in the span of a month, understands everything. I confess I read a few things that helped me to get the film (including some trivia about black holes) but the last time I saw the film, eleven years ago, I understood the basics and therefore I could really enjoy it the second time for what it was, an interesting, although not flawless movie about upper-middle class life and a kid who's more a malcontent than some begging-for-attention weirdo or like that "American Beauty" voyeur. Gyllenhaal's acting (and Kelly's writing) combines the hidden anger with some subtle touches of sociability so that there's never a moment where Donnie crosses the line.
For instance, je makes valid points in his Smurfette rant and his relationships with his sister (played by sister in life Maggie) is more a display of vitriolic sibling's complicity than any real hostility. Donnie is actually at his most hostile when he tells his sports teacher (Beth Grant) what to do with her theories about fear and love and when he unveils the real face of her love-guru played by the late Patrick Swayze. If not substantial, these subplots show that Donnie is far from the cliché of middle-child syndrome in some dysfunctional family, the mother (Mary McDonnell) is attentive and patient, the father (Holmes Osborn) often cracks up to his son's shenanigans and both parents trust the therapist played by Katharine Ross. Donnie even gets the luxury of a girlfriend (Jena Malone) and their interaction were so sweet and genuine that I wondered what if the film had chosen another path? What if Frank was a hallucination with another purpose? What if the awaited twist was something else?
As soon as the mysterious wormholes appeared, all the true-to-life bits felts like decoys to cheap (though well executed) sensationalism. I feel guilty to criticize the film for the same reasons I enjoyed "Mulholland Dr." but Lynch had a whole different approach, he didn't make his film as accessible a Kelly who sins by showing and telling, and the film had a dreamy approach to its own theme, allowing us to penetrate the depths of their characters more than any needs or motives. Darko is as interesting as Naomi Watts in "Drive" but he's engulfed in a story that turns him into a pawn and a martyr rather than an existential character. Did he really have a choice given that the end of the world means his own?
The film is a celebrated cult-classic thanks to a terrific character and a terrific (terrifying too) story but I felt like both canceled each other, for a twist so ambitious it was underwhelming.
The Two Popes (2019)
Trying to listen to God's voice so hard you can't hear people...
I found "The Two Popes" a rather interesting movie even if it's for "shallow" reasons.
First, it's not everyday that we get a film focusing on the political "modus operandi" of the Vatican, its perspective on the world and a system whose existence lasted for twenty centuries, surviving wars, invasions, philosophy and Western relativism. So I would say that: speaking on a pure thematic and educational level, Fernando Meirelles' film is interesting to watch.
It's also interesting to have the part of Cardinal Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict, the only Pope to date who has resigned from his "office" played by the actor who played Richard Nixon. It's like Anthony Hopkins was born to play these misunderstood "well-meaning" figures with strong convictions minus the talent to communicate them. Benedict incarnates a system that has strong followers but inside walls so high they can't admit people with more liberal views. He's much aware of the social climate of his time and yet he refuses to let Church marry its age so it wouldn't be widowed in the next one. This is a gamble on the future he refuses, he's rigorist, categoric, technical... well, he's German.
Pope Francis is the opposite, he's a man of progress who would rather build bridge than walls, attract non-believers than reward devotees, a man who might have understood the pragmatic nature of compromising. He's from Argentine, a country of tango and football, a dance that takes two people to be performed, a sport of passion and spirit that takes a whole team... Benedict loves to play piano alone. But Francis also comes from a country that went through a horrific dictatorship that left as indelible stains as Germany during the war. Francis' soul didn't come unwounded from this time and was indirectly taught to listen more.
Jonathan Pryce's uncanny resemblance with Pope Francis is half the performance and I was enthralled by his gentleness, his open-mindedness and humility, and the way it was the perfect foil to Benedict's more rigid personality. The two Popes formed a great pair and their interactions were the soul of the film, to the point that the film seemed to take a whole different path whenever one of them was missing and not to something as interesting as their exchanges. I wouldn't have minded the film to be a sort of "Dinner with Andre" kind of movie, it loses its pace when it confronts us to Francis' past. I agree it's an important part but since Francis is such a spellbinding speaker, his words and his facial expressions were enough to convey the tragedy he went through, something like the "USS Indianapolis" speech.
I say this because this is a film that shines through its intellectual dynamics, the way the two Popes confront their views on how to lead the Church and represent Christianity, the two men are from different generations, one is still healthy, one can't barely moves (both literally and symbolically). Benedict shares the same conservatism with John Paul II without having his aura while Francis is a fan of sport, pizzas, the Beatles and even ABBA, he's got the humility, the non pretension to be a leader that makes his a natural born one. When you have two characters like this, with the right casting, it can't fail.
Anthony McCarten, the writer said he came from a Catholic family and was so shocked that a Pope would resign that it inspired him the script. The challenge was to make the dialogues believable although no one ever knew what was said during the encounters. So he got he idea of turning their statements, quotes from interviews and various declarations into dialogues so that everything they said was "indirectly" true so we get the genius of the script here, if not everything is believable, it's at least plausible. And then all you have to encrust it with some humorous bits and we get a fine entertainment.
So the parts that show the ascension of Francis were not necessary and might betray a desire from "City of God" to make something more 'spectacular' and 'Academic' than needed. Bene of he filmmaker to make the film more ambitious. Maybe the director of "City of God" was so carried away by the project he decided to make some multi-production à la Inarritu or Cuaron, and surely Netflix has the money to finance such projects but more introspection, intimacy and humility would have served the film better. It's very ironic that just after Francis' "throning", when he says the "Carnival is over"(a great line by the way), we get a flashy montage showing how big a star he became. His lack of Carnival-decorum became his 'trademark'.
So I liked the film as a collision of two schools, two visions of power and representation, Pryce' warmth and sensibility with Hopkins' dryness but vulnerability create a wonderful dynamic, a Papal tango culminating with a fun football-game watching. and both actors deserve Oscar nominations. The film is never as good as when they're together, they incarnate a very defining aspect of our time: it is very polarizing and divisive: pros vs. cons, liberals vs. conservatives etcit's getting more and more difficult to raise your voice or listen to the other. If only for this line "the hardest thing is to listen", I think the film deserves our attention.
Moneyball-management or the odd ways to beat sports odds...
"Moneyball", directed by Bennett Miller, respects the viewer's intelligence so much it elicits a rather unexpected non-emotional response towards sport. Sure it's one of these movies that are more about the business than the game and one thing for sure, the way odds never work as we expect is part of sports' beauty; still, the film isn't concerned about the beauty of the game.
First, I'm not American, so although I've seen countless movies about baseball, the game is still total mystery for me. However, I know one thing or two about the laws of odds when it comes to sport and the particular mechanisms of sport business to understand the following: just because something is logical on the paper doesn't make it bound to happen on the field. Let's take an example in a sport I know a little better: football, or as Americans call it: soccer.
Real Madrid had all the best players in the early 2000s: Zidane, Beckham, Figo and Raul to name these, it was their best team on the paper and yet from 2002 to 2006, before the Barça got Leo Messi, they didn't win the Spanish championship and they had to wait a whole decade before winning the Champions' League. Once again, all the boxes were ticked talent-wise but something was lacking in another department. And then they had Zidane as a coach for less than five years and they won the League four times, including a winning streak of three, a record. It couldn't be luck, it couldn't be the sole presence of Ronaldo who was there for at least five years before the first win, but something did catalyze his talent as well as the other players.
This example proves that sports obey to certain rules that are less about reuniting than managing talents together and sometimes, winning isn't made of having the best players by any means but by getting the best game from any players. Because even a Real fan would admit that the Barça had the best team. So it's not just a matter of being the best and if you get that, you'll get "Moneyball", a film that relates the 2001 2002 season when the Oakland A's beat the odds and broke a record of 20 consecutive victories thanks to a new unorthodox approach from the manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his right-hand man, Peter Brand, a nerdy expert in statistics played by Jonah Hill (both will be Oscar-nominated for their performances).
The duo defies the traditional scouting methods (consisting on picking the players with the best ratio of financial accessibility and ratings) through a new statistical approach of the game based on Excel tables and a meticulous examination of past results and combined percentages. So they manage to form an unlikely dream-team with players who were constantly overlooked, including some who never dreamed to play again. The core-idea is that at the right time with the right combination of factors, any team can win,;it all comes down to create these factors... and convince the no-nonsense coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to let the players play.
It takes a while to make this "omelet" of victory and of course, it doesn't go without breaking a few eggs, and a few egos. Among the many things Brand learns about the business is to tell a player that they let him "go" and the quicker he gets to the point, the better... nothing personal and strictly business. The catch of that (no pun intended) is that everything works like a business and makes Beane's situation antithetic to a certain vision of sports. The film gives us a few hints about his youth when he was a 'natural' (à la Redford) who had all the makings of a champion, who abandoned school to be a professional and for some reason, never really took off and became an infamous casting error.
Beane's paradox is that he had personal reasons to make his team win, he wants to matter for baseball and yet the methods he pulls are so mathematical, so rigorous that he reminds me of that quote about Ace Rothstein in "Casino" : "he was so serious about it all that I don't think he ever enjoyed himself" And that might be the irony of Beane, he takes the business so damn seriously that he seems dispassionate about the 'playing', only the outcome matters. It says a lot that he doesn't even watch the games. Pitt plays a paradoxical character whose hate for loss is stronger than his love for the game, which makes all the victories feel good and gratifying but not quite emotionally rewarding.
"Moneyball" was written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan and you can feel both the cold/methodical approach and the human/character study touch, at the end, we have someone so serious about his job he doesn't enjoy it a bit. And Pitt has a way to play these characters who seem detached even from things they supposedly enjoy; that he's divorced doesn't even surprise... if he handled his marriage with Robin Wright like he did with baseball. At the end, the only person who seems to bring genuine love and fun is his daughter (Kerry Dorsey), which shows the only facet of his life that isn't made of regrets and dreams of revenge.
Now, the film is based on a true story, which means it couldn't afford a different ending, but talk about irony in the end, we don't get the limits of Beane's approach of victory, but of "personal" victory, as an individual, not a manager. In fact, the ending proves him both right and wrong, and remind that just because you get the recipe doesn't make you a good cook for all that, and after all, even Zidane is struggling right now with Real Madrid.
"Moneyball" addresses audiences used to sports archetypes to better subvert them and through its philosophy of winning, it manages to create a rather uninspiring and depressing movie about underdogs, which is quite an achievement story-wise.
A "Wizard of Oz"-like tale, tailor-made for the 2000s...
Adapted from Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, Henry Selick's "Coraline" isn't a movie I would let my 6-year old daughter watch but it's only a matter of a few years as the film is certainly relevant for an audience over the age of 10. It is also entertaining, spectacular and dark and disturbing, a little less than "Pan's Labyrinth" but a little more than "Pinocchio".
This is a story about a pre-teen girl who feels (more than she is) neglected by her parents; not because they belong to the abusive sort but because they're all intensely absorbed by their personal project of making a garden catalogue and all their petty adult preoccupations regarding their new life in "Rose Palace", Oregon. The moral comfort of their daughter isn't the least of their concerns but surely any child would love to live near a forest with colorful and eccentric European artists as neighbors and in a house looking like the setting of a Scooby-Doo episode.
But Coraline isn't like any child... the titular heroine isn't a model of extraversion, nor is she your typical shy, insecure little girl who needs the presence of an imaginary friend to feel valuable or to make up for the lack of parental love. Coraline doesn't try to be pleasant, she's a self-centered, strong-willed girl who doesn't care about befriending the well-meaning house owner's grandson "Wybie" just because he's the only child around. In all this unpleasantness, it comes down to her most infantile trait being the most universal one: curiosity. Coraline is intrigued and fascinated by mysterious traps and doors, including one that opens on a bricked wall.
It is a well-known trope of many fantasy stories, the portal that leads to a different world materializing as a tornado in "The Wizard of Oz", a rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland" or a wardrobe in "Chronicles of Narnia"... like Alice, Dorothy or Wendy Darling, there's a predisposition in Coraline to envision a better world lying somewhere. And so we understand the stylistic choices of the opening sequence, all in depressing colors and autumnal mood to better highlight the contrast with the other world, like the sepia used for the Kansas part in "Oz". The film is told from Coraline's perspective and it's interesting how the atmosphere reflects her mood in a binary way, she enjoys the color and reject the boring grey, like a normal child would do.
The film has another similarity with "Oz", which is the presence of doubles for each character except for Coraline and a mysterious cat. It starts with an opening sequence involving the meticulous fabrication of a doll with hands that evoke needles and puncture. The making of a doll starts with the symbolic death of the first one emptied from her content, as if there was no possible form of life and pleasure without a necessary sacrifice to make. And with Bruno Coulais' haunting music, we suspect some creepy undertones behind the pleasantness of the doll that looks like Coraline.
And so many questions come to mind: does the hand belong to an omnipotent God-like figure? a villain? is the doll a friend? whatever purpose this opening sequence carries takes its full meaning once we know who possesses these needle-like hands. Of course, some would make the immediate connection with Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands" and the film came from the director of "Nightmare Before Christmas" whose idea originated from Burton. Henry Selick remains the unsung hero of an oeuvre that has so many Burton vibes his name was only known by movie lovers. But let's get back to "Coraline".
I guess there are two dimensions of appreciation : first it's a movie about a dream any child could have, better parents, living in a beautiful world full of fun and amusement. And the film follows the plotline of many tales like Pinocchio when children discover at their own expenses that for every dream, there's a price to pay. Discovering the other world through the portal, Coraline sees better versions of her parents, gentler, funnier, more dedicated to her wishes. The catch is that they are all doll-like figures with buttons instead of eyes, what starts as a cute little gimmick turns into a creepy and lifeless vision of "forced" beatitude.
So we get the other side of the coin, and the real coming-to-age aspect of the story is when the heroine understands that she better accepts her own people with their flaws than the so-called idealized vision, it's the usual "there's no place like home" with a subtitle for 2000's audience: "beware what you wish for.
Coming of age is the reason why this movie works more for children, just watch the different travels Coraline makes: first she bumps into the ideal world where she sees better versions of her parents and her neighbors, it's accidental. Then it's deliberate, she wants to have fun and has the time of her life admiring the circus, the ballet and musical numbers that remind of Disney extravaganza. After that; she understands the price she has to pay for the ideal world, which means abandoning a precious capability : to see things for real... later, she has to get back to save her parents. In four travels Coraline grows up and learns more about life and herself and becomes altruistic and mature.
This a wonderful evolution of character in the same vein than "Pan's Labyrinth" and all the classic tales I mentioned, one that teaches kids about the limits of imagination and idealization and where dolls are both attractive and creepy. Horror, fantasy, and fairy tale magnificently blend in Selick's film, a wonder of animation that proves how stop motion is such an underrated genre of animation, the same year than "Mary and Max", another movie about a child looking for a meaning to her daily life... until finding a meaning to life itself.
Kurosawa (more colorful and yet more somber than usual) shows the merit and limit of imagination...
"Dodes'kaden" was released five years after Kurosawa's last movie "Red Beard" but in his epic body of work scale, if only a pure aesthetic level, the film could have as well been made fifteen years later.
What startles first is the absence of Toshiro Mifune (he wouldn't collaborate with Kurosawa again) and Takashi Shimura and all the stacked actors we were familiar with. All new faces: from the gentle husband with nervous mannerisms and his bullying wife to the elderly wise man who helps a burglar and gives a depressed man faith in life, from the father of five children who rumor says aren't his own to the Greek chorus of women doing laundry and gossiping about the mysteriously catatonic but oddly handsome artist, from the lively prostitutes to the drunkards who swap wives and philosophical comments on life... so many hidden depths revealing no less hidden depths about human nature.
The second shock is the departure from the black-and-white, Kurosawa was a painter deep inside so he doesn't take colors for granted and uses them to paint a rich palette of characters living in Japanese suburban slums, that and a certain personal vision combined with their own visions at times in pure expressionist tradition. It's surprising how we're drawn into these people by inhabiting their own world, starting with the 'local idiot' who spends the whole film mimicking both a trolley and a conductor, using the Japanese clickety-sound of "Dodes'kaden".
Once again, the line between lunatic is genius is thin: we get it that the boy is challenged but there's an interesting shift between the opening sequence showing his drawings of trolleys, all in rich and bright colors so typical of childhood, but relatively motionless. Once the kid starts to embrace his own poetry and gets his "trolley" ready, with a body language that evokes both Chaplin (for the gentleness) and Keaton (for the precision), the camera moves, faster and faster, we're taken to his ride and the film starts to drain the energy that will come at hand to understand the other players.
Yes, it's childish, weird and rudimentary but we're taken within that creative weirdness as if cinema was an art that called for such daringness and maybe Kurosawa is preparing us to something unusual like Bergman did with his "Persona". And like Bergman's film, the film opens with a mother-and-son moment, a prayer so "mechanical" that suggests the birth of cinema as an expresion that couldn't just rely on meditative and contemplative format but on sound and words. By the way, the first time I saw the film, I was immediately caught by that trolley Candide and going to the kitchen to get my dinner, I was repeating "dodes'kaden", that was almost 9 years ago but it was one of the two images that stuck to my mind.
The other image was pretty horrifying, I remembered a man and his kid with horrible greenish faces and a sort of nightmarish psychedelic imagery, the flipside of the uplifting and joyful spirit of our trolley friend. The father spends time dreaming with his kid about the house they'll built, he's a poet, looks like one, his vision of the big house is shown like some sort of imagery with a Hollywood score that kind of sets he distance with the Americanized version of poverty despite his Chaplinian roots, what awaits the kid is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film, that and the father whose traits gets maligned by gross lighting and outrageous make-up of color if he went maybe too far into his own imagery. When he got too close, I covered my eyes.
So the parallel between the poet father and the trolley kid is interesting, both try to drives themselves away from misery, one went too far he alienated himself (looked even like an alien) and one drove in a circular way getting back to the starting point, ironically preventing himself from delusion and giving a meaning to his life even within the realm of meaninglessness. Maybe there's the idea that in places where things don't move and are meaninglessness, only dreams can allow you to move as if in motion lied the meaning. The film starts with the trolley guy being trapped by many corridors and rectangular frames before finding his "freedom" outside. The kid and his father lived outside but that lack of commitment to a local emphasized their dream so much that it destroyed them.
"Dodes'kaden" is an assemblage of little slices of life that seem rather circular and motionless but together they create a whole of themselves where we feel like life is an eternal struggle between reality and the imagination. The kids' drawings are the convergence between both, how a simple trolley can look so colorful and motionless but so existent when we follow it through the kid's mime, that's the merit of the the local idiot who like the titular "Idiot" in 1951, shines a light on "normal" people. It's possibly because of Kurosawa's own sense of exaggeration that he could allow humanism implode from his portrayal of men whose life didn't go anywhere, apart from forging a sense of reality that could be compatible with their dreams.
It's just as if Kurosawa shows both the merit and the limit of escapism as if he was himself aware of the chances he was taking by making this film, whose failure lead to a suicide attempt, so you better believe the filmmaker who had proved the world so much had still to prove to himself. Perfectionist as always and humanistic, that goes without saying, so the film might disorient some new or old fans, cast-wise and style-wise, but if not his best, it's certainly his richest and deepest film.
And here ends my 1600th IMDb review.
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
A wannabe classic romance, more designed to please the MTV Movie Awards...
Ebert once said about "The Usual Suspects" that to the extent he understood what was going on, he didn't care. I found that judgment to be a bit unfair but I've got to be honest, it perfectly summarizes my feeling about "A Life Less Ordinary", a film I wouldn't have cared about if it wasn't for a colleague telling me it's one of her favorite and lending me the DVD so I could watch it during the weekend. Talk about diplomatic pressure, I needed to see it twice, one time I didn't get everything and the second I did but it didn't enhance the initial feeling.
What's the film about? A deadbeat wannabe writer named Robert (Ewan McGregor) put in an imbroglio leading him to pretend he's kidnapping a rich girl named Celine (Cameron Diaz) and together they go for a road trip where the Police look after them, Celine's father (Ian Holm) want him dead and two angels assigned the mission to make them (of all the persons in the world) fall in love. Why we never know but in that bureaucratic white-clad heaven, orders are orders, Gabriel (Dan Hedaya) is the authority and neither Holly Hunter nor Delroy Lindo want to lose their jobs. And so starts their mission to save the institution of marriage.
Watching the film, I kept wondering why? Why this? The film isn't exactly "Badlands" or "Natural Born Killers", it does channel David Lynch's "Wild at Hart", Steven Spielberg's "Always" (with Holly Hunter in a similar role) and it has the same existential vibes as "Raising Arizona" with Boyle paraphrasing his own style from "Trainspotting". Yet the film never really takes off. For one reason, it doesn't have any staple, any character to relate to, love that is put on a pedestal is only supposed to save two angels who are not likable in the first place and unite two people who have nothing in common whatsoever.
Think of "True Romance", for all its bizarreness and stylish dialogues, it was a true romance indeed. All the aforementioned movies had the pretension to be romantic but I'm afraid "A Life Less Ordinary" tried too much to replicate some previous successes that it should have tried to be more ordinary to be more original, and not some exercise in style where every single moment is an installment of weirdness with a shot that aims for posterity. You could call the dance sequence begged to be the successor of "Pulp Fiction" twist scene.
And yet for all its attempt to be memorable, it's very telling that the film isn't exactly well remembered and that Cameron Diaz will be more remembered for her karaoke scene that same year in "My Best Friend's Wedding". She's radiant and unbelievably sexy in the film but her character is never really inviting for empathy, from the start she acts like a spoiled rich girl which makes the appreciation of her feelings toward Robert rather problematic, it tells something that it took two angels sent from Heaven (and not good angels at that). As for Ewan McGregor, It's hard to accept a character like Robert after Renton in "Trainspotting" and his haircut was perhaps the least inspired after Al Pacino in "The Godfather Part III".
What else to say? Maybe with a different mindset and a few cans of beer, I would have enjoyed it a little more... The soundtrack is great though and the stunt work is impressive, but Boyle was so busy making something original he forgot one basic element of filmmaking: telling a compelling story. Well, maybe the story had potential... and the execution is to blame. It's good in in its entertaining way, a MTV movie award entertaining but I hope Boyle didn't aim for the Golden Palm with that?!
A tad too melodramatic at times but a fine precursor to the masterpieces to come...
Akiro Kurosawa's "Scandal" was released in 1950, the same year than "Rashomon" which makes its relative lack of fame understandable albeit unfair, because in its own modest way, "Scandal" marks a transition between Kurosawa's neo-realistic movies such as "Stray Dog" and "Drunken Angel" and international recognition. You can even feel some announcing signs of the revolution named "Rashomon"... from the very first scene.
Ichioro Aoye is painting in the mountains, watched by three rustic and colorful mountaineers who can't understand why the mount he's painting is red. Because it's moving, says Aoye. The idea that painting couldn't represent reality baffles them, foreshadowing the conflict to come. Then occurs a strange meeting with a renowned singer Miyako Sajio, played by Shirley Yamagushi. She's lost, the bus will be late, Aoye offers her a ride to the hotel on his motorbike. Later, two paparazzi from tabloid magazine "Amour" take a picture of Sajio and Aoye in a balcony.
And so begins the scandal.
At first, the film has a strange Kazanian feel reminding his films about the power of media, in one side, the offended righteous couple and opposing them, the sleazy paparazzi owner with a grin, invoking freedom of press in a media joust presented like a ping-pong montage of interviews (instead of the usual spinning headlines). There's something oddly American in this modern Japan, that went as far as adopting the standards of America such as Santa Claus, "Silent Night" and even "Auld Lang Syne". It's not much the presence of America than the loss of values and poetry Kurosawa denounces. There's something wrong indeed when people can be fooled by a static photograph but not see the poetry in a painting.
The still photo moved more than Aoie's vision of the mountain.
It's that context of twisted and distorted reality that made Japan lose its boundaries and if you look at it carefully, this is the very basis of "Rashomon", the idea that what you see, what you take for granted might only be a matter of perspective. Applying this logic to the picture, and knowing for a fact the article is a bunch of lies made to sell paper, we can't help but feel from our perspective that there's some genuine guilt within the couple, they might have fallen in love after all. It's then a matter of honor, the point is to be responsible for what you show and whether you're criticized for the way you do it is irrelevant if the intent is sincere.
Kurosawa was more celebrated outside Japan maybe because he was closer to Aioe painting his mountain, never a paparazzi forging the truth, and boy, did his pictured shake the world.
And when the media circus calms down, a down-on-his-luck lawyer named Hiruta, played by Takashi Shimura, offers his help. Aioe is perplexed at first and it's only after he meets Hiruta's young tuberculous daughter Masako (Yôko Katsuragi) terminally ill, that he lets Hiruta defend him. Masako is a central character as she represents the morality, innocence and purity being lost in post-WW2 Japan, a delicate and soulful girl who sees no bad without ignoring its existence and paradoxically, she's also the trigger of her father's moral downfall as he takes bribes from the adverse party to slow the trial, needing money to cure them.
So just when we think we're having a courtroom drama, Kurosawa surprises his own audience. The narrative loses focus on the trial and turns into a character study of guilt and redemption through he overly pathetic Hiruta. Sometimes truly heartbreaking, sometimes grotesque with his constant snorting and self-loathing (he was inspired by a man Kurosawa used to encounter in a bar), sometimes even annoying with his sorry look and bent posture, it's a first taste of "Ikiru" that kind of drag down during ten minutes before the film takes its breath back.
The focus on Hiruta proves that Kurosawa doesn't care for ideas than people, it's one thing to comment on Japan's declining values but to show it through a personal tragedy is the real craft of the Master. After all, even in "Rashomon", the story would have been pointless if it wasn't for that emotional finale with the two men.
So honor, life and death have been recurring themes in all Kurosawa's filmography and the evolution and redemption of Hiruta is the soul of the film, the internal battle between principles and money. The film carries some noir undertones with journalists posing like verbal gangsters but ultimately, the film is about the way people should conduct themselves, it's about men doing their job with commitment and responsibility. "Drunken Angel" had a doctor who cared for an ill man though he was a criminal, "Stray Dog" was about a cop who lost a gun and feared the bullets would make collateral victims, "Scandal" has singers, painters, professionals who, whether lawyers or journalist, have a responsibility to face (notice that even the bad guy's lawyer is more competent and ethical than his opponent).
That responsibility is materialized in Kurosawa's camera, one picture can destroy people's lives, but in another scene, Hiruta sees the picture of his daughter before taking a bribe and can't even look straight at her. What you see can also warn you about what you are and Kurosawa painted his own truth with the empathy of a true humanist. Another example is when Hiruta comes late at home, he sees Sajio singing a Xmas song and she's framed by the door as a screen vignette within the shot, as if that moment was encapsulating his own personal alienation.
So "Scandal" is about what people perceive and how they're perceived in return, and in this overlapping of realities, somewhere the truth exists and tending to it is a moral responsibility and art is the perfect accessory as long as it's used sincerely. Indeed a fine precursor to "Rashomon", and to use a hackneyed formula, an underrated little gem.
Marriage Story (2019)
Scenes From a Broken Marriage ...
40 years after "Kramer vs. Kramer", here comes Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story", a well-written, well-directed and certainly well-acted movie tackling the difficult subject of divorce and through it marriage, responsibility... and love. That the film is a major Oscar contender doesn't surprise me but I like what that critical acclaim reflects: a movie about divorce must obey to higher standards of filmmaking than any drama subgenre; many are masterpieces such as Farhadi's "Separation" or Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage".
The point of a divorce film isn't to take sides, you've got to show two persons with their strengths, flaws, the qualities they take for granted and weaknesses they don't suspect. The three-dimensionality you bring up to the characters and the way they interact through conflicts, tenderness or awkward moments have the challenging complexity of an emotional Rubik-cube game. A quote in "Marriage Story" says "crime lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst" and that's the point: marriage movies insist on flaws that are only flipsides of qualities.
And so the film starts beautifully with two monologues from each of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlet Johansson), describing what they like best in each other. The descriptions insist on so many details that it's impossible not to relate to both of them, I often brew tea I end up not drinking like Nicole and I'm a bad loser when it comes to games like Charlie. The opening monologues are exposition masterstrokes (with a twist at the end), allowing us to know about the couple, their roles as parents and their jobs: Charlie is a theater director who found a muse in Nicole, a previous TV star who abandoned her dreams for Charlie.
Together they had a child named Henry (a reference to Justin Henry who played Billy in "Kramer"?), the kid played by Azhy Robertson, is obviously the sinews of the war. Since Charlie lives and works in New York and Nicole stars in a TV show shot in L.A., much more they married in L.A. and it's Henry's birthplace, there's more at stakes than a matter of custody. Charlie wants Henry back to New York but Nicole's rising career is in L.A.. The battle opens with promises never to go to court but we know it's a matter of inevitability. The trick is that no one wants to accuse the other of bad parenting, nor to brag about being the better parent, it's all about saying what's best for the kid.
But can any parent be that objective when it comes to the child? Spending more time with his mother, Henry's bias leans in her direction while Charlie becomes the stranger who does his best to accommodate him. It takes someone who's gone through divorce to understand Charlie's situation. I see my own daughter twice every month during weekends and half the holidays, and whenever I see her I feel forced to satisfy her caprices, which is not the right way to educate, but since you're put in a situation where you want to live the moment to its fullest and not spoil it, you spoil your kid.
And when the kid behaves badly, you almost take it as an affront... and must endure people who pretend not to judge your parenting and you know they do. That's the paradox of divorce, you try to display the best parenting and yet it might be perceived as the worst like in that sequence where Charlie is being observed and does his best to avoid complications... that ultimately happen. Divorce complicates relationships and I'm glad a film could show it so remarkably, with brutality or humor.
I saw "Kramer" with my then-wife and she ended up (to my surprise) rooting with Ted while I kind of empathized with Joanna, especially her suffocation through marital commitment and wish to find herself. It's important not to make a conflict binary and this is why the "character study" is important, why we should understand someone's inner personalities. Charlie is an artist who's dedicated to his art in a disciplined manner, Nicole is a dreamer who needs to be her own master. Together they love each other but here's what I said about Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage":
"While loving someone is a genuine feeling, being married implies duties whose applications might interfere with our inner personalities. Whether it's sex life, success and dreams, they can be undermined by marital life. The danger is to start looking at the man or the woman of our life as the one who's sinking it into the abysses of routine and conventions."
That's how Nicole started to look at Charlie and vice versa, that's the way she describes him in a bravura speech where she tells her lawyer (a scene-stealing Laura Dern) how she feels about him, and a later moment where Charlie vents his anger on Nicole and culminates with a wish to see her die, before busting into tears. I love that he regained his composure and said "sorry" and that Nicole didn't even take it badly, it's for subtle moments like this that I think the film should take home a few golden boys. Driver has a raw natural magnetism and Johannson is given the most difficult role and both are perfect in acting naturally and also unnaturally. The best 'actors' being the lawyers.
As someone who went through these stages of bargains through love letters, these moments where we cry ourselves to sleep, anger when we blame the other for failing the marriage vows and we realize we won't see our children regularly, when we even miss the in-laws, the film is poignantly cathartic even in a resigned state.
And I mentioned the notion of "acting" in marriage, maybe the real act of fidelity in marriage is to be faithful to yourself in the first place. What Charlie and Nicole achieve at the end.
Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960)
A tale of executives, executions... and bureaucratic Omerta!
"The Bad Sleep Well" is Akira Kurosawa's second handling of the film noir genre after "Stray Dog" in 1949 and three years before "High and Low" in 1963. These two films were gripping documentary-like police procedurals. In contrast, "The Bad Sleep Well", with its intriguing title and loosely Hamletian undertones, shows the way these procedurals can be made useless by the sheer power of bureaucratic Omerta... and I'm not using the word in vain.
The film is perhaps the most noirish of the three in its vitriolic depiction of corporate corruption, showing us the other side of modern Japan's coin where hierarchy governs not most but all of its institutions, family included. In fact, what the film accomplishes through the precise and uncompromising eye of Kurosawa's camera and a tight (if not somewhat tedious) script, reminds me of a classic among the classics: "The Godfather" and Coppola must have loved "The Bad Sleep Well".
The film is about a bunch of corporate executives in the Construction and Land Development business using their influence, wealth and occasionally disguised threats to hide a kickback scheme that occurred seven years ago. There's the Vice President Iwabushi, the Administrative Officer Moriyama, the Assistant-to-the-Chief Wada, the Contract Officer Shirai, each man representing a stratus protecting the upper layer from collapsing the higher you are, the safer you get, which plays exactly like the Mafia vertical organization with soldiers and "buffers" ... some execute and some are executed. The bad indeed sleep well.
"Ikiru", which is certainly Kurosawa's most acclaimed modern movie, hid behind its existential message an assertive comment against public bureaucracy. "The Bad Sleep Well" goes even further by subverting the clichés about Japanese's discipline with some employees going as far as sacrificing their lives. There's a moment where the accountant receives a message that says grossly "we'll take care of you, everything will be all right", and then he ultimately throws himself under a passing bus.
It's not often that you have two "Godfather" references in one, the message reminded me of the last talk between Tom Hagen and Frank Pentangeli in "Part II" and the sound of the truck coming with the close-up on the ma n's" face echoed the climax of the restaurant scene. And if the "Godfather" trilogy was about gangsters posing as respectable men, "The Bad Sleep Well" is about respectable men acting like gangsters. And I'm not done with the comparisons, the most notable one is the opening sequence with a wedding that makes the exposition elements flow without feeling too forced.
Snarky reporters are covering the wedding between the daughter of Iwabushi, played by Masayuki Mori (I couldn't believe it was 9 years after his youthful appearance in "The Idiot") and Nishi, a quiet and discreet secretary played by Toshiro Mifune. The girl has a lump and rumor has it that Nishi married her out of interests (they're half right actually). And so the wedding allows us to place names in face and a few incidents set up the action: an untimely arrest, Ibawushi's son Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi) makes a speech where he threatens to kill Nishi if he ruins his sister's life but the icing of a cake is the wedding cake itself. In place of the real one, a cake representing the company's building is served, a rose placed in the seventh floor from which an employee jumped to his death, ending an investigation for corruption. "This marks the end of a one-act play," says a reporter "are you kidding?", retorts his colleague, "this is only a prologue".
And so the prologue ends and the action takes off through a series of incidents suggesting that there's a mole in the company who know about the events that occurred seven year ago, who ordered the cake to send a message and who's up to something. The film features one of the most elaborate schemes, a strategy of destruction whose many tactics include the disguise of Wada's disappearance into suicide. In a later scene, the man is allowed to assist his own funeral and hear his employees gloating at his death. Shirai is then gaslighted to the point that you almost feel sorry for him. Finally, Moyamari (Takashi Shimura) is forced to reveal where the dirty money by simply being starved. I had often wondered why no one thought of extorting money with a simple glass of water, glad a film thought of it.
Of course, it doesn't take long to reveal the perpetrator of all these actions, but more importantly his motive. It's obviously Nishi, the central protagonist, and it's easy to make the parallel with the seventh floor's death and his thirst for revenge but the best thing about the film is how conflicted Nishi is. He has obviously married the daughter to approach a man who is his enemy and with time, his sentiments grow. Moreover, even Wada starts to empathize with his actions and advise him against not becoming like the men he fight. The problem of Nishi is that his actions destroy the father of a person he cares for and ironically turns him into a character who, if not morally bad, uses the same tools than his enemies. It doesn't make him worse but his own morality is put in the film's equation.
Nishi's playful whistling is the film's musical leitmotif, suggesting that he's "enjoying" what he does to a limit. We do "enjoy" the way he toys with these serious men's sanity and sense of immunity and the film while two hours and half long, finds a way to draw us in Nishi's action. But the game stops near the third act, when his intentions are revealed, and the enemies fight back.
Now, I'm still puzzled by the ending, to the point I wondered whether it's the best or the worst thing about the film. One thing for sure, when it ended with that head being bowed and the title appeared, I was nodding mine.
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..."