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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!
To overcome Blue Monday and daily morosity in general, which of these cinematic happy-go-lucky optimists and half-full glasses philosophers would most help you to look at the bright side of life?
(the question and answer can be delivered by the same character in one single quote)
The exchange shouldn't exceed four sentences, otherwise we're not talking about quotes but about dialogue, so sorry for the Pulp Fiction (1994) fans but the iconic "What" sequence between Jules and Brett is ineligible for this poll.
Want to discuss it? -It's here my friend."
* FF in the texts ** IMDb exists since 1990
So, from these 12 justice-related films (as in 12 Jurors), ranked in order of IMDb ratings, which one do you plead guilty of liking the most?
Indeed, "MITM" broke many grounds, being one of the first family sitcoms to really set itself apart from the usual clichés and feature a totally unredeemable, dysfunctional family, and get rid (for the first time) of (what used be obligatory) a laugh-track, but I guess most people remember it for being the series that really revived Bryan Cranston's career. Well, if only for that, the series deserves a little tribute.
So, as the title says, were you a fan of "Malcolm in the Middle"?
So, which of these 10 trick to improve your indie film, would you pick? Remember, you have no pretension to make THE film, your masterpiece, or your personal story ... you just want it to be "memorable" enough to launch your career.
It's to this long forgotten period set after the Hanna-Barbera's Golden Age and before the Pokemons, that this poll pays tribute. Now, some of the series I had the privilege to grow up with, have already been adapted to movies, among them "TNMT", "Inspector Gadget", "The Smurfs" and "Transformers" and I concede that the results didn't always match our expectations.
But maybe this is because the producers didn't pay attention to the series with greater potential. Personnally, I've always wondered why I could never see Lawrence Fishburne playing 'Bullet-Proof' in a movie adaptation of "C.O.P.S" or how come an environmentalist cartoon like "Captain Planet" was never given a chance to enlighten the younger generations about the dangers that threaten our planet. Go figure why.
But here's the question: which of these (forgotten?) 80's/90's animated series would make the most awesome live-action adaptation?
PS: I'm fully aware that this poll might only please those who were born between the late 70's and late 80's (20% according to the last poll I suggested) but I suspect even those who were born before and after (re-runs exist, don't they?) will be familiar with some of these titles.
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The Bored Office Worker and the Desperate Housewife...
If you don't know it from experience, you know from movies that marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be. I used to fill the ranks of optimists who saw it as a whitewater rafting with a few rapids to ride when it's closer to drifting across an ocean of routine, punctuated by loud hurtful arguments and a few tender 'sorry' or 'I love you' to conceal the wounds. Films are never as haunting as when they reflect the turbulence of your own life. And watching Sam Mendes' "Revolutionary Road" was like a slap from my mirror.
Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet are Frank and April Wheeler, young, loving and good-looking. They share everything: car, bed, house, lawns and kids to play in, but in their lucid moments, they realize their solitude. In a spectacularly directed scene, a wave of men with gray flannel suits are literally spreading over New York streets, The Knox building exudes some Billy Wilder's Apartment" vibes while the crowd shots gives the film a surrealistic touch, channeling the famous Magritte painting with the men with bowler hats. Frank is like a lemming caught in a crowd and about to accomplish his daily suicide over the cliff, he sits down in his cubicle and can only gets his kicks by acting like a 'big shot' in front of an easily impressionable secretary.
April can breathe fresh air every day, but with the fathers at work and kids at school, suburbs look like ghost towns, a feeling of total emptiness is inevitable and ends up invading April. Frank is a face in a crowd who doesn't have time, April has time and space but she's tied to Frank. Both are married but terribly alone. Now, loneliness can be a door for as many rooms as opportunities, but in marriage, the door is locked and you're trapped in one room: marital, existential dead-end.April dreamed to be an actress but in the 50's, Hollywood was like TV, many called and few chosen. The film opens with a flop that draw the curtain on her dreams and after many attempts to consulate her, Frank finally lets this out and invites her to abandon this 'theatre' nonsense.
The couple buys a nice suburban house in "Revolutionary Road", their real estate agent, played by Kathy Bates who, have found the perfect house for the perfect postcard-couple. But we know what that facade of happiness can hide the ugliest realities. Sam Mendes made the great "American Beauty", a social commentary about the suburban American life, made of ersatz of contentment and where families could only lead carbon-copy lives dictated by consumerism and pretending to have a 'normal' life because they're too afraid to question the norm. But we're no fools, we see these men and women talking about kids, eating, sleeping or having sex but they're only making an effort to hide their disillusions.
In "Revolutionary Road", the roles are reversed, it is April, who suggests Frank to abandon everything and go to Paris, she'll find a job in the Embassy and he'll have time to figure out what he wants to do. Frank is tempted to a certain degree: he knows he has no talent, the only certitude is that he hates his job, that meaningless job he can't even explain in proper words, that sucked the life out of his father, making him swear to himself he'd never fall in the same death trap. But as a coach told me once, we're sometimes better than we think at things we hate, and Karma plays quite a trick on him by giving him a raise and a promotion. Frank is like a Lester Burnham in terms of awareness but not in the action and this is where "Revolutionary Road" stands out among the other marriage movies, this is one about inaction rather than action.
Indeed, it is about a wife who wants to go to Paris without a plan, and a man who can't because he's scared, they know what they hate and they share the same hatred, but there's a crucial difference: April won't go to Paris to be happy, she'll be happy if she goes to Paris, Frank anticipates and thinks the remedy is worse than the disease, he can't see that his wife gave him a tacit ultimatum, she reached the existential dead-end before him. It is very appropriate that the only person in the movie to tell the truth and to make sense is an insane man played by Michael Shannon. He can see the gateway to escape from the inconvenient truth, and sweeps off Frank's justification with a cruel verdict: "you deserve each other".
They know he's right but can't admit, and that's the terrible truth of marriage: it forces you to keep silent. The ending left me puzzled what's with that old man listening while his wife was babbling, but then I realized it wasn't random; the point was that many marriages looked exactly the same, forcing people to pretend to live happy. In the 50's, the American family model was the norm but looking at the way people smoked and drank and had affairs with their secretaries or neighbors, you realize that not much have changed, today, it's porn and Internet. The cures changed not the symptoms.
"Revolutionary Road" is more relevant than ever, it speaks devastating truths about bored office workers and desperate housewives, and as someone who actually followed his wife to a 'Paris' scenario, let me tell you that it didn't work either, I'm still figuring out what I'm made for and life is still routinely. So I can say that April and Frank were doomed from the start, and the tragedy is that they certainly loved each other.
I had just seen "Romeo and Juliet" recently (and the remake with Leo) and the more marriage movies I watch, the more I wonder if it the play had such a tragic ending after all.
In Love as in War: No Holds Barred!
The 1966 classic was about two couples whose relationships were so corrupted on an emotional level that they didn't have trouble using one other for hurtful purposes. I find the kinship too evident to be ignored, I could even find shades of Richard Burton fusing from the caveman charisma of Clive Oven, while Jude Law embodied the more sensitive side of manhood, at least, on the surface. I can mention the two female protagonists but don't get fooled, this is a man's film, the hearts of the two women are the elements at stakes forging the real rivalry between two schools of male sensitivities, the same premise with a female director would have totally changed the face of the story. But as a guy, I really 'felt' the film.
Jude Law is Dan, the intellectual or the artist, he's got that brooding hypnotic smile of a man constantly caressing the dream of becoming an acclaimed writer, from the obituaries he wrote, he developed a talent for euphemism and smooth talks. He falls in love with Alice (Natalie Portman) a strip-tease dancer who left New York after a break-up, and immediately, he opens up his weaknesses, displays the kind of modesty that is so exaggerated that it obviously confines to pride, but it works with Alice. It works because she is young and impressionable, she can see the game Dan is playing but she's enjoying it actually, she's not naive about men but so disillusioned about herself she indulges to childish lucidity and let him have the upper hand. So, when he announces his decision to leave her because he loves Anna (Julia Robert), she's angry but she can't hate him.
She should have reasons to hate him, all he sees in Anna is that she's not Alice, she's harder to get, she's mysterious, she's taller and more mature, she doesn't need him and he needs her for that. Dan is a writer who sees life as a narrative and needs to earn his love, to be in control. Anna is a photographer and a well-established artist, but she feels like a hack, she only pretends to have talent while one can say she doesn't add to the beauty shown in her picture. To a certain degree, she's closer to Alice in terms of disillusions. It all comes to three persons who are not honest about themselves and Larry (Owen) the fourth force of the film is introduced because Dan pretends to be Anna on a chat-room and has a sexual chat with him. Larry, thinking he'll meet a nymphomaniac slut meets Anna. The real bitch is Karma.
It's appropriate that Larry has the only regular job as a doctor. He's not an intellectual, he's manly, he's sexual and sensual, he exudes self-confidence but is distraught when he realizes that his rival is the baby-faced Jude Law. But as a guy, he can see behind his facade, when Anna leaves him, his manhood is hurt because Anna seems to be literally possessed by Dan and under the questionings of Larry, she reveals how good a lover he was, among many details. Larry fuels himself with enough anger and sadness so he can prepare his revenge on Dan. It's a matter of raw territoriality; he needs to possess his woman back and teach Dan one thing or two about women. While there's no good or bad people in the film, you can tell Dan and Anna are the one who're taught a lesson.
See the way they confess their infidelities, as sorry as they are, the hearts isn't in it. They don't believe their own words; they just wait for the angry comment before moving forward. Everything is said for a purpose that can be either sincerity or fun. When Anna is about to leave Larry, she tells him that Dan is a gentler lover, when she gets back to Larry, she reveals that Dan is a mama's boy who weeps after sex so much for sincerity and sharing secrets. Larry throws that in Dan's face, triumphantly. He got Anna back by having sex in exchange of the divorce, Anna pitied him but he knew having sex would arouse Dan's old insecurities because a man who wants to be in control can't accept a partial possession, Larry even affords the luxury to hit the final nail by having sex with Alice. Dan loses Alice not because of the act but the resulting suspicion.
The real character's arc closed here is Alice, she's the one who changes, who comes to age, the film starts and ends with her, as a girl who'll never be used. Dan realizes that he lost his love because of his own jealousy and might become a better man. Anna got back to him, maybe she thought she didn't deserve better butt he played the game and used her and Dan with incredible dexterity, saving Alice in the process. Clive Owen and Natalie Portman were given some of the best roles of their career, rightfully Oscar-nominated, even the script deserved a few nods because I've seen movies with marital arguments but rarely that rang as true as the one between Larry and Anna, this is a film that talk broadly about sex, understands the adults to the point of showing them playing dirty games, unintentionally or not. When Larry tells Dan that he had sex with Alice, there was something of Burton's smile after he had just played 'Get the guests'.
If the four characters of "Closer" seem less troubled and ill-intentioned than "Virginia Woolf', they all seek love in a way we can suspect to be genuine and sincere, but during this four-year journey, the streak of betrayals will reveal how twisted our actions can be in the name love and the limits of the so-called selflessness of love. It's a dirty game where the ends justify the means.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Movies like "Moulin Rouge!" (or more recently, "La La Land") are so lavishly designed and stylishly directed that the simplicity of their stories is no coincidence, they are well-crafted forms of entertainment meant to arouse emotions rather than thoughts.
Indeed, while I'm not a professional on editing or filmmaking, what I gathered from years of cinematic dedication is that complex, multi-layered, character-driven stories generally call for straightforward directing, so that the form doesn't distract from the content. In other words, there's a time for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and another for "Chinatown", and I can't think of a good movie that is both exceedingly directed and written (with the exception of "Citizen Kane").
Can we take for granted that people know "Romeo and Juliet" so well that a few artistic licenses won't hurt, or are actually needed? Is it such an iconic story that it can sustain every narrative form without undermining the emotional bingo of the end? Well, I'm not sure the story is self-sufficient, while watching Leo as Romeo (talk about predestination in that rhyming) challenging Tybalt (John Leguizamo), shouting Shakespeare's lines with such passion I could hardly understood what he said, I was wondering if the movie wouldn't have worked as well or better had they been swords instead of guns, Verona instead of Verona Beach and good old Renaissance as the time setting.
And it's precisely because Leonardo Di Caprio was an excellent Romeo, in his pre-"Titanic" fame years with the youthful charm, the wide-eyed innocence, the eyebrow-raising enthusiasm and penetrating sadness, he was a baby-faced young man who could easily pass as a teenager. The rest of the casting was competent, honorable mention to Leguizamo who looked as passionately angry as his 1968 counterpart Michael York, and to Paul Sorvino and Pete Postlewhaite. Claire Danes paled in comparison but not to the point of ruining the film. What did spoil the film a little was actually its own reason to be, Baz Lhurmann!" thought that Shakespeare's romance needed a rejuvenation treatment, as if it wasn't modern enough for younger audiences.
The problem is that the story has been modernized already, like Kurosawa made adaptations of "Macbeth" and "King Lear", "Romeo and Juliet" inspired good movies like "West Side Story" or "China Girl", love stories with a gang war as the backdrop. In fact any interesting romance inevitably revolves around star-crossed lovers, any romance owes a bit to "Romeo and Juliet" which owed to all the romantic heritage of the past centuries. So you either remake "Romeo and Juliet" or you adapt it, there is rarely an in-between solution. Lurhmann took the challenge and it's laudable, but his "Romeo + Juliet" couldn't be a total remake or it would have been a second "West Side Story", it was doomed to be half-Shakespeare, half-something else.
And the problem is that the text didn't match the setting, no matter how hard it tried like replacing the narrator by a TV announcer. It was so busy reminding you that this is the Shakespeare play in its academic version (same lines) that it became unchained to its premise, while in any of the previous adaptations; the romance was the focal point, not its kinship with the original story. It came to the point that the 'Trainspotting'-like editing, the pop music, the opera, the shootouts, the awkward mix between modern settings and Renaissance-expressions becomes a sort of gimmick that overshadowed the story. The form detracted from the story, and the heart of "Romeo and Juliet" is the story. If you're not emotionally involved, it's over.
And the film could still win the audiences, had it not ruined the very scenes that could create the emotional involvement, through some bizarre experimentation. I didn't care for the 1968 version until the balcony scene; Olivia Hussey's youthful beauty, the purity of Nino Rota's score, the interactions between the young lovers, the film won because of that scene. So, I expected the balcony scene to enhance "Romeo + Julier" but Lurhmann had to introduce the novelty of the swimming pool. What was he thinking? If you're going to stick to the play, don't ruin the most iconic part. How can someone be focused on loving while he's also trying to float in the water. Forget what I said, the whole thing just looked awkward and as sincere as the actors were in their intent to play "Romeo and Juliet", it's like Lurhmann had another movie in mind.
The film was a success but it was out-shined by the Leo's following hit, the one that put him in Hollywood map forever and ever; "Titanic" the year after, interestingly, this was a tale of forbidden love that was closer in spirit and in heart to "Romeo and Juliet" than "Lurrhman's jukebox. And Claire Danes, with all due respect, is no Kate Winslet. Leo is a real romantic actor but the real star of Baz Lurhmann's film was Baz Lurhmann. His unique jukebox-styled directing fitted "Moulin Rouge!" but as far as "Romeo + Juliet" goes, it's still an entertaining little movie, that nostalgic of the 90's will cherish. For me, it's the film of that "Love Fool" song and I have it on my playlist.
Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
No freedom from the other side of the Wall, not even people's walls
"Beat your wife regularly, even if you don't know why, she will." I doubt the Arabs really invented that saying but it seems like every totalitarian system was based on the idea that no one can make you feel guilty without your consent. Stasi didn't spy on potentially guilty people, but people were guilty already of that suspicion.
Stasi: a simple whisper of that name was enough to send shivers down the spine of millions of citizens of the German Democratic Republic. It is not even far from reality to say that the population was divided in two: those who were spied and those who spied, some could slip through the net but for how long? The Stasi used spying and intimidating methods that had nothing to envy from the way Gestapo could treat the German population, and the opening of "The Lives of Others" sets the tone.
Wiesler, a Stasi agent, is giving a course. He explains to his students the virtues of keeping a prisoner awaken for forty hours, the so-called arrogance he displays will inevitably be broken. With a no-nonsense didactic tone, he informs of all these little tricks that allow the police to spot the guilt, an innocent person will shout in rage, a guilty one will weep and beg for mercy, a truth will be formulated in different ways but a lie is always made of the same lines. It is tragic that such methods existed, and even more that they sometimes worked.
With cold detachment but impressive competence, Wiesler says more about the Stasi than a one-hour documentary, and from the start, the young director Donnersmarck shows a remarkable attention to small details. Notice the scene when a student questions the humanity of the methods, everyone can see Wiesler putting a cross under his name but it's not in the mark, but in the discreet and smooth way he does it and then immediately answers the question. Notice also the prisoners asked to keep his palms on the chair so that the sweat on the cushion can be used for bloodhounds, this element never serves the film but it conveys one crucial element: the Stasi has an eye for detail, and so should we, if we want to appreciate or understand what happens.
This attention to detail says even more: anyone could be submitted to surveillance on the basis of suspicion, something that doesn't feel 'right'. When Wiesler is invited to see a play from writer Dreirman (Frederick Koch), all it takes is a simple look at that handsome long-haired man with an opened shirt, and a lovely woman, actress Christa-Maria (Martyna Gedeck) to suggest spying on him. Dreyman did nothing wrong, but he's too well-established to be totally clean and something about his friends doesn't feel Kosher, so the Minister (Thomas Thieme) approves, moved by selfish reasons. His last feat was to forbid acclaimed author Gershka to work, when Dreirman defends his friend, the Minister denies such things happen and invites Dreyman to moderate his words.
Yet Gershka is the specter of what awaits Dreyman: losing your job, your contacts and the freedom to leave the country, not that everyone wanted to leave Germany, and the height of irony is that many artists were socialists (and would never be as creative as under the totalitarian regime). The veiled threats of the Minister, the situation of Gershka and the relative comfort bourgeois Dreirman lives in, are so many parameters to take into consideration, it's all about choices that jeopardize your life, it's a choice he has to make, and in the movie, choices are often driven by fear. It is very interesting that the biggest "thrills" of the film come from situations where we fear for the protagonists, so we have a taste of what life under this regime was.
But what makes the story so unique is that we have two persons who couldn't have been more opposite. Dreyman represents life, conflicts, torments, problems with his work, friends, life, courage or lack of, while Wiesler is a professional agent: he's alone, all dressed in gray, has sex with prostitutes, it is like his competence has been totally dedicated to his job, but by following the daily life of Dreyman, a strange juxtaposition of feelings occurs, he starts to discover a strange one some would call "empathy". The film then becomes a character-study about a man who supposed to study people and we witness his slow but progressive coming-to-realization, the tragedy that people live. There's a magnificent scene with a little boy that shows how Wiesler's foundations are being shaken, for the best.
Now, what is exactly "Lives of Others" about? Some would suggest that it is the intrusions into people's private lives and the lessons for today's generations, why are we so content to share our opinions and private lives on social media while they can backfire at us? And what lessons can the free world give when the threats of aggression from the exterior are always served as excuses to intrude into people's privacy's? Recently, my Facebook account was blocked because I used a nickname, I'm supposed to send them an ID card to have my account back, that alone gives me an idea of how deeply attached to my privacy I am. Perhaps the worst aspect of the Stasi is that it is somewhat relevant today, in this post-9/11 world.
Or maybe the film is simply about goodness and humanity? About the fact that a malevolent presence can as well become a guardian angel, because it takes to get deeper in people's lives, to feel their flaws and weaknesses to realize the extent of the harm... On many levels, the film is inspirational and no one can't resist to the ending, a magnificent visual epitaph from Ulrich Muhe who sadly passed away one year after the film, but whose performance enriched the lives of the "others", we, movie lovers, are.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
A film to be enjoyed with a mind from today and a heart from the past
Every Christmas movie features the predictable moment where Santa Claus holds a kid on his knees and asks him if he's been a good little boy and what toy he'd like to get for Christmas. Less predictable however is the way the scene is played in George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th Street", the hint that this film will be onto something special even by our modern standards.
So, Kris Kingle aka Edmund Gwenn takes care of the endless line-up of kids who showed at Macy's with their exhausted moms. One of them asks for a toy that isn't available, Santa Claus gives the mother the address of a little shop that sells it, her face says it all, she keeps on repeating 'I don't get it', and a few time later, the store manager realizes that basically, this Santa Claus who seemed rather competent sent customers to their competitors. Now, in a lesser movie, that would have been enough a reason to fire him and makes the sappy, sentimental comment on commercialism and its interference with the spirit of Christmas, but see what happens in the film. The mother, played by a priceless Thelma Ritter, actually congratulates the management for having placed the spirit of Christmas before profit and she promises to be back.
This is one of the many delights of the script, while praising the 'spirit of Christmas', it also highlights the cynical smartness of capitalism that finds a profit in every situation. It comes to the funny point where a gesture that was motivated by Kingle's good heart became a marketing argument; in fact a win-win masterstroke of such profitable outcomes that even the competitors sent customers to Macy's. Even today, you can find countless marketing operations that rely on the pretension of being well-meaning and good-hearted, while never been disinterested. Interest is the soul of profit and the film gets it, and that's how brilliant it is.
Actually, there's no shortage of adjectives to qualify "Miracle on 34th Street", I could also say enchanting, heart-warming, gentle, sweet, entertaining, and they would all be deserved, but the first word that comes to my mind is "smart", it is an intelligently written film, whose charm relies on the witty take on Christmas as a commercial event, a spirit, a state of mind from both children and adults' perspective and the performance of Edmund Gwenn who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for a performance that can be seen as a real gift to Hollywood: Gwenn is still today the most memorable cinematic Santa Claus. But the film also won an Oscar for the Screenplay, and that's the one aspect I'm more attached to because in a runtime, that is enough to sustain the message, a film criticizes the skeptics without accusing them.
In lesser movies (again), only a miracle reveals the 'reality' of Christmas, but despite the fact that this film features the word 'Miracle' and that it was ranked number four in the American Film Institute's Top 190 Fantasies, the interrogation mark is maintained till the end. It's not on-the-nose miracle, the way the film contradicts the skeptics is by extending their logic to such a length that they can't, by the end, state with their certitude that there's no Santa Claus. I just love the moment where Kris Kingle, as he calls himself, is assigned to trial in the Supreme Court of New York and Mr. Macy himself is asked whether he believes in Santa Claus, he imagines the headlines, what a contradiction if the owner of the biggest toy factory doesn't even believe in the most iconic toy provider. And no one is immune to the backlash in case they attack such a beloved icon, when the judge is asked to rule on the existence of Santa Claus, he is immediately warned by a friend who doesn't want to see him as a new Pontius Pilate.
And it's not just about missing kisses from his grandchildren; he's got also a lot to lose. Indeed, how about all the Santa Claus who are syndicate workers, the Army of Salvation, it's a whole pyramidal business organization that will be thrown to pieces if he condemns Santa Claus, not to mention the political implications. The judge, while not negating his existence, moves it to another issue: how to prove that he's the real Santa Claus. The resolution of is one of the most memorable moments from the film but by that moment, it had already earned its status as a classic, because just seeing adults and responsible men making a case (literally) of Santa Claus existence and dealing it with in a very straightforward way is too delightful for words. At one moment, Kingle's lawyer says that if he believes he is Kris Kingle and acts accordingly so, there is no reason to deprive him from that right or doubt his sanity, I could see similar arguments being made today about transgender people.
Psychology, psychiatry, consumerism, identity, "Miracle on 34th Street" is modern in so many ways it is hard to believe it was made in the 40's yet it really shaped all the archetypes of the genre, including many others such the workaholic mother (Maureen O'Hara) and the girl who couldn't believe in Christmas, played by a scene-stealing Nathalie Wood. All these clichés have become annoying because one could expect a little more from the screenwriter but having a divorced woman with a child, and telling her not to believe in fairy tales was hard to imagine in the 40's. And for all its modernity, this is still a film with a heart and a tender relationship between an old man and a little girl, something that would be impossible now without unveiling some sordid suspicion.
But that's the power of "Miracle on 34th Street", it's a film you see with a mind from today but a heart from the past, and you feel so good after watching it.
Life of Pi (2012)
It's all about suspension of disbelief...
Every once in a while, a movie keeps you marveling at the beauty of its imagery while captivating your mind with its intellectual richness, "2001: A Space Odyssey" is such a movie where images speak a thousand words, so is "Life of Pi" with a difference though: it is pretty vocal about its content. To a certain degree, the film embodies the number 'Pi' whose mathematical function and simple writing are only the tip of an iceberg of infinite immensity.
Still, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is a delight for the eyes before the mind, a stunt even more impressive as 2012 eyes used to think they saw it all (3 years after "Avatar" and less than a decade after Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings"). Some shots reminded me of that line from "Forrest Gump" who was running across a desert and the morning light cast such a glow that he couldn't tell where Heaven stopped and the Earth began. And "Life of Pi" is fertile in such shots where you can't tell the limits between the sky and the water, and it is no coincidence that the story is a metaphysical quest à la Paolo Coelho, of a boy drifting across the Pacific Ocean with a tiger, of all the companions.
God is obviously the 'guy-up-there' incarnated by the skies and the stars and Pi addresses him many times by raising his head, but when the sky and the water seems to make one, this might imply that Pi can find God, or try to, by looking at the ocean or in the eye of his feline companion of misfortune. Pi was named after Piscine Molitor which was the most beautiful swimming pool his uncle ever swam in, and in the scene showing the Parisian pool, the water is so clear, the man feels like floating in the air, it is not just gratuitous effects but the display of a heavenly, ecstatic moment, where the body and the mind are in total symbiosis. This is how the uncle found God.
To avoid the mockeries, Piscine calls himself 'Pi' and is so motivated that he becomes a champion of the Pi number and could memorized thousands of the decimal pieces, the cheers of his comrades making up for years of urological nicknames. But don't get mislead, the film is only about mathematics if you use the Galilean metaphor of the alphabet with which God wrote the universe. This is a language, Pi is eager to decrypt, driven by his childlike curiosity, Hindu myths and Gods fascinate him, so does the story of the Jesus Christ who died as an innocent for all the humans' sins, and he also finds peace and serenity while recalling the name of Allah during his prayers. Pi's ecumenical openness inevitably crashes into his father's rationality.
"Appa", a zoo owner, is a practical man who doesn't believe in religion, he eats meat and would rather have a son sticking to strong opinions rather than believing in everything, being as "irrational" and unlimited as his like-named son. So, it's the father who puts limits in his son's idealism where he sees him trying to feed the tiger (named Richard Parker), believing animals have soul. The father proves him wrong by tying a goat to the cage and showing him how the animals deal together. Animals have no souls, it is only the reflect of humans' soul, the metaphor for religion is obvious. We only see God through our own eyes, how ironic though that the father's sacrificing a goat carry many religious undertones. Never mind, for Pi, the matters of God are forgotten for a time.
And it takes that extraordinary journey where he's stuck with the tiger and has to learn how to tame it, to feed it so it doesn't think of eating him, to state his presence, mark his territory, to establish a way to communicate with the animal, until finally, Pi concludes his metaphysical quest. The tiger becomes his enemy but also his ticket for life. I won't spoil right now how the adventure connects with God, but it is all done in that conclusive last rhetorical question, where Pi creates his own myth, which like all myths, explains a factual fact through a story that might sound ludicrous but whose universal appeal is undeniable.Because that's what myths are: stories that go beyond our own perceptions, that seems impossible yet challenge our thinking to such a point that their nonexistence seems as unbelievable as the opposite.
While I was watching the film, I was mesmerized by the special effects, the interactions between Pi and the tiger, even with the other animals. And I was almost disappointed to learn it was CGI, it didn't look like CGI to me, for some reason, it felt "plausible", too beautiful to be artificial. But maybe that is the ground broken by Ang Lee. In 1914, a man shared a screen with a dinosaur, in 1964 one danced with penguins, in 1988, one was handcuffed to rabbits, in 1993, dinosaurs came back in the form of CGI creatures, their realness was undeniable but it still asked for our suspension of disbelief."Life of Pi" is the only one where the animals are meant to be and look real, that the magic of the film would take a 'normal form' to better fool us.
Some would say that God was a creation by humans but maybe the idea of God is so beautiful that humans only tries to make it approachable, like God who used the figure of Jesus, or the Muslims when they pray or Hindus with all their Gods. Maybe less than the form of God, is the idea itself, maybe Cinema is like religion or myths, after all, it is all about suspension of disbelief, but for a purpose that is essential to the human soul.
When Baby-Boomers were Millennials...
My rendezvous with "Nashville" goes back to seven years ago, I could get any movie I wanted but "Nashville" resisted. I needed to see the fifth Best Picture nominee of 1975, this very movie Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael raved about, that topped both Ebert and Siskel's annual top ten, this American Film Institute's Top 100 entry that was a total mystery to me.
It took seven years but better late than never At first, I didn't get what was so brilliant about it but so many story lines and only one viewing? I saw it again. And then, I went like "oh, what the heck", a third time won't hurt. Three times in less than four days, could have been four or five times, as many as the stars in the American flag, that's how good it is. This is one flew over a cuckoo's nest you don't recover from, and the more ordinary people and situations are, the more extraordinary the journey is. Altman should be damned if he wasn't such a genius.
The film spans a period of five days during a country-music festival, coinciding with some populist politician's party rally, this is enough to have a panoramic view across the lives of dozens of characters who, through their considerable differences, reach ever possible dimension of the American spirit of 1975, and in such a way that I guess even a non-American can enjoy it. Well, there's me at least.
So, what is "Nashville"? Simply, the Mecca of country music, the reason why everybody came in the first place and were reunited by the end.There are dozens of them but there's no small part in the sense that they're all equally small in the scale of the significance of music, the common thread, the real star. Some sing, some wish they could, some manage or look for singers, some screw or get screwed by them or just pop up and aimlessly wander, like in real life, no one crosses your path who should necessarily has a significance.
I wonder to which extent these fascinating hazards were part of Joan Tewkesbury's script or improvised by the actors the same way they wrote their own songs.
And not any songs, country songs this is crucial because country music isn't just deeply rooted in American tradition, it is also the most cinematic of all forms of music: it tell stories.
I can perhaps tell you the name of four or five country singers but I know a great deal about the way country music affects me, because any song I hear finds a powerful echo in my own memories. It is like this scene from "The Simpsons" where Homer leaves the house after an argument and hears Lurleen Lumpkin singing "Your wife doesn't understand you but I do". You listen to country music because you feel like 'it' has listened to you in the first place.
Just compare the upbeat patriotic starting song from Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) "we must have done something right to last 200 years" with the neutral political slogans the loudspeaker keep on hammering all day, which one will reach the hearts first? Compare the obnoxiousness of the character played by Keith Carradine who seemed to have gotten half the female cast on his bed with the melancholic tune of his "I'm Easy" you can't even tell whether he has pride or contempt toward himself, but the gaze of Lilly Tomlin while listening to him says everything.
Music is like the only way to arouse genuine emotions, in another powerful scene, a wannabe singer (Glew Welels) of mediocre talent get booed, she can only indulge to a striptease to provoke the cheers. In another scene, a father doesn't even have the patience to listen to his deaf son's story as if silence was the antithesis of communication, and music its apotheosis.
Many people communicate, others don't some meet, others don't I remember a girl in high school, we never talked together, never went in the same class, but for some reason, we always met in some place or another. When it became obviously repetitive, we smiled at each other; like a private joke. Just like in "Nashville", the more we meet these people, the more we care for them, as we care for ourselves.
Only the New Hollywood period could have made this gem possible, a time where America was still mourning an innocence and where the baby-boomers like today's millennial (count me among them) were cherishing their childhood, a time without the Vietnam War, incarnated by a Wizard-of-Oz-like childhood, Kennedy's dashing smile, the very American Pie Don McLean said bye-bye to.
And this end-of-an-era is magnificently captured by the performance of Roney Blakely (Oscar-nominated along with Tolmin) as a fragile and emotionally vulnerable country singer named Barbara Jean. She's a sweet and delicate flower with a ticking bomb of a heart, she faints at her arrival, in her first representation, she interrupts her songs to mumble about her childhood until her husband (Allen Garfield) takes her away, simply overwhelmed, and easily upset like a part of America is.
But there's room for every possible identification: capitalists, disillusioned soldiers, drifters, lunatic, has-beens, romantics and losers, this is a microcosm of America, all in characters and emotions, for the sake of laughs, anger, tears, frustration, the spirit of a country in a nutshell and its heart is Barbara Jean, whose "Idaho Home" song awakened again that symptomatic feeling of millennials: being nostalgic over eras we didn't live.
And if I could keep one image from these 240 minutes, I'd keep the sight of the American flag gently rippling under the wind while Barbara Jean sings "we were young then, we were together. We could bear floods and fire and bad weather", hell, how can I seriously write a thousand-word review when this image alone speaks for a thousand words.
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Two Teenagers in Old Verona...
"For there was never a story of more woe than this Juliet and her Romeo" Children listen kid to stories that generally end with " and they lived happily ever after" but as they grow older, and maybe more deeply involved about the matters of love, the stories that are more likely to find a powerful echo in their hearts would rather have an epilogue like William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". It is as if you could only measure the true power of love within its tragic implications, through the tale of two star-crossed lovers, victims of the feud between their families, and an unforgettable chain of events where even their passion would play an ironical role, allowing each lover to mourn the loved one's death.
There had been stories of forbidden loves all through the ages and the civilizations, as a Moroccan, I can tell you the legends of Ali and Zaina, two lovers from rival Berber tribes who died of sadness together and the spot of their last rendezvous became the confluence of two rivers formed by the flows of their tears, the meaning of each river's name would be fiancé (for each gender). The two rivers exist so that people can remember the story. Now, this is the stuff that the greatest romances are made on, and one could react to Ali and Zaina as passionately as for Romeo and Juliet. But it's a credit to Shakespeare's talent to have written a tale for all seasons, a staple of tragedy that wrapped up all the romantic heritage of past centuries and turned into something universal and timeless tale.
Indeed, if there ever is a word that captures the spirit of "Romeo and Juliet", it is timeless. This is a story that time cannot wither, for it's a story of a love that never fades, a love that culminates at the ultimate moment and resists death; in fact, it is a love that ignores death as much as it provokes it. The love between Romeo and Juliet is eternal, because we all love someone but know that time can affect the strongest passions that even the blooming flower will fade, so we never identify with Romeo and Juliet as much as we admire and venerate the persistence of their feelings till the last breath. Both ignored the obstacles, rejecting their own names as soon as they became burdens, they were careless, they were kids, and since when do kids listen to their parents?
And that's one of the forgotten aspects of the play, besides being lovers; Romeo and Juliet were teenagers in old Verona. They were young and they were innocent, and innocence is exactly what conveys the "Romeo and Juliet" of Franco Zifferelli, whose masterstroke was the casting of two unknown faces, two teenagers even by the 60's standards, to play the parts of the doomed lovers. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were respectively 17 and 15 when the shooting started and their lack of maturity made their romance beautifully fragile and poignant. Three years after Laurence Olivier's infamous black-faced performance as Othello, a director like Zifferelli understood that the time of make-believe was over and the audience didn't need a star-studded cast, but needed to believe, in the case of "Romeo and Juliet", it's not essential, it is vital.
And from the juvenile confidence of Romeo and the naive innocence of Juliet, there is just something magical operating, and after the balcony scene, it is impossible not to believe in their passion. Zifferelli's "Romeo and Juliet" was made in 1968, one year after movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" or "The Graduate" broke many grounds in Hollywood, but 1968 had a more traditional line-up with many costume-movies such as "Lion in Winter" or "Oliver!". Still, Zifferelli understood the era and didn't sugarcoat the material for all that; his film is still oddly modern, cleverly using costumes to differentiate between the Capulets and the Montaigues and using sex and violence in risqué ways but never at the expenses of the romance. The fight between Tybalt (Michael York) and Romeo is a heart-pounding action sequence beautifully staged while the infamous bed scene by daring to show the two protagonists naked, prove that Romeo and Juliet weren't just talkers.
Yes, they were under the legal age. It even reached the irony that Oliva Hussey couldn't have seen her performance in America. While this aspect had raised some controversy, there's nothing in that moment that feels gratuitous, it is clean because we believe in it and we can see that the chemistry isn't just on an emotional level, but on a physical one too. The movie version can't ignore the play's erotic undertones as it can't ignore that it's about two teenagers and yes, teenagers are attracted to bodies. It is very sad that today, a film like "Romeo and Juliet" couldn't be shown on classes because of a few glimpses of nudity while the students can go home and have daily access on porn images that will totally deconstruct their notion of love. We take that word 'love story" for granted and forget what it means, and Shakespeare's play can give you one notion or two.
The film might be overshadowed by the remake starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, but this one has the merit to respect the original material while still making it accessible to young people and teenagers. It captures the spirit of Shakespeare while translating it into cinematic language, with a powerful photography, a perfect leading cast, great supporting performances from Mila O'Shea and Pat Heywood playing Friar Lawrence and Juliet's nursemaid, and a haunting score by Nino Rota. Ziffereli's directing made the rest by finding the perfect compromise between a classical and colorful approach to the play and the changes of society and the tumultuous minds of 1968's mood.
L'ennemi public n°1 (2008)
Mesrine Part II: Taste of Adrenaline, Testosterone and Test of Time...
I ended the review of "Death Instinct" with the following statement: "Mesrine cared enough to leave a legacy that he wrote it himself. That a film was adapted from it says it all, and that one movie wasn't enough to cover everything says even more".
Now, I realized that even two movies couldn't actually do 'justice' to the self-proclaimed anarchist who constantly defied it. And I couldn't possibly write a review before reading the autobiography he wrote during his period at La Santé jail for once that he wasn't busy masterminding an escape.
With manly gusto, Cassel rendered most identifiable traits of Mesrine but the book made them understandable from a skeptical perspective. Some say "no honor among thieves". But even the cops acknowledged that Mesrine was a man of his word. The film opens with a negotiation with his rival Broussard. Mesrine is cornered and has a girl in the house and no chance to escape, but even in defeat, he stays in command.
He gives his word not to open fire in exchange of twenty minutes; Broussard knows Mesrine will burn some incriminating papers, but anything to avoid the bloodshed. He earns Mesrine's respect, and even more when he accepts to come unarmed as a way to earn the arrest. Mesrine welcomes him with champagne and cigars. After all, if you're going to be arrested, why not do it with some style? It says something crucial about the man; he valued relationships more than money or freedom. Didn't he get back to the Canadian penitentiary he had just escaped from i Canada, because he promised to get his friends out?
Mesrine makes no secret that he's a criminal, that he always wanted the easy way (that wasn't that easy), that he regarded working men as castrated slaves who resigned to a life of mediocrity unchained to the alarm-clock. You can't read the first pages without getting some "Goodfellas" vibes, but the kinship between Mesrine and Henry Hill's stops when you realize it isn't just a choice of lifestyle but a case of determinism guided by a sense of social revolt à la Camus' "Stranger". The greatest enemy of Mesrine isn't the police but the petty representatives of a system that "good" people respect out of cowardice rather than free will.
And Mesrine hasn't enough tough words to denounce the prisons: instead of giving inmates chances for rehabilitation, they only break their spirit or turn them to into tougher and ruthless criminals. That's why he always escaped, and the book he wrote preceded the most sensational of all, it's not just about determination but competence, too. The escape from the trial by hiding gun in the toilet was a masterstroke but the book makes it even more impressive because Mesrine planted the gun before his arrest. He anticipated the possibility and planned the escape 'just in case'. Anticipation is the key to success and Mesrine wasn't only brawn, his brain was his biggest asset.
Now, don't get the wrong idea, competence and honor don't make him "honorable", still, his ego wouldn't have tolerated any defaming accusation, he was a gangster, a killer, who could kill cops but no civilians, he loved children, animals, braved all the risks to go visit his dying father, he was a master of disguise who couldn't disguise his feelings when it came to love, as he could write passionate and romantic declarations of love to his women. He 'finished' two Canadian rangers by executing them in the head but he felt more remorseful toward that bird he accidentally shot when he was twelve. As regret, he only wished they didn't draw their guns but they knew the rules, they played, were slower, and lost. Anyway, the way he saw it, he never gratuitously killed.
So he knew his value and operated in an endless spiral of bank robberies and parties, only punctuated by short periods of jail. That was his routine, he couldn't stop. At one point, his partner in crime Charlie leaves him because he knows he reached the no-return point. Mesrine moves forward, it's the business he's chosen, he loved the taste of adrenaline and the testosterone-driven life, he says that the day the nation gave him a weapon to fight the Algerians; he couldn't get rid of it. It became a drug. The same year, "The Hurt Locker" was released and it started with the quotation that 'war was a drug'. Mesrine was addicted too, he cherished the risk, he didn't care about his own life as long as he had a chance (he never foolishly risked his neck) but he never feared death, which made him even more dangerous, death was still a better option than jail, and he proved it four times.
He knew Karma would finally have the last word. And the ending was the one part he could have never written, but he foreshadowed it. He knew police would never give him a chance in an ambush. They didn't, he was killed without summation, with explosive bullets (prohibited) and the most shocking moment was when a cop coming from another car gave him the same treatment than for the Canadian rangers. Mesrine never believed in the 'blaze of glory' death but I guess if he wrote a book from beyond-the-grave, he wouldn't have been much spiteful toward his executioners, he knew the rules, he played and lost, like the Canadians, fair trade.
I don't feel much admiration toward him, but who doesn't want to be a tiger rather than a sheep. I guess that's the power of cinema, to make us live a character's life by proxy, admiring a bad guy the time of a film and then come to your sense. Still, if you read the book, it'll take more time. It doesn't say that there is honor among thieves; just that there are brave people and cowards in every kind of people. And gangsters are people, too.
The Master (2012)
The kind of films where the form doesn't encourage you to give the content another chance...
Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" was nominated in three categories: Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Supporting Actor and Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress. And that's about as many nominations as this film deserves.
I think even the detractors will agree that the acting is the best thing about the film but that doesn't say much, it enhances the enjoyment without being a useful vehicle to a specific narrative. The experience falls flat, and not even the kind of flatness that encourages you to give it a second chance. It's a journey that is not without some emotionally powerful moments but that just seems to proceed in a linear fashion, I didn't feel like I was climbing or descending, just walking, wandering on a rather flat and dry territory, to occasionally bump on some event.
It is even more frustrating since the performances that were begging for a great story, starting with Joaquin Phoenix. He plays a Korean War naval veteran named Freddie Quell, this is a lost guy in every meaning of the word. We first see him, stranded in some island, drinking coconut milk, masturbating over a sand sculpture representing a woman and drinking gasoline from a torpedo. Seems like you can tell one hell of a story about his war years, but the film is about what comes next.
So, when he's back on the civil world, we're in the early 50's and the man is obviously disoriented, he's a sexual pervert, he can't keep a job, he starts a fight and comes close very close to poisoning a Filipino plantation worker with his handmade liquor. Obviously, Quell has a problem and Anderson never really tries to explain why he acts like this, but his enigmatic personality is a good justification for Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a cult (inspired from Scientology), who grows an immediate liking on this 'sailor' who drifted alone in the world until landing on his yacht. He believes in Karma.
Why Dodd like Quell? Well, he appreciates his crass manners, his fart jokes, and the way he boldly answers his questions without flinching during the exercise, revealing that he had sex with an aunt and that his mother was in a mental institute. Quell has obviously proved that he trusted Dodd and admitted that he has problems, there's a desperation Dodd manages to sense. And the second reason is more practical, Dodd loves that mixture Quell makes. So, there's a mutual addiction, Quell whose soul kept on wandering without a master found shoulders to rest on, and Dodd well, he reminded me of that quote from "The Godfather" novel, referring to Luca Brasi.
The say in the novel that there are men who wander in the world demanding to be harmed, jumping out in any situation, the trick is to make yourself the only one they wouldn't want to be harmed by, then they belong to you (the word was actually 'kill' but here it applies to the idea of Master). And I suspect that's exactly the idea behind choosing someone as your master, the one you wouldn't fear, the one that would allow you to be the master of yourself if you can place your vulnerabilities in his side. And there comes a point in the film where we get it, where the relationship between Quell and Dodd is firmly established and could take some new turns.
I waited for some pivotal moment, for the story to pick up in a way or another, it was an original screenplay after all, and anything could happen, some escalation somewhere. Yet the film remained frustratingly stuck to the relationship between the Master and the Disciple, and even such events as an arrest, suspicion raised by Dodd's wife Peggy (Adams) about Quell's motivation or an outdoor initiations, didn't contribute for the kind of psychological or emotional ordeals I expected. It was like the story was entrapped within the deep and intimidate bond between Dodd and Quell without anything meant to disrupt them, as if it didn't care for the viewers.
In other words, there was no third act and the resolutions, while not forced and unrealistic, didn't really satisfy my initial hunger. Hoffman has a great supporting role as far as his performance as Master Dodd goes, but there's nothing much to 'support'. Quell is the lead character but what does that say exactly? Amy Adams is also severely underused.This is a film that is intelligently made and had all the potential to be a real knockout, instead it is a film that stays in a zone of psychological comfort and doesn't try to explore the fascinating personalities.
In the end, I was wondering if I wouldn't have preferred a film about Quell's war experience, how did he turn out to be this unsettled guy we see at the beginning? Maybe what the film lacked was a first act, I don't know, but there are just too many interrogations marks, they're obviously deliberate and the number one fans will find many material for philosophical interpretations, and maybe, I would find some elements worthy of appreciation if I gave it a third chance, but the film is just so bleak and gloomy to inspire the same deep involvement as Quell for the Cause.
I'd rather see "Nashville" a third time
What's "Nashville" got to do with "The Master"? Well, I saw these two films the same week and I didn't like them at the first viewing, I like "Nashville" better a second time and I feel like I can watch it over and over again, if only for the atmosphere and the music. "The Master" might be a hidden masterpiece, I saw it twice, but even if there was something I missed in the content, the form didn't encourage me to give it another chance.