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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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Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5", reprising Cuban musician Dámaso Pérez Prado's mambo/jazz song of 1949, became one of the best selling singles of 1999, hitting the top spots in many countries' charts and the third in Billboard Hot 100 in the US.
Celebrating the 70th and 20th anniversaries of both versions, here's according to IMDb Starmeter the top actresses whose name pop up three times in the song during the annoyingly catchy "a little bit of" chorus with its litany of female names.
Which of these actresses is (movie-wise) all you need, what you see, in the sun, here you are... well, which one is your favorite?
After a little bit of voting, have a little bit of discussion here
Which movie feels like the most unforgettable experience?
We live in a time where questioning why there are so many superhero movies released is admitting a total ignorance of the laws of supply and demand.
We live in a time where criticizing superhero movies makes anyone sound like a sourpuss; after all, we should be happy that fans are happy, actors are happy, journalists are happy and producers (God bless them!) so happy to see everyone happy!
Still, since you know yourself better than anyone, let's just ask a simple question: here's a list of facial expressions, which one comes the closest to the face you make whenever we talk about superhero movies?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
In the former case, the finality of the film (granted it's a happy ending) is that the two will spend their life together, which generally means marriage but in the latter case, marriage isn't the end but rather the starting point of the thrills (aka troubles) or at least the mid-point.
The following movies have two things in common: they were all listed in the AFI's Top 100 Greatest American Romances and they feature a married couple for the most part of the film, if not the totality.
Which of these AFI's marital romances is your personal favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these popular bad guys from 1994 is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
What do I mean by 'random stats'? Well simply everything you wanted (or didn't know you wanted) to know about the Oscar... nominations and wins for acting, and (while not afraid to ask) just didn't have the time to look for because well, you have a life.
Anyway, such data as demographics, generational milestones, names and characters' trivia, line-ups and odds, are now available, and if it took some cinematic-datamaniac to get this done, well, here they are. And it was such an exhausting job, it needed to be divided in three parts, starting with the Overviews.
This is more of a trivia thing disguised as a poll, let's face it, but we can make it a little more fun and challenging, so here's the question: which of these stats did you find the most interesting, useful, fascinating, mindblowing or mildly amusing? Well, which one did you prefer?
"I focused on information that are less likely to be found on other websites, this is why I didn't stuff the texts with other links or infos. And please, keep in mind there might be a very small margin of error (but no less than +1/-1) Have a good read and a great fun ... And I take this opportunity to thank Wikipedia, Excel, and of course, Excel, that made everything possible"
These standalone fantasy classics are as enduring as any "franchise" (trilogies and beyond) but it's fair to say that what makes them so memorable is how damn quotable they are.
Which of these fantasy classics would you say is the most quotable?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(trilogies or franchises aren't included because they're not quotable but because it would be either unfair to put them in the same balance of judgment with stories that have only "one" cinematic offering or difficult to pick which opus of the saga is the most quotable to be considered the right representative)
90 years ago in December 1929, the legendary actor, writer and director John Cassavetes, one of the eight thespians to be nominated in these three categories, was born in New York City, to Greek-American parents.
30 years later, in 1959, his directorial debut Shadows (1958) was released in US theaters, making him the figurehead of independent cinema and starting the incongruous but lasting myth that his movies were all improvised.
And 30 years ago, in February 1989, the legend died of cirrhosis leaving a unique legacy inspiring many young film-makers who lacked resources but not creativity, with enough guts, vision and talent to carry it to the screen without ever compromising their personal truths.
Truth indeed, "vérité" in French, Cassavetes' films paradoxically embodying the very aspect that differentiate between movies and reality: the absence of archetypes, no plot, no archetypes. His cinéma-vérité was a refreshing ode to the unpredictability of both life and humanity and the futility of translating them into plot device.
The so-called improvisation was only consisting of audaciously shot unsettling moments highlighting the insecurity of the protagonists and their incapacity to control their emotions, despite being lucid about their needs and desires, a way to tame spontaneity with the whip of instinctive writing.
The key in Cassavetes' characters is that they don't tell a story, but the slices of their lives echo the eternal duality of what we are and what we want to be, our social beings and emotional ones, and maybe the source of happiness is to reconcile one to another.
That's the greatest contribution of John Cassavetes and his clique (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel and Gena Rowlands): being a gap between our repressed emotions and our true beings... and also paving the road to the indies, influencing directors such as Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.
So which of these movies directed by John Cassavetes* is your favorite? (or would you most like to discover?)
After voting, you might discuss the list here
I decided not to include Big Trouble (1986) for many reasons: the film was made for money and was immediately dismissed by Cassavetes himself, Love Streams (1984) is often regarded as his real swan-song. Finally, I replaced it with Mikey and Nicky (1976), a film that is so close to the usual style of Cassavetes it could be part of his own body of work and his pairing with Peter Falk is just too irresistible. So the decision may sound arbitrary but what would be a Cassavetes poll without a little improvisation?
If we're not worthy of God, let's make ourselves even more worthless...
Recently, it had occurred to me that the more some people try to reach God, the more it reflects their hatred on human nature, as if bigotry or misanthropy couldn't do without looking down on people. I know there are many real-life examples of sheer altruism displayed in God's name but does Mother Teresa's work amount to something on the scale of fanaticism death toll.
This opening paragraph isn't much an attack on God but on his believers and the way they unconsciously live God's inaccessibility as a conditioning frustration... or frustrating condition, trying to model the world according to their vision because they're incapable to reach the original modeler. Indeed, how can you figure God? If he's the Creator, then he's whatever is left if you remove his creation. Remember that gag from "The Simpsons" where Kang and Kodos made time go so fast it sucked everything out the picture, planets, galaxies, the cosmos, even God... and then the screen went white.
This is just a gag but in Bergmanian language, it's silence and nothingness, whether the latter is in white or black is a matter of speculation, but both can be seen as two poles of perception, opposite and inaccessible so that you could only visualize semblances of truth in the black-and-white photography served by Sven Kikvyst. The monochrome format is the perfect embodiment of what can be regarded as God's 'indifference' to the pleas of human beings, subject of Bergman's "faith" trilogy, driving his most tormented subjects to craziness or alienation, that's for the common thread. Whether Bergman wanted us to pity or understand his characters is none of his concern, as long as we're not indifferent (an attitude that can only be feigned because only God is truly indifferent), we realize our own vulnerability.
So, in "Through the Glass Darkly", we had a widowed writer estranged to his daughter, whose dementia made her believe she was approached by God and carry some ambiguously incestuous feelings toward her own brother. "Winter Sleep" was even darker in the depiction of a priest, also a widower, incapable to reach God and be a soothing voice of reason for people fearing the nuclear apocalypse and questioning the future of humanity. Ironically, the third opus of the trilogy (though I wonder if it was intended that way) is the less loaded but no less enigmatic, carrying the same ingredients such as death, Oedipal incest, carnal fantasies, triangular loves and existential dead-ends. If you hate head-scratchers, "The Silence" isn't for you.
The film's rich in puzzling imagery, groundbreaking shots of nudity and sex, a pivotal moment in Swedish cinema's history that disinhibited every director's impulse since then, and it also indulges to surrealistic moments à la Bunuel. It's not much pretentious as it has the personal resonance of a nightmare. It starts with two sisters suffocating in a train going to some foreign European country, Ingrid Thullin is the older one, Ester, whose natural dignity is spoiled by blood coughing, whatever she represents, we gather it's not life. Anna is played by the breathtakingly beautiful Gunnel Lindblom, and the way the camera endlessly lusts on her leaves no doubt that she represents the basic desires. Her son Johan, played by Jörgen Lindström (he was the little boy in "Persona") swings back and forth between what seems to be two opposite mother figures... or two sides of the same persona, one of flesh and one of soul.
The little boy wanders through the film with the innocence that befits his age, until we start to suspect his continuous gazes on his mother's body to be representative of our voyeuristic position. Johan admires his mother because she's got the reassuring voluptuousness of the nurturing body and his aunt, a translator who can help him to understand the country's language, nurtures his intellect. Either he's a bridge between the two women estranged one to another or he's a plot necessity showing that their tragedy isn't on the conflict itself but the hopeless lack of any medium of communication though they speak the same 'language'.
Ironically, communication is never an issue with foreigners, the kid has fun with a bunch of Spanish dwarfs, there's an old hotel steward, played by Håkan Jahnberg, whose body and face language is so expressive that he always finds a way to amuse Johan and comfort Ester; meanwhile Anna has an affair with a waiter. Blaming her for being a Holier-than-thou individual, selfish and proud, rejecting her own pleas as if she was playing God herself, jealousy through sex is the only expression of her resentment. God becomes the scapegoat of the tragicomedy, he's inspired that seemingly disdain of the things of life within Ester, and Anna who made herself even more worthless since she's not worthy of Ester, God... or both.
Ester could only have sex alone because she could never stand the smell of 'flesh' the original language between human beings... and ironically is left alone at the end with the kind of uncertain future that doesn't speak much of God's gratitude toward his firmest subjects. Approaching God is shown as a descent into alienation while the "terra ferma" of sensuality makes us feel alive among humans even it means suffering... So are we suffering when we're close to God or suffering when we try to stay among humans we secretly despise? That Ester is still afraid to die alone is an indication that we need to stay in touch with our own humanity. Stil...
Sven Nykvist's cinematography has the strange capability to show people so close and yet so far, lost in long hotel corridors, in the sweaty darkness of sordid rooms or scorching speeding trains... even two faces together separated by darkness or shadows as if each one was immersed in its own dimension. I guess "The Silence" tries to envision the way people try to reach each other as if the impossible communication with God had affected our own interactions.
Love as a bilateral illusion guided by one-sided motives...
Woody Allen's movies are so densely populated in protagonists, from level one to level four of importance, that it's merely impossible to remember all the names after a first viewing. After "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" I remembered none, except maybe for Cristal, the scam medium played by Pauline Collins. I think this says a lot about the main symptom that affects the film, people's motives are so unclear and their actions so selfish that viewers are more turned off than enthralled by the story and nothing is offered at the end to contradict any negative bias the beginning inspired. That's a shame.
Forget the beginning, the title alone announced what could have been one of these witty little Allen's comedies when a simple prediction could have been the starting point of a series of misunderstandings and random encounters leading to forced romances and hilarious awkwardness... just because some guy looks like that 'tall, dark, stranger'. I expected this and what I got was a rather bland and disenchanted (as much as disjointed) film from Allen who got so many stories and sub-stories to tell they all lost their focus and made the edifice fall apart before the ending credits. At the end, I didn't know exactly what to think, I didn't dislike the film but I found its statement of love inexistent, but as an Allen fan, I'll try to dig deeper.
I guess the film isn't exactly about love as a feeling but as the end-result of an idealization, love is never a starter but a follow-up that makes you highly anticipate a karmic reward... that in most cases reveals itself to be an illusion. Anthony Hopkins plays Alfie, an old man who's got a late epiphany about his mortality and decides to divorce from his wife Helena, played by Jemma Jones, so he can indulge to his wannabe young man's fantasies, including marrying the most blatant representation of a trophy wife (Lucy Punch) who can "give" him the son he 's always wanted after his first one's death. Desperate, Helena visits Cristal who knows exactly what she needs to hear and keeps on convincing her that everything will be all right.
Oddly enough, the therapy works and Helena is convinced she'll meet the dark and brooding stranger, she also believes in reincarnation and that she might have been Marie-Antoinette or Joan of Arc in a previous life, her obsession with reincarnation is her "illusion" that if that life doesn't go well, there's still an option on the next one. Needless to say that her opinion isn't unanimously shared. But better a comforting illusion than an infuriating truth, so Sally (Naomi Watts) rubs her the right way; after enduring her suicidal phase, she knows her mother needs positive words... and she also needs her mother's money to pay the rent. Sally's married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer (a euphemistic Hollywood term for a lazy unemployed bum with self-grandeur dreams). Roy met with success once so he believes in his talent, a comforting illusion (could've been the starter's luck) or an infuriating truth that erodes his couple.
Indeed, Sally's got all the reasons to fantasize about her boss played by Antonio Banderas, he could be the dark stranger but the romance is a false track, and could have been handled much better story-wise. I suspect it's because Allen was more focused on the other affair between Roy and Dia, a young music student played by Freida Pinto whose role is so chronologically close to her breakthrough performance in "Slumdog Millionnaire" that I kept thinking of Latika. I think the film could have worked better had it focused on the old couple, because the chemistry between Watts and Banderas wasn't enough to make the disappointment work and I couldn't buy one second that Dia would fall in love with a slob like Roy who admitted he kept peeking on her window, using his passion for art as 'pickup' lines the same way he got Sally, bragging about his medical talent. Dia falls too easily for Roy, which is indicative of the underwritten Allen's character who's just here because she's played by a pretty, young rising actress.
Pinto isn't given a role like Scarlett Johannsen in "Match Point" or "Scoop" and overall, there's not a single character treated in a way that invites for empathy. Only Hopkins and Jones had well-traced arcs and although her cockney accent was too distracting at times, I thought Lucy Punch turned into a more interesting character revealing a heart behind her 'adventurous' façade, as if she could use Hopkins' wealth as much as he used her to flatter his own ego. The film has a statement about the selfish roots of love as a mutual illusion that only serves to fulfill selfish dreams. It's just as if love could never be gratuitous or disinterested... such a disenchanted movie that deserved perhaps more rewriting because the material was good. But maybe Allen is too prolific for his own good and this is why he comes up with great films every 2-3 years and the in-between ones have the resonance of incomplete fillers.
At the end, the film is a rather depressing collection of subplots that doesn't reinvent the wheel, the 'Hopkins' story is a copy-paste of Sidney Pollack's affair in "Husbands and Wives" and the rest of the interactions are just ersatz of previous Allenian gems ... maybe the blandness of the film is a strong reflection of the evolution of our time as perceived by the director. It's as if, at the dawn of the 2010s, Allen could foreshadow the fading of his popularity at the awakening of old scandals and the way he was backstabbed by actors who worked with him. Popularity is as illusory as love and about those who're shaming Allen now, I'm just wondering whether they're sincere or simply driven by the preservation of their career?
On the Swedish Waterfront... an Early Bergman film and a little gem of Sweden's Neo-Realism...
For viewers born decades after the end of the second worldwide conflict, it's hard to imagine anything but joy and optimism in the hearts of the younger population that went through what was probably the hardest (and certainly darkest) part of their lives. We've all basked in stories, real and fictional, that knighted those who fathered the baby-boomers with the title of the greatest generation, one whose youth was sacrificed at history's altar ... but that's overlooking their ordinariness, how modest their aims were and thus how poignantly relatable their lives could be outside the epic scope of war and other life-and-death situations.
When Ingmar Bergman "Port of Call" starts, war is way over and there's no any indication of life-threatening situations yet the film opens with a startling suicide attempt: a girl takes a big dive from a dock and many people come to rescue her, including a war veteran who just settled in the port town. From what it looks like, the two protagonists didn't benefit from the kind of existential canvases that invite for optimism: the man is a sailor back from war, disillusioned and hiding his easy-going nature behind a mask of cynicism, his name is Gösta (Bengt Eklund), the woman is a young factory girl, depressed and insecure, with the kind of troubled past that makes any romance doomed from the start, and whose roots are to be found within a tense relationship with her overbearing mother. She's Berit (Nine-Chrstine Jönsson).
Those were the neo-realism days in Europe and the noir era in the U.S.A, the film, maybe unconsciously driven by these two influences, doesn't intend to paint a glamorous romance of any kind but rather a life capsule in a small seaside working-class town, a sort of Swedish "On the Waterfront" where we follow the lives of two loners as they converged one night at a dance. It's an immediate and mutual appreciation that never feels forced nor contrived, it IS believable that the two would find oasis of serenity within each other. To use fitting metaphors, Gösta has nothing but dreams of stability, he's a boat that wants to set ashore someplace, drop the anchor once and for all, he just doesn't have a compass, Berit on the other hand is a raft drifting in the ocean of her own guilt-ridden past and has no rows whatsoever to move on.
In a way the film is more about Berit's attempt to come to term with that past of hers, it's not much a character study but a psychological journey into a mindset that made happiness as improbable as the sight of land for a boat without any guidance. Gösta is an active and passive observer who acts as a lookout sometimes and some others becomes a true rower on Berit's frail embarkation. He knows she's as tormented as he is, he doesn't care much about her past though he's clearly displeased by the constant harassment she gets from men, raising suspicions of the ugliest sorts. So, as the film moves on and their relationship thickens, more obstacles come across their journey to the promised harbor, divulgated through flashbacks, revealed secrets and a subplot involving Berit's friend Gertrud, Bibi Nelson.
The flashbacks on Berit's life are depressing and bleak: marital fights, scandals, life in reformatory school that borders on prostitution and debauchery, a difficult mother-and-daughter relationship, it's a cocktail of lurid negativity that darkens an already heavy-loaded movie and the irony is that the friend Gertrud got an even worse deal. The contrast between Berit and Gertrud is interesting on two levels: it highlights the fact that Berit is abler to fight her own demons and maybe her real tragedy is that she can't handle happiness even when served on a silver platter, as if it was a dish best served cold. The second level is that the film is a powerful social commentary on the tormented lives of women with a 'bad rep' in a system that often pose as a judge of morality, driving them to the most extreme and sometimes macabre corners.
Bergman, in one of his breakthrough movies, displays the kind of sensitivities that made he glorious days of European neo-realism, his "Port of Call" is as powerful and introspective as the Italian classics of the late 1940s through this portrayal of two lost souls who come to find a true meaning to their lives after many years of unhappiness and resentment. For that, the director shows a predisposition for lengthy intimate scenes where two faces are close to each other and one speak alone without looking at the other, as if the act of talking was individual and solitary in essence. But when Berit confesses her past to Gösta, it looks like she's talking to us; from either point of view, ours or Gösta's, you can feel the emergence of a cinematic talent and a unique ability to paint human emotions with consideration to the viewers.
The film is rather simple but it's made in such a way we feel like belonging to the screen... and that's Bergman's power, every once in a while, "Port of Call" ceases to be that gripping drama and reaches an unexpected summit of film-making showing the early signs of the genius, small moments where souls are confronted one to another, talking, deciding and acting. The tension is real and makes the few moments of relief only more rewarding. And that's an adjective I'd use to describe the ending, one that such a movie called for, after so many questioning about life, it was only fair that the two young protagonists, directed under a then-young director could find one reason to two to see the future in brighter colors, almost spoiled by the poster.
Sommaren med Monika (1953)
The Edge of Seventeen... with a Catch...
Before I got to "Summer with Monika", a film I hadn't watched for almost ten years, I had just finished reviewing "Port of Call" and the contrast between the two romances is very evocative of the generation gap in the span of five years; between people who were in their early twenties after the war and teenagers of the early fifties.
That's the stuff that makes for a whole different kind of film, and even film-making, and it's not surprising that the latter gave its first international resonance to the second Bergman, after Ingrid. It was 1953 when "Summer with Monika" that launched the career of Harriett Anderson like a Swedish equivalent of Brigitte Bardot though it didn't do much for her co-star Lans Ekberg. It also made a name out of Ingmar Bergman who wasn't a newcomer but whose previous films didn't have that little edge that could transcend the frontier of Sweden, that edge belonged to Monika, let's call it, the edge of seventeen.
It's fascinating that the director who's the trope namer of intellectual cinema reached his first public by arousing the senses rather than challenging their thoughts, it just says something about the power of cinema as a visual medium. To his credit, Bergman, for all the intellectualism correlated to his legacy, always delighted his audiences with bautiful iconic shots, from the Chess Game in "The Seventh Seal" to the "two faces" in "Persona", not to mention the 'Pieta' with the two women in "Cries and Whispers", images almost spoke more words than actors with Bergman. Still, "Summer with Monika", is neither an erotic, nor an intellectual film.
However, it's a twice pivotal movie in the history of Swedish cinema, first by shining a light on its most emblematic director and to a lesser degree by establishing its reputation as a sexually free country. Whether it's true or undeserved is irrelevant to the story and is only due to some publicity stunts pulled by sleazy American producers in order to sell the film. In reality, this is a romance played as a straight drama where all the sensuality magnificently displayed by Anderson is only there as a component of her teenage carefree nature, she's just a girl who wants to escape from boredom and overbearing parents, the edge of being seventeen again.
That's what the film is about, two young persons who refuse the working-class burdens of their lives and decide that they're young enough to have all the fun and freedom they can afford so Harry quits his job in a porcelain shop and Monika leaves her home and quits her job where she was constantly harassed by co-workers. Still, no matter how tough their lives are, Bergman never overplays their ordeals, no adult or authority figure is abusive or severe without provocation. Bergman doesn't take sides with either the young lovers or their elders, he shows a sort of eternal gap between the teenage world and adults with what looks like detachment... until we get to the final act. But the neutrality he displays is still essential in the message the film sends about teenagers as if insouciance was a necessary step before adulthood.
Not so long ago in the past, with a few exceptions, people evolved directly from children to adulthood with romance as the obligatory bridge, it's only after the war that the 50s saw a rise of teenagers as a clearly shaped demographic category with its most emblematic figure: James Dean, the rebel without a cause. The 'silent generation' came to age after the war and because they were not confronted to any life-and-death situations could only let the steam off through freedom-seeking leisure and pseudo rebellions against adults. When Harry and Monika meet, it's not exactly a love at first sight, but an instant hormone-driven urge for transgression. Monika wants to leave town, and Harry does exactly what any guy his age would do with such a girl, and together they take a boat and spends a fine summer in a Swedish archipelago.
So we get to the film's most memorable moment, the idyllic island journey that probably inspired Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom". The part is a contemplative and transparent teen-romance like only a director approaching his forties and mourning the loss of his youth could make. Harry and Monika swim, kiss, dance, everything is played like a soft-core erotic movie and Anderson can pat her belly or eat an apple, she's just so obscenely gorgeous. It is important that the film paints a beautiful and straight-out vision of that romance, it transports us in heights of sensuality to make us fall even harder on the ground of reality.
Indeed, we get the summer with sex, sensuality and sun, and then comes the winter with its share of responsibilities, matrimony, baby and betrayal. The "conflict" part can strike as depressing and anticlimactic but once again, it's the perfect plot vehicle for Bergman's talent, showcased in previous films such as "Port of Call". Take the way Monika stares at the camera while Harry is listening to her selfish ode to freedom. This is a girl who challenges authority and that goes for Harry too even, he became an adult by accepting his responsibilities while Monika remained a teenager, the edge of seventeen with a catch.
Monika is a woman who didn't want to commit to adulthood, whose personality was of an eternal dreamer rocked by the lullabies sung by Hollywood movies, the same Hollywood movies that sealed their romance in the theater. The title was "Women's Dream", interestingly, Bergman would use it for a film he'd make 2 years after, but his career will always prove how detached he'll be from Hollywood conventions, no matter how dreamy they would be, the inevitability of the things life will be his greatest visual assets. Maybe it took a last glance on teenagers before he would reach that level of maturity.
Toying with the duplicity of the system, the erotic part was one reason to discover Bergman and the story one to get his genius, "Summer With Monika" marks his entrance as an international director approaching the life contemplation that would inspire the masterpieces of 1957.
A Night to Remember (1958)
An accurate depiction of the "Titanic" sinking, and a milestone in the 'disaster' genre...
Adapted from Walter Lord's acclaimed novel of the same name, "A Night to Remember" is a most interesting watch when you have a certain flute melody springing to mind whenever you think of a certain iconic ship that hit a certain iceberg back in 1912.
James Cameron did a lot of good in raising a worldwide interest around the fate of the RMS Titanic, but the film was so spectacular and abundant in CGI effects and iconic imagery (the 'King of the World', the flying scene...) that the factual tragedy turned into a beautiful Romeo and Juliet with the ship as a backdrop, and by doing so, the public conceded all the tears to fictional characters while the Titanic didn't carry one tragic story but hundreds of them.
To his credit, Cameron allowed a few characters to emerge (no pun intended) from anonymity, one of the most powerful images of the film is the old couple (Isidor and Ida Strauss) hugging each other on the bed as the water is flowing over the cabin, we have a shot at the classy behavior of first-class passengers Guggenheim or Astor (who died as true gentlemen). Still, it was about Leo and Kate, and a necklace that should have been dropped as an idea rather than an object. Cameron made a modern classic but when it comes to the facts, his baby was as much about the Titanic as "Gone With the Wind" about the Civil War, accessory but not central.
So the best thing about "A Night to Remember" is that it doesn't have any central character and thank heavens, no romantic lead. We're embarked in the doomed voyage to follow the path of various real-life passengers and witness the bravery of many and the cowardice of a few. The story of the baker who allegedly survived thanks to many shot of whiskey gets a fine coverage, a much sadder light is shone on the social strata that prevented many third passengers to realize that the ship was drowning until it was too late, and most lifeboats were gone. The film also adds more layers to the work of wireless operators, officers and Captain Smith. Finally, it also covers the involvement, and as a matter of fact, non-involvement of the Carpathia and the Californian, in that order, which are more than subplots in the scope of the tragedy.
So the British film, the most expensive of its time, really puts the story in "history" and it does something more: it anticipates the narrative format of many disaster movies and set the template that would be later used in "The Towering Inferno" or "Earthquake", with more modest special effects but no less groundbreaking. One would gather that water is easier to handle as fire or falling rocks but the real test of the film is how spectacular the sinking looks and it passes the test remarkably, just check the making-of clip and you can see how the inclination of the ship had to be respected for the sake of continuity. As the angle increases, what was previously suggested by sliding serving trays became a much shocking reality when people were show rolling as object or making the big plunge, voluntarily or not.
The film has nothing to envy from the 1997 counterpart and it's got one edge worthy to be pointed: before the last thirty minutes; it's pretty peaceful and restrained. Even the collision with the iceberg didn't inspire any hurry or fear, so while the Titanic is slowly sinking, as viewers, we experience the escalation of fear from its early states to frenzy, from panic to "everyone for himself", and then sheer terror when Smith orders to abandon the ship. "A Night to Remember" offers a briefer but much more intense and emotionally compact emotionality as we follow all secondary characters till the end, their demise or survival equally intense.
The film has also a documentary thus it shares many interesting similarities with the 1997 blockbuster, among them: the depiction of ship designer Thomas Andrews as a gentleman hero who stayed till the end, he didn't make any attempt to save himself and was contemplating his "failure" while staring as a painting in the reception room. We also have the infamous Bruce Ismay shown in more sympathetic light but surrendering to the instinct of conservation at the last minute and avoiding the look of contempt on officer Murdoch's face... of course, Ismay feels guilt and remorse but there's no villain in the film. It's a credit to the film's intelligence and I guess it's for details like these that the story of Titanic fascinate us. We feel sorry for the passengers and somewhat we wonder: what if we were there? How would we behave?
Maybe the consolation behind this upper-class snobbishness and arrogance is that men who defended their pedigree to the core had to give it its fullest meaning, and face death with dignity, so something of a Golden Age, for better or worse, sunk with the ship. The dedication of the orchestra is also inspiring beyond any words, music can sooth the soul during the most horrific moments, but maybe their music was simply a way to pay farewell to humanity through one of its most noble inventions. And again some tried to get in the lifeboat because the prospect of death was simply too terrifying, are we to judge them?
"A Night to Remember" didn't get its due success for lack of the magic word in the title and a lack of stars for the American public (obviously Cameron didn't commit the same "faults") but although that the ship doesn't break in that one (an unknown fact then that Cameron at least corrected), the film is perhaps the most accurate account of the fateful night. And the merit of Cameron's film is that it probably encouraged many viewers to give this one a try... and prevent it from sinking into oblivion. And that's a mathematical certainty!
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
Kiss Kiss and Bang Bang in the Jungle...
"Tarzan and His Mate" is a continuation to the original "Tarzan the Ape Man" (directed by W.S. Van Dike) but plot-wise, it can be regarded as a blatant remake of the first film with the same premise involving the elephants' graveyard. If the screenwriters didn't really kill themselves over the story, there's a main difference which is that Tarzan and Jane form a couple and well, here's their alibi.
Obviously, the only reason to watch a Tarzan picture is to see the hero and his beloved Jane in action -God forbid she loses her status as a damsel in distress, justifying his own as a hero- but that certainly doesn't mean that Jane is half the reason to watch this film. Forgive my male bias, but she really takes the lion, or I would say, the lioness-share of fun and thrills derived from Cedric Gibbons' adventure picture, and the rest doesn't belong to Tarzan alone but Cheetah carried out her role as sidekick and comic relief quite remarkably. Still, Jane makes the show.
Think about it, would the adventures of the dashing muscular King of the Jungle with the impeccable yodel (one he can even perform with his face above the water) be as interesting if he was acting in solo? Wouldn't Tarzan be a rather dull individual to follow, especially since the portrayal is far from the original book where he was much aware of his background? Jane was designed to be the perfect foil to Tarzan's heroism and eye candy to a fair portion of the spectators (not that the other is given reasons to complain, whether you melt for curves or muscles, you get it!) but don't get yourself fooled by her sexy halter top and loincloth ensemble, it's actually the pants she wears as far as both the film and "life with Tarzan" go. Without her, the film would have been rather dull and disappointing.
Not that you couldn't make interesting adventure movies but there's just too much displays of "dated interracial interaction" one mind can tolerate. I'm all for putting a movie into its proper context but the way the African indigenes are portrayed (I swear that 'Bwana' thing made me mad) and to see them being treated like beasts of burdens made me cringe, I guess it helped to establish the villainy of one of the two safari-hunters, the British aristocrat Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) who lost his money after the financial crash and invested every last dime in that ivory project, we see him killing a slave because of a slight disobedience and I didn't see animals treated that way. But are we supposed to feel more indulgent toward Harry Holt (Nail Hamilton) who protested that "a whip would have been enough".
"Tarzan and His Mate" is the wrong film if you were looking to British men at their most chivalrous though so let's credit it for the one aspect where no one will mind the datedness. The film is known as one of the last Pre-Code gem and the last 'Tarzan' picture made before the Hays Code, which makes it an instance where we can enjoy Tarzan and Jane enjoying a fine romance, frolicking and enjoying each one's company to the fullest and most sensual meaning. I just couldn't resist the way Jane said "Tarzan you big boy!" that's an actress who made the talkies earn some legitimacy. I could hear her over and over, from her screams of distress, to the way she talks to her big boy, not to mention her new signature scream, Jane made her jungle her domain and her couple as mundane as any other occupant of the jungle.
Of course, Gibbons doesn't spare his energy maximizing her sensuality and offer so many (intended?) glimpses on her body but it's interesting in the way it never seems to be done at the expenses of her character, as if seducing was part of her nature. She's not treated as a prize contestant but as a woman proudly and shamelessly embracing her womanhood. After she tries fancy dresses brought by the hunters (while one was sneakily peeking on her shadow), she enjoyed the interactions with civilized men and even volunteered to suck the poison out of Arlington's wound and you could tell from the lad's look that he'd seen worse. Yet all these elements never distract from the fact that Jane is in love with Tarzan and doesn't want anyone to convince her to leave the jungle.
So there's the idea of commitment that stick to a jungle-vision of marriage and there's no way the MGM studios wanted us to believe that the couple didn't consume it, not after such a magical interlude as the skinny-dipping scene, so charming and poetic in its obvious eroticism.. Jane is described as a mate, whether roommate and playmate, one has got to take mate in its rawest and most literary meaning. The rest of the film takes us back to the graveyard plot and a few interesting bits where Jane accepts to help her friends while for once, Tarzan is allowed to have an opinion of his own which triggers the chain of events culminating with what should be one of the noisiest and messiest action climaxes but weirdly enough full of thrills and entertainments. Cheetah is also given the opportunity to shine and the sight of her riding an ostrich was irresistible.
After this film, it's quite obvious the film's pattern and roles are established, only after the Code, Jane won't be exactly the same and from the attempts to sugarcoat the romance, something will be lost in that witty and naughty ambiance that made the first films so entertaining, especially the second one.
Tom Jones (1963)
Tally-Ho! Taking my hats off for "Tom Jones"!
"Tom Jones" is a Best Picture winner I unfairly mistook for one of these 'pretentious' and falsely sophisticated prestige movies indulging to the most old-fashioned forms of entertainment. My bias wasn't without a basis as the phenomenon was so typical of the 1960s especially the very year where the film competed with such distinguished illustrations of these symptoms as "Cleopatra" and "How the West Was Won". But with "Tom Jones", I embarked to a totally different ride, much to my greatest delight and let's use a not-too-fancy word: fun.
Yes, I had fun watching Tony Richardson's epic comedy. The film is a frantic, bawdy, irreverent, hilarious, self-conscious and entertaining costume drama and perhaps one of the most enjoyable I've ever seen recently, a non-stop series of gags and adventures with serious moments and charming romantic interlude that keep us anticipating imminent laughs, generally a little nod to the viewers comes at the right moment, just to tell us that this is not to be taken too seriously. It's all for the laughs just like a great cartoon, but it does take its intent to make us laugh seriously, and for that, I humbly take my hat off.
The film, adapted from the 18h novel written by Henry Fielding and adapted by John Osbourne, is the kind of material that might have suffered from a classic adaptation... unless your name is Stanley Kubrick. But Tom Jones is the antithesis of Barry Lyndon, he's the kind of larger-than-life character whose qualities call for an undetached directing in order to involve our empathy. And it starts in a rather promising way where he's described as a "bad hero" with many weaknesses, that, we're ready to believe. But when the narrator rather laconically adds that "But then, if Adam hadn't had such a weakness for apples, there would be nobody to tell Tom's story at all." The good old lad had already learned a few points of sympathy.
Indeed, swashbuckling and intrepid heroes can get rapidly boring so you've got to provide the character a little extra edge, a sense of self-awareness that commands the viewer to believe in the character and Tony Richardson has more than a sleeve in his tricks to make that work, starting with the first scene. Richardson makes a rather strategic choice by setting the tone of zany unpredictability before the opening credits start. Imagine how you can establish that your main character is a baseborn baby left in the bed of the rich Squire Allworthy, melodrama would be ridiculous but Richardson treats it like some old silent comedy with a silly piano theme and people acting like in some Vaudeville acts. It's perfect.
Richardson already shows that his priority in the film is the viewer and makes a film that look like a collection of sequences that work like these Benny Hill skits, all in color, fast-motion and a period piece of music, inspiring many moments from Woody Allen's "Love and Death". "Tom Jones" is perhaps the first movie that understood the secret appeal of costume dramas, movies set in at the crossroads between the contemporary world and the colorful and somewhat exotic ancient times, a period that can afford to be presented with modern visuals and tones without looking too incongruous. They are disconcerting to the eyes, but all the irises in the films, the fourth-wall breaking moments, the fast motions and all these madcap chases were inspired takes as the director relieved the material from its remains of pompousness.
And that semi-parodic tone, going as far as showing a character putting his cap on the lens of a camera, carries the same effect than what the narrator says about drinking "It is not true that drink alters a man's character. It may reveal it more fully." The film embraces with a charming and appealing confidence its material, without any holds barred, the more liberties and artistic licenses it takes, the more it frees itself from conventions that would have dated it considerably. The film remains incredibly modern and is only betrayed by the texture of the picture and of course a casting that showcases many great British talents of the time: Hugh Griffith always got a good word for a good laugh and can also do so with a simple gesture such as mimicking a goat or throwing a glass of wine on his bulldog, Susannah York is once again a perfect mix of juvenile beauty and maturity in acting, David Warmer makes a fine debut as the sly and hypocritically virtuous rival Blifil, and naturally you have the trio of Oscar-nominated actresses for Best Supporting Role; Joyce Reman as the luscious Mr. Waters, Edith Evans as the pushy and holier-than-thou aunt and Diane Cileto as the amoral Molly.
Naturally, the performance that carries the film is Albert Finney who also reinvents the role of the hero by looking so dashingly handsome and yet with his stocky frame, broad shoulders and slightly busted nose has the look of a pugnacious cockney you'd love to share a few pints with. Finney is complete, he manages to be poetic, tough, sensitive and romantic and always present when the call of heroism and bravery is made. What a great performance from the actor who had just left us a few months ago. His scene with Mrs. Evans in the inn remains one of the most memorable and sensual food eating moments, a school-case of suggestion in a time where everything relies on obsessive nudity (hear, hear, Kechiche!) there is so much eroticism and lust in this iconic moment that one should even question the need of graphic sex in movies.
The film is often remembered and parodied for that scene specifically, which is more than many movies can take pride from but that doesn't take anything from the other moments as "Tom Jones" is great from beginning to end, and perhaps one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of the 1960s, and beyond.
Naked emperor or masterpiece in disguise?
Boy, I'm so upset right now. Two days ago, you would ask me about the directors who had never disappointed me and the name of Ingmar Bergman would have immediately sprung to mind. But it was before I watched "All These Women".
Two years ago, I wrote a review of "Pierrot le Fou" and I used Bergman's negative statement against Godard as an alibi to my own hostility, if even the director who was the epitome of intellectual and artistic cinema found Godard to be an empty shell, I could rest my case. Yet, "All These Women" makes "Pierrot le Fou" look like "The Seventh Seal" and I couldn't believe the man who used such a bold critic against Godard could indulge to the same farcical tendencies than his rival, but failing as miserably. No matter how good the intentions were.
Finally, many many years ago, I wanted to discover Fellini and started with "8 ½" an unwise choice that made me postpone my exploration of the Italian director's work for one year and a half and made me discover Bergman instead. It's not until I saw the neo-realist films of Fellini that I could appreciate his slow evolution to poetic realism and then surrealism in the 60s. But if the first Bergman movie I saw was that one, I guess I wouldn't be the fan I am today, any film would do for a discovery but "All These Women" is a film that transcends my perception of a bad movie, quite a disturbing experience for someone who built such a high esteem on Bergman. It's not that it's bad, I just don't get how he could make something that bad.
Obviously, the film is meant to be a farce. The little inter-titles carry a certain edge and even mention the censorship that still prevailed, Bergman dodges them with fun artistic licenses, it's funny though because one of the reasons I wanted to watch a Bergman film is that I had just enjoyed the film "Tom Jones" and I've had enough laughs, I wanted to forget about its zany tone and its slight overuse of comical tricks, I wouldn't have thought that Bergman, of all the directors, would have kept me on the same scenery. Somewhat I was amused and even thrilled during the first five minutes, yes, I was determined to enjoy the film.
"All These Women" opens with the funeral of a famous cellist and seven of his women, mistresses and concubines come to pay their respect, each one delivering the same line with a tone that reveals something of her personality, but the camera is so far and the tone so detached that I'm not sure they wanted to know who is who or even that we're supposed to care. Three women would have been enough but seven?! I was glad I could spot the two Andersson, Harriett and Bibi, who had just left us... but I couldn't care much for the others.
It's even more incongruous since the main character is a critic named Cornelius, and not the cellist himself. Cornelius hovers from one room to another, each sequence being the sorry excuse for a gag that supposedly imitates the type of silent comedy used in Benny Hill sketches: jazzy music, fast-paced chases and all, but none of them really work. The first visual essay is the scene involving Cornelius's struggle with a statue and no mater how hard he tired, it didn't get one single laugh from me.
And I guess it's pretty normal since I never expected Bergman to make me laugh, it's one thing to imitate Fellini, but the film doesn't come close to anything the Maestro had done before. Maybe after a streak of existential movies questioning God, Bergman felt the use to loosen up a bit and he's quite entitled to operate a change of tone and style, no matter how disconcerting it can be to the fans, but the result is so disapprovingly disjointed and bizarre. At the end, the film is aesthetically interesting, I suspect it inspired François Ozon's "8 Women" but in the Bergmanian canon, the best thing you can ay about it is that it's an oddity, a curiosity.
There are certainly areas where we're tempted to dig a little and find some statements about the relationships between art and criticism, or the necessity of separating the art from the artist by showing both sides of the same man, from different perspective but his. Maybe the film is deeper than it seems to be or maybe Bergman, like a deliberate hack, wanted to challenge critics' opinions and created this cinematic "trap for idiots". Maybe we'd be stupid to miss the point or to praise it... Maybe.
Still, Bergman is such a heavy director, so intellectually challenging that many of his movies demand several watching to be examined and appreciated, that I'm not sure this one is worth the time even if it's a masterpiece in disguise. I guess it takes a Bergman fan to be able to reach that film and the same Bergmanian fan to be wise enough to forget it.
Yes, sometimes, it's not about separating the Art from an artist, but at least some pieces of it...
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
When the person we spend the most of our life with is perhaps the one we talk the least to...
"Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is a fabulous movie, a double-faced mirror projecting our own frustrations while allowing us to project our personal insecurities... it pretends to make fun of a certain "hip" attitude toward sex and couple but underneath the little comedic quips, it reveals the stuff we hide because it's the right thing to do though we feel it's not. It doesn't cheat with reality but through humor and an edgy je-ne-sais-quoi, it reveals the ultimate paradox of marriage: the person we spend the most of our life with is perhaps the one we talk the least to.
I guess it takes a married man to spot these nuances; when I first saw the film, I couldn't finish it because the DVD stopped working. I was 28, I laughed a lot but I don't think I could respond to it as strongly as I did today, after seven marital years. Paul Mazurksy's film didn't teach me any lesson about marriage because I've learned enough (though not enough to avoid divorce), but the film caught me off guard because I was stuck in a secrecy-phase: keeping my feelings for myself and stop opening up as easily as I used to. And the film opens with a memorable 24-hour to some seminary camp where people learn to deal with the expression of their feelings.
I wish I could be in that camp. Hell, I wish the DVD had worked ten years ago.
The opening sequence alone is an indication that the film isn't venturing in the usual territories, it's close in topic with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" but you couldn't have more opposite treatments: from the first scenes, the film dares you to challenge every rule of modesty and intimacy, showing people indulging to acts of collective hugging, crying and kissing. It looks like orgies' preliminaries but these are the climaxes to more emotional outings of anger, frustrations, coming directly from the heart. While movies allowed us to penetrate the intimacy of characters with the power of the camera, this time, we deal with characters who are much aware that their intimacy is being occupied and don't mind about it, that's what Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) learn during their journey.
So their behavior is an invitation for spontaneity, honesty, acceptance and on the field of cinematic storytelling a novelty and a great canvas for unpredictable and funny situations. Indeed, "How do you feel?" "What are you thinking about?" aren't these the kind of awkward questions couples exchange when they feel someone is keeping a deep thought inside and they have to 'dig it'. So the film exposes us to two couples that are extremely similar, belonging to these yuppie intermediary categories of Americas (too old for the flower power but too young for conservatism) and see how the two 'digging' approaches work.
Bob and Carol operate a real "perestroika" and "glasnost" (restructuration and transparency) going as far as having affairs and telling about them, much to the disbelief of their friends Ted (Elliot Gould) and Carol (Dyan Cannon), much to the latter's disgust actually. Yet Ted and Carol, an easily aroused man and a borderline frigid woman, don't form an ideal couple either. We suspect their marriage is the sum of too many unspoken things, likely to shake their love edifice. Bob and Carol might be weird but within their insanity, they find a platform of sanity allowing their couple to last and it's interesting to see how their odd patterns of behavior end up spewing out on Ted and Carol's marriage.
Now, back to my situation. I said I wanted to keep my feelings to me, to protect myself, but deep inside, I knew I was playing a game. The film doesn't make me feel guilty about it because everybody does, and Carol while turned off by the seemingly decadence of these open relationships, as the only supposedly sane person of the quarter, confronts everyone to the predictable conclusion we all longed for as soon as we saw the film's poster. And Mazurky's script obviously agrees that truth never emerges from hiding, no matter what. Without spoiling the ending, I can say I loved the way it both managed to show the limits of the open-relationships (through a "let's try" scenario) without denying its cathartic effect. After all, what did Oscar Wilde say about the best way to resist temptation?
This is a film about people experimenting new approaches to life, testing their own limits, and thus taking the viewer to a fantastic journey into his own psyche. Once my wife said she didn't feel attracted, I took it as an offense but the same day I was thinking maybe she's respecting me enough to tell me the truth, or maybe she had enough esteem to know I woudn't take it defensively. The film also reminded me the way I used to fantasize about my best friend's girlfriend because she had more voluptuous curves, the question is "why should I feel guilty?. "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" deals with guilt in a different way than a Scorsese movie but it feels incredibly real and still relevant, it's outspoken, amused, confused, expressed though a palette of reactions from Gould's bewildered infantile eyes or Cannon's incomparable talent to have that disgusted face on her look (both would be nominated for Best Supporting roles).
Now, the film is 50 years old, and open relationship are as banal as veggie sandwiches or uber taxis and Mazurksy should be commanded to have formed that perfect cast (Wood is just too irresistible for words) and made a movie that predicted a relevant evolution to society. All Youtubers, and personal development gurus exercises the same influences in our lives, inviting us to top copping-out and speak the truth, nothing but the truth, as any of the quartet would say "Insight!" "Insight!" Yes, the film is full of them.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Exotic, erotic... not so ethnologic...
There's so much analytical weight you can put on the myth of Tarzan: the noble savage trope, the longing for mother nature when the Great Depression showed the decline of civilization, the Great White Man as the suitable protector of the world, or the last representative of a manhood sacrificed at the altar of progress and comfort... the appeal of Tarzan transcends the limitations of a movie or any visual format.
But W. Van Dyke concocted such a great adventure story with "Tarzan, the Ape Man" that we don't care much for analysis and enjoy what the film's got to offer: a sensual and sensational interaction between Tarzan and Jane. The 1932 film is a marvel of the Pre-Hays Code days, anticipating another milestone such as "King Kong". There's nothing revolutionary in the adventure department, the plot is amateurish and candid, thanks to the shots of the African jungle and the wilderness cleverly inserted, the film doesn't look as glaringly fake as the first screen juxtapositions and the acting is passable but whenever Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan share the screen, we get the stuff iconic romances are made of.
The film makes the right choice by not revealing Tarzan until the first twenty minutes, meanwhile we're invited to follow Jane Parker's first immersion into the African jungle. Of course it's only a cardboard copy of Africa as the film doesn't try to make an ethnologic statement, but Maureen O'Sullivan is such a delightful presence that she carries the first minutes of the film as swiftly as Tarzan jumping from tree to tree. She's a perky, smart, talkative girl who embraces the African jungle without denying her English roots, she has fun in Africa, she's not afraid to handle a gun and even mixes up a bunch of hippos with sitting ducks during a scene that would make a Greenpeace militant faint with horror.
It's funny how Jane Parker fits the 'female power' trope even by modern standards and her encounter with Tarzan doesn't happen within a 'damsels in distress' context though she eventually became a damsel in distress when she's transported to his cave. Tarzan wonders what it is with that frail creature with attractive forms and a high-pitched voice. Naturally, the puzzlement is mutual and once the first shocks wears down, Jane also contemplates the massive body of the man-child. The fascination comes from the observation of the laws of attractions and seeing the way both presences are perceived and the way each one gets used to the other.
Of course, there's not enough room in that cave for two strong characters and there comes a point where when you have a woman and a man in the jungle, the laws of nature apply themselves however unpleasant it might seem to the defenders of equality. The film is pretty fair in its treatment of the rules of nature. Besides, I challenge any feminist not to feel reassured or aroused by the towering and muscular presence of Weissmuller, the former Olympic swimmer turned out to be one of the most defining faces of cinema and iconic scream, I don't know if it was Weissmuler's voice but this is a trivia I don't want to check, I like the idea that a man named Weissmuller could honor his roots with an incomparable yodel.
Unlike the original Tazan, he's not Lord Greystoke, he's not educated nor does he seem to remember his background, which allows Jane to play the role of the nurturing mother to the core and have an edge over him. The film isn't obsessed with any equilibrium of power but it contributes to set a rather balanced relationship incarnated through that famous quote "Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tazan." (and not "Me Tazan, You Jane"). She gives him as much as he gives her and their relationship is established through that complementarity between the nurturer and the provider. With that begins one of the most enduring relationship maybe because there should be a little of Tarzan in each man, and a little bit of Jane in ladies.
And the film isn't too stingy on sensual moments, doing a great service to the fans and offer magnificent views on two bodies who are obviously attracted one to another but are yet again at the infancy of feelings, starting with silly little games in a lake, making the moisture of water a substitute for something that doesn't fool us. Later, Jane feels like embracing the life of the jungle and exposes a feeling of total satisfaction to Tarzan, and in that moment, she has the same tone and expression of a woman who just had the best sex in her life and wouldn't live the man for all the money and all the civilization in the world. It's purely sensual, sexual, exotic and erotic but there's never a moment where we don't believe in the mutual attraction between the two. The sensuality is simply arousing and makes you forget about the rest.
Now, the film must provide the right amount of thrills and then take us to a trip à la "Temple of Doom", some village tribe in order to have Tarzan play the white savior but this is where the film gets a tad too long and too demanding for our disbelief, Van Dyke probably thought that audience would enjoy seeing black-faced dwarfs playing the roles of convenient villains, but the waters where we had just swum with Tarzan and Jane belonged to far better horizons and the film loses a few points by being a too long for what it had to offer, the first glimpse on a myth meant to last.
Still, a great gem of the 1930s and I'm looking forward to discovering "Tarzan and his Mate".
The Band Wagon (1953)
The Band and the Beautiful...
The swiftness of Fred Astaire's moves and his charismatic presence are such delicious sweets to the eyes from candy man Vincente Minnelli that we might be too eager to throw the "wrappers" while they're as integral to the delight of "The Band Wagon". If it was just about the taste, we might even feel some similarity in savors with another Hollywood musical... one that involves an umbrella, say no more!
I confess I almost fell into the certitude that "The Band Wagon" was a vehicle for Astaire' talent as "Singin' in the Rain" was for Gene Kelly, a statement that holds some truth nonetheless. It took me not a second but a third viewing with the commentary of Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein to be able to reach the film and embrace its cheerful and uplifting nature. Liza's enthusiasm and the love that was transpiring every time she said "my father" were so catching that I was able to see behind the 'reductive' label of Hollywood musical something else that made "The Band Wagon" a great American classic.
Simply said, the film is a love letter to both Hollywood and Broadway written with a Technicolor pen and as the alphabet the partition of a great composer named Arthur Schwartz and Howard Lietz' lyrics and not only the ear but also the eyes Minnelli had for the music, his 'baby', far more enjoyable than "An American in Paris"... I mean enjoyable-to-make, for some reason, I could tell the director had as much fun making the film as the actors to star in it, and that's the secret ingredient. Minnelli has not only a talent for directing but he went as far as directing an actor to play a director directing people, that's not a prowess but a stunt.
The result is a wonderful ode to entertainment, full of self-derision, enchantment, poetry, romance, strass, contrivances and these annoying little glitter that stick to your face when you go to a party. Party, indeed. That's "The Band Wagon": a feel-good mixture of fun and friendship where even the most banal trivialities are transcended by an over-the-top enthusiasm. Choreographies, music and lyrics form a splendid combo upon which characters are given the right tessiture to perform and the story can unfold smoothly and confidently.
Astaire is Tony Hunter, the washed down star who sees reporters waiting for someone in the train station and realizing it's for Ava Gardner (herself in a memorable cameo). Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant plays two stage writers (a nod to the film's writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green) who offer Tony a role in a musical they just wrote. The pair would put anyone in a good mood and isn't without reminding Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain". But the real scene-stealer is Jack Buchanan as the histrionic director Jeff Kordova, convinced for some reason that the musical is only a retelling of the Faust legend and an emient hit. His voice, his mimics, his presence were so memorable he deserved a nomination for Best Supporting performance.
And last but not least, there's the sculptural Cyd Charisse as the prima ballerina who's given the leading role, much to the hesitance of Tony who finds her too tall for him, and naturally a relationship that starts with hostility doesn't fool us at all. The two have a great chemistry and Mrs. Charisse, while not the best actress of all time, provides her own ingredient of innocence and sweetness, making her an interesting counterpart to Tony's edge and grumpy cynicism. The steps they share during that little night escapade in the park reminded me of the movie "La La Land" and I guess it's all to Chazelle's credit to try to revive the magic of these old-fashioned movies during at a time too concerned with sociopolitical relevance. That's NOT entertainment.
But I digress. Some number are nothing but delightful, the "Shoe Shine" segment is a masterpiece of comical timing in the same vein than "Make'em laugh" and a part you can watch and re-watch without getting tired of it, Minnelli really pushed the envelope in that bit. The film has a gangster number near the end that inspired Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and no matter how good it is, it reminded me that even during great parties, one start looking at his watch. The film is longer than needed but redeems its flaws through its best contribution to Hollywood canon: its signature song with "That's Entertainment", a musical exposition of all the reasons why we should watch the movies, the song was so catchy it was to be used in cartoons and become a standard to define the world of entertainment.
Now, I wish the film could be Fred Astaire's "Singin' in the Rain" like Vincente Minnelli intended to, while the two are funny, self-reflexive and insightful takes on the world of entertainment with a star playing his own role as a has-been, "Singin' in the Rain" is still the untouchable classic and Astaire's immortal image is still his "Cheek to Cheek" number in "Top Hat". And as great as the film is, "The Band Wagon" is only listed 17 in the AFI's Top 25 musical, which is an indication of the film's status.
The romantic moments are full of poetry and listening to Minnelli describing them is fun, but the film tends to trust our patience. But my real source of puzzlement is: why the title of the song wasn't used for the film just like "Singin' in the Rain". "That's Entertainment" has a better ring than "The Band Wagon", hell, "The Show Must Go On" is even a better title. I mentioned the candy and the wrapper, sometimes the brand also makes a difference, does it?
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
All right, Mr. De Mille ...
"How Green Was My Valley", "Ordinary People", "Crash"... over the course of Oscars' history, there have been movies whose Best Picture win was welcomed with crispation or puzzlement... but not unanimous reactions. However, "The Greatest Show On Earth" is one superlative to make every Oscar buff's hair bristle.
Ironically, the superlative isn't even misused in the title, everything about the picture has been designed to please the biggest portion of movie lovers, to be the most this and the most that in every single department of filmmaking. At the end, it's certainly a not-uninteresting relic of kitschy entertainment, deserving to suck a few precious hours of our life. And if not the greatest picture on Earth or the worst Best Picture winner, it's certainly on of the best (as most notable film about the entertainment that satisfied all the worldwide thirst for escapism before the big screen. Cecil B. De Mille grew up at a cinema-less time so it all makes sense to have the Barnum of Hollywood pay tribute to the entertainment that defined his very childhood.
Now, I guess one can say it carries all the cinematic pretension of "How the West Was Won", an equally big-scope project released one decade later and meant as a tribute for the Western genre. Both ambitioned to be the 'ultimate' picture about a world of dazzling imagery and not only familiar but accessible to the masses, a sort of Bible, both in form and content, encapsulating every archetype of a genre to the point of overflowing. And it's not a hazard that it was directed by the director responsible for so many Biblical super-productions, you've got to show a religious level of dedication to make an epic out of a circus story, it might not be high art but De Mille knows a thing of two about show business and he shows it.
But "How the West Was Won" impact was diluted within its obsession with the Cinemascope format and to give every bankable actor a shot on the screen, so at the end, every paradigm of the Western myth was reduced to a tiny ingredient of rather savorless salad. At least Cecil B. De Mille's circus epic delivers what anyone with a meager interest on circus would expect: thrilling numbers, forced horn-induced laughs, acrobats, trapeze artists and all the hullabaloo under the big top.... not to mention, prima donnas, managers, clowns with a heart and all the usual (melo)drama that goes backstage, matters of greed, petty vengeances and the climactic disaster that became a staple of a circus story. And at least this time, it's not fire.
So on the surface, the film is a cinematic triumph and certainly the highest point ever reached by mass-entertainment, with its infamous Best Picture Oscar in a race that included "High Noon", "The Quiet Man" and that didn't consider "Singin' in the Rain", the best of all. Cecil De Mille's baby was a clean-cut epic picture with a family friendly tone (despite the interminable romantic subplots), so in these days of witch hunting and blacklisting hysteria, it was the kind of comforting pills that would pass, a "pleasing" conservatism, an offer the Academy couldn't refuse, a win-win situation where producers and audiences could look to the right direction, and close eyes on the ugliness going backstage and the lives sacrificed at the altar of McCarthyism. Not that everything in that show was worth our attention.
So it's all smoke and mirrors, for nearly three hours, we're taken to a tour in old-fashioned Hollywood with De Mille as a narrator who's so pleased with his little movie (a bit too pleased) that he'd really make you believe that this is the greatest show on Earth... and you know what? When the film isn't polluted by the silly dramatic interludes, you really enjoy what it's got to show you. The rivalry between the trapeze players, the parades, the South Seas song with Dorothy Lamour which, for some reason, was the part that stood in my memory when I first saw it. There's also a documentary side of the film showing all the crew's work that go behind the circus filling your eyes with wonder, and making you think of the logistics behind the logistics, mixing real circus performers with filming crew must have been quite an ordeal.
So in a way, if we deprive the analysis from any political undertones, we're tempted to believe that this is Best Picture material as far as motion pictures go and in the way it just proves you beyond a shadow of a doubt that circus used to be the noblest form of entertainment, it has the spontaneity of theatre with the element of danger, in these days driven by money and insurance, no one would dare to take so many risks for the sake of a show, so the film gives Caesar what it's due and pays the greatest tribute to raw and rough mass-entertainment. The audience, smartly presented as kids whose ages vary from 6 to 60, is perhaps the most important protagonist with far more substance than any other cast member.
Charlton Heston plays the serious and hard-nosed manager Brad Gloria Grahame and Betty Hutton are the two sides of the romantic triangle with the Great Sebastian played by Cornel Wilde as if he was channeling Pepe Le Pew, and James Stewart is Buttons the clown who "never get his make up off." All the tangling plots and subplots are tied up together for the disastrous climax but they don't really add much to the story and if anything, slow down what could have been spellbinding ninety minutes in the circus.
De Mille wanted his epic and ended with one of the most unpopular Best Picture wins, a sympathy Oscar that ironically prevented him from winning for the better deserving "Ten Commandments", a film that lost against "Around the World in 80 Days". History tends to repeat itself, doesn't it?
Father's Little Dividend (1951)
Spencer Tracy would have made a terrific Sitcom Daddy!
Revisiting my review of "Father of the Bride", I was surprised to read this: "We all have moments in our lives when we know a step has just been taken and there is no coming back. It can't be marriage because we can divorce. A birth is different." That was my way of asserting that the central relationship in the film wasn't the marital one but the irresistible bond between Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy) and his daughter Kay. Unknowingly, I was also foreshadowing the importance of the next step, when it's the daughter's turn to give birth... to the future scene-stealer, the final nail in the symbolical coffin where Daddy's girl will rest forever.
That's the circle of life, the moment where the father loses his momentum forever with his little girl and can only benefit from a nine-month suspended sentence to reminisce about the good old days where he was still the center of her universe. And if it's of any consolation, even the former bride will get his comeuppance for having stolen his baby's heart and will become a neglected entity as well, which gives more three-dimensionality to the character of Buckley (Don Taylor) who wasn't as interesting in the original film.
And the title is also half appropriate as it conveys the idea that a grandparent gets every benefit of a grandchild without having to assume the burden of being a parent, it's like the pros without the cons. But the birth of the first grandchild IS still a big deal and it's dealt with a honesty and a straightforwardness that makes "Father's Little Dividend" a fine companion piece to its Best Picture nominee predecessor. And it's a fine continuation as well, perhaps one of the earliest example of the genre., the same cast and the same director are embarked for a second exploration of the habits and customs of a typical upper-middle class American family, a film with a a tenderness of its own hidden underneath the practical approach of the wedding.
It was the 50s then and one would expect an immediate expectancy after the wedding but subverting the trope of the nervous perambulating father with hundreds of cigarettes on his beck and bags under his eyes, this time we have the story told once again from the perspective of a father..., played once again by Tracy with that edgy self-consciousness and humorous grumpiness that make him the perfect actor to play the average American father, long before the rise of TV sitcoms. It's always a delight to relate to his outsider's point of view, as soon as Kay announces that she's pregnant, it's like an existential epiphany hitting the poor man's head, he's to become a grandfather. That heavy word resonates like the ominous gong but tactfully, the film doesn't circle around ageist thoughts and only inspires a little interlude where we see Stanley Banks proving he's still got it through gym activities.
After that, the story gets on track again and proves to be an insightful introspection into the state of pregnancy and how two families try to get the lion share of influence on the baby's life, before it has ever started. And it's refreshing to see Banks as the one figure who's always there to support his daughter and offer a few sound advices about the best way to handle motherhood in particular and parenthood in general. Stanley is such a great father that perhaps the little catch is that we never see his fatherhood operating with his sons; as a matter of fact, we never rally see his sons at all, they're so useless to the story that Kay could have been an only child as well, which would have justified how "precious" she was to both her parents.
Well, Kay is precious no matter what and the chemistry between Tracy and Taylor is as convincing as with his usual partner Katharine Hepburn, though his interactions with Joan Bennett who plays the wife aka the surrogate mother, have nothing to envy from the classic duo. By the way, her role had awakened so many painful memories as far as I was concerned, reminding me how toxic a mother-in-law can be, despite the best intentions, when they enjoy the continuity of life without caring much for the in-betweeners.
This is not to make the film sound like some sociological thesis but it does offer a fine look at the way pregnancy wasn't lived as differently in a bourgeois upper class than another background, it's a family occasion with its share of nervousness, false alarms, breakdowns and joy, and ultimately culminating with the delivery. The film is almost seven decades old and it's probable that the daughter of the little baby was flashing her physical assets during a Spring Break party, screaming and dancing while the male members of the same generation were cumulating pints of booze. I'm not sure a bond between Stanley Banks and Kay would be allowed in our narcissistic and ego-driven days when any crisis can defeat a couple and when the epitome of achievement consists on breaking continuities.
The "father" two-part comedy-drama is an enchanting parenthesis provided by Vincente Minnelli, movies with warmth, humor and a sweet poignancy. Everything is handled with the right balance of comedy and drama, though here and there you can't sense that the pacing is slowed donw and the film resorts to very contrived situations to lead to the obligatory conclusion where Stanley Banks and his grandson finally make peace. The last minute of the film is so emotionally rewarding made that it redeems all the little contrivances.
Mikey and Nicky (1976)
And it's your best friend that does it...
I'll borrow a line from a French movie theorist named Vincent Amiel who said that a lasting career can do a lot to a film's legacy. Had May had the career of Scorsese, the film would have been as highly regarded as "Taxi Driver". I agree. Many New Hollywood movies were also flushed into oblivion because they had no De Niro or Pacino.
Still, atching a New Hollywood movie is like wandering at night in a deserted street and contemplating the decline of civilization in an urbane purgatory made of bars, pimps, police sirens and walking through that moral dumb, you bump into remains of inner poetry as casually as your foot steps on a cigarette butt or bump into an emptied beer can. "Mikey and Nicky" is one of these New Hollywood gems, directed by comic writer/director Elaine May.
This is a film that doesn't offer much to look at except the sight of two worn-down old friends going from various points of the city during a rather night. Nicky (John Cassavetes) is trying to escape from the mob, he knows a contract's been put over his head as his old accomplice is as dead as Dillinger. Hiding like a cornered rat in a flea-bitten motel, he calls the only person he can trust, his old buddy Mikey (Peter Falk). It takes forever for the two men to be "framed" by the camera, Nicky sobs and cracks up with the only person who could see him so shattered. Eventually, Mikey convinces Mikey to pull himself together, have a shave, drink some cream to appease his ulcer and get the hell out of the hotel.
That's for the set-up. At that point I was hooked and at the same time worried, if these two men were friends already and the film was to consist of a cat-and-mouse chase with the hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty), I'm not sure it could have maintained its rhythm and punchiness. But that was forgetting I was watching a Cassavetes and Falk movie and the experience reminded me of the days I was anticipating every new movie from the indie icon with thrills and excitement. The last classic Cassavetes I had seen was "Minnie and Moskowitz" so basically it took me 8 years to rediscover the spice of unpredictability and pre-written improvisation that govern his movies. Oh, it's an Elaine May movie alright but it's the closest to a Cassavetes' film I ever saw, one can even see it as a "Husbands" without Ben Gazzara.
Indeed, while Nicky is scared out of his wits and can beg for his life like a baby, he needs fresh air and gets out and then, he doesn't walk, he runs so fast that his friend can almost lose his track, that's pure Cassavetes, even men run like little boys playing, as if the possibility of death enhanced the exhilaration of life. And the personality of Nicky gradually recovers life and unveils his more complex, colorful and even at times disagreeable trait. There's something in Cassavetes that makes him so believable as a jerk and yet the film asks us to care for the life of someone who acted all his life and still acts like a prick, a man so self-absorbed he doesn't even show respect to the friend who's saving his skin... or is he?
Even that would've been too simplistic, they're two in the film and while I was seeing Mickey making constant phone calls and being genuinely annoyed when Nicky suddenly leaves one bar, starts a brawl in another, insults a bus driver or decides to visit a cemetery, I was wondering why I was lead to believe that Nicky is selling his friend. Ironically, the one answers our suspicion is Nicky. And if Mickey was to be a traitor, after all it's a mob picture and it's got to come from your best friend, maybe the point is to see the traitor redeeming himself and helping his friend after all, but Nicky isn't the kind of guy easy to like. Mikey is no saint either but Cassavetes is at his Cassavetest in a non-Cassavetes movie.
This is indeed the closest to his cinema-verité style a film could ever come to, a vitriolic friendship confronted to the imminence of death. Sometimes, both truly behave like they're on the run, looking for a place to hide or to be safe, sometimes, we can even tell that death offers them moments of insightful meditation, even a joke in a cemetery carries deep resonances. Finally, we have finally a last confrontation where Mickey lets his feeling out and comes to term with Nicky in an authentically disturbing moment that sealed the final act.
The two men couldn't afford fooling around like they did in "Husbands" yet this ws an unprecedented case that could only unleash the most buffoonish or savage sides of both, repressed during their mob years while their wives were waiting. This is a movie that feels conservative in its portrayal of women who are just enduring their men's shenanigans and wait at home, an even more unlikely move from a woman director. But that iconoclast New Hollywood thriller allowed the talented Elaine May to finally subvert the myth of male friendship, and justify the poster with the torn picture.
First, as I said, they were framed together, then they're playing hide and seek together, and the film swings between dual moments and others where we see them alone and out of reach, even ours. And that's the point, May shows two men who become out of each other's reach which culminates in the heart-pounding minutes where they're framed separately and the word 'framed' takes an even more poignant meaning for one of them.
In these years of sheer disillusions, there was no honor whatsoever among thieves and some could betray not out of greed, not out of threat but because they were nicknamed "the echo".
La ciociara (1960)
Sophia Loren's intensity and magnetism taking over from the problematic statement about war...
"Finalmente", I saw "La Ciociara" (or "Two Women"), the film that earned Sophia Loren an Oscar in 1962, I had heard many great things about the film, and how her performance was regarded as one of the all-time best and although I was impressed by the film, I didn't expect I would find a tragic connection with my own background.
And I meant it because when your own username evokes your origin (Moroccan... ElMaruecan) it's hard to believe that it also contributed to an infamous term apparently very well known in Italy: 'Marocchinate', which means... what it means. It's true when you grew up with the idea that the Moroccan soldiers who fought in Italy and then the South of Europe were fierce fighters with a knowledge of the mountains due to their Berber background, the less honorable side came as a shock.
Now, that's a movie that shows how hellish war is... and maybe twice more for women. I don't know who said that war was fought against mothers, but it's even more tragic in a context where women, whether mothers or daughters, were also exposed to the bombs, the guns and the worst outrages. Still, I think I should also take some perspective now that the emotional shock is over... the Moors are portrayed as human beasts in the film, there's no doubt about that, and the point isn't to react defensively because I come from Morocco (after all, even my parents weren't born at the time and not all the Moors did these things).
Now, I just see the film as a chronicle of the hardship underwent by many Italians during the war of liberation with a focus on "two women", as the English title suggests.And De Sica misses no detail: the fascist militia, the civilians who didn't fight nor collaborated, the crowded trains, hiding in mountains, the German presence, first they're cordial and colorful and then intimidating when they're cornered like rabid dogs, the political debates, the intellectual son (a bit overplayed by Jean-Paul Belmondo). In its attempt to be as historically relevant as possible, the film covers numerous points but with only beginnings of comprehension, in fact they only create situations so that Sophia Loren can react and demonstrate how great an actress she is.
Loren has the only substantial role in a plot that works like a clothesline to hang every possible war-related situation (even a forgettable affair with Raf Vallone at the film's beginning) and she goes from one to another displaying the same raw Roman spontaneity and sexy magnetism until it's sacrificed on the altar of that deserted church. Obviously Loren represents the soul of Italy, raped and devastated, and by being such an eminent figure in the film, she dwarfs everybody else, including her own daughter whose arc is too predictable to be treated with the same level of fascination. We definitely feel sorry for the two but Loren is so sanctified it begs us for an empathy that was granted already and worse, it ruins the "docudrama" effect.
By that I mean that a good symbolism is important but over-dramatization is a double-edged sword. The film is complex enough to question the Allies' responsibility in civilians' deaths and other material and moral damages, but it is too superficial in the treatment of the answers by reducing it to their emotional illustrations. And maybe it couldn't be anything else because of its greatest asset: Sophia Loren, the glamorous actress with an unglamorous role, like Brigitte Bardot in "The Truth". She starts as the only three-dimensional character in the film, a street-smart frivolous woman with principles, maternal instinct and a heart of gold, until her soul is shattered at the end and she becomes a sort of Saint, a martyr figure calling for compassion.
She's great in the film but the real question is "how great is the film without Loren?" The point is that we're far from neo-realistic masterpieces such as "The Bicycle Thieves" or "Shoeshine" where the protagonists were unknown, where they had dreams of their own, where their lives carried symbols ("a bicycle", a "white horse") and we followed them because we could relate to their anonymousness and appropriate a part of their tragedy, because they weren't actors. In "La Ciociora", every scene was a vehicle for Loren's acting talent and it all built up to that horrific moment where she and her daughter are "taken" by the Goumiers. On a highly dramatic level, the scene of course works, but maybe its mistake is that it works as a culmination of a long build-up while it could have been a tragedy of its own, the central if not the starting point.
In "Bicycle Thieves" we see the descent into poverty, in "Shoeshine", we witness the destruction of a friendship, in "La Ciociora", the traumatic effect and the shock are only given a few minutes before the end and that's because the film went in too many useless directions before, as if the point was to make us empathize with Loren's character and her daughter, as if it would have made the climax even more shocking, maybe the film's mistake is that it underestimated the audience and used a star to... once again, beg for an empathy that was granted already. Loren is simply mesmerizing in the film, there's no scene where your eyes don't literally fall in love with her... with the story as a collateral damage.
I'm not saying "La Ciociora" shouldn't have starred Sophia Loren but by casting her, it kind of departed from its initial purpose, instead of being the tragedy of Italians, it became her tragedy, her role... and her Oscar.
Woman of the Year (1942)
Behind every great woman, there's a man...
Pardon an odd comparison but George Stevens' "Woman of the Year" left me with the same lasting impression than Billy Wilder's "Fortune Cookie".
The 1966 comedy propelled the iconic partnership between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with a plot that served as a clothesline to many hilarious moments, smart one-liners and an undeniable chemistry between the two actors. Yet the film also ended with an improbable mixture of comedy and social commentary with a patronizing and even misogynistic taste.
Misogynistic indeed, a somber word I only indulge myself to use in force majeure cases. And although I usually tend to denounce the way anything is deemed as offensive in our culturally frigid days, there are a few movies that deserve that designation and on the scale of a 1 to 10, let's say that "Woman of the Year", for all its attempt to feature a feminist woman with fun and fairness, married to her job but not incapable to be a good wife, is still a 6 or a 7 on the misogyny scale. And I blame the ending for that.
The film doesn't hate strong women as much as it depicts their strength as diseases they'd rather have at a young age, like measles. In the film, a hardcore feminist and Hepburn's mentor, played by Fay Bainter, ultimately surrenders to marital commitment foreshadowing the film's sneaky philosophy: women will always be "women" or "better late than never". How could a film with such a great start enhanced by the extraordinary chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn end in such a disappointing note?
Well, let's not snub the good things first, especially since the film set the Tracy/Hepburn romance, one to last for a quarter of century. Hepburn is Tess Harding, the well-educated multilingual political affairs specialist, a diplomat's daughter with the sophistication of an upper class socialite but the good manners of a woman who learned to respect "other" cultures and that include "average Joes" culture, whose best ambassador is sport columnist Sam Craig. When the two met after an intramural feud, Sam is immediately enchanted by Tess and not just for her good looks, her enthusiasm at the baseball game has the effect of a home-run in his heart.
There are many comedic highlights making up for the not too subtle insistence that the two don't belong to the same world, and if Hepburn is once again as irresistible in a role that doesn't overplay her "snobbish" aura, I think Tracy doesn't get enough credit for his performance. He's a great actor but one hell of a reactor when it comes to enduring his wife's personal vision of marriage. The wedding ceremony isn't just funny for the gags but for the way the good old boy plays the game in the name of love, the honeymoon evening is another highlight of the film, served by a hilarious supporting cast. After that, it's all downhill.
And the blame is on the writing. I thought I could tell a script that was written with a woman just looking at the way the story is played on the screen, take "Adam's Rib", a film that dealt with similar issues and involved gender considerations. It was co-written by Ruth Gordon and her husband and even in that case, the film was slightly derogatory in the way the feminist cause was played for laughs. I'm not sure the film made its point but it played fair with both perspectives. "Woman of the Year" was written by two men and I'm sure the reason why it was remarkably progressive is because Hepburn took part in the writing process.
Then the film started to slip with the adoption of the Greek refugee, an attempt to show that Sam had more natural parental skills than Tess as if motherhood and feminism mixed like oil and water. Speaking of which, the film goes for a rushed climax and a lamentable attempt to have Tess trying to be a good housewife by cooking a decent breakfast. Reading some trivia helped me understand the reasons of that last-minute disaster: the initial conclusion didn't meet with the public's expectations so Louis B. Mayer decided to rewrite it and the writers couldn't even make any arrangements, And the way Tess' behavior backfired with Sam being good sport about illustrates what Pauline Kael described as "an act of desperation".
When the film opened with the infamous "women should be kept illiterate like men and canaries" that was second degree humor but the way the ending was played was downright more insulting than that line.... and that's the same problem with these movies made when feminism was at its infancy. Just like in "The Philadelphia Story", Hepburn's manners had more to do with her upbringing in an upper class family and her feminism was more of a privileged kind of endeavor, this is not a judgment because that's precisely what Sam loved in Tess, she was different, she talked the talk and walked the walk... with finely shaped legs.
However, when Tess realizes that she must become a submissive woman, something is definitely lost in the film, even Sam's telling her to pull herself together doesn't serve whatever purpose the film pretended to fulfill. Hepburn was afraid to look taller than Tracy with heels but she was told that he would "cut her down to size". I wish her character hadn't suffered the same treatment, handled and that's a shame because as a comedy and a romance, the film scores so high. It really didn't deserve that ending.
Listed in both AFI's 100 Passions and Laughs, this is a classic example of thee early 40's comedies rid of the screwball antics and that could only allow moments of pure sweetness and good-spirited humor, the ending was just a tad mean-spirited, the rest is gold.
Mad Max (1979)
When civilization goes backwards, just drive faster than barbarity!
Forty years ago, from the middle of nowhere with no budget whatsoever and no bankable name, like one of these speeding cars that flatten the most cautious pedestrians in Tex Avery cartoons, came a movie that crushed Hollywood conventions while superficially toying with a few. And that four-wheeled horse, as dark as a Main Force Patrol uniform, vroomed its way to cinematic posterity because it still had a few tricks under its rusty carcass: a title as cool and catchy as a Simpsons stick on a windshield and the revving of a Deluxe engine in George Miller's vision.
Miller probably didn't have the means of many directors of his generation such as Spielberg or Scorsese but his lack of resources ended up crating a more resourceful vehicle (no pun intended) for meaningful statements about violence and anarchy pending over humanity than any other dystopian blockbuster. The film was franchise-starter "Mad Max" and although it came from Australia, it had all the makings of the 'New Wave' that started in Hollywood in 1967 and was in its final gasps in 1980, so many glimpses of "Duel" "Bullitt", "Easy Rider", "Deliverance" and "Dirty Harry" can be found inside the gloves compartment.
"Mad Max" is set in a post apocalyptic world struck by a shortage of oil echoing the second crisis of 1979. George Miller could see the corners to which many people were (no pun intended again) driven to, to maintain a minimum standard of living, and saw there an inspiration for a picture that would both entertain and warn. Those were the days where the optimism inherited from the end of World War II was long gone and economical crisis and unemployment turned the West into a civilization's no man's land offered to the laments of the punk generation. And yet the film hit many sensitive chords by being nothing but a thrilling action picture patterned by cat-and-mouse chases between police highway patrolmen and motorbikes over roads crossing an Australian landscape where civilization is teetering. Nothing else.
Like I said in previous reviews, there's something so fulfilling in empty landscapes that serve as settings to road movies, not the contemplative sort and that's a shame because they deserve a few moments of relief. It's a rather nihilistic vision of the world where the real frontier isn't traced by the law but the road, separating between two kinds of people: nomad and sedentary, those who drive and those who parked. Actually, those whose drive are driven all the same, they move like the rolling stone that doesn't want to gather moss, but their rolling tires seem to gather the whole crass of the world and that's the catch of their escapism, it's not idealistic, but expressing a nihilism so ugly and desperate it can only bring the worst of humanity.
Indeed, those who drive have no rules, nothing they stick their minds or hearts to, they're no pioneers looking for a brighter future because the future is dark and gloomy under the sun. And in their drifting, they create their own microcosm. They have nothing to rebel against, but Toecutter is no "Wild One" Brando, he doesn't ask "what've you got?" he takes it without asking, the most vicious and hateful, the better. That's for the driving ones, sedentary people are necessities in the desolated land and occasional collateral damages. As farmers, station and motel owners, their exposure to danger is part of the routine so that there are two luxuries they can't do without: weapons and cars.
When even a poor frail lady is ready to blast her shotgun on a gang of hoodlums and drive an overused van to save a poor woman, it reminded me of Lillian Gish in "The Night of the Hunter" who said 'it's no place for little people'. In this Darwinian world, the fittest to survive is the fastest to drive and the one with the quickest reflexes. And caught between these two worlds, between those who live and those who live for driving, you have the MFP patrolmen who drive for a living, apprehending those who challenge laws and the most basic commandments. Max Rockatansky is a man living between these two worlds.
And the future "mad" one is the sanest of the bunch in this crazy world, he's got a reason to live: roots, a past, a job and even a place to contemplate. Basking in an ocean of static happiness, he's the perfect unmoving target for these gangsters on wheels and the perfect nemesis when he drives his Interceptor. In Max' establishing moment, he catches up a criminal legend named "Nightrider" and later, in a famous sequence, the villain starts sobbing as if he saw the coming end of the road, whether the real or the symbolical one. Maybe that bit of humanity caused his demise, in a way the Nightrider died when he stopped being "superhuman".
And the film follows exactly the opposite path, showing how Max, the sane and nice guy evolves into a super but soulless hero launching the 'widower' trope that codified many of Gibson's characters. There's almost something Freudian in the death of his wife and child: in our civilization, killing the father means a step into adulthood, in these days, killing the family, the basis of any culture, marks your first survival skills, one's got to be deprived of any bond to be ensured to live, which is the antithesis of civilization, and why "Mad Max" is one of the scariest dystopian worlds. There can be heroes if innocence is dead.
At one point, Max' friend made a rousing speech about heroes and Max retorts that he won't go for that crap. Yes, this is not your typical hero, the film that made Gibson a star drives on other roads, there's no heroism to embrace because when civilization has gone backwards, the only way to maintain it is to drive faster than barbarians, cutting them off or never fearing the collision.
Mister Roberts (1955)
A lackluster vehicle for old-fashioned sentimentalism (only redeemed by Jack Lemmon)...
First I thought "Mister Roberts" was the name of the US Navy cargo ship that carried all the plotline (not a heavy freight, mind you), and it would have been a fine name, but her name's "The Reluctant" and everyone aboard calls it affectionately the 'Bucket', including Mr. Doug Roberts who has a few reluctances to express in an odyssey that consumed much of his patience... and is about to use up ours as soon as the opening fanfares stop.
"Mister Roberts" has all the makings of classic old-fashioned Cinemascope entertainment with an all-star cast that includes Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Ward Bond and a young scene-stealing newcomer named Jack Lemmon. The film offers dazzling shots of the Pacific 'backwaters' under various shades of blues, with a sunny weather that seems to go over the heads of most of the seamen stationed so far from the action going during the final days of the war. The boys are either devoured by boredom or feel their body temperature increasing with the heat and the longing for amusement like previously the men of the bounty.
So the film is rather quiet, but it's the relative and colorful quietness that make you expect an entertaining storm. At the end, it gets away with a timid breeze, enjoyable to some degree but not brazen enough to pass as great entertainment, something is lacking in that glorious picture directed by John Ford and Melvyn Leroy. Whatever is lacking can be summed up in one word: execution. The film is adapted from a play of the same name where Fonda's reprising the role of the titular Douglas Robert, the sympathetic lieutenant who wishes he could take part at some battle before the end of the war and fraternizes with the crew, shielding everybody from the petty tyranny of the Commandant played by James Cagney.
Fonda is good in a role where his ego is more than flattered: he's brave, kind-hearted, patriotic, he's such a perfect human being that it's irritating. Meanwhile, the Commandant is a sort of Napoleonic figure who vents his past frustrations over his crew and use discipline as a pretext to prevent them from any kind of distraction like swimming or a shore-leave near an idyllic island. Cagney isn't exasperating because he's playing with passion a rather ungrateful role and seems more alive than Fonda who wanders in his contemplation of the war and already acts as the heroic relic he's about to become. I like positive characters to a point: Fonda's nobility was overplayed ad nauseam, so much it betrayed the film's problem: good story, poor execution.
The actors are all great, William Powell is a solid addition playing with the right balance of resignation and optimism the drawn-out "Doc" who accepts with paternal benevolence the hypochondriac shenanigans of his 'boys' and with honest empathy the melancholy of his friend Doug, Ward Bond is good and I'll get back to Jack Lemmon, but seriously, whoever was responsible for casting the sailors did to the movie what the Commandant did to their moral, an act of sabotaging. It's very telling when awkward acting is given a free pass with legends such as John Ford behind the camera. These boys reminded of these schools of mackerels who ride the Ocean waves in one block going at the same direction.
You can see the evolution of Robert's popularity just by cringing at these guys: first, they're all looking at him as if he was Eisenhower, or Jesus, or Elvis. Then, when the Commandant makes it look as if he turned yellow, everyone rejects him and I mean everyone. No one is two-dimensional enough to smell something fishy in that 180° turn, the guy who just earned them a permission for Heaven has supposedly turned into the Commandant's pet. There wasn't one ounce of believability in Robert's disgrace, it was played in a rather infantile and intelligence-insulting way that could have only worked if it was meant to be funny. Not all the gags involving Lemmon as Ensign Pulver are sophisticated but even in their silliness, Lemmon played them with the kind of bravura that justified his Oscar nomination (not sure about the win). His Pulver was lazy, luscious, opportunistic, cowardly, hypocrite but he played all these negative traits as if he was submerged by them, the sailors were just emotional mannequins.
And you can see the emergence of Lemmon's talent, in the one dramatic scene he's got to play, Lemmon transcends his character and shows that he's got nothing to envy from the veteran actors, and when the establishing moment occurs, involving Commandant's beloved palm-tree (actually a replacement), you can see behind him sailors who are gazing with smile and admiration. At that moment of the film, there was no way any sailor would be smiling and once again, what should have been the height of awesomeness was ruined by poor directing, someone with the experience of Ford, or whoever directed that scene, should have been able to manage the crew and get the right reactions.
Take another military movie of the same period "The Caine Mutiny", the film focused on the officers and the crew had Lee Marvin, that was enough to sustain a minimum of believability in the story. "Misters Roberts" reaches some genuinely funny moments that remind of "Stalag 17" or later "MASH" (though I didn't like that one much). Some gags are too raunchy to be funny by today's standards, but the joke is still on Lemmon and hi mimics and raunchiness save the day by canceling the goody-too-shoes nobility of Roberts and the counter-productive meanness of the Commandant.
"Mister Roberts" is a lackluster vehicle for old-fashioned sentimentalism filmed by a Ford at his loosest. I heard he didn't get along with Cagney and Fonda, and even punched the latter's jaw after a heated argument so had the film been half as interesting as what it inspired behind the camera, it might have deserved a few superlatives.
Carmen Jones (1954)
You're hot for me and I'm taboo, but if you're hard to get I'm all for you...
"Carmen Jones" is a milestone for African-American cinema and that will cover most of the review so let's start by giving Otto Preminger the credit he deserved to have trusted his instinct and served a wonderful platform to Black talents such as Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Olga James or Pearl Bailey. And let's not forget Saul Bass who designed the rose in the middle of an incandescent red flame, growing and growing under the tempo of "Carmen"'s overture.
Just like the opening credits sequence, some moments are nothing short of brilliant in a precociously modern way. However, other elements are so naively conceived and lacking in inspiration that it prevents the film to reach the same heights than many acclaimed classics. It doesn't do to "Carmen" (Prosper Merimee's story and George Bizet's opera) what "West Side Story" did for "Romeo and Juliet", but the intentions were there, and the Cinemascope musical did a lot for the African-American cinematic presence in the early 1950s.
And there are two things to which "Carmen Jones" owes a great deal of its impact: the iconic music of Bizet's opera and the sex-appeal of Dorothy Dandridge who doesn't even need any music to inflame the screen, her sole presence does the job. Whether dressed in that tight bohemian-like dress or that slinky pink outfit, the woman with the rose, a wild rose herself, is the kind of screen-presence that only a heart made of stone would resist. Dandridge's performance as the titular Carmen will make history as the first to earn a Black performer a nomination for Best Actress, competing with Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland for the golden statuette but ultimately losing for Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl".
But Carmen Jones isn't your average "country girl", as the hedonistic and sultry vixen, she's a winner per essence, a woman who knows how her charm operates and never misses an opportunity to seduce the eyes and catch a resisting heart. As she sings along with the Habanera music "you go for me and I'm taboo but if you're hard to get I'm all for you", we would almost miss the warning if it wasn't for the catchy melody. The voice doesn't belong to her but to Marilyn Horne. I guess it was too much asking to get the voice and the acting in the same body, but Dandridge exudes such vivid sensuality allow that it suspends our disbelief and we carry on, following the growing romance with Joe, the naïve Corporal who abandons his doll-faced but prude fiancée (Olga James) for the more volcanic beauty.
It doesn't take too long for the romance to take off, interestingly, it's caused by the imprisonment of Carmen for a fight with a co-worker, and even in the realm of violence, there's something fascinatingly torrid and wild in Carmen's body language, making the film unusually sensual by the standards of the fifties. Look at the scene where Carmen literally slides her head between Joe's legs to firmly clean his pants from mud and how this builds up to the great moment where she threw the peach he was eating and put his arm around her hips, as to say "kiss me you big fool" and finally, the epitome of eroticism is reaches where she gives her feet to him and he kisses them, subverting the balance of power, becoming the slave of her love.
I can't recall a more sexually loaded picture of the same era except for "A Streetcar Named Desire" but one should wonder whether the Code would have left these scenes uncensored if they were featuring White actors. This is not to review the film under the prism of racial considerations but only to say that there are many timely aspects that date it in a subtler way. Yes it's impossible to overlook what makes the film such a milestone as a Black movie musical... but sometimes, you almost feel a sort of outsider fascination, from director Otto Preminger who adapted the Broadway musical. Sometimes the film gets too intense for its own good and the 'dramatic' moments, which Preminger intended to film as narrative highlights strike for their savorless and condescending superficiality.
It results in an uneven production where great singing moments such as Olga James who plays the poor fiancée and Pearl Bailey, who as Carmen's friend, Frankie steals the show with her unforgettable "Rhythm of a Drum", a spontaneous and not too fancy act that lets the real creativity implode and makes you almost regret the film's insistence to recreate the opera. The boxer who supposedly replaces the toreador is a rather forgettable rival to Joe, who isn't even given much substance especially during the second half of the film. Belafonte is never given a true chance to shine as much as Dandridge and his emotional moments are inevitably ruined by the operatic voice of LeVern Hutcherson, which seems to belong to a a different universe than the one we've been immersed to.
Some scene becomes pathetic but in a sort of a laughable way that shows the limit of an opera modernization when it comes to a contemporary setting. And the awkwardness is enhanced by the fact that there aren't the real singers' voices. Now all these considerations apart, how the film stand as a musical or as entertainment? I think there's something however that makes the film a standalone classic, the way it defies many conventions of the musical and the romance and even dares to challenge the narrative requirements by not hinting anything condemnable in Carmen's behavior. She's a selfish person, to which it's hard to empathize with, but the film was directed with enough guts to let her be till the end. She was a natural and strayed loyal to her own personal appetites despite the tragedy pending over her.
"Carmen Jones" was a true anti-heroine, and certainly a decade-defining and culturally significant character, which is enough to redeem the musical.
I Want to Live! (1958)
Susan Hayward's performance WILL live as one of the all-time greatest!
I think the last time my heart was shattered by a female performance must date back to Giuletta Masina in "Nights of Cabiria". Before there was Gena Rowlands in "A Woman Under the Influence", Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream" and Maria Falconetti in "The Passion of Joan of Arc". And from now on, whenever I'll have to mention the greatest female performances ever, the name of Susan Hawyard will inevitably come up for I'll never forget her role as Barbara Graham the woman who was sent to the gas chamber because of the most unfortunately tragic set of circumstances ever put on a single human being.
Believing in the innocence of Graham is integral to the film's emotional impact because this is the cross mark where our empathy is rooted and can deploy itself through all the events that will pave her way to the chamber. It's also important because the film is structured into three acts with three different styles of directing from Robert Wise; showing three different steps in Babs' harrowing journey, from the perky and fun-loving B-girl to the sacrificed lamb of media frenzy with the "knife" of her own candor, to the resignation of a woman who for the first time of her life is submitted to an uncontrollable force that her good nature can't even tame.
And the title "I Want to Live!", from the Pulitzer-winning chronicle of Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland) is all the more heartbreaking because the woman didn't wait for her condemnation to have an appetite for life. This is where the first act intervenes, it starts in pure late 50s fashion with a Saul-Bass like credits and a jazzy opening full of Dutch angles to convey the dazzling ambiance of Babs' twisted world. From her very first second on screen, I was getting the vibes of an Oscar-winning performance: the lights aren't even turned on in the sordid motel room that we can feel the cool and jazzy chill crawling down her spine and inspiring a tigress-like roaring... when she gets arrested, she behaves like a pretty lady of petty crimes, she doesn't let the copper touch her but a few wisecracks slip from her big mouth, and from her comical pictures behind the bars, we gather that it wasn't her first time on the rodeo.
Later, she's entertaining a bunch of young army-men in a clandestine party, she accepts to help some crooked friends by providing them an alibi and later she's dancing to a frenetic bongos drumming and he way she literally makes one with the music reminded me of Cabiria's mambo. There are performances where you know the actress isn't cheating, she becomes the character to use a hackneyed expression, and the funnier she was to watch, the more anxious I was while anticipating the obvious mood whiplash. You know tragedy will raise its ugly head sooner or later and during the transition from a free-spirited volatile pin-up to the death row, every step feels like a judge's hammer. That's how painful the film is.
The second act is perhaps the most excruciating, in what I'd call the five stages of realization. At first, Babs is in total denial, oblivious to the accusation pending on her and believing she's only convicted for a few misdemeanors: she sings in her shower, has fun with the inmates and it takes a letter from the court to understand why the bond for her release is so big so she can finally shout that she's innocent. And then we follow her from anger for having been crossed to fear over not providing an alibi, which leads to the bargain that puts the final nail in the coffin. I hate it when movies make something inevitable and force us to endure the fatal mistake. When trying to justify her "confession", her past perjury felony backfires at the trial, provoking the hilarity of the audience.
Even Babs smiles while tears are coming, she's devastated but she can taste the cruel irony. In a way she becomes the witness of her own demise, orchestrated by the journalists who were preying at her from the start. Babs made herself the star of the show when she brandished a stuffed tiger to the photographs during her arrest ignoring that the press wasn't an ally to count for but a system more interested in the show than the truth, her downfall was more spectacular than the investigation. The social commentary about the power of the press is one of the film's highlights, and Babs is able to denounce that instrumentalisation with her own biting words as she liaves San Quentin for the death house, another woman but not out of the woods yet.
From that point, the film turns into the contemplation of a coming death and the legal maneuvers applied to commute her sentence or prove her innocence notably from psychiatrist Carl (Theodore Bikel) to Montgomery who realizes the harm the press caused to her case. It all leads to the final twenty minutes where she battles her way out of her cell to the gas chamber with every detail of the preparation shown by Wise with a docudrama precision. Nothing is spared to us, for every ringing from the near-by phone, every postponing and every second passing by that clock, my heart was beating at the same pulse as Babs', waiting for the torture to end.
If Robert Wise's directing was nothing short of brilliant and the screenplay shone for its biting realism, it's Susan Hawyward who made the film and left one of the all-time greatest performances ever, one where you could almost taste the emotional pain endured, and each breakdown had the effect of a mental seizure, that's how extraordinary "I Want to Live!" is: a stressful and upsetting portrayal of a woman charged for murder, victim of the limitations of the legal system and the overwhelming power of the media.
The Unbearable Heaviness of Being (Good)...
"To be or not to be, that's the question."
And that's the central question that encompasses many aspects of film-making. We gather that it's all about what is and what is not, what seems and what reality is, if it can be taken for granted... but that the iconic question was raised by the appearance of a spectrum speaks another truth about cinema: it's about death as much as it's about life.
It's about death in the sense that we're watching a present that is no more and the older a film gets, the fuller of ghosts the screen is. It's also about death because fiction isn't reality in the first place. We learn about life through a ghostly present called fiction, or a living death in motion, that's the first truth. And like life, "The Idiot" opens with a scream, a seminal scream tracing the invisible frontier between life and death. It's upon that screaming truth that "The Idiot" opens in an overcrowded train where passengers are sleeping.
Kameda (Masayuki Mori) shares with Akama (Toshiro Mifune) the nightmare he just had, a dream-like flashback of the execution from which he barely escaped. After that episode where he literally saw the ghost of death coming to seize him, he made a tacit pact with destiny: anything carrying life would be instantly precious, from the dog he threw stones at as a kid to any human being, everyone was worthy of his goodness. But because of the shell shock and the war-trauma, Kameda spent time in an asylum, and his dementia was translated into an uglier word: idiot, a verbal leitmotif with the same resonance as 'stupid' in "Forrest Gump".
Kurosawa adapted Dostoyevsky's famous novel changing its Imperial Russian setting to post-war Japan. He was perhaps one of his biggest fans, considering him the most truthful author when it came to paint humanity. And indeed, you can see another truth in Kameda's behavior: he's a good person, not candid or naïve, but good because he learned to fear death, it's the awareness of his mortality that forged his goodness. Goodness is at the core of being human, because what defines our condition is death and what should define it is being good. This good/dead duality turns Makeda into a zombie-figure, a ghost sleepwalking among humans.
Normal people are too stubbornly attached to life to realize that they miss its very point. And it's only until they look at themselves through Kameda's eyes, played with quiet intensity by Mori that they're too disarmed to toy with feelings. I never really liked staring at people in the eyes because I found it like obscenely undressing them. And it's true that the titular idiot while not doing anything except reading, speaking or being present, allow these people to unmask their real selves. In a way, he is like a living metaphor of the camera, the threshold between the living and the seeming, a trigger to people's honesty.
I mentioned Forrest Gump, but the idiot can be also compared to Peter Sellers in "Being There" where his candidness was mistaken for profundity. In the case of Kameda, there is a genuine perceptiveness in his eyes, capable to see beyond the barriers of reputation or social bearings, but that capability backfires at him because you just can't idealize everyone without hurting some. Kurosawa's movies have always been about people who could 'look' but being a passive observer was only one step before action, there was no meaningless look. In "The Idiot", looking is active by essence and meaningful by necessity, not just for the observer.
Indeed, it all starts with Akama showing a picture of Taeko (Setsuko Hara) a woman he's literally buying from a "benefactor" who's literally auctioning her, Kayama played by the baby-faced Minoru Chiaki is also interested to buy her for a lesser dowry. When Kameda sees the picture of Taeko, it's not just love but truth at first sight, he can't see the whole thing, until a birthday party where he reveals with a sharp candor the amount of humanity he can read in Taeko, connecting it to the same fearful look he saw in a man who was executed. Taeko is so fascinated by the man she asks him if she should marry Kayama.
Later in the film, the triangular love has evolved, the rivalry isn't between Akama and Makeda but between Taeko and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) the daughter of Kameda's host played by Takashi Shimura. The two women love the same man, a situation that is likely to have two collateral damages and speaks another truth about life: the intentions no matter how good they are carry inevitable bad effects and vice versa. And Makeda's ambiguous relationship with Akama (Mifune has rarely been as intense... and sexy) reminds of their previous confrontation in "Rashomon", two men with two versions of the same story, each one living in his own fantasy or dream-like vision of life, each one driven mad because of truth.
Dreams or alternate realities are often present in Kurosawa's oeuvre, maybe to better preserve us from the painful truth as if goodness was too unbearable. The film is set in a cold wintery town, covered by snow, where people are too struck by coldness to act naturally, or during a carnival or a fancy reception where everyone plays a role and only one person stays the same, the man without a personality, a persona, a mask. He's the man who affect personalities, allowing them to transcend their condition, encouraging a woman with a reputation to emancipate herself, a crook to apologize and the weakly Mayaka to renounce money.
Every scene is staged with an opposition between passive liveliness and active inertia, reminding of that transcendent power of the camera, a frontier between life and death, dream and reality. The film speaks so many truths (a word I used a lot) maybe at the risk of being overlong, but it carries an irresistible poetry of its own.
Some Came Running (1958)
Tell me who you love, I'll tell you your weaknesses...
"Some Came Running" screams "male gaze" in every single frame. What would you expect from a film featuring rat packers Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin?
Yes indeed, under its attempt to denounce the hypocrisy of the American way of life at a time when better movies did the job (movies such as "Anatomy of a Murder" or "Touch of Evil") the film is only a pedestal built for cool cat Sinatra to show how manly he is even in the most virility-challenging situations.
Sinatra is Dave Hirsh, an army veteran and writer trying to give a new start to his post-war life in his little Indiana hometown. His brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) succeeded and achieved every standard of respectability: he's a banker, a good citizen, married to a good wife Agnes (Leora Dana) and with a pretty young girl named Dawn (Betty Lou Keim). That's for the façade, in reality, Agnes is as cold as a living popsicle with a barbed-wire heart and Dawn is suspiciously tempted by her uncle's life as a drifter, which by the day's standards, would only relegate her to the unenviable status of a tramp.
In-between this flattering portrait of women of the fifites, there's Gwen French (Martha Hyer) as the teacher who's obviously infatuated with the writer but daren't embrace his life made of boozing and gambling and can only play hide-and-seek with her feelings. One can't ignore Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie, the gutter-girl, in love with Dave but whose colorful cheerfulness can hardly hide her desperation to stick to the first Prince Charming who'd give her enough consideration. MacLaine overacts because her character is about overacting, too innocent to be able to subdue her feelings, unlike the cold teacher.
Sure this is not a film to content a feminist and after watching it a first time this afternoon, I was tempted to label it as an old movie conveying the same old-fashioned vision of women under the fallacious dichotomy between broads with a golden heart and respectable women with a frigid body. However, something happened this evening, I had a date, a second date after one that supposedly sealed the feelings, and then my "Mr Nice Guy" façade earned me one of the most humiliating brushes of my life. So right now, I want to review the film with that episode in mind and I completely assume my bias.
Yes, for all the flaws in this film and there are many, I appreciate it. Yes, for all its hurtful cynicism, for all its incapability to draw a straight portrait of people entrapped by the requirements of a society too clean to have a clean conscience, for all the technical flaws, which includes contrived coincidences, binary characterization and too-dimensional characters and an out-of-place ending, it's with all the bitterness that can fill a man's heart that I find the film to carry some hidden and politically incorrect truths, that still hold up today.
"Some Came Running" was adapted from a James Jones novel which was probably clearer in its intentions and more multilayered. The film, directed by Vincente Minnelli who was certainly more focused on his syrupy "Gigi", starts very well, with many interesting dynamics between David and his niece, his conflicted relationship with his brother and introducing the character of gambler-boozer Dean Martin and a triangular love where both the educated teacher Gwen and the simple-minded nutty Ginnie are interested in the same man.
But Dave is obviously more interested in the woman who can see his real sensitivity as a writer but ends up with the tramp because he'd rather have a worst human being to worship him than begging for someone's heart. One is the trophy girl and the other one is the prize of consolation. It's interesting how the person you love says more about your personal weakness than any other thing. The idea is also highlighted in the relationship between Frank and his wife, an unforgiving selfish human being who keeps throwing at him that he's luckier than she is to have him, throwing him into the arms of his secretary (Nancy Gates).
The film almost makes you feel sorry for Frank who does his best to maintain a good marriage and satisfy everyone around, but the narrative loses its logic when the little fling with his secretary encourages his daughter Dawn to get looser and enjoy a life deprived of any morals. So the film comes to a point where it morally condemns the behavior of the husband without giving him any loophole, he's like trapped in a situation that makes celibacy the only possible salvation. Quite a cynical turn for a movie to show marriage as a jail or as a prize of consolation. So it's cynical, subversive I guess, and surprising from the director of "Meet Me in St. Louis".
I think I'm bitter enough to be able to forgive the flaws and look at the scope of the film rather than the characterization, provided the characters were given more subtlety and humanity, that wouldn't have taken too much from the core of "Some Came Running", which is a rather self-loathing portrait of marriage and love. I guess I can only agree since a previous relationship gave me one certitude: in love, there's always one who loves more, who's more in need than the other, and this lack of balance leads to dysfunctional marriage or pretensions of happiness that never fool anyone. Is there a solution? Well, this is a film that makes a diagnosis but doesn't care for a remedy. Maybe because it can be worse than the disease.
It takes a bitter mind to like it better, which suits me perfectly, in one evening, the film got two extra points. Now, let's forget this ugly day!
Moulin Rouge (1952)
Art like a life modeler, and life like a condition reminder...
Just like "The Adventures of Robin Hood", "Gone with the Wind" or "The Red Shoes", "Moulin Rouge" is the kind of movies color was invented for. Who would endure the constant bitterness of a depressed artist if it wasn't stirred with the flamboyant cocktail of bright colors provided by the Moulin Rouge ornaments? Who would dare to follow the little shadow of a man in the darkness of the gutter-city without having a fine boost of lively palettes from one of the most emblematic places of Paris of the "Belle Epoque", the good old days as they said in France, between the end of the war with the Prussians in 1870 and the beginning of the Great one in 1914.
This was a time of industrialization, driven by social and medical improvements, and extraordinary artistic creativity. From impressionist painters like Monet to the rise of naturalist literature with Zola, and not to mention, the invention of cinema by the Lumière brothers, France was the center of the artistic turmoil, out of which emerged the talent of Lautrec as well. And in these good old days, Moulin Rouge was only a cabaret and the can-can dancers would struggle to make their way to the central area and have their leg-lifting dance right in front of the viewers. Two jealous dancers could even go into a catfight and spill wine on some too close spectators, which is impossible to imagine now where they're all as impeccably disciplined as Buckingham palace guards.
That was part of the spirit, if not the show and in this mix of refinement and savagery, one man found his place. His name was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a man with many demons to fight like a true Hustonian character. Henri came from an aristocratic family, so cautious about keeping the lineage pure that his parents were cousins. This obsession backfired at the family when young Henri was victim of a bad fall and his legs couldn't grow again due to bad genetics, he would end with the torso of a grown-up and and child legs. In sitting position, Henri had the austere look of a notary clerk rather, standing, the deformity of his body made him look either grotesque or pitiful . Eventually, the man built a façade upon which he became the first to mock his own appearance.
As a character study, "Moulin Rouge" is a painful and harrowing immersion in the mind of a man who faced rejection so many times it cemented a wall of self-deprecation around his persona. Basically, anyone that can be tall and handsome is a predator and any woman he can ever love is the potential prey and he's only an accompanying monkey, a pastime. The film is perhaps one to speak the most vividly about an issue seldom explored: heightism. Many men have the feeling to have been betrayed by Karma when at the prime of their adulthood, they were as tall as teenagers or children for the most misfortunate. And an arrested developement is even more tragic when the rest of the body have developed fairly well, and a man can be adult, articulate, professional and a good family man but incapable to sell that very image because of a flaw in the package.
Have a look at any dating website, and you'll notice that most of the women look for a tall man and indeed, tall goes before handsome. Venturing in the realm of 5'7 or 5'8 (if I want to be generous), I could more than relate to the torment of Toulouse-Lautrec and his defiance toward Karma. Over the course of his journey, he meets two important women and the stories don't go so well, providing the lights of false hopes before throwing him again in the self-loathing catacombs. As Marie Charlet, Colette Marchand plays the gutter-girl who falls in love with the only man who didn't see in her a vulgar prostitute as for a man of Lautrec's condition, any woman who'd love him would do.
But this is no Chaplin movie and as time goes, nothing he can offer to her, a date at the restaurant, a painting can satisfy her, because she despises the reflection on her own condition Lautrec shines on her. Being with such a man is a failure as a woman, which is even worse than poverty Oscar-nominated for that role, Marchand played the second most tormented character of the film and literally steals the show. Suzanne Flon plays a more noble kind of woman as the one who can see the man in Lautrec, but then again, Lautrec's demons will resurrect through one provocation too many by destiny, and if goodness can't buy love, self-loathing and defiance can annihilate it.
It takes more than a harness and a clever knee-trick to make Jose Ferrer's performance, as the man with dignified self-hatred, he strikes as someone impossible to love because he can't even give the good example, he was clearly an avant-garde artist and it showed in his pictures but he also belonged to a time where one couldn't afford his looks. His alcoholism was obviously a way to seek oblivion and fight the bitterness, his own "Moulin Rouge, but his attempts to find the true love in any woman who'd show interest made up for a painful journey. Dedicating his life to the art wasn't enough, art is about recreating life and as a model, life would always be there to remind him of his condition.
This is the spectacular tale of a man who was doomed to live his life as a loser aware that some triumph would outlive him, like Van Gogh. John Huston had always a talent to paint such ambiguous portraits with fifty shades of pastels and brightness. "Moulin Rouge" wasn't just a cabaret but a state of mind and I just love the way this was played for the extraordinary deathbed scene, nothing like a good old can-can before the curtains close!
Same old story, a boy finds a girl...
...the boy is tied to a job he hates. The girl Is married to a man she doesn't love... and the rest is left to the secrecy of the coroner.
Through his novel "Double Indemnity" James M. Cain had set the literary template to modern film-noir where an easily impressionable fellow would stick to the spider web of a tempting femme-fatale. The boy is never looking for trouble but the girl is the kind of offer one can't refuse, the stakes are always high and so is the price. There's always a catch in that morbid game but nothing that greed and lust can't overcome... and that justice can't trick.
So film-noir and tragedy always went hand in hand, one with red-polished nails and hair-cuddling, cheek-caressing expert hands and one to pull the trigger, hit with a bottle, throw someone off a train, or a car over a cliff. But if "Double Indemnity" established the patterns, one must give a credit to Cain's other novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" for having pushed the boundaries ever further, making something that was deemed unsuitable for the movies. These novels were written at a time of Great Depression and only the aftermath of a war allowed the big shots of MGM studios to wise up and understand that the audience was ready to rawer stories.
Indeed, even "Double Indemnity", adapted by Raymond Chandler, was closer to "The Maltese Falcon" than the hard-core noir movie, carrying many elements of the private-eye film. Fred MacMurray had that clean-cut image that made him as desirable from a female standpoint than Barbara Stanwyck for the guy. The glamorous setting didn't conceal the cheap sordidness of the fool-proof insurance scheme but the film was Hollywood material. Though the motives are the same in "The Postman Rings Twices" and the woman even more beautiful, that was a classic of soaring sensuality and debauchery that no one would have seen coming from Leo the roaring lion.
And if the characters are less cunning and Machiavellian, they're no more kind-hearted and only earn our sympathy when their ideas or schemes are too approximate and hazardous to succeed. There's something pathetic in these people caught in the middle of the desert in a diner/service station owned by a clueless imbecile, and trying to figure how to rise beyond the mediocrity of their situation. The romance is driven by the attraction but there's a sort of existential call beyond it.
Lana Turner is Cora Smith, the bored wife of the aging diner's manager and John Garfield is Frank Chambers, a drifter, a bum who can't let such a beauty to that rotund fellow played by Cecil Kellaway. Nick is rather forgettable in the story, he has his moments but his naivety is so baffling you've got to wonder whether he didn't like that raunchy side of his wife, and his possessiveness never strikes as fully disinterested. So it's a fair trade that Cora and Frank look for their own interest.
When Frank is asked to work in the gas station, he's reluctant until his eyes meet Cora's in one of the most breathtaking encounters ever captured on the screen: a lipstick tube rolls, a camera pans over the floor and Garfied's literally out of breath. Lana Turner in white shorties, with innocent eyes, stares at him. Later, he's burning the sign that said "men wanted" and he realizes she's Nick's wife he knows he wasn't just the 'wanted' working man. It doesn't take much time for the love to be consumed, they kiss the very first night, they have another escapade to the beach and from there, their relationship is sealed... for better and even better, for worse.
The directing of Tay Garnett keeps it low-key with many external shots to keep on the realistic flow, the two aren't Romeo and Juliet, the setting is banal, Frank would rather leave the diner's with Cora but Cora has "ambition" she wants to turn the place into something and counts on Frank. The two encapsulate the torment of ordinary people with goals so big they have to take a few ethical shortcuts and toy with the law, the ends justifies the means.... And it's their very weaknesses that backfire at them, when you despise yourself so much that you're not sure about your actions, you end up betraying yourself or your accomplice. When the crime is committed, the film takes a fine U-turn to become a sly legal drama with two slick lawyer and D.A. using Cora and Frank for their private battle of egos, Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames would almost make you feel sorry for the two.
A critic that can be formulated is that the film is slightly overlong after the trial part and kind of loses its pace until the emotionally affecting finale. But there are reasons why this is one of the best film noir ever, as the film never tries to glamorize the subjects, they're ordinary persons, easily impressionable and too liable to even be happy when they can. They don't deserve to be happy and while the title of John McCain's novel is obscure enough to leave a shadow of mystery around the fate of the two plotters, we know they won't get away with it and karma will show the bill.
Many things have been said about Lana Turner but once again, I had the pleasure to admire Garfield's acting, intense, realistic, neutral, even his silent moments, his pauses, make you feel his tension, the way he always keeps himself on guard as someone who's never too sure of himself. Garfield was one of these naturals without which we'd never praise Pacino or De Niro, a natural, an average not too attractive man but a man nonetheless. If only to admire his talent and Turner's, this is a film to watch.
And those two form one of the greatest romantic casts ever.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
There's no place like home...
I suspect I didn't give "Meet Me in St. Louis" the attention it fully deserved.
Sometimes, the words Technicolor, musical, Golden Age don't necessarily hit a sensitive chord and I blame it on the Millennial side of me, too blasé and hungry of modern significance. I could watch "The Wizard of Oz" for its status as an iconic classic, "A Star is Born" for its relevance and place in Judy Garland's filmography. But Vincente Minnelli's ode to Saint Louis never caught my attention despite its more than respectable reputation. And now that I saw it, and that I digested it, I realize how misinformed I was and I suspect this is a film I might want to watch again.
This is one of these pitch-proof movie where you keep waiting for something to happen... yet you realize that's not even the point. Indeed, who needs plot when you have the Smithes? This is a family full of such colorful characters that there's no room whatsoever for any plot or pre-written arc. Why should it anyway? Adapted from the happy memories of Sally "Tootie" Benson (yes, told from the little one's standpoint), the film displays such an exhilarating form of happiness that spoiling it with a plot would be a cinematic sin.
So let's visit the family! Leon Ames is Mr. Smith, father of one son and four daughters including Rose (Lucille Bremer), the second oldest Esther (Judy Garland) and the youngest one, Tootie (Margaret O'Brien), Mrs. Smith (Mary Astor) endure their shenanigans valiantly while they can count on the support of their cool and hilarious grandpa (Henry Davenport). These are the Smiths and as soon as they appear on the screen, we're literally caught in their communicative amiability and optimism with the opening theme of the same title.
"Meet Me in Saint Louis" belongs to these vignette family-themed movies such as "Amarcord" or "Radio Days" where it's just about getting a mood and feeling part of a loving community rather than watching something happening. And just when you think something ought to happen, false alarm, a new song pops up again to lift your spirit up and puts you in the most cheerful mood, even the "straight" sister Rose is fun to watch, especially during her shining moment where she gets quite a brush from her correspondent. And everything's in good spirit, no character is laughed at but rather laughed it.
The closest to a plot comes when Mr. Smith announces to the family that they're going to move to New York and the decision is irrevocable, by the time it happens, we got used to the seasonal enchantment of the city and can't imagine the Smiths anywhere outside St. Louis. Even New York resonates like a place of doom for the family, but it's deliberate since the film is a postcard recollection of middle-upper class family, from the perspective of Tootie, only spiced up with adult and romantic subplot and unforgettable musical numbers that were the perfect vehicles for Judy Garland.
If "Meet Me in Saint Louis" is incredibly catchy, it's nothing compared to the "Trolley Song" and of course the "Have Yourself a merry Little Christmas" that became Hollywood standards and among Garland's signatures. The two songs, listed in the AFI's Top 100, convey two opposite emotions: joy and sheer sadness, the excitement of being part of a city and the resignation before living, the Christmas moment is particularly heartbreaking as it allows Margaret O'Brien to implode her full acting power and make thousands of souls cry with empathetic tears. That the comic relief of the film, that bratty little kid could pull off such a masterful performance is one of the unexpected effects of the film. She would deservedly win an Academy Juvenile Award for her incredible performance.
I can go over and over about the film, its merit is to be so blatantly cheerful, never indulging to cheap thrills, even the love stories are sweetly naïve and idealistic, almost surreal but fitting for a fantasy picture whose purpose is to highlight the real thing about th film: family ties, and the bonds between sisters or parents and grandparents, the film is a non-stop delight, that can be regarded as itsch or campy but I find it more straightforward and honest than Minnelli' "An American in Paris". In a way, it's a fine companion piece to Judy Garland's Wizard of Oz with the same conclusion that there's no place like home... and sometimes, we don't cherish enough the place we live in.
My only complaint is Garland's awful hairstyle, was she trying to imitate Katharine Hepburn or what?