Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory
Kids are not stupid. They are among the sharpest, cleverest, most eagle-eyed creatures on God's Earth, and very little escapes their notice. You may not have observed that your neighbor is still using his snow tires in mid-July, but every four-year-old on the block has, and kids pay the same attention to detail when they go to the movies. They don't miss a thing, and they have an instinctive contempt for shoddy and shabby work. I make this observation because nine out of ten children's movies are stupid, witless, and display contempt for their audiences, and that's why kids hate them. Is that all parents want from kids' movies? That they not have anything bad in them? Shouldn't they have something good in them -- some life, imagination, fantasy, inventiveness, something to tickle the imagination? If a movie isn't going to do your kids any good, why let them watch it? Just to kill a Saturday afternoon? That shows a subtle kind of contempt for a child's mind, I think.
All of this is preface to a simple statement: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is probably the best film of its sort since "The Wizard of Oz." It is everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren't: Delightful, funny, scary, exciting, and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination. “Willy Wonka” is such a surely and wonderfully spun fantasy that it works on all kinds of minds, and it is fascinating because, like all classic fantasy, it is fascinated with itself.
It's based on the well-known Roald Dahl children's book, and it was financed by the Quaker Oats Company as an experiment in providing high-quality family entertainment. It succeeds. It doesn't cut corners and go for cheap shortcuts like Disney. It provides a first-rate cast (Gene Wilder as the compulsively distrustful chocolate manufacturer, Jack Albertson as the game old grandfather), a first-rate production, and -- I keep coming back to this -- genuine imagination.
The story, like all good fantasies, is about a picaresque journey. Willy Wonka is the world's greatest chocolate manufacturer, and he distributes five golden passes good for a trip through his factory and a lifetime supply of chocolate. Each pass goes to a kid, who may bring an adult along, and our hero Charlie (a poor but honest newsboy who supports four grandparents and his mother) wins the last one.
The other four kids are hateful in one way or another, and come to dreadful ends. One falls into the chocolate lake and is whisked into the bowels of the factory. He shouldn't have been a pig. Another is vain enough to try Wonka's new teleportation invention, and winds up six inches tall -- but the taffy-pulling machine will soon have him back to size, right? If these fates seem a little gruesome to you, reflect that all great children's tales are a little gruesome, from the Brothers Grimm to Alice in Wonderland to Snow White, and certainly not excluding Mother Goose. Kids are not sugar and spice, not very often, and they appreciate the poetic justice when a bad kid gets what's coming to him.
Dialogue drives Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction,'' dialogue of such high quality it deserves comparison with other masters of spare, hard-boiled prose, from Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard. Like them, QT finds a way to make the words humorous without ever seeming to ask for a laugh. Like them, he combines utilitarian prose with flights of rough poetry and wicked fancy.
Consider a little scene not often mentioned in discussions of the film. The prizefighter Butch (Bruce Willis) has just killed a man in the ring. He returns to the motel room occupied by his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros). She says she's been looking in the mirror and she wants a pot belly. "You have one,'' he says, snuggling closer. "If I had one,'' she says, "I would wear a T-shirt two sizes too small, to accentuate it.'' A little later she observes, "It's unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye are seldom the same.''
This is wonderful dialogue (I have only sampled it). It is about something. The dialogue comes at a moment of desperation for Butch. He agreed to throw the fight, then secretly bet heavily on himself, and won. He will make a lot of money, but only if he escapes the vengeance of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his hit-men Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta). In a lesser movie, the dialogue in this scene would have been entirely plot-driven; Butch would have explained to Fabienne what he, she and we already knew. Instead, Tarantino uses an apparently irrelevant conversation to quickly establish her personality and their relationship. His dialogue is always load-bearing.
It is Tarantino's strategy in all of his films to have the characters speak at right angles to the action, or depart on flights of fancy. Remember the famous opening conversation between Jules and Vincent, who are on their way to a violent reprisal against some college kids who have offended Wallace and appropriated his famous briefcase. They talk about the drug laws in Amsterdam, what Quarter Pounders are called in Paris, and the degree of sexual intimacy implied by a foot massage. Finally Jules says "let's get in character,'' and they enter an apartment.
Tarantino's dialogue is not simply whimsical. There is a method behind it. The discussion of why Quarter Pounders are called "Royales'' in Paris is reprised, a few minutes later, in a tense exchange between Jules and one of the kids (Frank Whaley). And the story of how Marsellus had a man thrown out of a fourth-floor window for giving his wife a foot massage turns out to be a set-up: Tarantino is preparing the dramatic ground for a scene in which Vincent takes Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) out on a date, on his bosses' orders. When Mia accidentally overdoses, Vincent races her to his drug dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz), who brings her back to life with a shot of adrenaline into the heart.
And that scene also begins with dialogue that seems like fun, while it's also laying more groundwork. We meet Lance's girlfriend Jody (Rosanna Arquette), who is pierced in every possible place and talks about her piercing fetish. Tarantino is setting up his payoff. When the needle goes into the heart, you'd expect that to be one of the most gruesome moments in the movie, but audiences, curiously, always laugh. In a shot-by-shot analysis at the University of Virginia, we found out why. QT never actually shows the needle entering the chest. He cuts away to a reaction shot in which everyone hovering over the victim springs back simultaneously as Mia leaps back to life. And then Jody says it was "trippy'' and we understand that, as a piercer, she has seen the ultimate piercing. The body language and the punchline take a grotesque scene and turn it into dark but genuine comedy. It's all in the dialogue and the editing. Also, of course, in the underlying desperation, set up by thoughts of what Marsellus might do to Vincent, since killing Mrs. Wallace is much worse than massaging her foot.
The movie's circular, self-referential structure is famous; the restaurant hold-up with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) begins and ends the film, and other story lines weave in and out of strict chronology. But there is a chronology in the dialogue, in the sense that what is said before invariably sets up or enriches what comes after. The dialogue is proof that Tarantino had the time-juggling in mind from the very beginning, because there's never a glitch; the scenes do not follow in chronological order, but the dialogue always knows exactly where it falls in the movie.
I mentioned the way the needle-to-the-heart scene is redeemed by laughter. That's also the case with the scene where the hit-men inadvertently kill a passenger in their car. The car's interior is covered with blood, and The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) is called to handle the situation; we remember much more blood than we actually see, which is why the scene doesn't stop the movie dead in its tracks. Scenes of gore are deflected into scenes of the Wolf's professionalism, which is funny because it is so matter-of-fact. The movies does contain scenes of sudden, brutal violence, as when Jules and Vincent open fire in the apartment, or when Butch goes "medieval'' (Marsellus' unforgettable word choise) on the leather guys. But Tarantino uses long shots, surprise, cutaways and the context of the dialogue to make the movie seem less violent than it has any right to.
Howard Hawks once gave his definition of a good movie: "Three good scenes. No bad scenes.'' Few movies in recent years have had more good scenes than "Pulp Fiction.'' Some are almost musical comedy, as when Vincent and Mia dance at Jackrabbit Slim's. Some are stunning in their suddenness, as when Butch returns to his apartment and surprises Vincent. Some are all verbal style, as in Marsellus Wallace's dialogue with Butch, or when Capt. Koons (Christopher Walken) delivers a monologue to the "little man'' about his father's watch.
And some seem deliberately planned to provoke discussion: What is in the briefcase? Why are there glowing flashes of light during the early shooting in the apartment? Is Jackson quoting the Bible correctly? Some scenes depend entirely on behavior (The Wolf's no-nonsense cleanup detail). Many of the scenes have an additional level of interest because the characters fear reprisals (Bruce fears Wallace, Vincent fears Wallace, Jimmie the drug dealer wants the dead body removed before his wife comes home).
I saw "Pulp Fiction'' for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994; it went on to win the Palme d'Or, and to dominate the national conversation about film for at least the next 12 months. It is the most influential film of the decade; its circular timeline can be sensed in films as different as "The Usual Suspects,'' "Zero Effect'' and "Memento,'' not that they copied it, but that they were aware of the pleasures of toying with chronology.
But it isn't the structure that makes "Pulp Fiction'' a great film. Its greatness comes from its marriage of vividly original characters with a series of vivid and half-fanciful events and from the dialogue. The dialogue is the foundation of everything else.
Watching many movies, I realize that all of the dialogue is entirely devoted to explaining or furthering the plot, and no joy is taken in the style of language and idiom for its own sake. There is not a single line in "Pearl Harbor'' you would want to quote with anything but derision. Most conversations in most movies are deadly boring, which is why directors with no gift for dialogue depend so heavily on action and special effects. The characters in "Pulp Fiction'' are always talking, and always interesting, funny, scary or audacious. This movie would work as an audio book.
The Big Lebowski
"The Big Lebowski" is about an attitude, not a story. It's easy to miss that, because the story is so urgently pursued. It involves kidnapping, ransom money, a porno king, a reclusive millionaire, a runaway girl, the Malibu police, a woman who paints while nude and strapped to an overhead harness, and the last act of the disagreement between Vietnam veterans and Flower Power. It has more scenes about bowling than anything else.
This is a plot and dialogue that perhaps only the Coen Brothers could have devised. I'm thinking less of their clarity in "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men" than of the almost hallucinatory logic of "Raising Arizona" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." Only a steady hand in the midst of madness allows them to hold it all together--that, and the delirious richness of their visual approach.
Anyone who cares about movies must surely have heard something about the plot. This is a movie that has inspired an annual convention and the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Its star, Jeff Bridges, has become so identified with the starring role that when he won the 2010 Oscar for Best Actor, Twitterland mourned that his acceptance speech didn't begin with, "The Dude Abides." These words are so emblematic that they inspired a book title, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, by Cathleen Falsani. This is a serious book, though far from a dreary theological work.
The Dude is Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed layabout whose days are spent sipping White Russians and nights are spent at the bowling alley. There is always a little pot available. He has a leonine mane of chestnut hair, a shaggy goatee, and a wardrobe of Bermuda shorts, rummage sale shirts, bathrobes and flip-flop,. He went to Woodstock and never left. He lives in what may be the last crummy run-down low-rent structure in Malibu. Trust the Dude to find it.
It is widely known that the Dude was inspired by a real man named Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist who was instrumental in launching "Blood Simple" (1984), the first film in the Coen canon. I have long known Jeff Dowd. I can easily see how he might have inspired the Dude. He is as tall, as shaggy and sometimes as mood-altered as Jeff Lebowski, although much more motivated. He remembers names better than a politician, is crafty in his strategies, and burns with a fiery zeal on behalf of those films he consents to represent.
In the film, Jeff Lebowski tells the millionaire's daughter (Julianne Moore) that in his youth he helped draft the Port Huron Statement that founded Students for a Democratic Society, and was a member of the Seattle Seven. In real life Jeff Dowd was indeed one of the Seattle Seven, and remains so militant that at Sundance 2009 he took a punch the jaw for insisting too fervently that a critic see "Dirt," an ecological documentary Dowd believed was essential to the survival of the planet. True to his credo of nonviolence, the Dude did not punch back.
In "The Big Lebowski," our hero has left politics far behind, and exists primarily to keep a buzz on, and bowl. He is never actually drunk in the movie, and always far from sober. His bowling partners are Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi). Walter, even taller than the Dude, is a proud Vietnam veteran and the strategist of the three. He and the Dude never mention politics. Donny is their meek sidekick, always a step behind the big guys. He says perhaps three complete sentences in the film, all brief, and is often interrupted by Walter telling him to shut the f--- up. He is happy to exist on the fringes of their glory.
Details of the plot need not concern us. It involves a mean-tempered millionaire in a wheelchair who is the Big Lebowski (the Dude becomes, by logic, the Little Lebowski). He broods before the fire in a vast paneled library, reminding me of no one so much as Major Amberson in "The Magnificent Ambersons." His trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) appears to have been kidnapped. This leads indirectly to the Dude being savagely beaten by hit men who mistake him for the Big Lebowski. Well, how many Jeff Lebowskis can there be in Malibu? One of them urinates on The Dude's rug, which he valued highly ("it pulled the room together"), and the whole movie can be loosely described as being about the Dude's attempts to get payback for his rug.
The inspiration for the supporting characters can perhaps be found in the novels of Raymond Chandler. The Southern California setting, the millionaire, the kidnapped wife, the bohemian daughter, the enforcers, the cops who know the hero by name, can all be found in Chandler. The Dude is in a sense Philip Marlowe -- not in his energy or focus, but in the code he lives by. Down these mean streets walks a man who won't allow his rug to be pissed on. "That will not stand," he says, perhaps unconsciously quoting George H.W. Bush about Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. The Dude does not lie, steal or cheat. He does swear. He wants what is right. With the earliest flags of the republic, he insists, "Don't tread on me."
The Coens have always had a remarkable visual style, tending toward overwhelming architectural detail -- long corridors, odd interior decoration, forced perspectives, lonely vistas, lurid cityscapes. Even in ostensibly realistic settings, such as the suburbs of "A Serious Man" (2009), they like to insist beyond the point of realism. Their suburb is the distillation of Suburbhood. In "The Big Lebowski," their anchor location is the bowling alley, their dominant colors what might be described as Brunswick Orange and turquoise. The alley is strangely underpopulated, its lanes vertiginous in length. There is one POV shot from within a rolling bowling ball. When Jeff hallucinates or is unconscious, he inhabits bizarre fantasy worlds.
One of their fellow bowlers is Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a man who has converted himself into an artwork in his own honor. Another trio of supporting characters, the Nihilists, is led by Peter Stormare (who played the man feeding the body of Buscemi into the wood chipper in "Fargo"). A considerable role is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Brandt, the worshipful assistant to the Big Lebowski. Some of its fans have seen this movie dozens of times. I suppose they've already observed that that Hoffman and David Huddleston, who plays the Big Lebowski, bear a strong family resemblance. Someone knowing nothing about the film could be excused for suspecting that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays both characters, the older man with skillful makeup effects. A coincidence? I would not for one moment put it beyond the Coens, Ethan and Joel, to encourage this misapprehension. I suspect they cast Huddleston for the physical resemblance.
The film is all about Jeff Lebowski's equanimity in the face of vicissitudes. He is pounded, water-boarded, lied to and insulted. His rug is pissed on and his car set aflame. He is seduced by a woman who wants only his seed. He has a fortune dangled before his eyes, only to have it replaced by telephone books and used boxer shorts. To heal and keep himself whole he stirs himself another White Russian, has a toke, sits in a warm bath. Like the Buddha, he focuses on the big picture.
The film is narrated by The Stranger (Sam Elliott, never more gloriously mustached). It is he who observes at the end that the Dude Abides, and says he hears there is a little Lebowski on the way. The Dude however is denied matrimony, and indeed seems to have no women at all in his life, except by lucky chance. Does this depress him? Is he concerned about being chronically unemployed? No. If a man has a roof over his head, fresh half-and-half for his White Russians, a little weed and his bowling buddies, what more, really, does he need?
Wizard of Oz
As a child I simply did not notice whether a movie was in color or not. The movies themselves were such an overwhelming mystery that if they wanted to be in black and white, that was their business. It was not until I saw "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time that I consciously noticed B&W versus color, as Dorothy was blown out of Kansas and into Oz. What did I think? It made good sense to me.
The switch from black and white to color would have had a special resonance in 1939, when the movie was made. Almost all films were still being made in black and white, and the cumbersome new color cameras came with a “Technicolor consultant” from the factory, who stood next to the cinematographer and officiously suggested higher light levels. Shooting in color might have been indicated because the film was MGM's response to the huge success of Disney's pioneering color animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).
If “Wizard” began in one way and continued in another, that was also the history of the production. Richard Thorpe, the original director, was fired after 12 days. George Cukor filled in for three days, long enough to tell Judy Garland to lose the wig and the makeup, and then Victor Fleming took over. When Fleming went to “Gone With the Wind,” King Vidor did some of the Munchkin sequences, and the Kansas scenes.
There were cast changes, too; after Buddy Ebsen, as the Tin Man, had an allergic reaction to the silvery makeup, he was replaced by Jack Haley. Musical numbers were recorded and never used. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) was seriously burned when she went up in a puff of smoke. Even Toto was out of commission for two weeks after being stepped on by a crewmember.
We study all of these details, I think, because “The Wizard of Oz” fills such a large space in our imagination. It somehow seems real and important in a way most movies don't. Is that because we see it first when we’re young? Or simply because it is a wonderful movie? Or because it sounds some buried universal note, some archetype or deeply felt myth?
I lean toward the third possibility, that the elements in “The Wizard of Oz” powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.
This deep universal appeal explains why so many different people from many backgrounds have a compartment of their memory reserved for “The Wizard of Oz.” Salman Rushdie, growing up in Bombay, remembers that seeing the film at 10 “made a writer of me.” Terry McMillan, as an African-American child in northern Michigan, “completely identified when no one had time to listen to Dorothy.” Rushdie wrote that the film's “driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults, and how the weakness of grownups forces children to take control of their own destinies.” McMillan learned about courage, about “being afraid but doing whatever it was you set out to do anyway.”
They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own.
“The Wizard of Oz” has a wonderful surface of comedy and music, special effects and excitement, but we still watch it six decades later because its underlying story penetrates straight to the deepest insecurities of childhood, stirs them and then reassures them. As adults, we love it because it reminds us of a journey we have taken. That is why any adult in control of a child is sooner or later going to suggest a viewing of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Judy Garland had, I gather, an unhappy childhood (there are those stories about MGM quacks shooting her full of speed in the morning and tranquilizers at day's end), but she was a luminous performer, already almost17 when she played young Dorothy. She was important to the movie because she projected vulnerability and a certain sadness in every tone of her voice. A brassy young child star (a young Ethel Merman, say) would have been fatal to the material because she would have approached it with too much bravado. Garland’s whole persona projected a tremulous uncertainty, a wistfulness. When she hoped that troubles would melt like lemon drops, you believed she had troubles.
Her friends on the Yellow Brick Road (the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion) were projections of every child's secret fears. Are we real? Are we ugly and silly? Are we brave enough? In helping them, Dorothy was helping herself, just as an older child will overcome fears by acting brave before a younger one.
The actors (Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr) had all come up through a tradition of vaudeville and revue comedy, and played the characters with a sublime unself-consciousness. Maybe it helped that none of them knew they were making a great movie. They seem relaxed and loose in many scenes, as if the roles were a lark. L. Frank Baum's book had been filmed before (Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man in 1925), and this version, while ambitious, was overshadowed by the studio's simultaneous preparation of “Gone With the Wind.” Garland was already a star when she made “Wizard,” but not a great star--that came in the 1940s, inspired by “Wizard.”
The special effects are glorious in that old Hollywood way, in which you don't even have to look closely to see where the set ends and the backdrop begins. Modern special effects show *exactly* how imaginary scenes might look; effects then showed how we *thought* about them. A bigger Yellow Brick Road would not have been a better one.
The movie's storytelling device of a dream is just precisely obvious enough to appeal to younger viewers. Dorothy, faced with a crisis (the loss of Toto), meets the intriguing Professor Marvel (Frank Morgan) on the road. She is befriended by three farm hands (Bolger, Haley and Lahr). Soon comes the fearsome tornado. (What frightened me was that you could see individual things floating by--for months I dreamed circling around and around while seated at the little desk in my bedroom, looking at classmates being swept mutely past me.) Then, after the magical transition to color, Dorothy meets the same characters again, so we know it's all a dream, but not really.
There are good and bad adult figures in Oz--the Wicked Witches of the East and West, the Good Witch Glinda. Dorothy would like help from her friends but needs to help them instead (“If I Only Had a Brain,” or a heart, or nerve, they sing). Arriving at last at the Emerald City, they have another dreamlike experience; almost everyone they meet seems vaguely similar (because they’re all played by Morgan). The Wizard sends them on a mission to get the Wicked Witch's broom, and it is not insignificant that the key to Dorothy’s return to Kansas is the pair of ruby slippers. Grownup shoes.
The ending has always seemed poignant to me. Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again. “The land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in,” decided young Terry McMillan, discontented with her life in Michigan. “It beat the farm in Kansas.”
I didn't want to see this movie. I took one look at the title and figured it was either (a) a sequel to Toenails of Vengeance, or (b) an adventure pitting Ricky Schroder against the Megaloth Man. I was completely wrong. "The Karate Kid" was one of the nice surprises of 1984 -- an exciting, sweet-tempered, heart-warming story with one of the most interesting friendships in a long time. The friends come from different worlds. A kid named Daniel (Ralph Macchio) is a New Jersey teenager who moves with his mother to Los Angeles. An old guy named Miyagi (Pat Morita) is the Japanese janitor in their apartment building. When Daniel starts to date the former girlfriend of the toughest kid in the senior class, the kid starts pounding on Daniel's head on a regular basis. Daniel tries to fight back, but this is a Southern California kid, and so of course he has a black belt in karate. Enter Mr. Miyagi, who seems to be a harmless old eccentric with a curious hobby: He tries to catch flies with chopsticks. It turns out that Miyagi is a karate master, a student not only of karate fighting but of the total philosophy of the martial arts. He agrees to take Daniel as his student.
And then begins the wonderful center section of "The Karate Kid," as the old man and the kid from Jersey become friends. Miyagi's system of karate instruction is offbeat, to say the least. He puts Daniel to work shining cars, painting fences, scrubbing the bottoms of pools. Daniel complains that he isn't learning karate, he's acting as free labor. But there is a system to Mr. Miyagi's training.
"The Karate Kid" was directed by John G. Avildsen, who made "Rocky." It ends with the same sort of climactic fight scene; Daniel faces his enemies in a championship karate tournament. But the heart of this movie isn't in the fight sequences, it's in the relationships. And in addition to Daniel's friendship with Miyagi, there's also a sweet romantic liaison with Ali (Elisabeth Shue), who is your standard girl from the right side of town and has the usual snobbish parents.
Macchio is an unusual, interesting choice for Daniel. He's not the basic handsome Hollywood teenager but a thin, tall, intense kid with a way of seeming to talk to himself. His delivery always sounds natural, even offhand; he never seems to be reading a line. He's a good, sound, interesting lead, but the movie really belongs to Pat Morita, an actor who has been around a long time (he was Arnold on "Happy Days") without ever having a role anywhere near this good. Morita makes Miyagi into an example of applied serenity. In a couple of scenes where he has to face down a hostile karate coach, Miyagi's words are so carefully chosen they don't give the other guy any excuse to get violent; Miyagi uses the language as carefully as his hands or arms to ward off blows and gain an advantage. It's refreshing to see a completely original character like this old man. "The Karate Kid" is a sleeper with a title that gives you the wrong idea: It's one of 1984's best movies.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
One of the things all teenagers believe is that their parents were never teenagers. Their parents were, perhaps, children once. They are undeniably adults now. But how could they have ever been teenagers, and yet not understand their own children? This view is actually rather optimistic, since it assumes that you can learn something about teenagers by being one. But "Back to the Future" is even more hopeful: It argues that you can travel back in time to the years when your parents were teenagers and straighten them out right at the moment when they need help the most.
The movie begins in the present, with a teenager named Marty (Michael J. Fox, from TV's "Family Ties"). His parents (let's face it) are hopeless nerds. Dad tells corny jokes and Mom guzzles vodka in the kitchen and the evening meal is like feeding time at the fun house. All that keeps Marty sane is his friendship with the nutty Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an inventor with glowing eyes and hair like a fright wig. Brown believes he has discovered the secret of time travel, and one night in the deserted parking lot of the local shopping mall, he demonstrates his invention. In the long history of time travel movies, there has never been a time machine quite like Brown's, which resembles nothing so much as a customized De Lorean.
The gadget works, and then, after a series of surprises, Marty finds himself transported back 30 years in time, to the days when the shopping mall was a farmer's field (there's a nice gag when the farmer thinks the De Lorean, with its gull-wing doors, is a flying saucer). Marty wanders into town, still wearing his 1985 clothing, and the townsfolk look at his goose down jacket and ask him why he's wearing a life preserver.
One of the running gags in "Back to the Future" is the way the town has changed in 30 years (for example, the porno house of 1985 was playing a Ronald Reagan movie in 1955). But a lot of the differences run more deeply than that, as Marty discovers when he sits down at a lunch counter next to his Dad - who is, of course, a teenager himself. Because the movie has so much fun with the paradoxes and predicaments of a kid meeting his own parents, I won't discuss the plot in any detail. I won't even get into the horrifying moment when Marty discovers his mother "has the hots" for him. The movie's surprises are one of its great pleasures.
"Back to the Future" was directed by Robert ("Romancing the Stone") Zemeckis, who shows not only a fine comic touch but also some of the lighthearted humanism of a Frank Capra. The movie, in fact, resembles Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" more than other, conventional time-travel movies. It's about a character who begins with one view of his life and reality, and is allowed, through magical intervention, to discover another. Steven Spielberg was the executive producer, and this is the second of the summer's three Spielberg productions (it follows "The Goonies" and precedes "Explorers"), and maybe it's time to wonder if Spielberg is emulating the great studio chiefs of the past, who specialized in matching the right director with the right project. This time, the match works with charm, brains and a lot of laughter.
The thing about ghost stories is that they usually have such limited imaginations. If a spirit were indeed able to exist in two realms at the same time - to occupy the spirit world while still involving itself in our designs here in the material universe - wouldn't it be aghast with glory and wonder? Wouldn't it transcend the pathetic little concerns of daily life? To put it another way: If you could live in the mind of God, would you still be telling your wife she's wearing the T-shirt you spilled the margarita on? "Ghost" is no worse an offender than most ghost movies, I suppose. It assumes that even after death we devote most of our attention to unfinished business here on Earth, and that danger to a loved one is more important to a ghost than the infinity it now inhabits. Such ideas are a comfort to us. We like to picture our dear ones up there on a cloud, eternally "looking down" on us, so devoted that they would rather see what we're cooking for dinner than have a chat with Aristotle or Elvis.
In "Ghost," Patrick Swayze plays an investment counselor who is killed by a mugger one night, but remains on the scene in his spirit form to observe as his lover (Demi Moore) weeps and mourns and then attempts to piece her life together. Swayze has an important piece of information he needs to get to her: His death was not an act of random urban violence, but a contract murder. He was about to stumble across a multimillion-dollar scheme to launder drug money, and that's why he was murdered. Now Moore is in danger.
This plot takes place in the world of upscale Manhattan yuppies. Swayze and Moore inhabit a loft apartment so luxurious that he must be making a fortune at his job (or maybe she's doing well with her art pottery business). That's why, after Swayze's death, Moore doesn't believe it when a self-appointed psychic (Whoopi Goodberg) contacts her with messages from beyond the grave. What's amazing is that Goldberg really is able to hear every word Swayze says to her - even though she has no previous record of genuine psychic powers.
That's how we get around to the description of the T-shirt with the margarita stains. Swayze has to feed Goldberg so much personal information that Moore is forced to believe that the communications are genuine. This he does to a fault. One of the irritations of "Ghost" is that the Moore character is such a slow study. Over and over again, Goldberg tells her things only her lover could possibly have known, and over and over again, Moore disbelieves her - she trusts the villain, instead. We are treading here on the edge of the Idiot Plot.
"Ghost" does, however, make a nice mixture of horror and humor, especially in the scenes involving Goldberg and her sisters (Gail Boggs and Armelia McQueen). The film's biggest puzzlement involves the exact status of Swayze's spiritual sojourn in this world.
Is he in heaven's holding pattern? Must he protect his lover before he can ascend that tunnel of light into the sky? What about his ability to interact with the physical world? At first he walks right through everything, but later, after tutelege from his fellow dead, he learns simple parlor tricks - like picking up a penny - and of course by the end of the movie he is able to beat the hell out of the bad guy.
The movie's single best scene - one that does touch the poignancy of the human belief in life after death - comes when Swayze is able to take over Goldberg's body, to use her physical presence as an instrument for caressing the woman that he loves. (In strict logic, this should involve us seeing Goldberg kissing Moore, but of course the movie compromises and shows us Swayze holding her - too bad, because the logical version would actually have been more spiritual and moving.) Then there is the obligatory action climax, necessary in all mass-market entertainments these days, and a particularly ridiculous visitation from the demons of hell.
"Ghost" contains some nice ideas, and occasionally, for whole moments at a time, succeeds in evoking the mysteries that it toys with.
Love on a lonesome trail
Ennis tells Jack about something he saw as a boy. "There were two old guys shacked up together. They were the joke of the town, even though they were pretty tough old birds." One day they were found beaten to death. Ennis says: "My dad, he made sure me and my brother saw it. For all I know, he did it."
This childhood memory is always there, the ghost in the room, in Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain." When he was taught by his father to hate homosexuals, Ennis was taught to hate his own feelings. Years after he first makes love with Jack on a Wyoming mountainside, after his marriage has failed, after his world has compressed to a mobile home, the laundromat, the TV, he still feels the same pain: "Why don't you let me be? It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this -- nothing, and nobody."
But it's not because of Jack. It's because Ennis and Jack love each other and can find no way to deal with that. "Brokeback Mountain" has been described as "a gay cowboy movie," which is a cruel simplification. It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel. Their tragedy is universal. It could be about two women, or lovers from different religious or ethnic groups -- any "forbidden" love.
The movie wisely never steps back to look at the larger picture, or deliver the "message." It is specifically the story of these men, this love. It stays in closeup. That's how Jack and Ennis see it. "You know I ain't queer," Ennis tells Jack after their first night together. "Me, neither," says Jack.
Their story begins in Wyoming in 1963, when Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) are about 19 years old and get a job tending sheep on a mountainside. Ennis is a boy of so few words he can barely open his mouth to release them; he learned to be guarded and fearful long before he knew what he feared. Jack, who has done some rodeo riding, is a little more outgoing. After some days have passed on the mountain and some whiskey has been drunk, they suddenly and almost violently have sex.
"This is a one-shot thing we got going on here," Ennis says the next day. Jack agrees. But it's not. When the summer is over, they part laconically: “I guess I’ll see ya around, huh?” Their boss (Randy Quaid) tells Jack he doesn't want him back next summer: "You guys sure found a way to make the time pass up there. You weren't getting paid to let the dogs guard the sheep while you stemmed the rose."
Some years pass. Both men get married. Then Jack goes to visit Ennis in Wyoming, and the undiminished urgency of their passion stuns them. Their lives settle down into a routine, punctuated less often than Jack would like by "fishing trips." Ennis' wife, who has seen them kissing, says nothing about it for a long time. But she notices there are never any fish.
The movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. The screenplay is by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. This summer I read McMurtry's Lonesome Dove trilogy, and as I saw the movie I was reminded of Gus and Woodrow, the two cowboys who spend a lifetime together. They aren't gay; one of them is a womanizer and the other spends his whole life regretting the loss of the one woman he loved. They're straight, but just as crippled by a society that tells them how a man must behave and what he must feel.
"Brokeback Mountain" could tell its story and not necessarily be a great movie. It could be a melodrama. It could be a "gay cowboy movie." But the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.
Jack is able to accept a little more willingly that he is inescapably gay. In frustration and need, he goes to Mexico one night and finds a male prostitute. Prostitution is a calling with many hazards, sadness and tragedy, but it accepts human nature. It knows what some people need, and perhaps that is why every society has found a way to accommodate it. Jack thinks he and Ennis might someday buy themselves a ranch and settle down. Ennis who remembers what he saw as a boy: "This thing gets hold of us at the wrong time and wrong place and we're dead." Well, wasn't Matthew Shepard murdered in Wyoming in 1998? And Teena Brandon in Nebraska in 1993? Haven't brothers killed their sisters in the Muslim world to defend "family honor"?
There are gentle and nuanced portraits of Ennis' wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and Jack's wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), who are important characters, seen as victims, too. Williams has a powerful scene where she finally calls Ennis on his "fishing trips," but she takes a long time to do that, because nothing in her background prepares her for what she has found out about her husband. In their own way, programs like "Jerry Springer" provide a service by focusing on people, however pathetic, who are prepared to defend what they feel. In 1963 there was nothing like that on TV. And in 2005, the situation has not entirely changed. One of the Oscar campaign ads for "Brokeback Mountain" shows Ledger and Williams together, although the movie's posters are certainly honest.
Ang Lee is a director whose films are set in many nations and many times. What they have in common is an instinctive sympathy for the characters. Born in Taiwan, he makes movies about Americans, British, Chinese, straights, gays; his sci-fi movie "Hulk" was about a misunderstood outsider. Here Lee respects the entire arc of his story, right down to the lonely conclusion.
A closing scene involving a visit by Ennis to Jack's parents is heartbreaking in what is said, and not said, about their world. A look around Jack's childhood bedroom suggests what he overcame to make room for his feelings. What we cannot be sure is this: In the flashback, are we witnessing what really happened, or how Ennis sees it in his imagination? Ennis, whose father "made sure me and my brother saw it."
Spike Jonze's "Her" plays like a kind of miracle the first time around. Watching its opening shots of Joaquin Phoenix making an unabashed declaration of eternal love to an unseen soul mate is immediately disarming. The actor is so unaffected, so sincere, so drained of the tortured eccentricity that's a hallmark of most of the roles that he plays. It's like falling into a plush comforting embrace. Then one understands that the declaration isn't his, but something he, or rather, his character, Theodore, does for his job.
As the movie continues, and the viewer learns more of what an ordinary guy Theodore is—he checks his e-mail on the ride home from work, just like pretty much all of us these days—director Jonze, who also wrote the movie's script, constructs a beguiling cinematic world that also starts to embrace the viewer. The way Theodore's smart phone and its earpiece work is different from ours, and soon it becomes clear that "Her" is something of a science-fiction film, set in the not-too-distant but distinctly fantastic future. A big part of the movie's charm is just how thoroughly Jonze has imagined and constructed this future Los Angeles, from its smoggy skies to its glittering skyscrapers to its efficient mass transit system and much more. (There has already been, and there will no doubt be more, think pieces about how Caucasian this future L.A. is. There will likely be few think pieces about how the fashion for high-waisted pants in this future makes life unpleasant for the obese.)
The futuristic premise sets the stage for an unusual love story: one in which Theo, still highly damaged and sensitive over the breakup of his marriage ("I miss you," a friend tells him in a voice mail message; "Not the sad, mopey you. The old, fun you"), falls in love with the artificially intelligent operating system of his computer. The movie shows this product advertised and, presumably, bought in remarkable quantity, but focuses on Theo's interaction with his OS, which he gives a female voice. The female voice (portrayed beautifully by Scarlett Johansson) gives herself the name "Samantha" and soon Samantha is reorganizing Theo's files, making him laugh, and developing something like a human consciousness.
It's in Theo and Samantha's initial interaction that "Her" finds its most interesting, and troubling depths. Samantha, being, you know, a computer, has the ability to process data, and a hell of a lot of it, at a higher speed than human Theo. "I can understand how the limited perspective can look to the non-artificial mind," she playfully observes to Theo. And while Samantha's programming is designed to make her likable to Theo, her assimilation of humanity's tics soon have the operating system feeling emotion, or the simulation of it, and while the viewer is being beguiled by the peculiarities and particularities of Theo and Samantha's growing entanglement, he or she is also living through a crash course on the question of what it means to be human.
In the midst of the heavyosity, Jonze finds occasions for real comedy. At first Theo feels a little odd about his new "girlfriend," and then finds out that his pal Amy (Amy Adams) is getting caught up in a relationship with the OS left behind by her estranged husband. Throughout the movie, while never attempting the sweep of a satire, Jonze drops funny hints about what the existence of artificial intelligence in human society might affect that society. He also gets off some pretty good jokes concerning video games.
But he also creates moments of genuinely upsetting heartbreak, as in Theo's inability to understand what went wrong with his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara, quite wonderful in what could have been a problematic role) and their continuing inadvertent emotional laceration of each other at their sole "present" meeting in the movie.
This is all laid out with superb craft (the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema takes the understated tones he applied to 2011's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and adds a dreamy creamy quality to them, so that even the smog layering the Shanghai skyline that sometimes stands in for Los Angeles here has a vaguely enchanted quality) and imagination. If there's a "but," it's that the movie can sometimes seem a little too pleased with itself, its sincerity sometimes communicating a slightly holier-than-thou preciosity, like some of those one-page features that so cutely dot the literary magazine "The Believer." As in, you know, OF COURSE Theo plays the ukulele. And I'm still torn as to whether the idea of a business specializing in "Beautifully Handwritten Letters' is cutely twee or repellently cynical or some third thing that I might not find a turnoff. For all that, though, "Her" remains one of the most engaging and genuinely provocative movies you're likely to see this year, and definitely a challenging but not inapt date movie.
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” opens with a close-up shot of a stone-paved driveway. We see soapy water cascade over the rock, as someone off-camera is cleaning it. In the reflection of the water, we can see the sky, although even that reflection undulates and changes as the water moves. A plane then moves across the field of view within the reflection. It sounds so simple but there is so much in this sequence of images that is reflected in the film to follow: a natural flow of life—water, stone, air—while also presenting us with the concept of the micro within the macro, like a plane against the sky. So much of “Roma” repeats that concept of the personal story against a backdrop of a larger one—the face in the crowd, the human story in the context of a societal one. Cuaron has made his most personal film to date, and the blend of the humane and the artistic within nearly every scene is breathtaking. It’s a masterful achievement in filmmaking as an empathy machine, a way for us to spend time in a place, in an era, and with characters we never would otherwise.
The woman cleaning that driveway is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a servant for a wealthy family in Mexico City in the ‘70s. Cleo is no mere maid, often feeling like she is a part of the family she serves more than an employee—although she is often reminded of the latter fact as well. She may go on trips with them and truly love the children, but she also gets admonished for leaving her light on too late at night as it wastes electricity. Cleo is a quiet young woman, eager to do a good job, and able to stay out of the way when controversy arrives within the family, especially with the distant, often-absent patriarch.
Everything changes for Cleo after an affair with a cousin of her friend’s boyfriend results in a pregnancy. Cleo’s employers offer to help their favorite servant with the pregnancy, taking her to the doctor and supporting her with whatever she needs, but the child’s father disappears, and Cleo looks worried about what her future holds. “Roma” spends roughly a year in the life of Cleo as she plans for motherhood, tries to support a family that is coming apart, and simply moves through a loud, changing world.
Cuaron, who shot the film in gorgeous black-and-white himself (and clearly learned a thing or two from regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), adopts a fascinating visual style for “Roma” in that he rarely uses close-ups, keeping us at a distance from Cleo and his other characters, and allowing the details of the world around them to come to life. Without over-using the trick, which would have resulted in a cluttered film, Cuaron often places Cleo in a tableau that could be called chaotic, whether it’s a market teeming with people behind her or even just the home in which she spends so much of her time, full of noisy children, relatives, and servants. Cleo’s existence is a crowded one, and it almost feels like it gets more so as the film goes along, mirroring her increasing concern at the impending birth of her child. With some of the most striking imagery of the year, "Roma" often blends the surreal and the relatable into one memorable image.
Throughout “Roma,” Cuaron uses his mastery of visual language to convey mood and character in ways his mostly-silent protagonist cannot. There is no score, and yet “Roma” feels aurally alive, largely because of the veracity of Cuaron’s attention to detail. There’s a tendency for filmmakers who attempt to make something that could be called “poetic” to get loose with detail. The idea is that poetic cinema can’t be realistic cinema. What’s so stunning about “Roma” is how much Cuaron finds the poetry in the detail (this is also true of Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk," one of the other great movies of 2018). The film is remarkably episodic—so much so that its lack of driving narrative may disappoint people when they watch it on Netflix—but it’s designed to immerse you, to transport you, and those who go with it will find themselves rewarded. Cuaron’s film climaxes in a couple of emotional scenes that will shake to the core those who care about these characters.
Cuaron has said that this film is a tribute to the women in his life and “the elements that forged me.” With that obviously personal angle driving the production, “Roma” often plays out like a memory, but not in a gauzy, dreamlike way we so often see from bad filmmaking. Every choice has been carefully considered—that wide-angle approach allows for so much background detail—and yet “Roma” is never sterile or overly precious with its choices. It’s that balance of truth and art that is so breathtaking, making Cuaron’s personal story a piece of work that ultimately registers as personal to us, too. And you walk out transformed, feeling like you just experienced something more than merely watching a film. That kind of movie is incredibly rare—we’re lucky if get one a year. “Roma” is that special.
I don’t often get as personal as some critics do in reviews, but how strongly I feel about this film seems to warrant one more closing thought. By virtue of being blessed to work here, I’m often asked what I think Roger Ebert would have thought about some of the films that have been released since he passed. It’s emotionally overwhelming to consider what he might have written about “Moonlight” or “Selma” and so I try not to go down that mental rabbit hole, but I felt that absence perhaps most greatly while watching “Roma.” When it ended, I thought more than ever about how he would have written about it. I think that’s because it so completely embodies what he considered the role of great cinema as an empathy machine. We should be thankful there are films like “Roma” keeping that machine humming.
At first glance, you might think that writer/director Sian Heder’s “CODA” is all about predictable beats you’ve seen countless times before. After all, it tells a pleasantly familiar coming-of-age tale, following a talented small-town girl from modest means with dreams to study music in the big city. There's an idealistic teacher, a winsome crush, moving rehearsal montages, a high-stakes audition, and naturally, a family reluctant about their offspring’s ambitions. Again—and only at first glance—you might think you already know everything about this feel-good recipe.
Caring, boisterous, and adorned with the hugest of hearts, “CODA” will prove you wrong. It’s not that Heder doesn’t embrace the aforesaid conventions for all their comforting worth—she does. But by twisting the formula and placing this recognizable story inside a new, perhaps even groundbreaking setting with such loving, acutely observed specificity, she pulls off nothing short of a heartwarming miracle with her film, the title of which is an acronym: Child of Deaf Adult. Played by the exceptional Emilia Jones (who is blessed with Grade-A pipes), the gifted young girl in question here happens to be one, navigating the intricacies of her identity, passions, and familial expectations, trying to reconcile them without hurting anyone’s feelings, her own included.
Admittedly, “CODA” is adapted from the French film “La Famille Bélier,” so the idea of it isn’t entirely novel. What’s new here—and it makes all the difference in the world—is the cast. While the family in the well-meaning original were played by hearing cast members (with the exception of the brother brought to life by deaf actor Luca Gelberg), they are all portrayed by real-life deaf performers in Heder’s movie—a sensational group consisting of legendary Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, scene-stealing Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant—infusing her adaptation with a rare, inherent kind of authenticity.
Jones is the 17-year-old Ruby, a hardworking high-schooler in the coastal Cape Ann’s Gloucester who habitually wakes up at the crack of dawn every day to help her family—her father Frank (Kotsur) and brother Leo (Durant) and mother Jackie (Matlin)—at their boat and newly found fish sales business. Heder is quick to give us a realistic taste of Ruby’s routine. Accustomed to being her family’s sign-language-proficient interpreter out in the world as the only hearing member of the Rossi clan, she spends her days translating every scenario imaginable two ways: at town meetings, at the doctor’s office (one early instance of which plays for full-sized laughs thanks to Kotsur’s golden comedic chops) and at the boat where a hearing person must be present to notice the signals and coastal announcements.
What Ruby has feels so balanced and awe-inspiring that it takes a minute to recognize just how exhausting the whole arrangement is for the young girl, even though she makes it look easy with maturity and a sense of responsibility beyond her years. For starters, she is all too aware of everything private about her parents, often including their medical conditions and (to her riotous terror), sex life. When the hearing world becomes cruel or belittling, she steps in, almost with protective instincts, always prioritizing them over herself. But when Ruby joins the school choir and discovers her talent for singing, it throws off her balance and puts her at odds with her family, especially when she decides to apply to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, adopting a rehearsal schedule that often clashes with her duties in the family business. Complicating the matters further is a fellow singer and romantic interest named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from “Sing Street”), a shy kid with a genuine admiration for Ruby.
If there's one misstep here, it’s how far Heder leans into the inspiring teacher trope with Eugenio Derbez’s Bernardo Villalobos, a character that somehow transmits a sitcom-y artificiality in an otherwise earnest movie. Derbez does what he can with a collection of cookie-cutter dialogue lines, but his scenes don’t always land with the same honesty we see elsewhere in “CODA.” Still, this lapse in judgment feels minor in a movie so affecting, so in touch with its old-fashioned crowd-pleaser character. (Had it actually played in a physical version of the Sundance 2021 instead of its virtual edition, this would have been the standing ovation story of the festival.) And plenty of other types of sincerity throughout “CODA” make up for it, from the way Heder portrays Cape Ann and the life around it through lived-in details, to how she honors the joys and anxieties of a working class family with candor and humor, without ever making them or their Deafness the butt of the joke.
Most of all, she makes us see and believe in our bones that the Rossis are a real family with real chemistry, with real bonds and trials of their own, both unique and universal just like any other family. What Ruby’s chosen path unearths is the distinctiveness of those everyday battles. Would her sound-driven talent put a distance between Ruby and the rest of the Rossis? What would the world look like for the quartet if Ruby chose to leave? Through a number of deeply generous (and to this critic, tear-jerking) scenes—but especially a pair that play like each other’s mirror images—Heder spells out the answers openhandedly. During one, all sound vanishes while Ruby sings in front of her nearest and dearest, making us perceive her act from the point of view of the non-hearing. During the other, featuring a well-chosen track that might just melt even the frostiest of hearts, sound doesn’t matter at all. Because Heder ensures that we see the boundless love that’s there, in their shared language.
"Groundhog Day" is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is. Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like "Groundhog Day" to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.
The movie, as everyone knows, is about a man who finds himself living the same day over and over and over again. He is the only person in his world who knows this is happening, and after going through periods of dismay and bitterness, revolt and despair, suicidal self-destruction and cynical recklessness, he begins to do something that is alien to his nature. He begins to learn.
This man is named Phil, and he is a weatherman. In a sense, he feels himself condemned to repeating the same day, anyway; the weather changes, but his on-camera shtick remains the same, and he is distant and ironic about his job. Every year on Feb. 2 he is dispatched to Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover the festivities of Groundhog Day, on which Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, is awakened from his slumbers and studied to discover if he will see his shadow. If he does, we will have another six weeks of winter. We usually have another six weeks of winter, anyway, a fact along with many others that does not escape Phil as he signals his cynicism about this transcendentally silly event.
Phil is played by Bill Murray, and Murray is indispensable; before he makes the film wonderful, he does a more difficult thing, which is to make it bearable. I can imagine a long list of actors, whose names I will charitably suppress, who could appear in this material and render it simpering, or inane. The screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis is inspired, but inspired crucially because they saw Bill Murray in it. They understood how he would be able to transform it into something sublime, while another actor might reduce it to a cloying parable. Ramis and Murray had worked together from the dawn of their careers, at Second City in Chicago, and knew each other in the ways only improvisational actors can know each other, finding their limits and strengths in nightly risks before a volatile and boozy audience. I doubt if Ramis would have had the slightest interest in directing this material with anyone else but Murray. It wasn't the story that appealed to him, but the thought of Murray in it.
The Murray persona has become familiar without becoming tiring: The world is too much with him, he is a little smarter than everyone else, he has a detached melancholy, he is deeply suspicious of joy, he sees sincerity as a weapon that can be used against him, and yet he conceals emotional needs. He is Hamlet in a sitcom world. "Lost in Translation," another film that works because Bill Murray is in it, captures these qualities. So does "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," which doesn't work because Murray's character has nothing to push against in a world that is as detached as he is.
In "Groundhog Day" (1993), notice how easily he reveals that Phil (the weatherman, not the groundhog) is a perfect bastard. He doesn't raise his voice or signal through energetic acting that he's an insufferable jerk. He just is. He draws for his Punxsutawney assignment a patient angel of a producer named Rita (Andie MacDowell) and a good sport of a cameraman named Larry (Chris Elliott). Like television production people everywhere, they're accustomed to "talent" that treats them shabbily; they indulge the egos of the on-camera performers and get on with their jobs, reflecting perhaps that they can do without the big bucks if it means being a creep like Phil.
At 6 a.m. on Feb. 2, Phil is awakened by the clock alarm in his cozy little Punxsutawney bed-and-breakfast. It is playing "I Got You Babe," by Sonny and Cher. He goes through a series of experiences: Being greeted by an old classmate who wants to sell him insurance, stepping into an icy puddle, performing a stand-up on camera in front of the wretched groundhog, which he considers, not without reason, to be rat-like. Phil is rude to Rita and Larry, and insulting to his viewers (by implying they are idiots to be watching the segment). He has no liking for himself, his job, his colleagues or the human race.
All he wants to do is get out of town. He begins to. He doesn't quite make it. What with one thing and another, he wakes up the next morning in the same bed, with the radio playing the same song, and it gradually becomes clear to him that he is reliving precisely the same day. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, in his case, doesn't creep in at its petty pace from day to day, but gets stuck like a broken record. After the third or fourth day, the enormity of his predicament is forced upon him. He is free to change what he says and does from one Feb. 2 to the next, but it will always be Feb. 2 for everyone else in the world, and he will always start from the same place. They will repeat themselves unless he changes the script, but tomorrow they will have forgotten their new lines and be back to the first draft of Feb. 2.
One night in a bowling alley, sitting at the bar, he says almost to himself: "What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everything that you did was the same, and nothing mattered?" The sad sack next to him at the bar overhears him and answers: "That about sums it up for me."
Slowly, inexpertly, Phil begins to learn from his trial runs through Feb. 2. Ramis and Rubin in an early draft had him living through 10,000 cycles, and Ramis calculates that in the current version he goes through about 40. During that time, Phil learns to really see himself for the first time, and to see Rita, and to learn that he loves her, and to strive to deserve her love. He astonishingly wants to become a good man.
His journey has become a parable for our materialistic age; it embodies a view of human growth that, at its heart, reflects the same spiritual view of existence Murray explored in his very personal project "The Razor's Edge." He is bound to the wheel of time, and destined to revolve until he earns his promotion to the next level. A long article in the British newspaper the Independent says "Groundhog Day" is "hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time." Perhaps not all religious leaders have seen anything by Bergman, Bresson, Ozu and Dreyer, but never mind: They have a point, even about a film where the deepest theological observation is, "Maybe God has just been around a long time and knows everything."
What amazes me about the movie is that Murray and Ramis get away with it. They never lose their nerve. Phil undergoes his transformation but never loses his edge. He becomes a better Phil, not a different Phil. The movie doesn't get all soppy at the end. There is the dark period when he tries to kill himself, the reckless period when he crashes his car because he knows it doesn't matter, the times of despair.
We see that life is like that. Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people. There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, "When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel." The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.
Maximus: "I'm required to kill--so I kill. That's enough."
Proximo: "That's enough for the provinces, but not for Rome."
A foolish choice in art direction casts a pall over Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" that no swordplay can cut through. The film looks muddy, fuzzy and indistinct. Its colors are mud tones at the drab end of the palette, and it seems to have been filmed on grim and overcast days. This darkness and a lack of detail in the long shots helps obscure shabby special effects (the Colosseum in Rome looks like a model from a computer game), and the characters bring no cheer: They're bitter, vengeful, depressed. By the end of this long film, I would have traded any given gladiatorial victory for just one shot of blue skies. (There are blue skies in the hero's dreams of long-ago happiness, but that proves the point.) The story line is "Rocky" on downers. The hero, a general from Spain named Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a favorite of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). After Maximus defeats the barbarians, Marcus names him protector of Rome. But he is left for dead by Marcus' son, a bitter rival named Commodus (the name comes from the Latin for "convenient" and not what you're thinking).
After escaping and finding that his wife and son have been murdered, Maximus finds his way to the deserts of North Africa, where he is sold as a slave to Proximo (the late Oliver Reed), a manager of gladiators. When Commodus lifts his late father's ban on gladiators in Rome, in an attempt to distract the people from hunger and plagues, Maximus slashes his way to the top, and the movie ends, of course, with the Big Fight.
This same story could have been rousing entertainment; I have just revisited the wonderful "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which is just as dimwitted but 12 times more fun. But "Gladiator" lacks joy. It employs depression as a substitute for personality, and believes that if the characters are bitter and morose enough, we won't notice how dull they are.
Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of those spoiled, self-indulgent, petulant Roman emperors made famous in the age of great Roman epics, which ended with "Spartacus" (1960). Watching him in his snits, I recalled Peter Ustinov's great Nero in "Quo Vadis" (1951), collecting his tears for posterity in tiny crystal vials. Commodus has unusual vices even for a Caesar; he wants to become the lover of his older sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), whose son he is bringing up as his heir.
The moral backbone of the story is easily mastered. Commodus wants to be a dictator, but is opposed by the senate, led by Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). The senators want him to provide sewers for the city's Greek district, where the plague is raging, but Commodus decides instead on a season of games. Proximo arrives with his seasoned gladiators from Africa, who prove nearly invincible and threaten the emperor's popularity. The moral lesson: It is good when gladiators slaughter everyone in sight, and then turn over power to the politicians.
The Colosseum productions play like professional wrestling. Events are staged to re-create famous battles, and after the visitors wipe out the home team, a puzzled Commodus tells his aide, "My history's a little hazy--but shouldn't the barbarians lose the battle of Carthage?" Later, an announcer literally addresses the crowd in these words: "Caesar is pleased to bring you the only undefeated champion in Roman history--the legendary Titus!" The battle sequences are a pale shadow of the lucidly choreographed swordplay in "Rob Roy" (1995); instead of moves we can follow and strategy we can appreciate, Scott goes for muddled closeups of fearsome but indistinct events. The crowd cheers, although those in the cheaper seats are impossible to see because of the murky special effects.
When Maximus wins his first big fight, it's up to Commodus to decide whether he will live or die. "Live! Live!" the fans chant, and Commodus, bowing to their will, signals with a "thumbs up." This demonstrates that Commodus was not paying attention in Caesar School, since the practice at the Colosseum at that time was to close the thumb in the fist to signal life; an extended thumb meant death. Luckily, no one else in the Colosseum knows this, either.
Crowe is efficient as Maximus: bearded, taciturn, brooding. His closest friend among the gladiators is played by Djimon Hounsou, who played the passionate slave in "Amistad." Since protocol requires him to speak less than Maximus, he mostly looks ferocious, effectively.
Nielsen shows the film's most depth, as the sister. Phoenix is passable as Commodus, but a quirkier actor could have had more fun in the role. Old pros Harris, Jacobi and Reed are reliable; Scott does some fancy editing and a little digital work to fill the gaps left when Reed died during the production.
"Gladiator" is being hailed by those with short memories as the equal of "Spartacus" and "Ben-Hur." This is more like "Spartacus Lite." Or dark. It's only necessary to think back a few months, to Julie Taymor's "Titus," for a film set in ancient Rome that's immeasurably better to look at. The visual accomplishment of "Titus" shames "Gladiator," and its story is a whole heck of a lot better than the "Gladiator" screenplay, even if Shakespeare didn't make his Titus the only undefeated champion in Roman history.
It is largely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made and is preserved in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Sunset Blvd is a classic example of film noir. It is also very meta, and its dark, cynical tone, voiceover, and dialogue remain relevant to this day.
Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard” is the portrait of a forgotten silent star, living in exile in her grotesque mansion, screening her old films, dreaming of a comeback. But it's also a love story, and the love keeps it from becoming simply a waxwork or a freak show. Gloria Swanson gives her greatest performance as the silent star Norma Desmond, with her grasping talons, her theatrical mannerisms, her grandiose delusions. William Holden tactfully inhabits the tricky role of the writer half her age, who allows himself to be kept by her. But the performance that holds the film together, that gives it emotional resonance and makes it real in spite of its gothic flamboyance, is by Erich von Stroheim, as Norma's faithful butler Max.
The movie cuts close to the bone, drawing so directly from life that many of the silent stars at the movie's premiere recognized personal details. In no character, not even Norma, does it cut closer than with Max von Mayerling, a once-great silent director, now reduced to working as the butler of the woman he once directed--and was married to. There are unmistakable parallels with von Stroheim, who directed Swanson in "Queen Kelly” (1928), whose credits included "Greed" and "The Merry Widow,” but who directed only two sound films and was reduced to playing Nazi martinets and parodies of himself in other people's films.
In "Sunset Boulevard,” Desmond screens one of her old silent classics for Joe Gillis, the young writer played by Holden. Max runs the projector. The scene is from “Queen Kelly.” For a moment Swanson and von Stroheim are simply playing themselves. Later, when Joe is moved into the big mansion, Max shows him to an ornate bedroom and explains, "It was the room of the husband.” Max is talking about himself; he was
In one of the greatest of all film performances, Swanson's Norma Desmond skates close to the edge of parody; Swanson takes enormous chances with theatrical sneers and swoops and posturings, holding Norma at the edge of madness for most of the picture, before letting her slip over. We might not take her seriously. That's where Max comes in. Because he believes, because he has devoted his life to her shrine, we believe. His love convinces us there must be something worth loving in Norma, and that in turn helps explain how Joe can accept her.
Norma of course is not a wrinkled crone. She is only 50 in the film, younger than stars such as Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. There is a scene during Norma's beauty makeover when a magnifying glass is held in front of her eyes, and we are startled by how smooth Swanson's skin is. Swanson in real life was a health nut who fled from the sun, which no doubt protected her skin (she was 53 when she made the film), but the point in "Sunset Boulevard” is that she has aged not in the flesh but in the mind; she has become fixed at the moment of her greatness, and lives in the past.
Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett knew the originals of the characters. What was unusual was how realistic Wilder dared to be. He used real names (Darryl Zanuck, Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd). He showed real people (Norma's bridge partners, cruelly called "the waxworks” by Gillis, are the silent stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). He drew from life (when Norma visits Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount, the director is making a real film, "Samson and Delilah,” and calls Norma "little fellow,” which is what he always called Swanson). When Max the butler tells Joe, "There were three young directors who showed promise in those days, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Max von Mayerling,” if you substituted von Stroheim for von Mayerling, it would be a fair reflection of von Stroheim's stature in the 1920s.
"Sunset Boulevard” remains the best drama ever made about the movies because it sees through the illusions, even if Norma doesn't. When the silent star first greets the penniless writer inside her mansion, they have a classic exchange. “You used to be big,” he says. Norma responds with the great line, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.” Hardly anyone remembers Joe's next line: "I knew there was something wrong with them.”
The plot has supplied Joe with a lot of reasons to accept Norma's offer of a private screenwriting job. He's broke and behind on his rent, his car is about to be repossessed, and he doesn't want to go back to his job as a newspaperman in Dayton. He is also not entirely unwilling to prostitute himself; Holden projects subtle weakness and self-loathing into the role. He goes through the forms of saying he doesn't want Norma's gifts, but he takes them--the gold cigarette cases, the platinum watch, the suits, the shirts, the shoes. He claims to be surprised on New Year's Eve when she throws a party just for the two of them, but surely he has known from the first that she wants not only a writer, but a young man to reassure her that she is still attractive.
The thing about Norma is that life with her isn't all bad. She isn't boring. Her histrionics and dramaturgy are entertaining, and she has a charming side, as when she stages a pantomime for Joe, playing a Max Sennett bathing girl and then doing a passable version of Chaplin's Tramp. Joe is willing to be kept. The only thing the film lacks is more sympathy between Joe and Max, who have so much in common.
There is of course the young blond Paramount writer Betty (Nancy Olson), who Joe meets early in the picture. She's engaged to be married (to a young Jack Webb), but as Joe begins sneaking out of the mansion to collaborate on a screenplay with Betty, she falls in love with him. He's attracted, but pulls back, partly because he doesn't want her to discover the truth, but also because he likes the lifestyle with Norma. And ... maybe because, like Max, he has fallen under her spell? His dialogue is sharp-edged and can be cruel. (When she threatens suicide, he tells her, "Oh, wake up, Norma. You'd be killing yourself to an empty house. The audience left 20 years ago.”) But there's a certain pity, too. "Poor devil,” he says, "still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by.”
I have seen "Sunset Boulevard” many times, and even analyzed it a shot at a time at the University of Virginia. But on this latest screening I was struck by its similarity with the 1964 Japanese drama "Woman in the Dunes." Both are about men who are trapped in the home, or lair, of a woman who simply will not let them out again. They struggle, they thrash a little, they look for the means of escape, but at some subterranean level they are content to be prisoners, and perhaps even enjoy it. Both women need a man to help them hold back the inexorable advance of the sands--in Norma's case, the sands of time.
Of all the great directors of Hollywood's golden age, has anybody made more films that are as fresh and entertaining to this day as Billy Wilder's? The credits are astonishing: “Double Indemnity,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Stalag 17,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Sabrina.” And who else can field two contenders among the greatest closing lines of all time? From “Some Like It Hot” there is “Nobody's perfect.” And from “Sunset Boulevard,” Norma Desmond's: “There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my closeup.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
A vast empty Western landscape. The camera pans across it. Then the shot slides onto a sunburned, desperate face. The long shot has become a closeup without a cut, revealing that the landscape was not empty but occupied by a desperado very close to us.
In these opening frames, Sergio Leone established a rule that he follows throughout "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The rule is that the ability to see is limited by the sides of the frame. At important moments in the film, what the camera cannot see, the characters cannot see, and that gives Leone the freedom to surprise us with entrances that cannot be explained by the practical geography of his shots.
There is a moment, for example, when men do not notice a vast encampment of the Union Army until they stumble upon it. And a moment in a cemetery when a man materializes out of thin air even though he should have been visible for a mile. And the way men walk down a street in full view and nobody is able to shoot them, maybe because they are not in the same frame with them.
Leone cares not at all about the practical or the plausible, and builds his great film on the rubbish of Western movie cliches, using style to elevate dreck into art. When the movie opened in America in late 1967, not long after its predecessors "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) and "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), audiences knew they liked it, but did they know why?
I saw it sitting in the front row of the balcony of the Oriental Theatre, whose vast wide screen was ideal for Leone's operatic compositions. I responded strongly, but had been a movie critic less than a year, and did not always have the wisdom to value instinct over prudence. Looking up my old review, I see I described a four-star movie but only gave it three stars, perhaps because it was a "spaghetti Western" and so could not be art.
But art it is, summoned out of the imagination of Leone and painted on the wide screen so vividly that we forget what marginal productions these films were--that Clint Eastwood was a Hollywood reject, that budgetary restraints ($200,000 for "Fistful") caused gaping continuity errors, that there wasn't a lot of dialogue because it was easier to shoot silent and fill the soundtrack with music and effects. There was even a pathetic attempt to make the films seem more American; I learn from the critic Glenn Erickson that Leone was credited as "Bob Robertson" in the early prints of "Fistful," and composer Ennio Morricone, whose lonely, mournful scores are inseparable from the films, was "Dan Savio." Even Eastwood's character, the famous Man With No Name, was an invention of the publicists; he was called Joe in the first movie, Manco in the second, and Blondie in the third.
Perhaps it is the subtly foreign flavor of the spaghetti trilogy, and especially the masterpiece "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," that suggests the films come from a different universe than traditional Westerns. Instead of tame Hollywood extras from central casting, we get locals who must have been hired near the Spanish locations--men who look long-weathered by work and the sun. Consider the legless beggar who uses his arms to propel himself into a saloon, shouting, "Hand me down a whiskey!"
John Ford made Monument Valley the home turf of his Western characters, and he made great films there, but there is something new and strange about Leone's menacing Spanish vistas. We haven't seen these deserts before. John Wayne has never been here. Leone's stories are a heightened dream in which everything is bigger, starker, more brutal, more dramatic, than life.
Leone tells the story more with pictures than words. Examine the masterful scene in the cemetery. A fortune in gold is said to be buried in one of the graves, and three men have assembled, all hoping to get it. The actors are Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad), and Eli Wallach (the Ugly). Each man points a pistol at the other. If one shoots, they all shoot, and all die. Unless two decide to shoot the third man before he can shoot either one of them. But which two, and which third?
Leone draws this scene out beyond all reason, beginning in long shot and working in to closeups of firearms, faces, eyes, and lots of sweat and flies. He seems to be testing himself, to see how long he can maintain the suspense. Or is it even suspense, really? It may be entirely an exercise in style, a deliberate manipulation by the director, intended to draw attention to itself. If you savor the boldness with which Leone flirts with parody, you understand his method. This is not a story, but a celebration of bold gestures.
Eastwood, 34 when he first worked with Leone, already carried unquestioned authority. Much is made of the fact that he came from television, that he starred in "Rawhide," that in those days it was thought that a movie audience wouldn't pay to see an actor it could watch for free. Eastwood overcame that jinx, but not any actor could have done it--and not with any director. He says he took the roles with Leone because he wanted to make movies and Hollywood wouldn't hire him.
Yes, but Eastwood himself was to become an important director, and even then he must have sensed in Leone not just another purveyor of the Italian sword-and-sandal epics, but a man with passion. Together, Leone and Eastwood made The Man With No Name not simply bigger than a television star, but bigger than a movie star--a man who never needed to explain himself, a man whose boots and fingers and eyes were deemed important enough to fill the whole screen.
I wonder if Eastwood's character has a tenth as much dialogue as Tuco, the Eli Wallach character. The Man With No Name never talks; Tuco never stops. This is one of Wallach's inspired performances, as he sidesteps his character's potential to seem ridiculous, and makes him a desperate, frightened presence. When he makes a clown of himself, we sense it is Tuco's strategy, not his personality. Trained in the Method, a stage veteran, Wallach took this low-rent role seriously and made something evocative out of it.
Lee Van Cleef, as Angel Eyes, was New Jersey-born, already a veteran of 53 films and countless TV shows, many of them Westerns (his first movie credit was "High Noon," where he played a member of the gang). In a movie with a lot of narrowed eyes, he has the narrowest, and they gleam with insane obsession.
All three men are after the fortune in Civil War gold, and the secret of its location is parceled out among them (one knows the cemetery but not the grave, the other knows the name on the tombstone but not the cemetery). So they know that they will remain alive until the grave is found, and then it is likely that each of them will try to kill the others.
In a film that runs 180 minutes in its current restored version, that is not enough plot, but Leone has no shortage of other ideas. There is the opening shootout, involving unrelated characters. There is the con game in which Wallach plays a wanted man, Eastwood turns him in for the reward, and then Eastwood waits until he is about to be hanged and severs the rope with a well-aimed shot. There is the magnificent desert sequence, after Eastwood abandons Wallach in the desert, and then Wallach does the same to Eastwood, and the sun burns down like a scene from "Greed." There is the haunting runaway wagon, filled with dead and dying men.
And, surprisingly, there is an ambitious Civil War sequence, almost a film within a film, featuring a touching performance by Aldo Giuffre as a captain in the Union Army who explains his alcoholism simply: the commander who has the most booze to get his troops drunk before battle is the one who wins. His dying line: "Can you help me live a little more? I expect good news."
Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was a director of boundless vision and ambition, who invented himself almost as he invented the spaghetti Western. Erickson, whose useful essay on the trilogy is at www.DVDtalk.com, notes that Leone hyped his own career "by claiming to be the assistant director on Robert Aldrich's Italian production of 'Sodom and Gomorrah' (1962), even though he was fired after only a day." Leone made a forgotten Roman Empire epic in 1961, and then based "A Fistful of Dollars" so closely on Akira Kurosawa's samurai film "Yojimbo" that perhaps Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of "Psycho" (1998) was not the first time the technique was tried.
A man with no little ideas, Leone made two other unquestioned masterpieces, "Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968) and "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984). By the end of his career, Hollywood was suspicious of films with long running times, and criminally chopped "America" from 227 minutes to a sometimes incomprehensible 139. Nineteen minutes were cut from the first release of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." But uncut versions of all of his films are available on DVD, and gradually it becomes clear how good he really was.
The Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" (1954) is not only a great film in its own right, but the source of a genre that would flow through the rest of the century. The critic Michael Jeck suggests that this was the first film in which a team is assembled to carry out a mission--an idea which gave birth to its direct Hollywood remake, "The Magnificent Seven," as well as "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen" and countless later war, heist and caper movies. Since Kurosawa's samurai adventure "Yojimbo" (1960) was remade as "A Fistful of Dollars" and essentially created the spaghetti Western, and since this movie and Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" inspired George Lucas' "Star Wars" series, it could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years, just as a fallout from his primary purpose.
That purpose was to make a samurai movie that was anchored in ancient Japanese culture and yet argued for a flexible humanism in place of rigid traditions. One of the central truths of "Seven Samurai" is that the samurai and the villagers who hire them are of different castes and must never mix. Indeed, we learn that these villagers had earlier been hostile to samurai--and one of them, even now, hysterically fears that a samurai will make off with his daughter. Yet the bandits represent a greater threat, and so the samurai are hired, valued and resented in about equal measure.
Why do they take the job? Why, for a handful of rice every day, do they risk their lives? Because that is the job and the nature of the samurai. Both sides are bound by the roles imposed on them by society, and in To the Distant Observer, his study of Japanese films, Noel Burch observes: "masochistic perseverance in the fulfillment of complex social obligations is a basic cultural trait of Japan." Not only do the samurai persevere, but so do the bandits, who continue their series of raids even though it is clear the village is well-defended, that they are sustaining heavy losses, and that there must be unprotected villages somewhere close around. Like characters in a Greek tragedy, they perform the roles they have been assigned.
Two of the movie's significant subplots deal with rebellion against social tradition. Kikuchiyo, the high-spirited samurai played by Toshiro Mifune as a rambunctious showoff, was not born a samurai but has jumped caste to become one. And there is a forbidden romance between the samurai Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) and a village girl (ironically, the very daughter whose father was so worried). They love each other, but a farmer's daughter cannot dream of marrying a ronin; when they are found together on the eve of the final battle, however, there are arguments in the village to "understand the young people,” and an appeal to romance--an appeal designed for modern audiences and unlikely to have carried much weight in the 1600s when the movie is set.
Kurosawa was considered the most Western of great Japanese directors (too Western, some of his Japanese critics sniffed). "Seven Samurai" represents a great divide in his work; most of his earlier films, Jeck observes, subscribe to the Japanese virtues of teamwork, fitting in, going along, conforming. All his later films are about misfits, noncomformists and rebels. The turning point can be seen in his greatest film, "Ikiru" (1952), in which a bureaucrat spends his days in the rote performance of meaningless duties but decides when he is dying to break loose and achieve at least one meaningful thing.
That bureaucrat was played by Takashi Shimura--who, incredibly, also plays Kambei, the leader of the seven samurai. He looks old and withered in the 1952 picture, tough and weathered in this one. Kurosawa was loyal to his longtime collaborators, and used either Shimura, Mifune, or often both of them, in every movie he made for 18 years.
In "Seven Samurai," both actors are essential. Shimura's Kambei is the veteran warrior, who in an early scene shaves his head to disguise himself as a priest in order to enter a house where a hostage is being held. (Did this scene create the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation unrelated to the later plot?) He spends the rest of the movie distractedly rubbing his bristling head during moments of puzzlement. He is a calm, wise leader and a good strategian, and we follow the battles partly because he (and Kurosawa) map them out for us, walk us through the village's defenses and keep count as the 40 bandits are whittled down one by one. Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo, is an overcompensator. He arrives equipped with a sword longer than anyone else's and swaggers around holding it over his shoulder like a rifleman. He is impulsive, brave, a showoff who quickly assembles a fan club of local kids who follow him around. Mifune was himself a superb athlete and does some difficult jumps and stunts in the movie, but his character is shown to be a hopeless horseman. (As a farmer's son, Kikuchiyo would not have had an opportunity as a youth to learn to ride.) One running gag involves Kikuchiyo's inability to master an unruly local horse; there is a delightful moment where horse and rider disappear behind a barrier together, and emerge separately.
The movie is long (207 minutes), with an intermission, and yet it moves quickly because the storytelling is so clear, there are so many sharply defined characters, and the action scenes have a thrilling sweep. Nobody could photograph men in action better than Kurosawa. One of his particular trademarks is the use of human tides, sweeping down from higher places to lower ones, and he loves to devise shots in which the camera follows the rush and flow of an action, instead of cutting it up into separate shots. His use of closeups in some of the late battle scenes perhaps was noticed Orson Welles, who in "Falstaff” conceals a shortage of extras by burying the camera in a Kurosawian tangle of horses, legs, and swords.
Repeated viewings of "Seven Samurai" reveal visual patterns. Consider the irony, for example, in two sequences that bookend the first battle with the bandits. In the first, the villagers have heard the bandits are coming, and rush around in panic. Kambei orders his samurai to calm and contain them, and the ronin run from one group to the next (the villagers always run in groups, not individually) to herd them into cover. Later, after the bandits have been repulsed, a wounded bandit falls in the village square, and now the villagers rush forward with delayed bravery to kill him. This time, the samurai hurry about pushing them back. Mirrored scenes like that can be found throughout the movie.
There is also an instinctive feeling for composition. Kurosawa constantly uses deep focus to follow simultaneous actions in the foreground, middle and background. Often he delineates the distance with barriers. Consider a shot where the samurai, in the foreground, peer out through the slats of a building and across an empty ground to the sight of the bandits, peering in through the slats of a barrier erected against them. Kurosawa's moving camera often avoids cuts in order to make comparisons, as when he will begin on dialogue in a closeup, sweep through a room or a clearing, and end on a closeup of another character who is the point of the dialogue.
Many characters die in "Seven Samurai," but violence and action are not the point of the movie. It is more about duty and social roles. The samurai at the end have lost four of their seven, yet there are no complaints, because that is the samurai's lot. The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.
Kevin Costner reaches a welcome career high in this new movie, a live-action based-on-a-true-story inspirational tale of school sports, produced by Disney. It sounds a little over-determined when described that way, I know. But one thing I almost forgot going into this picture is that this kind of picture is the kind of thing that Disney can do very well. And it is very well done here, thanks in no small part to the superb direction of Niki Caro. Caro, a New Zealand-born woman, might seem to some an unusual fit for the story of an all-Latino cross-country running team coached by a white man who’s working, against his will for all intents and purposes, at an underfunded high school in the California town that sometimes advertises itself as “the fruit basket of the nation.” But Caro, who established some good cross-cultural uplift bona fides with her first feature, 2002’s “Whale Rider,” brings huge reserves of both curiosity and empathy to the story, and her abilities as an entertainer keep the movie generous in both heart-tugging and smile-inducing moments. Costner’s uncanny evocation of Gary Cooper masculinity and Gregory Peck compassion in the role of coach Jim White is the glue that holds it together, but the rest of the cast is equally inspired.
There’s been a lot of talk in cultural criticism of the last several decades about “white messiah” narratives: stories in which the intervention of a Caucasian rescues ethnic minorities at risk. (You may remember “Dangerous Minds.”) Many representatives of ethnic minorities in academia and media find this irritating, with good reason, and despite its based-on-a-true-story status, “McFarland, USA” could very well be just such a story. But Caro, along with writers Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson do something unusual. It’s not something as obvious and crass as the “and she saves him back” trope of “Pretty Woman,” but more along the lines of a family values cultural exchange. Costner’s Jim White is a high school teacher and coach whose passionate temper gets him fired from a series of gigs in the white-bread towns of which he’s a product and has been a fixture.
On arriving with wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters, teen and pre-teen, in a town where the rooster next door wakes everyone up before five and Jim can’t get a burger, the teacher is almost immediately assailed by colleagues and students who think it’s hilarious that his name is “White.” Despite his chafing at his fish-out-of-water status, White also gives a damn, and he, like Caro, is a keen observer. He knows the school’s football team isn’t, and likely can’t be, worth a damn, but once he sees more than one of his students running, rabbit-like, to get to their after-school jobs helping their parents and other family members with produce-picking, he resolves to create a cross-country running team.
To make it work he has to gain the trust of both the kids and their parents, and that means he needs to give a little of himself. Getting involved in the lives of these self-described “pickers” gives White a painful understanding of the economic realities of his environment and the privilege that he’s long taken for granted. He misses the birthday celebration for his teen daughter Julie, which is a common enough device in the too-busy-doing-good-white-guy scenario, but here it pays off in a dividend, as White gets educated by his prize runner and the local grocery store owner in the Latin American tradition of the Quinceañera. As White steers his initially ragtag crew to victory after victory, he attracts the attention of tonier towns and schools, presenting a challenge to his own commitment to family and community.
Because, finally, “McFarland, USA” is a paean to family and community. And a story about why, even as so much of what we see about the so-called “American Dream” is tinged with disillusion and corruption, the United States remains a land of some kind of opportunity for millions of people who come here to do back-breaking work, day in, day out. It is also, of course, a really entertaining and enjoyable movie. Caro is particularly deft at handling supporting character roles. All the young runners make an impression, particularly Carlos Pratt as the troubled, gentle, and lightning-fast Thomas, and Ramiro Rodriguez as Danny, the chunky anchor of the team who’s all heart. But Valente Rodriguez as the harried principal and Danny Mora as the aforementioned store owner are also outstanding, bringing un-stereotypical life to their archetypal roles. And while for this viewer, who’s also a sometime runner, cross-country running is perhaps the least cinematically-engaging sport ever, Caro and company imbue each of the race scenes with more than sufficient drama to give the proceedings a good share of “Rocky”-triumphant moments. Tear-jerking ones, too. The result, as far as I’m concerned, is a feel-good movie that pretty much anyone can feel good about feeling good about. Particularly Costner fans.
Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights'' is an epic of the low road, a classic Hollywood story set in the shadows instead of the spotlights but containing the same ingredients: Fame, envy, greed, talent, sex, money. The movie follows a large, colorful and curiously touching cast of characters as they live through a crucial turning point in the adult film industry.
In 1977, when the story opens, porn movies are shot on film and play in theaters, and a director can dream of making one so good that the audience members would want to stay in the theater even after they had achieved what they came for. By 1983, when the story closes, porn has shifted to video and most of the movies are basically just gynecological loops. There is hope, at the outset, that a porno movie could be "artistic,'' and less hope at the end.
"Boogie Nights'' tells this story through the life of a kid named Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) from the San Fernando Valley, who is a dishwasher in a Hollywood nightclub when he's discovered by a Tiparillo-smoking pornographer named Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). "I got a feeling,'' Jack says, "that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out.'' He is correct, and within a few months Eddie has been renamed "Dirk Diggler'' and is a rising star of porn films.
If this summary makes the film itself sound a little like porn, it is not. Few films have been more matter-of-fact, even disenchanted, about sexuality. Adult films are a business here, not a dalliance or a pastime, and one of the charms of "Boogie Nights'' is the way it shows the everyday backstage humdrum life of porno filmmaking. "You got your camera,'' Jack explains to young Eddie. "You got your film, you got your lights, you got your synching, you got your editing, you got your lab. Before you turn around, you've spent maybe $25,000 or $30,000.'' Jack Horner is the father figure for a strange extended family of sex workers; he's a low-rent Hugh Hefner, and Burt Reynolds gives one of his best performances as a man who seems to stand outside sex and view it with the detached eye of a judge at a livestock show. Horner is never shown as having sex himself, although he lives with Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), a former housewife and mother, now a porn star who makes tearful midnight calls to her ex-husband, asking to speak to her child. When Jack recruits Eddie to make a movie, Amber becomes his surrogate parent, tenderly solicitous of him as they prepare for his first sex scene.
During a break in that scene, Eddie whispers to Jack, "Please call me Dirk Diggler from now on.'' He falls immediately into star mode, and before long is leading a conducted tour of his new house, where his wardrobe is "arranged according to color and designer.'' His stardom is based on one remarkable attribute; "everyone is blessed with one special thing,'' he tells himself, after his mother has screamed that he'll always be a bum and a loser.
Anderson wisely limits the nudity in the film, and until the final shot we don't see what Jack Horner calls "Mr. Torpedo Area.'' It's more fun to approach it the way Anderson does. At a pool party at Jack's house, Dirk meets the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), who finances the films. "May I see it?'' the silver-haired, business-suited Colonel asks. Dirk obliges, and the camera stays on the Colonel's face as he looks, and a funny, stiff little smile appears; Anderson holds the shot for several seconds, and we get the message.
The large cast of "Boogie Nights'' is nicely balanced between human and comic qualities. We meet Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never takes off her skates, and in an audition scene with Dirk adds a new dimension to the song "Brand New Key.'' Little Bill (William H. Macy) is Jack's assistant director, moping about at parties while his wife (porn star Nina Hartley) gets it on with every man she can. (When he discovers his wife having sex in the driveway, surrounded by an appreciative crowd, she tells him, "Shut up, Bill; you're embarrassing me.'') Ricky Jay, the magician, plays Jack's cameraman. "I think every picture should have its own look,'' he states solemnly, although the films are shot in a day or two. When he complains, "I got a couple of tough shadows to deal with,'' Jack snaps, "There are shadows in life, baby.'' Dirk's new best friend is Reed (John C. Reilly). He gets a crush on Dirk and engages him in gym talk ("How much do you press? Let's both say at the same time. One, two...") Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is a second-tier actor and would-be hi-fi salesman. Rodriguez (Luis Guzman) is a club manager who dreams of being in one of Jack's movies. And the gray eminence behind the industry, the man who is the Colonel's boss, is Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall), who on New Year's Eve, 1980, breaks the news that videotape holds the future of the porno industry.
The sweep and variety of the characters have brought the movie comparisons to Robert Altman's "Nashville" and "The Player." There is also some of the same appeal as "Pulp Fiction," in scenes that balance precariously between comedy and violence (a brilliant scene near the end has Dirk and friends selling cocaine to a deranged playboy while the customer's friend throws firecrackers around the room). Through all the characters and all the action, Anderson's screenplay centers on the human qualities of the players. They may live in a disreputable world, but they have the same ambitions and in a weird way similar values as mainstream Hollywood.
"Boogie Nights'' has the quality of many great films, in that it always seems alive. A movie can be very good and yet not draw us in, not involve us in the moment-to-moment sensation of seeing lives as they are lived. As a writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson is a skilled reporter who fills his screen with understated, authentic details. (In the filming of the first sex scene, for example, the action takes place in an office set that has been built in Jack's garage. Behind the office door we see old license plates nailed to the wall, and behind one wall of the set, bicycle wheels peek out.) Anderson is in love with his camera, and a bit of a showoff in sequences inspired by the famous nightclub entrance in "GoodFellas," Robert De Niro's rehearsal in the mirror in "Raging Bull" and a shot in "I Am Cuba" where the camera follows a woman into a pool.
In examining the business of catering to lust, "Boogie Nights'' demystifies its sex (that's probably one reason it avoided the NC-17 rating). Mainstream movies use sex like porno films do, to turn us on. "Boogie Nights'' abandons the illusion that characters are enjoying sex; in a sense, it's about manufacturing a consumer product. By the time the final shot arrives and we see what made the Colonel stare, there is no longer any shred of illusion that it is anything more than a commodity. And in Dirk Diggler's most anguished scene, as he shouts at Jack Horner, "I'm ready to shoot my scene RIGHT NOW!'' We learn that those who live by the sword can also die by it.
Saturday Night Fever
"Saturday Night Fever'' was Gene Siskel's favorite movie, and he watched it at least 17 times. We all have movies like that, titles that transcend ordinary categories of good and bad, and penetrate straight to our hearts. My own short list would include "La Dolce Vita," "A Hard Day's Night" and "The Third Man." These are movies that represent what I yearned for at one time in my life, and to see them again is like listening to a song that was popular the first summer you were in love.
Although "Saturday Night Fever'' appealed to him primarily on an emotional level, Siskel spoke about it in terms of its themes, and there are two central ones. First, the desire of all young people to escape from a life sentence of boring work and attain their version of the beckoning towers of Manhattan. Second, the difficulty that some men have in relating to women as comrades and friends and not simply sex facilitators.
There is a scene in the movie where the hero, Tony Manero, sits on a bench with Stephanie, the girl he loves, and tells her all about one of the bridges out of Brooklyn: Its height, length, how many cubic yards of concrete went into its making--and you can taste his desire to cross that bridge and leave Brooklyn behind. Earlier, Stephanie has described him in a few brutal words: "You live with your parents, you hang with your buddies and on Saturday nights you burn it all off at 2001 Odyssey. You're a cliche. You're nowhere, goin' no place.'' Tony senses that she is right.
The theme of escape to the big city is central to American films and literature, and "Saturday Night Fever'' has an obvious predecessor. Both the lure of Manhattan and the problems with women were treated 10 years earlier in Martin Scorsese's "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" (1967), which also has a hero who suffers from what Freud called the Madonna-Whore Complex. (The complex involves this logic: I love you so much I want to sleep with you, after which I cannot love you any more because you are the kind of woman who has sex with men.) By the end of the film, Tony has left his worthless friends behind and made the first faltering steps to Manhattan and to a more enlightened view of women, and so the themes have been resolved.
But I suspect that "Saturday Night Fever'' had another kind of appeal to Siskel, one that reflects the way the movies sometimes complete the unfinished corners of our lives. In a way, Tony Manero represented the kind of adolescence Gene didn't have, just as Marcello, the hero of "La Dolce Vita,'' led the kind of life I once lusted for. The most lasting images are its joyous ones, of Tony strutting down a sidewalk, dressing for the evening and dominating the disco floor in a solo dance that audiences often applaud. There's a lot in the movie that's sad and painful, but after a few years what you remember is John Travolta on the dance floor in that classic white disco suit, and the Bee Gees on the soundtrack.
The Travolta performance is a great cocky affirmation, and his performance is vulnerable and mostly lovable; playing a kid of 19, he looks touchingly young. The opening shots set the tone, focusing on his carefully shined shoes as he struts down the street. At home, he's still treated like a kid. When he gets a $4 raise at the hardware store, his father says, "You know what $4 buys today? It don't even buy $3.'' But in his bedroom, with its posters of Al Pacino and "Rocky," he strips to his bare chest, admires himself in the mirror, lovingly combs his hair, puts on his gold chains, and steps into his disco suit with a funny little undulation as he slides the zipper up. ("The peculiar construction of disco pants is a marvel of modern engineering,'' observes Scott T. Anderson, on a Web page devoted to the movie. "So loose at the ankles, yet so tight in the groin.'') At the dinner table, his dad slaps him, and he's wounded: "Would you just watch the hair? I work a long time on my hair, and you hit it!''
The home is a trap, presided over by the photo of Tony's older brother, Father Frank Jr. (Mrs. Manero crosses herself every time she utters the name). Freedom is represented by cruising the streets, and starring on the disco floor. The movie's plot involves his choice between Annette (Donna Pescow), the girl who loves him, and Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the girl who works in Manhattan and represents his dream of class. In the Scorsese film, the girl really was class (she was a ballerina), but Stephanie is simply a dressed-up version of Annette who got a typing job in an office where famous people (Paul Anka!) sometimes visit.
I've always thought Annette was a better choice for Tony than Stephanie, because Annette has fewer delusions. ("Why do you hate me so much,'' she asks him, "when all I ever did was like you?'') But Tony can't see that because he can't really see women at all, and in the cruel closing scenes he makes a half-hearted attempt to rape Stephanie, and then sits in the front seat of a car while Annette is being raped in the back by two of his buddies. Of course, at that time, in that milieu, perhaps it wasn't considered rape, but only an energetic form of courtship.
The film is far from perfect and some of its scenes are awkward. Watching it again, I was struck by how badly the whole subplot of Father Frank Jr. is handled. Tony's older brother comes home, announces he is leaving the priesthood, has a peculiarly superficial conversation with Tony, accompanies him to the disco, smiles gamely, and then disappears from the disco and the movie. It's as if we're glimpsing a character passing through this movie on his way to another one ("The Priest," perhaps?). It's also interesting to see how little screen time the final disco competition really has, considering how large it looms in our memories.
It's odd, too, how the rape of Annette is misplaced as the movie gets sidetracked by the death of Bobby C (Barry Miller), who falls, halfway on purpose, off the bridge. The happy ending, as Tony and Stephanie sit on the window ledge and smile, evokes a hopeful future without finding closure on the problems of the immediate past. Tony, who has not gone to college and doesn't share Stephanie's typing skills, may indeed be able to get a job in Manhattan, but it's likely his new job won't be as interesting as the hardware clerking he's leaving behind.
So why, I wonder, did this movie mean so much to Gene Siskel? Because he saw it at a certain time, I imagine. Because Tony Manero's dreams touched him. Because while Tony was on the dance floor, his problems were forgotten and his limitations were transcended. The first time I saw "La Dolce Vita," it represented everything I hoped to attain. Ten years later, it represented a version of what I was trapped in. Ten years after that, it represented what I had escaped from. And yet its appeal to me only grew. I had changed but the movie hadn't; some movies are like time machines, returning us to the past.
We all have a powerful memory of the person we were at that moment when we formed a vision for our lives. Tony Manero stands poised precisely at that moment. He makes mistakes, he fumbles, he says the wrong things, but when he does what he loves he feels a special grace. How he feels, and what he does, transcend the weaknesses of the movie he is in; we are right to remember his strut, and the beauty of his dancing. "Devote your life to something you love--not like, but love,'' Siskel liked to say. "Saturday Night Fever" is about how Tony Manero does that.
Gene bought the famous white suit at a charity auction. I got to inspect it once. It came with a shirt that buttoned under the crotch, so it would still look neat after a night on the dance floor. I asked Gene if he'd ever tried it on. It was too small, he said. But it wasn't the size that mattered. It was the idea of the suit.
The Peanut Butter Falcon
In "The Peanut Butter Falcon," co-written and co-directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, Zac (Zack Gottsagen) is a man with Down Syndrome who has been placed in a nursing home by the state since he has no family and no resources. He has befriended every elderly resident, as well as Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a kindly young woman who works at the facility. Zac is a huge wrestling fan and all day, every day he watches an ancient video tape put out by a wrestler named SaltWater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), whom Zac idolizes. Zac's goal is to get to Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school, the one advertised in the video. And so Zac tries to escape. Repeatedly. Eleanor is forced to label Zac a "flight risk." Zac rooms with Carl (Bruce Dern), who complains about having to watch the same wrestling video all day but sympathizes with Zac's desire to bust loose. One night, Carl helps Zac bend back the iron bars on the window, suggests Zac grease himself up with hand soap, and watches his roommate flee into the night, barefoot and wearing just his underwear.
Zac takes shelter under a tarp on a rusty boat. This boat belongs to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a crab fisherman embroiled in a quickly escalating war with a rival named Duncan (John Hawkes). Tyler discovers his "stowaway" while being chased by Duncan through the complicated tributaries of North Carolina's Outer Banks. At the same time, Eleanor searches for Zac before her supervisor orders him to be put into a state hospital with a terrible reputation.
After a bumpy beginning, Tyler and Zac bond. Zac tells Tyler his mission is to get to Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school, and Tyler, on his way to Florida, decides to help. They set off on foot through a swampy landscape. By the time Eleanor catches up with them, they have built a raft with lumber given to them by a blind backwoods preacher. After some arguments, she is convince to join them on their outlaw journey. The trio float down the coastline, unmoored from the trials and stresses of their respective worlds, like Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi River.
If all of this sounds too sentimental to be believed, it isn't. "Peanut Butter Falcon" is a buddy movie, but it has the quality of a fable, even down to how it's shot by cinematographer Nigel Bluck. The film takes place in a very specific locale. You can smell the salt and pollen and mold in the air. The waves, cornfields, marshes, crab pots ... even the condition of Tyler's boat—comes from reality, not someone's idea of reality. Bluegrass, country songs, gospel hymns punctuate the narrative. It's a fable, but a fable grounded in details, the here-and-now. Except for the "names," the film seems to be populated by many non-professional actors, or at least people who actually live in the area. This makes a huge difference. Zac lives in the real world. Unlike so many disabled characters in film, Zac is not utilized as a symbol, a metaphor, or created to be "inspirational." He's the central figure, he's outspoken and strong, funny and vulnerable. He's never had a friend before. He's always wanted to be "bro dawgs" with someone. Watching the relationship develop with Tyler is one of the film's many pleasures.
Some of the adventures work better than others. Some of it feels contrived. But these are nitpicks in the face of what "The Peanut Butter Falcon'' accomplishes. Both LaBeouf and Johnson (and later, Church) approach their roles with ease and simplicity, highlighting Gottsagen (who has studied acting since he was a child) beautifully. Johnson's irrepressible sense of humor serves her well as an actress, and watching her react to LaBeouf's initial flirtation—trying to maintain her boundaries all while she is drawn into his humorous rat-a-tat—is just a small example of what this film does really well. Church's eventual appearance as The SaltWater Redneck does not occur as planned. Nothing really does.
Cliches aside, there's something at work in "The Peanut Butter Falcon," something eccentric and exuberant. Nilson and Schwartz's devotion to the details of Zac's world highlights Gottsagen's funny and intelligent performance, giving the film an authenticity it wouldn't otherwise have. The conversation about "representation" in cinema often excludes the disabled. Able-bodied actors play disabled characters all the time, and sometimes win Oscars for it. This is not to say that these aren't good or empathetic performances, but all you have to do is watch Gottsagen's performance to see what we are missing when we discount the complaints of the disabled community in re: representation. It is inconceivable to imagine an able-bodied "name" playing this role and bringing to it even half of what Gottsagen does naturally.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie" is a delicious pastry of a movie, a lighthearted fantasy in which a winsome heroine overcomes a sad childhood and grows up to bring cheer to the needful and joy to herself. You see it, and later when you think about it, you smile. Audrey Tautou, a fresh-faced waif who looks like she knows a secret and can't keep it, plays the title role, as a little girl who grows up starving for affection. Her father, a doctor, gives her no hugs or kisses and touches her only during checkups--which makes her heart beat so fast he thinks she is sickly. Her mother dies as the result of a successful suicide leap off the towers of Notre Dame, a statement which reveals less of the plot than you think it does.
Amelie grows up lonely and alone, a waitress in a corner bistro, until one day the death of Princess Diana changes everything. Yes, the shock of the news causes Amelie to drop a bottle cap, which jars loose a stone in the wall of her flat, which leads her to discover a rusty old box in which a long-ago boy hoarded his treasures. And in tracking down the man who was that boy, and returning his box, Amelie finds her life's work: She will make people happy. But not in any old way. So, she will amuse herself (and us) by devising the most extraordinary stratagems for bringing about their happiness.
I first began hearing about "Amelie" at the Cannes Film Festival, where there was a scandal when "Amelie" was not chosen for the Official Selection. "Not serious," sniffed the Very Serious authorities who decide these matters. The movie played in the commercial theaters of the back streets, where audiences vibrated with pleasure. It went on to win the audience awards at the Edinburgh, Toronto and Chicago film festivals.
Immediate satisfaction with a film that is all goodness and cheer--sassy, bright and whimsical, filmed with dazzling virtuosity, and set in Paris, the city we love when it sizzles and when it drizzles. Of course this is not a realistic modern Paris, and some critics have sniffed about that, too: It is clean, orderly, safe, colorful, has no social problems, and is peopled entirely by citizens who look like extras from "An American in Paris." This is the same Paris that produced Gigi and Inspector Clouseau. It never existed, but that's OK.
After discovering the box and bringing happiness to its owner, Amelie improvises other acts of kindness: painting word-pictures of a busy street for a blind man, for example, and pretending to find long-lost love letters to her concierge from her dead husband, who probably never mailed her so much as a lottery ticket. Then she meets Nino (the director Mathieu Kassovitz), who works indifferently in a porn shop and cares only for his hobby, which is to collect the photos people don't want from those automated photo booths and turn them into collages of failed facial expressions.
Amelie likes Nino so much that one day when she sees him in her cafe, she dissolves. Literally. Into a puddle of water. She wants Nino, but some pixie quirk prevents her from going about anything in a straightforward manner and success holds no bliss for her unless it comes about through serendipity. There must be times when Nino wonders if he is being blessed or stalked.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet has specialized in films of astonishing visual invention but, alas, impenetrable narratives. With "Amelie," he has shaken loose from his obsession with rust and clutter, and made a film so filled with light and air, it's like he took the cure. The film is filled with great individual shots and ideas. One of the best comes when Amelie stands high on the terrace of Montmartre and wonders how many people in Paris are having orgasms at that exact instant, and we see them, 15 in all, in a quick montage of hilarious happiness. It is this innocent sequence, plus an equally harmless childbirth scene, that has caused the MPAA to give the movie an undeserved R rating (in Norway it was approved for everyone over 11).
It is so hard to make a nimble, charming comedy. So hard to get the tone right and find actors who embody charm instead of impersonating it. It takes so much confidence to dance on the tightrope of whimsy. "Amelie" takes those chances, and gets away with them.