Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder’s Screenwriting Tips
(As told to Cameron Crowe):

1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

1934
Mauvaise graine
1942
The Major and the Minor
1943
Five Graves to Cairo


1944
Double Indemnity 94
[ Hard-boiled narration, light coming in through venitian blinds, a dame who’s “not fully covered”… This is noir alright, but with Billy Wilder’s cynical sense of humor offsetting things. Right from their first exchange, sparks are flying between Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

Ouch! Then it just gets hotter, scene after scene until… You wouldn’t want to get into this kind of deal because it can only end badly, then again, that very danger is part of the turn-on of a femme fatale! This is genius, from the B&W to the acting, the great lines (courtesy of Wilder and co-writer Raymond Chandler) and the music. Insurance fraud, the perfect murder, an intuitive boss who never has a match for his cigars, “a crazy story with a crazy twist”. Doesn’t get much better than this. ]


1945
The Lost Weekend 80
[ 1945’s Best Picture Oscar winner is an old-fashioned but nonetheless affecting portrait of alcoholism, desperation and self-destruction. It’s very melodramatic, writerly and “actorly”, too, and it’s hardly as raw a take on the subject as something like “Leaving Las Vegas”. But it still cuts through and gets to what feels like a truly honest place. As in every Wilder film, the storytelling is tight and the direction is masterful. Wilder manages to build suspense numerous times out of whether or not the guy will take a drink, the moody B&W cinematography adds to the sombre, almost noir-like feel of the piece, the use of theremin gives eerie echoes to the score and there are some truly clever visual compositions revolving around bottles and shot glasses. This isn’t quite “Double Indemnity” or “Sunset Blvd.”, but it’s a solid pit stop between the two. ]

1948
The Emperor Waltz
A Foreign Affair


1950
Sunset Blvd. 95
[ Part film noir and part Hollywood satire, this endlessly rewarding film is about the events that led to a homicide in a mansion on the titular road, as recounted by the dead victim! Played by the great William Holden, Joe Gillis is a struggling screenwriter who enters a bizarre relationship with half-mad has been silent film star Norma Desmond, unforgettably portrayed by Gloria Swanson. Gillis also entertains a flirtation with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a cute reader on the Paramount lot, but Norma has her claws too deep in him to allow her gigolo a chance at a normal life… Boasting exquisitely pulpy dialogue (and narration) and expressionistic B&W cinematography, “Sunset Blvd.” is truly one of the greats. ]


1951
Ace in the Hole 93
[ Kirk Douglas stars as a bullshit artist of a journalist who, after being fired from 11 big city newspapers (!), waltzes into Albuquerque, hustles himself a job at the local paper then bides his time, waiting for that one big story… Or actually, any little story that he can find an angle to make it appear to be big. I guess nothing ever changes, but it still feels like this film was way ahead of his time. Milking a story for all it’s worth might have been a dirty little secret for newspapermen back in the 1950s, but it’s even more common and extreme in this age of 24/7 cable news networks, where it’s all about capturing then holding on to audiences’ attention even though not that much is happening. The movie’s also a twisted joy because of the Western-style New Mexico setting, and then you gotta love the glee with which Douglas throws himself into this utterly amoral, misanthropic, bastardly character and the way he manipulates everybody around him, notably the crooked sheriff and especially the (bleached) blonde femme fatale – watch how he makes her smile disappear! But hey, she pays him back in full, leading to his final fall. “The best fall in movie history,” according to Guy Maddin, and he might be right, though I’m fond of the one by the Dude after he’s drugged by Jackie Treehorn. Anyway, “Ace in the Hole” is prime Wilder. ]

1953
Stalag 17


1954
Sabrina 77
[ “Once upon a time, on the north shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl on a large estate…” How can you not love a movie that starts with storybook narration? “Sabrina” must have felt old-fashioned even back in the day, but that’s part of its charm. The adorable Audrey Hepburn plays a chauffeur’s daughter who’s always lived in the shadows of luxury, invisible to the eyes of rich playboy William Holden. After spending 2 years in Paris, though, she returns transformed into an elegant and sophisticated woman and not only Holden but also his world-weary brother Humphrey Bogart are all over her. Who will win her heart? This is typical romantic fantasy stuff, but with grace and glamour absent from most of today’s movies. This is what Woody Allen calls a “champagne comedy”, where everything looks spectacular and everyone is well dressed and seemingly always drinking champagne. Silly stuff, but endlessly enjoyable. It’s about “throwing open a window and letting in la vie en rose…” ]

1955
The Seven Year Itch 69
[ Often when you watch older films like this, you’re simultaneously struck by how old-fashioned they are, say in the storytelling or in the way the protagonist keeps talking to himself (which may come from the play it’s adapted from), and by the risqué little things they still got away with. Every bit of sexiness, however subtle, seems a bit wilder (Wilder!) considering that this is a 1955 movie. “When it’s hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox.” Aww, Marilyn Monroe… There’s really only one like her, so bodacious and naive and flirty… No wonder Tom Ewell’s character feels tempted to go at it with her, even though he’s happily married. Well, he’s being an idiot even letting her into his apartment while the wife’s away, of course. If he really wanted to stay faithful, he’d know better and would avoid things like that. But it makes for amusing movie situations, with a whole lotta Marilyn. ]

1957
The Spirit of St. Louis
Love in the Afternoon
Witness for the Prosecution


1959
Some Like It Hot 94
[ This is the best comedy of all time according to the American Film Institute. That might be pushing it a bit (I’m partial to “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Producers” myself), but there’s no denying that this is an incredibly witty and enjoyable flick. It starts off like a gritty gangster film in prohibition era Chicago with car chases and shoot-outs and a raid on an illegal booze joint, but the tone lightens up considerably when the story shifts to Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians who escape all the surrounding mayhem by taking a gig in Florida… in an all-girl band! The back-and-forth between the two actors in drag is very amusing and supporting actress Marilyn Monroe? Zowie! Now that’s a woman! But she’s also got great comic timing, overflowing charm and a great singing voice to boot. ]


1960
The Apartment 90
[ Funny, charming and smart if old fashioned. Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine are adorable and I love that the ending is left open. ]

1961
One, Two, Three
1963
Irma la Douce
1964
Kiss Me, Stupid
1966
The Fortune Cookie
1970
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
1972
Avanti!
1974
The Front Page
1978
Fedora
1981
Buddy Buddy

Howard Hawks

“Three great scenes, no bad ones.”1926
The Road to Glory
Fig Leaves
1927
The Cradle Snatchers
Paid to Love
1928
A Girl in Every Port
Fazil
The Air Circus
1929
Trent’s Last Case
1930
The Dawn Patrol
1931
The Criminal Code
1932
Scarface 82
[ You know what’s awesome about these old studio directors like Hawks? Among other things, it’s how rich and varied their filmographies are. Nowadays, save for a Soderbergh or a Spielberg, filmmakers tend to make a movie every three or four years, and they don’t get out much of their comfort zone. Whereas in 1932 alone, Hawks made a motor-racing flick (“The Crowd Roars”), a romantic drama (“Tiger Shark”) and this here gangster classic. The wonderfully sleazy and brash Paul Muni stars as the eponymous badass, a real piece of work who machineguns his way to the top of the bootlegging racket, only to be brought down by his own oversized ego. The film is packed with rapid-fire hardboiled dialogue, hot dames and brilliantly crafted, surprisingly bold shoot-outs. “Scarface” is definitely ahead of its time, and its influence can be felt in nearly all the modern gangster films, from “The Godfather” to “The Departed” by the way of DePalma’s remake, natch. ]

The Crowd Roars
Tiger Shark
1933
Today We Live
1934
Twentieth Century
1935
Barbary Coast
1936
Ceiling Zero
The Road to Glory
Come and Get It

1938
Bringing Up Baby 44
[ I’m generally quite fond of old American movies, but I had much trouble sitting through this “classic” screwball comedy.. The humor seemed rather contrived to me and Katherine Hepburn’s manipulative loudmouth and Cary Grant’s stuffy nerd of a zoologist quickly grow obnoxious. I didn’t root for them to hook up, I just wanted them to shut up! The leopard’s pretty cool, though. ]

1939
Only Angels Have Wings

1940
His Girl Friday 81
[ Dense with rapid-fire dialogue and cigarette smoke, this screwball comedy is an epic battle of the wits between editor Cary Grant and his journalist (and ex-wife!) Rosalind Russell. The screenplay is spectacularly well written and the whole cast shines. ]

1941
Sergeant York
Ball of Fire
1943
Air Force

1944
To Have and Have Not 72
[ On the heels of “Casablanca”, here’s another movie in which Bogart plays an American (named Captain Morgan, like the rum) who doesn’t give a crap about helping the French resistance but winds up doing so anyway for the love of a woman. And what a woman! Lauren Bacall is overwhelmingly sexy, with her bedroom eyes and her sultry voice. “It’s even better when you help.” I also got into the male bonding stuff between Bogart and a drunkard friend, not unlike the character Dean Martin would later play in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo”. The plot itself is not very interesting, aping “Casablanca” too closely for its own good, but Bacall and Bogart are the stuff dreams are made of. ]


1946
The Big Sleep 91
[ review ]

1948
Red River
A Song is Born
1949
I Was a Male War Bride
1952
The Big Sky

1952
Monkey Business 44
[ Cary Grant plays an absent-minded chemist whose monkey-rejuvenating formula is inadvertently mixed into the lab’s water-cooler, turning him and his wife (Ginger Rogers) into crazy youths again. This is hardly one of Howard Hawks’ best, but I love Cary, I love Marilyn Monroe (playing a sexy secretary), and Lord knows I love monkeys! ]

1953
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 70
[ Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe are two showgirls who sail off to Paris looking for good times, gentlemen and, of course, diamonds (cause diamonds are a girl’s best friends). This is a bouncy, bubbly, sexy musical comedy, as light as air but fun fun fun. Viewed today, some of the sexual attitudes feel wildly old-fashioned, misogynistic even but hey…

“I might as well warn you, flattery will get you anywhere.”
“If we can’t empty his pockets between us, we’re not worthy of the name Woman.”
“I won’t let myself fall in love with a man who won’t trust me no matter what I might do…”
“He never wins an argument, does anything i ask, and has the money to do it with. How can I help falling in love with a man like that?”
“Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”
“I can be smart when I need to be.”
“Remember, honey, on your wedding day it’s alright to say yes.” ]

1955
Land of the Pharaohs


1959
Rio Bravo 95
[ review ]

1962
Hatari!
1963
Man’s Favorite Sport?
1965
Red Line 7000
1967
El Dorado
1970
Rio Lobo

Luc Besson

1983
Le Dernier combat 66
[ Besson’s first feature, like “Angel-A”, is in B&W, but it’s as quiet as “Angel-A” the later one would be talkative. Offering a stripped down vision of a post-apocalyptic future, it somewhat announces “Children of Men” more than 20 years ahead; there’s also something of the earlier “The Omega Man” to it. Besson already proves to be a brilliant visualist, with a knack for crafting badass action scenes – the fights between Pierre Jolivet and Jean Reno are nearly “Commando” great, and I love the early plane escape, too. His questionable sense of humor is also already at work, alas. ]

1985
Subway 69
[ If “Le Dernier combat” was the birth of artsy Besson, this is his commercial coming out. During the opening sequence, it’s almost as if you were watching a “Taxi” flick! Then, this isn’t technically a sci-fi movie, but the way the subway tunnels are shot is positively Ridley Scottian (i.e. à la “Alien”). Christophe Lambert is surprisingly cool in spite/because of his ridiculous hairdo, Isabelle Adjani is as beautiful as always (and pretty cool herself, especially in the dinner scene) and the supporting players (Jean Reno, Jean-Pierre Bacri, etc.) are fun too. Add lotsa ’80s music, lotsa chases… Good times. ]

1988
Le Grand bleu 75
[ While the writing is not as sharp as it could have been, this is a truly beautiful film anyway. “Le Grand bleu” takes us around the world, from Greece to France, South America and Italy, as we follow the adventures of two free divers who have known each other since childhood. Jean-Marc Barr has an almost otherworldly presence here, and it’s interesting how the relationship between Rosanna Arquette and him doesn’t become a love triangle because of another woman (or man), but because of a dolphin! The hypnotic underwater cinematography and the dreamy Eric Serra music combine to make this into a sometimes almost impressionistic watch. I also got a kick out of Jean Reno as the rowdy Enzo, equal parts friend and rival to Barr’s character. ]

1990
Nikita 48
[ I hated this when I first saw it some ten years ago, and I ‘m still not a big fan, even though I like most other Besson movies. His usual visual prowess is still evident, the action scenes are pretty damn cool (especially when they involve Jean Reno’s “nettoyeur”!) and the relationship stuff is okay, but at the same time this can be such a grating movie. For one, I can’t stand Anne Parillaud; how the hell did her bloody awful acting win her the César? The general outline of a convicted murderer being recruited by the government to become an assassin is potent but, for my money, the American remake develops it into a more enjoyable movie. Or maybe I just find Bridget Fonda so much more compelling? ]

1991
Atlantis

1994
Léon 91
[ review ]

1997
The Fifth Element 91
[ 1997 review ]
[ 2017 review on Extra Beurre ]

1998
The Messenger

2006
Angel-A 81
[ review ]

 

2007
Arthur et les Minimoys 62
[ This starts out like the crappiest kiddie flick, with trite family melodrama surrounding a young boy (Freddie Highmore, really awful here) whose parents are never there, whose beloved grandfather has mysteriously disappeared and whose grandma (Mia Farrow embarrassing herself) has so many debts she’s about to lose the house they live in. Fortunately, the human portion of the story is relatively brief and once we get into the animated adventure, the movie is quite fun. I won’t bore you with the details of how little Arthur becomes even littler and enters the grass-level world of the Minimoys. In fact, the film should have scrapped the bookends and focused only on the fantastic quest Arthur embarks on, which takes him through various perils and all the way to the lair of the evil ‘M’. Borrowing from everything from the legend of King Arthur to “Lord of the Rings”, “Star Wars”, “The Matrix Revolutions” and, naturally, Besson’s own “The Fifth Element”, down to the influence of European bande dessinée and the badass redheaded female warrior! I found the design of the Minimoys and their world imaginative, I liked the colourful animation style and I was glad to see that Besson’s skill at crafting exciting action scenes is still apparent even in cartoon form. ]

2009
Arthur et la vengeance de Maltazard

2010
Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec

Arthur 3: la guerre des deux mondes

2011
The Lady

2013
The Family

2014
Lucy 82
[ “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” asks Scarlett Johansson in voice-over as we see a prehistoric woman drinking water from a river. Cut to sped-up images of modern-day Taiwan, where we meet Lucy, Johansson’s character, as she’s tricked into delivering a mysterious briefcase to a certain Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). This early sequence is very suspenseful, in part because director Luc Besson cleverly intercuts image of a mouse approaching a trap and of a leopard stalking his prey. Soon enough, we’re introduced to CPH4, a drug that enhances intelligence, among other things. There are many interesting things that are said throughout the film about intelligence, which may not all be profound or even always make sense, but on a moment-to-moment basis at least, the ideas in Besson’s screenplay are stimulating, especially when they’re expressed by Morgan Freeman. This also leads to more use of intercut images and montage, which makes for a very visually dynamic film – cinematographer Thierry Arbogast and editor Julien Rey both do killer work here. And it’s not all lectures and documentary footage, of course: “Lucy” encompasses sci-fi and action movie elements, while also acting as a super-hero movie of sorts. Scarlett Johansson gets to be badass while also having some surprisingly emotional moments. Plus she has an opportunity to embrace her somewhat otherwordly quality, since Lucy grows increasingly post-human throughout the movie, which builds up to a sequence that calls to mind “2001” or “The Tree of Life”… All in a flick that also packs preposterous twists, a car chase and shoot-outs! “Lucy” is a pretty crazy ride that could easily be dismissed or mocked… I loved every minute. ]

Alfonso Cuarón

 

1991
Sólo con tu pareja 38
[ The well-worn tale of a womanizer uneasily juggling various female conquests, vaudeville-style, Cuarón’s first Mexican sex comedy comes off as contrived and phony as his later “Y tu mamá también” would be natural and heartfelt. The characters are dull, almost every gag falls flat and the irreverent handling of AIDS is rather ill-thought. Still, it has a not unenjoyable breezy feel, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s already got a seemingly effortlessly virtuoso way with light and color, and actress Claudia Ramírez is absolutely gorgeous. You might as well watch it without subtitles, take in the beauty of the visuals and pretend the plot and dialogue aren’t so dumb! ]

 

1995
A Little Princess 80
[ In retrospect, after watching this, it’s obvious why Cuarón was hired to direct a Harry Potter episode. What a magical movie! It tells of how “all girls are princesses”, of the special bond between a father and a daughter and of the power of imagination, but it also deals with war, death, poverty, and even the occasional necessity to mistrust rules and authority. With splendid craftsmanship all around and a luminous performance from young Liesel Matthews, this made me cry like a little princess! ]

 

1998
Great Expectations 76
[ I have no idea why I didn’t see this Dickens adaptation before – it’s as good a contemporized classic rom-com as “Cruel Intentions” and like that film, it also features a great soundtrack (Tori Amos, Pulp, Iggy Pop). It also offers further evidence of Cuarón and Lubezki’s genius visual sense, with many casually dazzling long takes and lots of bright greens, like in “A Little Princess”. It also shares with the latter some thematic elements, notably class divisions and the redemptive effect of art (here painting instead of storytelling). There’s still magic at work as well, but of a more mature, sensual kind. Speaking of which, you get to see Gwyneth Paltrow as the ultimate cock tease and whoa… The nudie scenes aren’t as graphic as those in “Y tu mamá también”, obviously, but they’re pretty damn erotic all the same! As the poor fool in love, Ethan Hawke does good in between Before Sun’s, and he and Paltrow are supported by such greats as De Niro as an escaped convict and Anne Bancroft as a kooky aristocrat. ]

2002
Y tu mamá también 91
[ review ]

 

2004
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 87
[ review ]

 

2006
Children of Men 92
[ review ]

2006
Parc Monceau 61
[ Cuarón’s contrinution to “Paris, je t’aime” is, what else, an uninterrupted five minute take of the ever scrumptious Ludivine Sagnier walking down a street with Nick Nolte, who’s mumbling in a mishmash of French and English. ]

2013
Gravity 90
[ review ]

Alejandro González Iñárritu

2001
Amores Perros 91
[ It opens with a stunningly shot car chase that culminates in a brutal accident. The narrative then shifts around back and forth in time following the various people involved in the car crash. There’s Octavio, a young man who puts his Rotweiler into dog fights to raise money to get away with the abused wife of his no-good brother; Valeria, a supermodel crippled in the accident who takes out her frustrations on her lover; and El Chivo, a shaggy hitman who hasn’t talked to his daughter for twenty years. The title translates as “love’s a bitch” and it sure is, for these characters at least. The film is often violent and emotionally ambiguous, amoral even, but that’s because it’s an honest (and intense like a mofo!) look at how cruel life can be. The cast is great (especially the rivetingly charismatic Gael Garcia Bernal) and the cinematography, score and editing are all top notch. This is a tremendous debut for González Iñárritu. ]

Powder Keg 77
[ In this episode of the online BMW shorts series “The Hire”, Clive Owen is trying to drive a wounded war photographer (Stellan Skarsgård) across the border. The centerpiece is another riveting car chase, with more of González Iñárritu’s brand of nervy camerawork and editing, plus a bit of political subtext. Good stuff. ]

2002
11’09″01 – segment “Mexico” 85
[ 11 filmmakers, from 11 countries, making 11 films, each 11 minute 9 seconds and 1 image long and offering a different look at the events that occurred on September 11th 2001. The segments range from touching (Mira Nair’s real-life melodrama) to pretentious (Claude Lelouch’s navel-gazing break-up story), clever (Sean Penn’s poetic slice-of-life) to retarded (Shohehi Imamura‘s half-assed symbolism), cute (Samira Makhmalbaf’s kids-say-the-darnest-things episode) to heavy (Ken Loach’s reminder of the other 9/11, the 1973 US-backed coup in Chile that left 30,000 civilians dead), fun (Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charming hunt-for-Bin-Laden comedy) to tedious (Danis Tanovic’s slow yarn). There are also two digressions into the Middle-East situation, one pro-Israel (a show-off but inconsequential one-take by Amos Gitai) and one pro-Palestine (the cheesy “magical realism” of Youssef Chahine). And finally there’s the pièce de résistance, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s riveting impressionistic take on that tragic New York morning, Revolution #9-style. The overall picture is uneven, but the Mexican director’s 11 minute alone makes “11’09″01” worth seeing. ]

2003
21 grams 53
[ review ]

2006
Babel 90
[ This is the latest of González Iñárritu’s series of films in which unrelated characters are linked by a road accident, here involving a tourist bus in the Moroccan desert and a stray bullet. I’m starting to feel that the multi-threaded, jangled-chronology thing has not only lost its originality and surprise value, it kind of undermines the potency of each individual story. Still, out of the recent outflow of such pictures, which includes “Crash” and “Syriana”, this is by far the most effective. It also surpasses the two aforementioned titles in the depiction of a post-9/11 world of heightened racial tensions and political turmoil, the all too actual issues of “illegal” Mexicans in the US and of violence (and the repression of such) in the Middle East being very movingly dramatized. And then there’s the kinky Japanese teen comedy, which completes the film thematically by, um… Your guess is as good as mine! Throwing a drastically different in tone and style storyline about a horny deaf-mute schoolgirl who enjoys flashing her bush (!) into a harrowing drama doesn’t make any sense to me but on its own, that part of the film is a lot of trippy fun and ultimately moving, too. All in all, this is a return to the brilliance of “Amores Perros” after the muddled “21 grams”. ]

2010
Biutiful 91
[ In this first feature made without the collaboration of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu refreshingly breaks away from the formula of his three previous movies by going for a straightforward narrative, centred on a single main character, whose story is told in chronological order (save for the bookend scenes) and is set entirely in one location, Barcelona. Not the warm, picturesque, romantic Spanish city seen in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, but what seems like the filthiest, poorest corners of it, where illegal immigrant workers struggle to survive. And while protagonist Uxbal happens to be played by the male lead of the aforementioned Woody Allen flick, Javier Bardem is not playing a suave artist here, but a morose bastard haunted by death: that of the departed souls he’s mysteriously able to communicate with, that of the father he never knew, and his own imminent death from cancer, which scares the piss out of him because he can’t accept the idea of leaving his young children on their own in this cruel, merciless world. González Iñárritu outdoes himself here, crafting a visually masterful, immensely affecting film full of humanity, urgency and raw emotion. Bardem delivers an astonishing performance, one of his best ever (which is saying a lot), and he’s surrounded by a rich tapestry of supporting characters, including Maricel Álvarez as his mentally unstable on-and-off wife, Hanaa Bouchaib as his daughter, Guillermo Estrella as his son, Eduard Fernández as his brother, plus a whole bunch of African and Chinese immigrants, every one of which contributes to making the ensemble so effective. There are many spectacular, disturbing and otherwise striking scenes, but the most memorable ones might actually be the most intimate, simple ones. Definitely one of the year’s crowning achievements. ]

2014
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 94
[ “How did we end up here? This place is horrible. Smells like balls. We don’t belong in this shithole.” Thus speaks Birdman, or at least a version of that comic book character whose gravelly voice constantly echoes in the head of the actor who played him on the big screen, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton who, as Tim Burton’s Batman, must know a thing or two about being haunted by a superhero role). It often feels like we in the audience are also in Thomson’s head, seeing the world through his distorted point of view. I mean, he doesn’t actually have superpowers in real life, does he? The film takes place during the week of previews leading to the opening night of a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love written, produced and directed by Thomson, who also stars in it. Clearly, he intends to make a big statement with this play, to finally be taken seriously as more than a guy who used to run around in tights in a lucrative movie franchise. According to his inner Birdman voice, this is all an excuse for a lot of “talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit”, but that is not true of the film Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu cowrote and directed. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” is full of humor and energy and bravado, it’s a hyperkinetic backstage yarn with surreal overtones not unlike “Black Swan”. Almost entirely shot in a series of stunning long takes set to a percussive score by Antonio Sánchez, “Birdman” could also be described as a feature-length version of the warehouse scene in “Punch-Drunk Love” crossed with the TV station sequence in “Magnolia”. It’s a veritable technical tour de force the way cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera relentlessly wanders around the sets, never missing a beat. Equally impressive is the way all the actors not only hit their marks, but also deliver stellar performances. There’s been a lot of hype about how great Michael Keaton is in the lead and he is, but he often comes close to having the film stolen away from him by Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough and especially Emma Stone. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis does wonderful work here! Everyone in the cast is amazing, really, passionately bringing the their characters to vibrant life and biting into the snappy dialogue, much of it is about acting itself, an insane profession if there ever was one. The screenplay is hardly subtle, in fact, it’s very on the nose and in your face, but I loved it all the same. This is absolutely electrifying filmmaking, a cast and crew firing on all cylinders, all over Broadway and in one particularly memorable scene, right on Times Square! It’s easily the best film of Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu’s career so far. I almost want to say it’s a masterpiece, but let’s wait a few years, all right? ]

2015
The Revenant 93
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]

Anthony Minghella

1991
Truly Madly Deeply 66
[ This BBC TV movie totally belongs to Juliet Stevenson, endlessly heartbreaking and adorable as a grieving woman whose life is put in even more turmoil when her dead husband (the great Alan Rickman) mysteriously returns. This is a simple little sentimental film not unlike, say, “Ghost”, but Minghella and his cast infuse it with plenty of heart and wit. ]

1993
Mr. Wonderful

1996
The English Patient 57
[ This won 9 Oscars? Sure, it’s a lush, classy, epic production, but it’s not that great. Pretty nurse Juliette Binoche cares for burnt, dying Ralph Fiennes, who we see in flashbacks exploring the North African desert before the war and macking on lovely Kristin Scott Thomas while hubby Colin Firth is away. I guess I can see what some people respond to here, but the storytelling felt ponderous to me and Fiennes’ character is a dick; worse, he’s boring. On the other hand, I dug Willem Dafoe’s badass Monte Cristo-style avenger from Montreal (“Chabot, north of Laurier” – we’re almost neighbours!) and Naveen Andrews’ bomb-defusing Sikh loverboy – wish we’d seen more of them. ]

1999
The Talented Mr. Ripley 91
[ review ]

2003
Cold Mountain 90
[ review ]

2006
Breaking and Entering 52
[ This one really takes its time getting going, but you get a sense that you’re in good hands. The way London is portrayed is striking in an understated way, somewhere between plain realism and some sort of dystopian the-future-is-now vibe. Solid cast: Jude Law seems to be playing a dick, Robin Wright’s basically playing the same character as in “Unbreakable”, Martin Freeman is the amusing sidekick, Juliette Binoche is the long-suffering immigrant widow and mother to a teenage thief who doubles as a Parkour pro (!). My fave, though, might be Vera Farmiga’s kooky hooker, heh. Movie’s quite slow, and heavy, and it relies on too many coincidences and flimsy motivations… Still, good hands. Mostly. ]

Lucky McKee

2003
May 87
[ Creepy, gory, fucked up? Oh yeah, but more than anything this is sad sad sad. From the first time you see her, your heart aches for little May. Sheltered by her cold mother, ostracised by other kids because she’s “weird”, friendless but for a porcelain doll… What’s saddest of all is that she’s still full of love and hope, especially after she meets Adam. Suddenly everything is sweet and funny and sexy… But you just know this can’t end well, yet you can’t look away. Between the confident visual style, greatish music cues and Angela Bettis’s amazing performance, and Anna Faris hot as hell as May’s lesbian coworker (“Do you like pussy… cats?”), it’s all the more disconcerting that this movie barely saw a release. Now that it’s out on DVD, hopefully it can become the cult film it should be, like “Carrie” or “Audition”. ]2006
sick girl 80
[ More creepy-sad Angela Bettis, more great music (including Plywood ¾’s L’amour 220 volts), more lesbians… Plus a whole lotta bugs! McKee describes his episode of Masters of Horror as “a romantic-comedy version of THE FLY,” and it’s as funny weird awesome as it sounds. Especially enjoyable is Misty Mundae, surprisingly affecting in her first major non-erotic role as a hippie artist chick who grows insect-like, falling ear and all. ]

The Woods 77
[ review ]

2008
Red
[ This was released straight to DVD, I’ve yet to see it at one of my local video stores but I’ll keep my eyes open. ]

David Cronenberg

1975
Shivers 62
[ In an apartment complex on Île-des-Soeurs, a professor strangles a schoolgirl to death, rips off her clothes, cuts her belly open and pours acid in it. Then he slits his own throat. Welcome into David Cronenberg’s first “commercial” movie! This is a perverse twist on zombie movies, with a bleak intellectual twist… but mostly perverse. The protagonist is a doctor who has to violently fight off tenants of the building who’ve been infected by parasites that are a “combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease that will hopefully turn the world into one beautiful mindless orgy.” Cue the gore and titties! ]

1977
Rabid 79
[ The “Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery” takes in a badly injured biker chick (porno star Marilyn Chambers, surprisingly affecting), who wakes up from her coma as a sex-crazed mutant chick with a sphincter/phallus/claw in her armpit that spawns a rabies epidemic across Montreal! It’s pretty amazing how Cronenberg manages to turn you on and creep you out, often at the same time. This is pure exploitation, with a chaser of twisted humor, not unlike a Stephen King novella. Also, the introduction of martial law, as the army takes over the suddenly chaotic Montreal, makes for a bizarre allegory of the October 1970 FLQ crisis. “Rabid” is all kinds of fucked up, and I love it. ]

1979
Fast Company 39
[ This is by far the least distinctive movie Cronenberg has ever made – it’s his “Boxcar Bertha” or “Sugarland Express”. Don’t expect any bizarre sex, gore or psychologically twisted characters, this is just one of those ’70s car movies, nothing more nothing less. You got a bunch of drag racers trying to be badass, evil corporate shills, redneck comic relief, hotties showing their boobies, and a great recurring cock-rock theme song. Nothing very memorable, but it’s a watchable enough diversion on a hot summer evening while you’re having a couple of brewskies. ]

The Brood 46
[ Psychoplasmics, “fucked-up mommies”, therapy sessions and deformed brat attacks uneasily coexist in this thoroughly freaky internal horror show. I like the Bernard Herrmann-like score and the more over the top moments are memorable, but I had difficulty accepting the preposterous plot and the unpleasant subtext that comes with it. ]

1981
Scanners 68
[ Scanners can do Jedi mind-tricks, to the extreme: their Force will blow your mind, literally! The story follows a “new hope” who’s mentored by an Obi-wan type to go up against some kind of Darth Scanner… But this isn’t an action-packed space opera, it’s a more low-key, disturbing and cerebral affair, as you would expect from Cronenberg. There’s a little too much exposition, the acting is uneven and the internal logic is doubtful, but the film is commanding visually and the scanning scenes are truly intense. ]

1983
Videodrome 81
[ “Grotesque, as promised.”
James Woods is a sleazy bastard who’s looking for sexual and violent content for his TV station. He finds it in “Videodrome”, a plotless torture and murder show. He wants to buy it and his girl Deborah Harry (Blondie!) wants to audition for it… But what if it’s for real?
“Your reality is already half video hallucination. If you’re not careful, it will become total hallucination.”
Kinky, gory but mostly philosophical, Cronenberg’s movie is way ahead of its time. It suggests that video is “the next phase in the evolution of Man as a technological animal” and that “public life on television is more real than private life in the flesh”, which has proved to be remarkably prescient in this era of reality TV and the Internet. Your body will die eventually, but you’ll live on forever in reruns, Google cached pages and video hallucinations… ]

The Dead Zone 90
[ It starts off as a romantic melodrama: boy and girl fall in love, boy gets into an accident, spends 5 years in a coma and, when he finally wakes up, finds out that girl has moved on and married someone else. Then BOOM! boy grabs the nurse’s arm and starts rambling about vivid visions of the past, the present and… the future. This Stephen King adaptation, while not quite as brilliant as the book, is still a masterfully crafted supernatural thriller. It’s also kind of a super-hero origin, “with great power comes great responsibility” story. There’s a definite “Taxi Driver” thing going on as well, with the protagonist (intensely played by Christopher Walken) wanting to assassinate the politician for whom the woman he loves volunteers. ]

1986
The Fly 91
[ Cronenberg’s biggest hit thrives on the chemistry between dweeby scientist Jeff Goldblum and no-nonsense journalist Geena Davis. For a while, this is a wonderfully ’80s sci-fi comedy, not unlike “Weird Science” or “Back to the Future”, at least until that baboon is turned inside out. Then things get… weird. Goldblum teleports himself and, unbeknownst to him, a fly. He becomes all Spider-Man like, with superhuman strength and the ability to stick to walls… But it soon becomes clear that he’s less super-hero than super-villain… In fact, he’s mostly a self-destructive madman. I hadn’t seen the film since when I was a kid yet still vividly remembered the wicked gory creature FX, but what really hit me now is how this is as much a romantic tragedy as a horror flick. ]

1988
Dead Ringers 44
[ Sex, identity, body issues… This is Cronenberg alright, but only thematically. Stylistically, this is curiously flat. Genevieve Bujold’s “crazy” actress (is there any other kind?) is engaging, but Jeremy Irons’ double performance as twin gynecologists who are both laying her didn’t impress me all that much. It’s not that Irons isn’t good (he is), but his character(s) arc is obtuse and not very compelling. Drugs are bad, m’kay. ]

1991
Naked Lunch 53
[ Peter Weller rubs yellow powder on a cockroach’s talking asshole, who proceeds to tell him to kill his wife, then… Well, as the protagonist says early on, “exterminate all rational thought”. This in an odd one, even by Cronenberg standards. I like the noir/Kafka touches, the most surreal stuff is amusingly grotesque and it’s intriguing how the film incorporates both excerpts from the novel and elements from Burroughs’ life as a gay drug addicted writer. But the movie can also be self-indulgent… I dig weird stuff when it’s balanced with involving story and characters, not just weirdness for weirdness’ sake. ]

1993
M. Butterfly
Not on DVD yet!

1996
Crash 65
[ What the hell do filmmakers see in James Spader? Slimy yuppies are unappealing anyway, but when you cast Spader in the part, it adds this whole other layer of dull glibness. In this middle installment of his trilogy of playing perverted oddballs (which is book-ended by “sex, lies, and videotape” and “Secretary”), Spader gets involved with a group of people who get off on watching or having car accidents, going as far as recreating the fatal crash of James Dean. “Crash” alternates between mechanical sex scenes and erotic car chases/wrecks, effectively mirroring how Hollywood is generally better at showing destruction than lovemaking. Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette get to act all horny and kinda nuts, but their characters are never fully developed. The most interesting presence in the film is undeniably Elias Koteas, oozing sexual tension and menace, and making Spader seem even more bland. While thematically interesting, visually masterful and boasting a great sound mix, Cronenberg’s movie is ultimately a bit too aimless, with too much fucking and not enough ideas to back them in the long run. ]

1999
eXistenZ 86
[ “Right now, we need to stop… so we can have an intimate moment together.”
I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this until now (thanks, CBC Late Night Movie). In fact, I really need to catch up to the bulk of Cronenberg’s oeuvre. Anyway, you can tell I really enjoyed this here “eXistenZ”. Love how deadpan cool Jennifer Jason Leigh is, how Jude Law is cast as a “nerd”, how video games are turned into some creepy (creepier?) zombie mind-trip, the matter-of-fact way the sci-fi elements pop up (that gun, that phone, the bio-ports, etc.). Love the offbeat sense of humor, Willem Dafoe’s weirdo mechanic, the psychosexual subtext (it’s basically all about Jude Law’s fear of being penetrated!), the sudden bursts of violence, Don McKellar’s unlikely hair and accent, the very self-referential post-modernism of the ending… “eXistenZ” is a metaphor for the nature of, well, existence, in marvellous synchronicity with the take on virtual reality displayed in “The Matrix”, which also came out in April 1999. I love it. ]

2002
Spider 37
[ Ralph Fiennes mumbles incoherently for 98 minutes while having flashbacks of his childhood with mum (Miranda Richardson), dad (Gabriel Byrne) and the “cheap tart” (Miranda Richardson again) that came between them. The end. I love Cronenberg, his more artsy-fartsy stuff not so much. ]

2005
A History of Violence 93
[ review ]

2007
Eastern Promises 90
[ review ] / [ interview ]


2011
A Dangerous Method 62
[ Thank God for Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel! If it wasn’t for these three compelling screen presences, “A Dangerous Method” might have been a total letdown. An adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” which fails to make us forget about its stage origins, this is one of Cronenberg’s most formally conventional pictures. An elegant period piece, unavoidably talkative considering that its protagonists are psychoanalysts, it deals with a lot of fascinating, thought-provoking, still provocative a hundred years later ideas. There’s also something potent and somewhat amusing about the fact that the aforementioned psychoanalysts are all neurotic, more or less repressed perverts… But save for a few rare moments when the darker, more twisted aspects of this psychosexual drama are depicted visually, the film never really takes off; it also sometimes feels oddly disjointed. And then there’s Keira Knightley, who indulges in over-the-top scenery-chewing as the patient at the heart of the story, contorting her face, pushing her jaw forward, crying, laughing and shaking like she’s playing a possessed woman in an exorcism B-movie. That being said, I would still marginally recommend the film just to see Fassbender as Carl Jung, Mortensen as Sigmund Freud and Cassel as Otto Gross. Again, thank God for those guys! ]

2012
Cosmopolis 92
[ Now, this is what I call visionnary sci-fi – even though the bulk of the film is made up of scenes of people sitting and talking in a car. I mean, that’s the future: not spaceships, but the back of a stretch limousine filled with touch screens, where a twentysomething billionaire does business with various associates en route while, outside the limo’s bulletproof windows, the world is in chaos. Even though it’s based on a 2003 Don DeLillo novel that predates the Occupy Wall Street movement, Cosmopolis captures the current zeitgeist, what with its protagonist being very much the 1% and the people protesting in the streets of New York he’s being driven through or directly assaulting him embodying the 99%. Jam-packed with fascinating, brilliantly worded, often downright philosophical dialogue about contemporary economics and capitalism as well as life in the 21st century in general, Cosmopolis is also a darkly satirical, ultimately oddly moving character study of a not only functionnal but spectacularly successful sociopath. As such, it reminded me somewhat of American Psycho and, as hard as it may be to believe, Robert Pattinson’s performance is nearly as riveting as Christian Bale’s was in that movie. Inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, which itself borrowed elements from Homer’s Odyssey, DeLillo’s tale feature a succession of memorable figures whom Pattison’s character encounters during his journey, played in the film by an impressive cast that includes Sarah Gadon, Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Emily Hampshire, Samantha Morton, Mathieu Amalric, Gouchy Boy, Patricia McKensie, George Touliatos and Paul Giamatti – not to mention Kevin Durand, who’s simply awesome as Pattinson’s bodyguard. As mentionned, the majority of the action takes place in a limo, yet director David Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky manage to make Cosmopolis into a consistently visually stimulating experience thanks to clever, inventive framing and shot composition… And fear not, Cronenberg fans, there are still some startling bursts of sex and violence in his latest feature. All the same, it’s the words and the ideas that fill Cosmopolis that prove to be the most thrillingly provocative thing about it. I can’t begin to understand why the Cannes Film Festival jury ridiculously overlooked this truly amazing film. ]

2014
Maps to the Stars 19
[ I love David Cronenberg. And not just because of his early stuff. In the last 10 years, I put three of his films on my year-end Top Ten, namely “Cosmopolis”, “Eastern Promises” and “A History of Violence”, the latter at #1, no less. So it brings me no pleasure to write that “Maps to the Stars” might be the worst thing he’s ever made. Here’s a pretentious, contrived, disjointed picture filled with endless forced dialogue and preposterous situations. I guess screenwriter Bruce Wagner is to blame for most of that, but Cronenberg has to take some responsibility for how visually unappealing, sluggishly paced and tone-deaf the movie is. Ostensibly about Hollywood, as the heavy-handed name-dropping of real-life actors, directors and producers constantly reminds us, “Maps to the the Stars” never seems to be sure whether it’s a (bad) satire or a (bad) melodrama. We meet an obnoxious child star (Evan Bird), his mother and manager (Olivia Williams) and his father (John Cusack), a therapist whose patients include a neurotic hasbeen actress (Julianne Moore) who just hired a new assistant (Mia Wasikowska) that happens to have a connection to the child actor’s family… Add a lot of references to incest, fire and hallucinations and you’ll have a pretty close idea of what we’re dealing with here. Lots of fucked up showbiz people fucking up some more, basically. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing: a few days before I saw “Maps to the Stars”, I saw “Birdman”, which is also about fucked up showbiz people, but which manages to make them fascinating and hilarious instead of the boring, unfunny caricatures we’re stuck with here. Plus, compared to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterpiece, Cronenberg’s film feels all the more lame, labored and lifeless. I guess I should mention that it’s not entirely bad… Some of the performances are good, Julianne Moore’s notably. But hardly enough to make up for how flawed a picture this is. ]

J.J. Abrams

2001
Alias : “Truth Be Told” 91
[ This is hardly the first series about espionage and international intrigue, but if feels fresher, edgier and smarter than the genre has in a long time. Or maybe I’m just blinded by my schoolboy crush on Jennifer Garner. Grad student by day, CIA spy by night, Garner’s Sydney is one sexy badass cool mama! Garner goes through so many looks, moods and dimensions in each show that it looks like an actor’s whole lifetime achievement reel. And scratch what I said about being blinded by love, by the end of the pilot there’s already been more unexpected twists, kick ass action and emotional nuances than in all the Bond flicks put together. Scene to scene, the thrills never stop. You get a throwaway 2 minute beat in the middle of an episode that’s more effective than most $100M Hollywood blockbusters, and then the suspense and excitement just keeps on building. ]

2002
Alias: “Almost Thirty Years” 89
[ The first season’s riveting climax. The finale is full of revelations, breakthroughs and torture (!), nicely mirroring the pilot, and the cliff-hanger is IN-SA-NE. ]

2003
Alias: “The Telling” 91
[ The best damn episode of the series. 30 hours of continuity finally come together in an action-thriller overload of twists, climaxes and revelations. The last act is pure genius, from the Hitchcock-brilliant cellphone scene to the “Kill Bill”-ruthless catfight to the David Lynchesque mind-fuck of a cliffhanger… Too bad the show was never this good after this, as Abrams more or less abandoned “Alias” to go create:

2004
Lost: “Pilot part 1 & 2” 90
[ I haven’t watched any more of the series (yet), but this two-part opener on its own is, like “Alias” at its best, better than almost every movie. I mean, GodDAMN! Right from the opening minutes, it grabs you by the throat, with the aftermath of a plane crash. That first scene, plus the flashbacks to right before that are peppered through the pilot, are action filmmaking as visceral as it gets. It makes “Alive”, “Fearless” and “Cast Away” look like after-school specials! The characterizations are quick but efficient and the cast if instantly compelling, from the Hobbit junkie to the Harry Knowlesesque “lardo”, the pregnant chick, the Asian couple, the Indian tech guy, the bimbo and her hunky brother, the black father and son, the prisoner babe and especially the doctor dude. Greatest thing is that the disaster/survival stuff is only the beginning, as creepy creatures roam the “deserted” island where the plane crashed… ]

2006
Mission: Impossible III 67
[ review ]

2009
Star Trek 54
[ review ]


2011
Super 8 34
[ review ]

2013
Star Trek Into Darkness 55
[ I like that this sequel begins in media res, as our heroes are on a mission to save a strange planet from a volcano that is about to erupt. And right away, it’s fun to reunite with the winning cast J.J. Abrams put together in the first film: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as McCoy, John Cho as Sulu, Simon Pegg as Scotty and Anton Yelchin as Chekov. Back on Earth, a distruntled operative played by Benedict Cumberbatch conduct a series of terrorist attacks on Starfleet, which notably leave someone close to Kirk dead. Fueled by revenge, our Captain embarks on a new mission that is deemed morally wrong and unacceptably dangerous by members of his own crew. Worse, it could lead to all-out war with the Klingons, on whose homeworld Cumberbatch is hiding… What follows is a somewhat gripping sci-fi adventure, with some appealing visuals, pretty great special effects and intense if sometimes rather confusing action scenes. What it generally lacks is wit and humor, you know, a sense of fun. Watching this movie after seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy” (twice!), I can’t help but find that it suffers by comparison, not unlike how I found that the original was nowhere near as thrilling as “Starship Troopers”. ]

2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens 94
[ Reviewed on Extra Beurre ]