À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard) 91
[ review ]
Apur Sansar (Satyajit Ray)
North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock) 75
[ review ]
Jungfrukällan (Ingmar Bergman )
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
Touch of Evil (Orson Welles) 96
[ Charlton Heston stars as a Mexican (!) cop in a border town who must deal with local gangsters, the disappearance of his wife (Janet Leigh) and a racist, corrupted American police chief played with sleazy bravado by a morbidly obese Orson Welles, who also wrote and directed this powerful, morally ambiguous film noir. Masterful direction, solid performances, gorgeous black & white cinematography and an engrossing plot: this is classic moviemaking at its finest. ]
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock) 100
[ review ]
Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais)
Les 400 coups (François Truffaut) 58
[ Saw this back in film school and thought it was pretty blah. Little brat acts up, whines, wanders around, ends up on the beach by the sea, FIN. I should probably give this another spin before making a final verdict. ]
Smultronstället (Ingmar Bergman)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati)
Det Sjunde inseglet (Ingmar Bergman)
Le Notti di Cabiria (Federico Fellini)
Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (Robert Bresson)
The Searchers (John Ford) 64
[ John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a man on a mission. After Comanches massacre his kin and kidnap his young niece, he goes out after them and nothing will stop him. Some have accused the film of being racist, but I don’t think so. John Wayne’s character certainly hates “Injuns”, but the film doesn’t necessarily approve of it. He’s clearly drawn as an anti-hero, an obsessed man who will get the girl away from the Comanches even if that means he has to kill her. Wayne is riveting in the role, which makes up for some of the weak supporting cast, lame comic relief and the staged feeling of many of the scenes. I don’t reckon this really is one of the great Westerns, but Wayne’s performance is a must-see. ]
Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)
The Night of the Hunter ( Charles Laughton)
Ordet (Carl T. Dreyer)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
East of Eden (Elia Kazan) 66
[ I read the book for a college class and adored it, one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever read. Then I rented the film and couldn’t help but be sooooo disappointed… It basically skips over the first 3/4 and just hovers over the last part with the grown-up sons and the prostitute mother… I’ll have to give it another shot, I’m probably underselling it. ]
Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock) 95
[ Another great James Stewart film but in quite a different register. Stewart plays a wheelchair-bound magazine photographer who fights boredom by looking out the window into the apartments of his neighbours: the newlyweds, the sexy ballet dancer, the lonely single woman, the pianist… the murderer? This makes for one of the most voyeuristic and suspenseful films Alfred Hitchcock ever directed. “Rear Window” is packed with virtuoso visual storytelling, managing to remain absolutely engrossing even though we never leave Stewart’s tiny little apartment. It doesn’t hurt that his girlfriend is played by the most beautiful woman in the world, Grace Kelly, who never looked better than in this movie. That first close-up of her when she bends to kiss Stewart would make anyone’s heart melt. ]
Shichinin no samurai (Akira Kurosawa) 96
[ review ]
La Strada (Federico Fellini) 88
[ Is there something more beautiful than 35mm B&W cinematography and Nino Rotta music? Was there ever a more adorable clown than Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina? Do they make male leads as wonderfully brutish as the late Anthony Quinn anymore? “La Strada” is an enchanting, heartbreaking road movie – maybe a bit of a “trifle”, but one that sticks with you. ]
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan) 93
[ review ]
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Jacques Tati )
Madame de… ( Max Ophuls)
Tokyo monogatari (Yasujiro Ozu)
Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen) 100
[ review ]
High Noon (Fred Zinnemann) 70
[ This black and white Western is kinda square, with Gary Cooper’s Marshall walking around like he’s got a stick up his ass and Grace Kelly being all self-righteous (she plays a Quaker) and pretty (oh so pretty). But the plot’s clock (an infamous bandit is coming to kill Cooper on the noon train and the movie counts down the hour until then in real time) builds up a lot of suspense, there are some interesting morality issues (Cooper refuses to flee, even though no one in town will stick his neck out for him) and I love the recurrent theme song (the Oscar-winning Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’. ]
The African Queen (John Huston) 90
[ Movie star heaven, with Humphrey Bogart doing his gruff man’s man boat captain against Katherine Hepburn’s sophisticated English lady. Laughs, thrills and sensuality ensue as the two come across white water rapids, wild animals and German soldiers. “I never dreamed a mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” ]
Othello (Orson Welles)
Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa) 93
[ A priest, a farmer and a vagrant meet in rain-drenched ruins and discuss the day’s court hearing regarding the murder of a samurai. We hear and see what happened according to the accused, the widow and even the victim himself speaking through a medium. It is clear that the bandit raped the woman and that this lead to the death of her husband, but no one can agree on the details… Akira Kurosawa’s film is rather slow, with sparse dialogue and intentionally non-spectacular scuffles, but where it becomes riveting (aside from the superb b&w cinematography and Toshiro Mifune’s gleeful overacting) is in the way the story is structured. By having each protagonist’s testimony contradicting the others, “Rashomon” sets up an ambiguous morality tale in which one’s truth is another’s lie. The sexual politics are questionable (“Women are weak by nature”) but probably reflective of Japan at the time, and the conclusion is underwhelming (“Thanks to you I can keep my faith in men.” “Don’t mention it.”) but this remains a masterful picture that’s still influential to this day. ]
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder) 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. ]
Le journal d’un curé de campagne (Robert Bresson)
The Third Man (Carol Reed) 94
[ review ]
Louisiana Story (Robert Flaherty)
Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica) 42
[ So this poor dude steals a bicycle and, um, that’s about it. One of many so-called masterpieces we were shown in film school that have obvious importance because of the context in which they were made (post-war Italy, neo-realism, etc.) but that feel dull and ordinary today. ]
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston) 89
[ Humphrey Bogart is riveting as a down-on-his-luck American in Mexico who takes on prospecting with fellow bum Tim Holt and old-timer Walter Huston. They must face bandits, exhaustion and the paranoid fear of being robbed of one’s share by the others. This is classic studio moviemaking, well-oiled entertainment that never misses a beat but also has a thing or two to say about the darker chambers of the human heart. ]
Roma, città aperta (Roberto Rossellini)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford)
La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau)
Ivan Groznyj II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Les Enfants du Paradis (Marcel Carné)
Ivan Groznyj (Sergei Eisenstein)
Vredens dag (Carl Dreyer)
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) 100
[ review ]
The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin) 88
[ Before the United States entered World War II, one of its leading filmmakers took a stand: Charles Chaplin. I personally don’t find his Tramp schtick all that funny, but the way he ridicules Hitler (“Hynkel”) is really ballsy, the better-laugh-than-cry depiction of the Holocaust is heartbreaking and Chaplin’s final plea for peace and tolerance is an inspiration, even sixty-some years later as war and hate are unfortunately still a reality. ]
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford) 84
[ Your family’s been living, working and dying on this land for generations and now the Man comes in with a piece of paper and wants to take it away? As if the harshness of the Oklahoma “dust bowls” wasn’t enough… Tom Joad and his folks pack up and head for California, hoping for greener pastures, but they only find more sorrow and abuse from the Man. This classic slice of old Hollywood moviemaking is a gripping adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Some of the supporting players overact a storm, but their heart is in the right place and Henry Fonda’s slow-burn performance elevates everything around him. “Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” ]
La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir)
Stagecoach (John Ford) 73
[ A stagecoach must ride through Apache country, but the greatest challenge might be for the mismatched passengers to get along. The interaction between the “gentleman” gambler, the soldier’s wife, the drunken doctor, the whore, the banker and the Ringo Kid (a young John Wayne, already iconic) is indeed the most enjoyable thing about this classic B&W Western, though the impending threat does add suspense. And when the attack comes, it’s exciting and full of badass stunts. ]
Aleksandr Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein)
La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir)
Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin) 70
[ A clock (time is money!), titles (“A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”), then a shot of cattle fading into one of workers rushing out of a subway station! Not very subtle, but an effective opening to this whimsical anti-capitalism / pro-proletariat comedy. I’ve never found the Tramp’s pratfalls particularly funny, but I do admire Chaplin’s physical prowess and the heartfelt, unpretentious way he expresses his convictions. And how cool is it that there’s actually a scene here where he’s high on cocaine and beats up escaping convicts? ]
The Scarlet Empress (Josef Von Sternberg)
L’Atalante (Jean Vigo)
M (Fritz Lang)
Der Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg)
L’Âge d’or (Luis Bunuel)
Zemlya (d’Alexander Dovjenko)
City Lights (Charlie Chaplin) 65
[ Most of this “timeless classic” didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I have to say, the ending is absolutely marvelous. ]
Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov) 95
[ review ]
The Wind (Victor Sjöström)
Steamboat Bill, Jr (Charles F. Reisner)
La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Th. Dreyer) 90
[ The story of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial and execution by fire, this outstanding silent film is shot almost only in close-ups, putting us directly face to face with all the vile clergymen haranguing the poor girl, and with Jeanne herself, portrayed with overwhelming heart and soul by Falconetti. ]
Oktyabr (Sergei M. Eisenstein)
Die Büchse der Pandora (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Walther Ruttmann)
Sunrise (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau) 70
[ Murnau’s first American picture (after making “Nosferatu” and “The Last Laugh” in Germany) was the toast of the very first Academy Awards ceremony, winning Oscars for “Most Unique and Artistic Production”, Best Actress and a particularly deserved Best Cinematography. “Sunrise” may feel slow, dull and desperately corny to today’s audiences, but visually it remains as stunning as ever (the use of super-imposition alone is pure genius). Too bad the story and characters aren’t particularly interesting – the film could have used more of the coolest dog ever (watch him swim!) and of the city woman (who smokes cigarettes!!!) who threatens to come between the virtuous husband and wife. ]
Napoléon (Abel Gance)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang) 96
[ Some of the sillier plot specifics and the over the top acting characteristic of most silent cinema have aged, I guess, but as a thematically rich Marxist revolution allegory and a sci-fi epic filled with iconic imagery, this remains as visionary, groundbreaking and masterful as ever. Watching a restored print of it in a packed 3,000 seat theatre with an amazing new score performed by a live orchestra made it all the better. ]
The General (Buster Keaton) 64
[ Keaton stars as a train engineer who’s rejected from enlisting in the Civil War and is seen by his peers as a “disgrace to the South”. His girlfriend even tells him that she doesn’t want him to speak to her again until he is in uniform! I have always been uneasy with this kind of rah-rah patriotism and as the current President of the USA encourages “either you’re with us or you’re against us” sentiments, it’s even harder to swallow even in a light-spirited film like “The General”. In any case, other than from a historic viewpoint I don’t see how this should rate as one of the best films of all time (according to a Sight & Sound poll). It’s little more than a couple of long chase sequences (between a locomotive driven by Keaton and one filled with soldiers from the North) filled with slapstick. Keaton’s stunts and pratfalls are impressive and amusing enough but then so’s the average Jackie Chan movie! ]
The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin) 60
[ Maybe this shoots down whatever credibility I have as a critic, but I just don’t find Charlie Chaplin particularly funny. Oh, I can see his physical skills and sense of timing, and the sentimental beats always touch me but in general this kind of slapstick leaves me cold. ]
Bronenosets Potyomkin (Sergei M. Eisenstein)
Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton)
The Navigator (Buster Keaton)
Der Letzte Mann (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
Greed (Erich von Stroheim)
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau)
The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty)
Broken Blossoms (David W. Griffith)
Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (Robert Wiene) ???
[ Another classic that was shown to me when I was a punk-ass teenager studying cinema in CEGEP. I slept through most of it, so I don’t remember much beside some cool design and not much of a discernable story. ]
Intolerance (David. W. Griffith)
Birth of a Nation (David. W. Griffith) ???
[ An extreme case of dichotomy between artistic genius and abject morality. You want to praise this as early cinema’s most important film, with DW Griffith basically laying out all the bases of camerawork and editing still in use today, but at the same time one wants to throw this ode to the KKK in the darkest pile of cinematic trash. ]
“NOS 20 MEILLEURS FILMS QUÉBÉCOIS?”
On November 1st 2003, La Presse critics Marc-André Lussier and Luc Perreault published a list of what they consider the 20 best French Canadian fiction feature films. One might deplore the absence of genius iconoclast filmmaker Robert Morin and the inclusion of a few downright rotten ‘80s flicks, but otherwise this is a solid selection.
À tout prendre (Claude Jutra) 92
[ Jutra was influenced by Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, no doubt, but his first film still feels as original as it gets. Deeply personal and wonderfully idiosyncratic, this aborted love story in Black and White is a stunning exercise in style full of wit and pathos, with memorable performances by Jutra and Johanne Harelle, more or less playing themselves. ]
Le Chat dans le sac (Gilles Groulx) 80
[ “Je suis un Canadien français donc je me cherche.” Another semi-autobiographical film with a strong Nouvelle Vague influence, it tells the story of an existential French Canadian who takes his English-speaking girlfriend to the country in a not so succesful attempt to find himself. The film is most notable for its naturalistic black & white cinematography and for its original score by John Coltrane. ]
Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra) 92
[ This was Quebec not so long ago, a nation of good-hearted but colonised Frenchies being exploited in mines or in the woods by English bosses and kept in the dark by the Church and Prime Minister Duplessis… But Claude Jutra’s film about an undertaker and his young nephew is not all bummer. There’s the joy of being a kid off school for the holidays, the warmth of family, the noisiness of the magasin général, the beauty of the Canadian winter (especially as shot by Michel Brault), the excitement of discovering girls… “Mon Oncle Antoine” is a much understated but endearing coming-of-age story most notable for its attention to detail, both in period recreation and the way people behave, and at times it works as pure poetry. ]
Le Retour de l’Immaculée-Conception (André Forcier)
[ Not available on video… ]
La Vraie nature de Bernadette (Gilles Carle) 65
[ Love the Donald Pilon, and Micheline Lanctôt is great as a saint/whore… But this is a pretty loose, messy picture, with lots of interesting ideas and strong moments that just don’t quite come together cohesively. ]
Kamouraska (Claude Jutra)
[ Comments coming soon. Or not. ]
Les Ordres (Michel Brault) 91
[ Very powerful almost-documentary about how then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau used the abduction of a government official by Quebec-liberation terrorists in October 1970 as an excuse to dismiss citizen rights and arrest hundreds of supposedly suspicious individuals (like journalists, intellectuals, counter-culture figures) without warrants. Jean Lapointe and Claude Gauthier lead an exceptional cast. ]
J.A. Martin, photographe (Jean Beaudin)
[ Comments coming soon. Or not. ]
Les Bons Débarras (Francis Mankiewicz) 90
[ review ]
Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain (Denys Arcand) 43
[ The film opens with a university teacher telling his students that History is all about numbers, i.e. South Africans can overcome yet African-Americans never will. “History is not a moral science.” Interesting. Then we have the Head of the History Department talking to a reporter about how “the expectation of receiving instant gratification in daily life constitutes the normative parameter of existence.” Bleh, not so interesting anymore. This is a pretentious filmmaker setting loose pretentious characters to make pretentious audiences nod in recognition, “Aren’t we sophisticated and erudite?” But the filmmaker/characters don’t want to seem pretentious, of course, so they start talking about and having sex. And there’s your “Déclin”, a wildly overrated film alternating a few actual insights with a lot of tedious intellectual grandstanding and genitals-gazing. ]
Un Zoo la Nuit (Jean-Claude Lauzon) 19
[ As one who considers “Léolo” (Lauzon’s second and last film) to be a masterpiece, I was shocked by the ineptitude of the late filmmaker’s debut, which I hadn’t seen until now. A trashy and vile crime flick doubling as a trite and ridiculous father-and-son melodrama, “Un Zoo la Nuit” displays endlessly bad writing and acting and much dated ‘80s style, not to mention a strange homophobic/homoerotic undercurrent. Hard to believe this is the work of the brilliant dreamer who’d go on to make “Léolo”. ]
À Corps Perdu (Léa Pool) 22
[ I’m not quite sure how you go from people being senselessly murdered by their own army in Nicaragua to a troubled bisexual love triangle in Montreal. I guess it’s common for one to dismiss distant horrors while obsessing on his own little emotional troubles, but all that really comes through here is empty artsy pretension and tedious melodrama. ]
Jésus de Montréal (Denys Arcand) 90
[ A modern retelling of the Passion of Christ, with Lothaire Bluteau as a local actor who plays Jesus in a live play being stage on Mont-Royal and ends up sharing his character’s fate. Both a wickedly funny satire aimed at the media and organised religion and a moving spiritual journey, this is writer-director Arcand at his most effective. ]
Léolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon) 93
[ review ]
Being at Home with Claude (Jean Beaudin)
[ Only saw the black & white & bloody red opening sequence, which is brilliant brilliant brilliant, then I realised the video I had borrowed was a dubbed version of the film, so I stopped it. I’ll be looking to find a copy in French promptly. ]
32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (François Girard)
[ I caught a dozen or so of them short films on TV a few years ago and what I saw I liked. I’ll be revisiting the whole piece soon. ]
Le Confessional (Robert Lepage) 39
[ review ]
Emporte Moi (Léa Pool) 49
[ Karine Vanasse plays Hannah, a teenager in 1960s Montreal torn between her Jewish would-be writer father and her overworked Catholic mother, escaping into girl-girl love, the night life and the movies. Like all of Lea Pool’s films, “Emporte Moi” is clumsy and overwritten, with lyrical pretentions and its heart on its sleeve. This bored me silly in Pool’s “À Corps Perdu”, but her “Lost & Delirious” deeply moved me – “Emporte Moi” falls somewhere in between. It’s uneven and naïve and self-indulgent, but there are some truly touching moments and evoking Anna Karina is always a good thing. ]
15 Février 1839 (Pierre Falardeau) 90
[ review ]
Les Invasions Barbares (Denys Arcand) 88
[ review ]
My companion swayed in her seat like a waterweed, then clutched my arm. People dived for the exits. A woman sitting closest to us looked over, as if wanting to talk about what happened—and all this by the first 10 minutes. I thought the ingenious presentation of the opening credits were worth the price of admission alone.
France’s auteur provocateur Gaspar Noé caused a stir of legendary proportions at Cannes and it’s easy to figure out why. I was visibly shaken by what I witnessed on screen. Irreversible was already impossible to forget.
Said scene begins the reverse-order storyline as Marcus and Pierre (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) search with dizzying freneticism for a pimp in a murky gay nightclub, made all the more effective with some deft hand held camerawork. When found, the two men proceed to bludgeon him in what was the most graphic violence seen on screen, only to be supplanted moments later by the rape sequence. Irreversible then retraces the steps to the motivation for such a monstrous act, and leads us to Marcus, whose partner Alex (Monica Belluci) was viciously raped. What transpires adds up to over 9 minutes worth of the most cruelly abominable and repulsive film conceptions. The camera brings its furious pace to a halt here and positions itself at the Paris underpass and simply observes.
Pounding our senses silly is Noé’s aim up to now, and he makes no excuses for pulling this off admirably. Gratuitous one might suspect, but then the mood softens. Noé begins searching for the affective. We play witness to Alex and Marcus arguing at a party that leads her to abandon the revelry and make for the underpass. Then further back the couple are in bed together, swept by the crimson tide of affection. Irreversible ends at the beginning, with their love’s young dream. The premise “Time destroys all things,” uttered at the start and end, reverberates throughout. Time destroys Alex and Marcus.
Irreversible’s weaving of the interplay between memory and time may not be weighty and insightful, but it’s skillful. Brace yourself, the journey is as electrifying as it is horrifying.
Pot Luck (L’Auberge espagnole)
The whole world is a global village, and twentysomething Xavier (Romain Duris) is merely a foreign exchange student—or is he? Our intrepid Parisian is off to Barcelona for a year to study business and perfect his Spanish on the recommendation of his father’s friend. A cozy office job in the state sector is waiting for him upon his return. Things seem perfect don’t they? Well, he’s about to enter the realm of the long-distance relationship with his beloved Martine (Amélie’s Audrey Tautou) for starters.
Xavier meets two excruciatingly quotidian newlywed Parisians upon arrival in Barcelona that graciously offer him temporary lodging. He’s more than happy to oblige when the neurologist husband asks him to kindly show his delectably curvaceous wife (Judith Godrèche) around town. The two discover a few points of interest along the way.
Xavier eventually settles in an apartment with a motley crew of students. What binds them is more than just their EU passports and physical space, and French director Cédric Klapisch pulls this off masterfully. I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on snatches of conversation. They wail and thrash, dance and sing, get drunk and throw up, fall in and out of love—they do what students do when fate drops them off in some part of the world to cohabitate for any extended period of time. And all this dizzying freneticism is captured on digital video, making a tired topic strongly plausible and effective in its delivery.
A curious absorption and arousal in other women develops for Xavier as his long-distance relationship begins to run its course. The tension surrounding him and the sexually undernourished, staid wife is seamless and uncontrived. I swayed in my seat from laughter watching a lesson in sex from his lesbian roomie. This ample comedic energy is scattered throughout Pot Luck. The questionable application practice of Erasmus, the organization assisting our aspiring Eurotraveler with foreign study, is farcical.
Xavier returns to the protected naivete of Paris lugging the indelible impression Barcelona has left on him: life’s a trip, not a destination.
The Crime of Father Amaro (El Crimen Del Padre Amaro)
The Crime of Father Amaro (El Crimen del Padre Amaro) trailer conjured up 20-year-old images of the wildly successful miniseries “The Thorn Birds”. Richard Chamberlain’s romp with a fetching Rachel Ward drew no controversy, perhaps due to the focus on Chamberlain’s failure as one man of the cloth, and not as a scathing indictment on the church or its clergy per se. But with the Catholic Church routinely grabbing headlines worldwide for its rampant sexual abuse nowadays, it’s no wonder The Crime of Father Amaro has caused such a furor. Amaro has parlayed its notoriety into the highest grossing locally made movie in Mexico.
Loosely based on a 19th century novel of the same name by celebrated Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queiróz, the movie takes place in modern-day Mexico, where a 24-year-old Father Amaro (Gael García Bernal, Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También), arrives at a small parish in Los Reyes to embark on a promising liturgical career. On the Bishop’s orders, he’s to provide a helping hand in Father Benito’s daily operations. Benito (Sancho Gracia), deeply entrenched in the community, welcomes Amaro’s wide-eyed idealism.
The ambitious priest meets Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón), a wholesome and immaculate 16-year-old who teaches the good word at Sunday school. Her attraction to Amaro is immediate, and the youngish padre is awakened to her potentially explosive sexuality when she lets him in on certain self-gratifying secrets at the confessional. Amelia initially spurns his advances but eventually buckles to carnal pleasure, and the two set off on a torrid sexual journey that has its share of witnesses, despite their cover. In a perverse fate, Amelia’s widowed mother is locked in a long-term relationship with the revered Father Benito.
It doesn’t take long for Amaro to wise up to the fact that corruption and the Church run hand in hand in small-town Mexico. Once again, Benito is at the epicentre, gladly accepting drug money to build a hospital, a practice justified by turning bad money into good. Added to the mix is a motley crew of townsfolk, corrupt politicians and excommunicated priests with leftist guerilla leanings. Despite Amaro’s sobering realization, he continues to plunge further into sacrilege, with sins of the flesh ultimately pitted against a higher calling.
Bernal follows up his other-worldly acting success in Y Tu Mamá También admirably, seemingly perfectly cast for the role of a tormented Roman Catholic priest. In fact, the acting is masterful throughout and supremely shot. Forty year-old director Carlos Carrera makes no qualms about his intentions here; the portrayal of organized religion and ministry is exposed for public consumption, and the picture that’s painted isn’t a pretty one, what with flaming lotharios disguised as priests and a thoroughly shady Church. Furthermore, Amaro’s moral and ethical unraveling is anticipated.
The Crime of Father Amaro is as much a social treatise, straddling a fine line between the black, white and grey of compromise, as it is a character-driven plot, a man who failed himself first and foremost, and then his calling.
Reviews by Jerry Stamatelos
Médiafilm is the “objectively subjective” reference in Québec. For more than 50 years, they have reviewed almost every movie to play in theatres, on video or on TV locally. They use an interesting 1-7 grading scale, with ‘1’ being a masterpiece and ‘7’ utter crap. These ratings are used in a lot of newspapers and TV guides, as well as in the Boîte Noire movie guide. And for detail-obsessed movie geeks like myself, it’s interesting to see what makes the cut with these notoriously difficult critics.
Below, you can see the list of all the ‘1’ they ever awarded. I counted 112, from 53 directors (Eisenstein, Fellini, Chaplin and Hitchcock have 5 each, Welles, Keaton and Bergman have 4, many have 2 or 3). There are 5 chefs-d’oeuvre from Germany, 22 from France, 7 from the former USSR, 14 from Italy, 3 from India (all from Ray), 4 from Sweden (all Bergman), 4 from Japan, 5 from the UK, 2 from Denmark (both from Dreyer), and 46 from the US.
3 are from the 1910s (all from DW Griffith), 17 from the ‘20s, 11 from the ‘30s, 13 from the ‘40s, 36 from the ‘50s, 17 from the ‘60s, 13 from the ‘70s and 2 from 1980. There hasn’t been a “chef-d’oeuvre” for 23 years, but one thing I find wise is that they’re not against re-evaluating previous ratings. It does take time for a film to qualify as a classic… Though I think it’s about time for them to upgrade “Casablanca” from its ridiculous current ‘2’.
UPDATE (06/07/05): For the first time in five years, Mediafilm has extended its list of ‘1’ films with 22 newly appraised titles, including long-overdue masterpieces like “The Third Man”, “West Side Story” and “Dr. Strangelove”, silent classics such as “Metropolis” and “Man With a Movie Camera”, the very first ‘1’ movie from Québec (“Pour la Suite du Monde”), a few more 1980s flicks and the most recent chef d’oeuvre, “Goodfellas”.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese) 95
[ review ]
Der Himmel über Berlin (Wim Wenders)
Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
Once Upon a Time In America (Sergio Leone)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott) 75
[ While not a very faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s brilliant “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “Blade Runner” might be the most influential sci-fi flick this side of “Metropolis”… Even though it can be kinda dull, in my opinion. As with “2001”, I admire the vision and the craft, the design of the futuristic Los Angeles, the neo-noir atmosphere, the cinematography, the Vangelis score, plus Harrison Ford is fine as the bounty hunter of replicants and Rutger Hauer makes a good villain. But Ridley Scott’s film doesn’t have the narrative drive of the book and its exploration of identity and the nature of humanity isn’t quite as thought-provoking. ]
Mon Oncle d’Amérique (Alain Resnais) 90
[ More a treatise on the biology of behavior than any kind of conventional storytelling, this feels like the most intellectual film ever – which is fascinating if you’re up for it. Consumption, gratification, punishment, inhibition and countless other concepts are explored as we learn through nearly non-stop narration about the details of the lives of textiles manufacturer René (Gérard Depardieu), actress Janine (Nicole Garcia) and radio news director (Roger Pierre), who illustrate the theories of Professor Henri Laborit. ]
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese) 92
[ A brilliantly crafted character study with some of the most stunning boxing scenes ever shot and blistering performances by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. What’s more brutal: the violence in the ring, or the one at home, back in the Bronx? Jake La Motta’s rage is a plus in his boxing career, but it means trouble when he carries it with him in his relations with women, his brother and just about everybody else. This is Scorsese at his best, in form, with virtuoso B&W cinematography and editing, and in content, with another raw yet profound “street-smart” screenplay by Paul Schrader and some of the best acting you’ll ever see. Pesci and De Niro have become self-parodies, but their back-and-forth here is incredibly intense and multi-layered, the two brothers’ relationship being rough, tender, sad, sometimes all at once. The fight scenes are unglamorous, all blood and sweat, hardly Rocky-like inspirational; this is more like something out of German expressionism, with Sugar Ray Robinson looming like an African-American Nosferatu! And then there’s the pathetic third act, with De Niro/La Motta all fat, doing bad stand-up… A truly great biopic. ]
Manhattan (Woody Allen) 85
[ review ]
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) 100
[ review ]
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick) 92
[ review ]
Annie Hall (Woody Allen) 95
[ review ]
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese) 100
[ review ]
Nashville (Robert Altman) 76
[ It might be set in the country-western capital of the world, but I’m not sure that “Nashville” is actually celebrating that music. Right from the start, Altman contrasts a middle-aged cowboy jerk recording a corny patriotic ditty with a soulful gospel choir blowing the roof off the studio down the hall – it’s easy to see where his allegiance lies. Altman is clearly a liberal, anti-establishment filmmaker, and this shows through this cynical, irreverent but also humanist picture.
Set over 5 days during which a presidential candidate’s helpers are recruiting Nashville artists to perform at a rally, the movie has stars, wannabes, groupies, reporters, politicians and Elliot Gould (as himself!) bonding, clashing and everything in between. The 160 minute running time is a bit much – it could have lost many of the bad country songs – but Altman keeps things engaging and surprisingly cohesive, with a great ensemble of character actors and a climax that still feels shocking and sad. ]
The Godfather Part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola) 86
[ review ]
Zerkalo (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski) 88
[ This late addition to the film noir tradition has Jack Nicholson playing a private eye in Depression era Southern California who stumbles upon a political scandal involving the Water Department. This is a tight, tight picture, well written, well acted, well shot and well scored, full of surprising twists and gritty confrontations – how about “midget” Polanski cutting Jack’s nostril! ]
Amarcord (Federico Fellini) 79
[ For more than half an hour, “Amarcord” is an irresistible satire of 1930s provincial Italy, filled with quirky characters and irreverent humor. There is no plot to speak off, just a real sense of a time and a place but with a fantasist/nostalgic tint. The film moves through a small city, from school to the church, the beach to the piazza, following all these “exuberant, generous, tenacious” people. It can get quite lowbrow, especially around the horny young men or town whore Volpina (“I bet she even dips a cock in her morning coffee!”), but it’s in good spirit.
Then comes the Fascist rally, and it comes off as a shock. We like these characters, yet here they are saluting Mussolini and his black shirts? Fellini depicts these manifestations in the same playful manner as the rest of the film, like harmless demonstration of adolescent national pride. Maybe this is how it felt to people at the time, unaware of the evils Fascism would wreak across Europe… But we’re also shown some of the abuse and oppression characteristic of a dictatorship – in one scene. What seemed like the main theme of the film is ultimately just one part of a general chronicle, which is kind of a letdown.
I don’t mind the disconnected narrative and the caricature-like characters, that’s part of the movie’s charm. But it’s odd how Fellini hints at something more serious then moves on, never to mention it again. That kind of breaks the aforementioned charm and the remaining vignettes, while still amusing enough, don’t feel as refreshing as what came before. “Amarcord” remains a superior picture, full of sensuality and wit, with memorable images and a great Nino Rota score, but it’s not quite the masterpiece it could have been. ]
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola) 100
[ review ]
Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman) 34
[ Everything is either red, black or white, every other shot looking like a White Stripes album cover, but don’t expect to be rocked much. This is a sloooow, bleak art film about desperately bored Swedes who stare vacantly, exchange a few solemn words, flash the occasional skin and die, eventually. Formally brilliant, but criminally dull. ]
Morte a Venezia (Luchino Visconti)
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick) 92
[ review ]
Il Conformista (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Teorema (Pier P. Pasolini)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone) 65
[ Haven’t actually seen this in, oh, 7 or 8 years, so I’ll be sure to revisit it when it finally comes out on DVD later this year… But back then I liked the mood and the music, but I felt it was too slow and long and nowhere near as great as Leone’s Man With No Name Trilogy with Clint Eastwood. ]
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) ???
[ What am I supposed to do with this film? Is it a masterpiece or a bore? Could it be both? In a way, it is indeed truly great. The storyline is very ambitious, attempting to tell the story of humanity from the Dawn of Man to the future, into deep space. Kubrick’s direction is brilliant, the camerawork is inventive, there are countless beautiful shots, and the special effects are excellent for the time. But… It’s so slow! I think it’s the most actionless, even motionless film I’ve ever seen! Then again, I haven’t watched it again since my late teens, so the wise thing might be to revisit it in the near future. ]
Play Time (Jacques Tati)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone) 100
[ review ]
Andrei Roublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Persona (Ingmar Bergman) 50
[ The opening montage really took me by surprise, with its barrage of fucked-up imagery : a tarantula, a sheep being bled to death, a nail being hammered into a hand (Jesus’?)… And was that a subliminal shot of an erect cock? Who’s the projectionist, Tyler Durden? Then there’s a curious scene with a boy, followed by the cacophonous title sequence and, finally, a first non-experimental scene setting up the story of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who has lost the ability to speak, and of Alma (Bibi Andersson), the nurse taking care of her. After that, it’s pretty much just the two of them, one silent, one who talks a lot. And I mean a lot – Alma even has a long monologue that’s repeated twice in a row. Despite the gorgeous B&W cinematography and sometimes striking editing, “Persona” feels very theatrical. It’s also generally dead-serious, humorless and well, dull. Pure Bergman, from what I understand. I’ve only seen “Cries and Whispers” and this so far, and I can’t say I’m a fan. Oh, the man was clearly a brilliant filmmaker (his sense of shot composition alone sets him apart), but the films of his I’ve seen so far leave me cold for the most part. ]
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Il Deserto rosso (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick) 97
[ review ]
Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy) 69
[ review ]
Pour la suite du monde (Pierre Perrault & Michel Brault)
8 1/2 (Federico Fellini)
The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean) 66
[ review ]
L’Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni)
West Side Story (Robert Wise) 95
[ review ]
La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Jules et Jim (François Truffaut) 33
[ I don’t get this, just as I didn’t get “Les 400 coups”. Whereas I can see the attraction in early Godard, this melodramatic Nouvelle Vague slice of life left me indifferent. Jules’ a bore, Jim’s a bore and Jeanne Moreau does little more for me. The B&W cinematography is nice to look at and the score is great, but I still didn’t care much for this ménage-à-trois story. ]
L’année dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais)
L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni)
La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini) 93
[ review ]
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock) ???
[ This is the second time that I decide not to give a rating to a film. The first time was for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The thing with these two films is that I just couldn’t decide if they were truly great or not. I’m aware that they’re timeless classics that were masterfully directed by brilliant filmmakers, and that the logical thing would be to reward these masterpieces with high ratings. The problem is that these two films are… Well, kinda boring to me. Then again, I haven’t watched them again since my late teens, so the wise thing might be to revisit them in the near future. ]
“Freddy Got Fingered”
by Kevin Laforest
It’s been advanced that insanity and genius are two sides of a same reality, two somehow intertwined extremes. Tom Green’s oeuvre is a good example of that. From his original Canadian show to its reinvented MTV version, Green made a name for himself by pulling the most demented stunts, be it humping a dead moose, putting a horse’s head in his parents’ bed à la Godfather or making a one hour special about his real-life removal of a cancer-ridden testicle. Some will dismiss it all as the work of a wacko, but others find it brilliant in an admittedly very quirky way. I fall in the latter category, finding Green to be a fearless performer with an intriguing vision. He made his big screen debut in a bit part in “Superstar”, then stole and ran away with “Road Trip”, and finally with “Freddy Got Fingered” (which he co-wrote and directed in addition to playing the lead role), he’s come up with, in his own words, “the stupidest, most disgusting movie you’ve ever seen.”
Green stars as Gord Brody, a 28 year-old slacker who finally leaves home to go to Hollywood and pursue is dream of working as a cartoon animator. Of course, making it as an artist is not that easy, and Gord finds himself rejected by a studio executive (Anthony Michael Hall) and stuck in a cheese sandwich factory, a dead-end job if there ever was one. So he returns to Portland and moves back in his parents’ basement, much to the disenchantment of his father (Rip Torn). Dad wants him to get a job, but Brody prefers to take it easy drawing his “doodles”, skateboarding with his best buddy (Harland Williams) and hanging with his wheelchair-bound rocket scientist girlfriend (Marisa Coughland). Henceforth begins a war between father and son where no blow is too low, be it destroying Gord’s skateboard ramp or denouncing Daddy as a child molester who fingered younger brother Freddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas) – hence the title.
“We got the idea of writing our own comedy that would be a mockery of conventional comedies.” – Tom Green
The film starts off with a familiar tone, that of many an ’80s teen comedy, with an early scene showing Gord skateboarding through a shopping mall while a security guard chases him. Then his parents wave him goodbye as he leaves home, and then… He stops his car by a farm, runs up to a horse, grabs its erect penis and starts jerking it vigorously! How many ’80s comedies provide such a sight? Right there, you know if this movie is for you. Unsurprisingly, many people aren’t interested in a picture featuring interspecies hand-jobs.
For instance, if you look it up on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that “Freddy Got Fingered” has received nearly nothing but brutally negative reviews. To many a film reviewer, it seems this is the bottom of the barrel and then some. James Berardinelli wrote that he has “gotten better entertainment value from a colonoscopy”. Owen Gleiberman not only panned the movie but went on to write that Green had “a hyperactive computer addict’s stringbean body, a wimp’s receding profile (his goatee seems to be shouting, “I know I’m here to fill out this guy’s loser face!”), and the rabid, staring eyes of a deranged lizard.” It culminated with the film “winning” five Razzie awards, including Worst Picture of 2001.
Well, I beg to differ. Yes, Tom Green’s directorial debut is juvenile, vulgar, generally sloppily crafted, offensive and thoroughly idiotic. Then again, it’s one the most hilarious movies I’ve seen in recent years, and Green is rivetingly grotesque. Critic Roger Ebert loathed the film but accurately described it as a “milestone of neo-surrealism”. Indeed, for every gross-out scene involving a bloody deer carcass or whatnot, we get delightfully absurd moments like Green playing keyboards with strung up sausages or the “backwards man”.
I truly believe writer-director-star Tom Green has done something special here. Even if you don’t find his humor funny, his film is still spectacularly offbeat. There’s all this weird and weirder stuff that keeps happening. But then again, it actually holds itself, there IS a story. A nice story, about a man-child who wants to be an artist but whose ambitions are squashed by his father, who wants him to quit dreaming and get a job. There’s even a love story, and it’s actually sweet how Betty inspires Gordy to not give up. Of course, all this generally degenerates into insanity, but this is a Tom Green movie after all!
“It was vaguely autobiographical and vaguely nonsensical at the same time. The main character is a small-town boy from Oregon, not Canada, who tries to prove himself to his dad by coming to L.A. to make it as an animator, not a comedian.” – Tom Green
Another thing that’s notable is how personal a film this is. On the DVD commentary, Green talks about how he really does love skateboarding and flipping creamers (!) and how he had to move back into his parents’ basement when he was struggling to find a way to get paid to be stupid.
Green is an artist. At least, you can’t deny he has a wild imagination. The things he does with his voice, his body, his face… Or, going back to his screenplay, it’s hard to fathom how he can come up with bits of dialogue like this particularly zesty one, from a scene where Gordy tells his mom she deserves better than his dad: “If I were you, I would show him that I deserve respect. If I were you I would go out, I’d have sex with strange men, I’d have sex with basketball players. I’d have sex with Greeks, men from Greece.”
Here’s a rather classic scene, the son telling his mother she doesn’t have to put up with her abusive husband, yet look how Green goes out on a tangent way into too-much-information territory!
That back and forth between sentimental and bizarre, which goes on through the whole picture, is what does it for me. Like, when Gord delivers a baby, cuts the umbilical cord with his teeth then swings the poor little bastard around in circles, that’s just the set-up. Where it gets hilarious is when it cuts to the heartfelt aftermath, with touchy-feely music on the soundtrack, the mother crying and Gord saying, “I saved the day… I saved the day.”
“I wanted to make something where people walked out of the theatre saying, “What the fuck was that?” – Tom Green
Mission accomplished, sir! The many people who hate the movie and the few, like me, who love it all agree on one thing: this is one hell of a weird flick.
I truly love action movies. There’s nothing that I like more than watching big, macho, muscular, sweaty men kicking each other’s ass, shooting guns and making stuff blow up, while the whole thing is shot like a pumped up MTV video edited to a faux-Wagnerian score. I am, of course, being a tad sarcastic, and that’s a must for an action fan. You gotta love thrills, but you also need a good sense of humor, an ability to swallow the dumbest twists and attitudes with a smile. You gotta believe that one guy can defeat an army, that a bad guy would rather fight his nemesis honorably in hand-to-hand combat than shoot his brains out and that motorized vehicles can defy any law of physics when used properly. You can’t go, “Hey! No way that can happen!” You gotta be, like, “Fuck it, that’s fun to watch!” The next few pages will try to cover most of the various forms of action movies that spun from Hollywood in the last 15 years or so.
First of all, we have to settle on a definition of an action movie. To me, it’s a film that relies on violent confrontations and death-defying ventures more than anything. This essay won’t consider early movies that kinda were action films, but not really. Think of westerns, blaxploitation, cop/gangster movies and war films. In these kinds of films, fights might break out, bullets might be shot, but that wasn’t what these types of movies were really about.
I won’t either extend to some of the brilliant action work that was done outside of Tinseltown, notably Asia’s long tradition in martial arts movies. Other genres, like science-fiction, that sometimes share elements with action will also be pushed aside, even though movies like “Star Wars” or “The Terminator” were action-packed. What I’m trying to do is to get down to the classic definition of a Hollywood action film: the opposition between Good and Evil, violence and fast-paced, flashy filmmaking. Next are what may be the 5 most influential action flicks ever made in Hollywood.
FIRST BLOOD : Political Action (1982)
“After Vietnam there was a need for escapism. Rambo led to the birth of the real uber action film. I was part of that group with Arnold (Schwarzenegger] and Bruce (Willis] and there was a definite theme. It was about one-man armies.” – Sylvester Stallone
The first real action film was definitively “First Blood”. Somehow like “Taxi Driver”, the film follows a Vietnam veteran as he returns to America and realizes that home ain’t all that sweet after all. But while Travis Bickle did take out a few guys, it’s nothing compared to John Rambo’s elaborate decimation of a whole town. The film takes itself seriously, but even its creators must have known that the overwhelming violence was the film’s driving force much more than the political message. What we want is to see Sylvester Stallone beating people every which way but loose, right? A one-man army, more pyrotechnics than dialogue… The modern action movie is born all right. Other movies of this kind of serious “political” action films are the two Rambo sequels and the Chuck Norris vehicles “Missing in Action” and “Delta Force”.
COMMANDO : Action Takes It Easy (1985)
If Stallone was the figure that started the genre, it’s Schwarzenegger who made it so popular. Instead of being frustrated and stiff like Rambo, Ah-nuld seemed to be having fun while he was killing people. More often than not, plots were just excuses for a series of exciting fights and stunts. No message here! Instead, you get one-liners and over-the-top action sequences. The first film to tap into that is also my favorite movie: Mark L. Lester‘s brilliant “Commando”. Arnie made countless other movies with almost as much humor as violence : “Predator”, “Raw Deal”, “Red Heat”, “Last Action Hero”, “True Lies”, “Eraser”… Then there’s the “Lethal Weapon” and “Beverly Hills Cop” series, which are almost comedies but still pack tons of action. Then there are those Schwarzenegger wannabes, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who can kick some ass but aren’t all that comfortable with one-liners. Still, they made some fun films.
DIE HARD : Action in a Nutshell (1988)
Whereas Rambo and Matrix wandered around vast places (whole cities, islands…) in order to kill people, John McClane is caught in a skyscraper. And so a new kind of action film is born. Instead of having your hero trying to get to the bad guys, you can now just stick all of them together in the same place and have them play cat-and-mouse. The place ain’t important: it can be an airport (“Die Hard 2”), a plane (“Passenger 57” / “Air Force One”), a ship (“Under Siege”), a train (“Under Siege 2”), a hockey arena (“Sudden Impact”)… These movies are usually about a bunch of foreign terrorists that take over a place in which, luckily, a hyper-trained hero happens to be. An interesting twist is “Road House”, where you got the thing with the hero beating up bad guys in the one location (a bar), except that they’re not terrorists, just a bunch of drunken assholes!
John McTiernan “Die Hard” remains the coolest flick of that kind that was ever made. It stars Bruce Willis, in his first action role, as John McClane, a New York cop who comes to L.A. to spend Christmas with his wife and kids. The couple meets at an office party in a huge business building, and that’s when a gang of European terrorists take over the place. McClane is the only one who can stop Hans and his boys. As you can see, that’s a simple plot, but it’s efficient. It leads to a series of outstanding fights and shoot-outs, as well as many funny scenes. Willis burns the screen with his overwhelming charisma. He’s witty, he’s macho, and he sure kicks ass! This is what I call a classic. I’ve seen this action-packed masterpiece countless times, and I never get tired of it. It’s filled with inventively violent set-ups, and the action never stops. Definitely a must-see. The sequels are also pretty good, especially the third film, an inventive cat-and-mouse game across New York.
SPEED : Action Without Balls (1994)
This is the action film at its weakest, at its most mainstream. In Jan De Bont‘s film, there are almost no fights or violence. He just kept the MTV-style direction, the stunts and the explosions. Yes, there’s still a bad guy, but Dennis Hopper isn’t even face-to-face with the hero more than 10 minutes, and there aren’t even other bad guys. There might be 2 or three deaths in the whole flick! All you get is some dude and a chick on a bus that crashes through stuff. I admit that the film is enjoyable in parts, but I’m still happy that the genre survived this “roller-coaster” phase, which didn’t last all that long. We still had to suffer through Stallone’s “Daylight” and some other wussy action flicks where heroes face natural disasters instead of bloodthirsty terrorists (Sly vs a tunnel!?!).
FACE / OFF : Action As Opera (1997)
If it hadn’t been for this movie, I would probably have decided not to stop myself at Hollywood movies for this retrospective, because I couldn’t have mentioned the absolute best action director in the whole world, Hong Kong’s John Woo. His films reach new levels in action, with shoot-outs orchestrated like apocalyptic ballets and violence poetically used to portray the most passionate feelings of one. Honor becomes the driving force of combat, as charitable gangsters face dirty cops. It’s the fight between good and evil, but the distinction ain’t all that evident. In movies like “The Killer”, even love and true friendship are present. Woo started out in Hollywood with “Hard Target”, which is cool, but his style is overwhelmed by Van Damme’s usual tricks. The director went on to make “Broken Arrow”, another explosive yet impersonal outing. It’s with “Face/Off” that Woo finally shows mainstream America what he is all about. This amazing picture presents the opposition between a determined FBI agent, Sean Archer, and a funky terrorist, Castor Troy, who get their faces switched, forcing them to use the other guy’s allies to fight each other. Besides featuring brilliant direction, spellbinding action scenes and a clever script, the film gets great performances from Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. For all these reasons, “Face/Off” was actually the 6th best reviewed movie of ’97 (after “The Sweet Hereafter”, “Titanic”, “Boogie Nights”, “L.A. Confidential” and “In the Company of Men”). Action never felt so good!
So that’s about it as far as action movies go. Of course, I only went to the essentials, and as I said at the beginning, many other types of action films could have been explored, but I think I went to the heart of it when it comes to action in Hollywood from 1982 to 1997. Would I dare make predictions for the future? As far as I’m concerned, I think that Hong Kong holds the fate of the action film. Action directors like Ringo Lam (“Maximum Risk”), Kirk Wong (“The Big Hit”) and Tsui Hark (“Double Team”) have all joined John Woo in America, as did action stars like Jackie Chan (“Rush Hour”), Jet Li (“Lethal Weapon 4”) and, most of all, Chow Yun-Fat (“The Replacement Killers”). Because, admit it, soon-to-be sixty Schwarzenegger and Stallone and forty-something Bruce Willis might not be on top for long, and Seagal and Van Damme never stood a chance to be more than second bit players. As for Nic Cage, he might be too busy playing beautiful freaks to rule the action world as he did last year with “Con Air” and, of course, “Face/Off”. Is Hollywood getting the message? Very likely, since “Mission: Impossible” star and producer Tom Cruise apparently wants John Woo to direct the next instalment! Whatever happens, I’m sure that we will still be able to see heroes who can shoot whole armies dead for a long, long time.
A recent thread at the (sadly defunct) Cinemarati Roundtable about whether “First Blood” created the modern action movie reminded me of this article, which I wrote in 1998. Reading it again for the first time in years was a gas. I still think I hit most of the bases, and I’m pretty proud of how accurate my prediction turned out to be.
John Woo did direct “M:I-2” and the Hong Kong invasion has yet to stop, with Asian-influenced flicks like “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill” reinventing the way we think of action movies. One thing I didn’t see coming was the return of super-heroes, which seemed over and done with after 1997’s “Batman and Robin”. Yet some of the best action scenes of this decade involved the X-Men and Spider-Man. Also worth mentioning is the wave of epics (“Gladiator”, “The Lord of the Rings”, etc.), Michael Bay’s misunderstood oeuvre (culminating in the ridiculously frenetic “Bad Boys II”) and the most action-packed TV series ever, “24”.
As for who replaced Schwarzenegger (who’s now Governor of California!), it’s still not clear, as the Hong Kong stars have made almost nothing but crap in Hollywood. Vin Diesel hasn’t fulfilled the promise he showed in his first few flicks, so I’ll push my chips toward The Rock, who can whoop butt like the best of them and has revealed unexpected comic timing. He’s made his “Conan”-style heroic fantasy (“The Scorpion King”), his “Raw Deal”-style revenge yarn (“Walking Tall”), his “Red Heat”-style buddy comedy (“The Rundown”)… He’s due for a “Terminator” or a (gulp) “Commando”, don’t you think?
I’M THE NEXT SCHWARZENEGGER!
Okay, you know why I’m doing an update now, right? The best old school action flick since the golden age of the 1980s has been released this weekend. I’m talking of course of “Rambo”, which brings us back to the movie that started it all, “First Blood”. We also got another “Die Hard” sequel recently, but “Live Free or Die Hard” wasn’t so hot. Alas, the third figure of action cinema, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is still busy being Governor so we didn’t get a sequel to the other key Hollywood action movie, “Commando”. But while not technically related to it, the John Cena vehicle “The Marine” was certainly influenced by it and satisfyingly filled the void left in its place.
In other news, since the last update 3 years ago, there were some brilliant action sequences in unexpected places, namely pictures which had other things on their minds, like David Cronenberg‘s “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”, but which packed riveting bursts of violence and mayhem nonetheless. “Pathfinder” and “Beowulf” owe more to heroic fantasy à la “Conan the Barbarian” than to straight action as defined above (way back in the intro), but they kick too much ass for me not to mention them. Likewise with “Sin City” and “Apocalypto”, respectively film noir and historical/adventure influenced, but action-packed nonetheless. And “Hot Fuzz” might be a comedy first, but damn it if it doesn’t get your blood pumping!
And then there was Bourne. Over the course of three movies, this franchise single-handedly changed the rules of the game, as decisively as “First Blood”, “Commando” and “Die Hard” did back in the day. Telling proof: the James Bond series totally went Bourne in “Casino Royale”, making things less over the top and having the hero be more tortured and vulnerable. I’m not sure Matt Damon wants to be typecast as an action star, but right now, he’s king of the hill.
LIVE FREE AND UPDATE
Another two years or so have passed since I last took the pulse of the Modern Hollywood Action Film. Again, comic book adaptations have given us some of the most kick-ass movie scenes to enjoy: I’m thinking of “The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen”, “Hellboy 2”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man” and most of all, Timur Bekmambetov’s utterly badass “Wanted”.
There were also some thrilling action sequences in various war films (“The Hurt Locker”, “Che”, “Defiance”, “Inglourious Basterds”), David Mamet offered an intriguing twist on the genre in “Redbelt” and Liam Neeson, of all people, rocked hard in “Taken”. But I think that as with “Hot Fuzz” a few years back, it’s often the comedies that were the most explosive! Take “Tropic Thunder” for instance, or “JCVD” (that opening showcases Jean-Claude Van Damme at his best!), or especially “Pineapple Express”, which intentionally riffs on 1980s action flicks.
Ultimately, though, nothing offered more excitement than a pair of recent sci-fi epics, Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and of course, James Cameron’s “Avatar”. Now, we’re far from the archetypical greatness of the classic Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis vehicles… But hopefully, next year’s “The Expendables” will scratch that itch!