Wednesday, June 29, 2011


This review will probably one of the most difficult for me, as I had a hard time following the movie. Howl (2010) was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and stars James Franco (127 Hours), Jon Hamm (Mad Men, TheTown), Mary-Louise Parker (RED, Weeds), David Strathair (Bourne Ultimatum, Fracture), among others. Roughly speaking, it is about famous poem Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, and is presented in three simultaneous frames : Allen Ginsberg talking about his life and inspiration in an interview-like format, an illustrated animation of his poem while w voice over reads some parts, and the trial for obscenity.

I did not know anything about Allen Ginsberg, nor Jack Kerouac, nor the Beat Generation. So let me explain a little.

The term "Beat Generation" represents an entire period in time ; the core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, NealCassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in New York City in the 40s. They subsequently met Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke before they all moved to San Francisco where they exapanded the group with Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.
The expression "Beat Generation" was introduced by Jack Kerouac in 1948 and presented to the oublic when Kerouac's friend John ClellonHolmes wrote « This is the Beat Generation » for the New York Times.

Key elements of the Beat culture included drugs, sexual experiences, interest in Eastern religion, rejection of materialism, and idealization of exuberant means of expression.
Ginsberg's poem Howl contains lines about homosexual sex. William Burroughs' Naked Lunch focuses on drug use, but also contains sexual content. In addition, there are explicit descriptions of alternative sexual practices. Both works were prosecuted for obscenity. The trial for Howl is related in the movie. Victory in both cases marked the end of literary censorship in the US. The members of the Beat Generation have a reputation as bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. Most of them were either homosexual or bisexual, more or less openly. As Ginsberg describes his life, he is completely open about his sexuality.
In the movie, the story behind comes to life in three different ways. In a documentary-like interview, Ginsberg is talking about his life and experiences – there is lots to learn but after a while it becomes boring, because it is almost always the same filming angle, the same monotonous tone, it got me sleepy. That said, James Franco is just amazing, and shows yet again he is an acting chameleon. Just for that, it is worth watching.

The animations were creative enough to illustrate the poem, but going very fast, very colourful, and giving an impression of total chaos.  I seriously regretted the DVD did not feature subtitles, because that may have helped to keep my full attention.
I do not have much to say about the trial sequences, they were fairly classic, although I found the two actors Jon Hamm and David Strathairn lacked a bit of substance.
All in all, it goes back and forth, with flashbacks as Ginsberg talks about his life, so basically at some point I lost track of what was going on and, eventually, interest.
 All-in-all, I do not think it is a bad movie. It doesn’t even last this long, about 90 minutes more or less. I am even considering reading Howl so that I learn a bit more about that time, which I am assuming strongly inspired the Hippie Movement. Historically it is fascinating how a small movement can have such a great influence. I just think I lacked the openness to appreciate the movie, which is really much more like a documentary.
Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose   
- Allen Ginsberg

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It's a wonderful life

I think that It’s a wonderful life (1946), directed by Frank Capra, is a movie to watch around Christmas. Reminded me a little of Ebenezer Scrooge, although admittedly the story is a bit different. But all characters are well defined as in a Dickens novel.
Actually, the movie is more than that : it’s a classic ; as classic as you can get.

George Bailey (James Stewart) has lived in Bedford Falls all his life, in spite of dreams and hopes where he pictured himself travelling, building monuments, etc…

George Bailey: I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I'm comin' back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I'm gonna build things. I'm gonna build airfields, I'm gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I'm gonna build bridges a mile long...

Life decides otherwise, and a series of events sees him cancelling each of his plans to leave town. He grows more and more frustrated, in spite of the love of his wife Mary (Donna Reed), up until, after some money is lost (in fact stolen by archenemy Mr Potter – Lionel Barrymore, great uncle of real-life actress Drew Barrymore), he considers killing himself. This is where Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel looking to earn his wings, comes on earth and shows him what life would have been like if he had not been born.

Clarence: Clarence Oddbody, AS2.
George Bailey: Oddbody... Hey, what's an AS2?
Clarence: Angel, Second Class.

Clarence: Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?

A few days after watching it, and after pausing to think about it a bit more, I think this film is darker than it looks : George’s dreams get crushed and his town becomes his prison. His suffering and agony are just there. In general, I’d say that unless you have been very lucky, life is usually a succession of trade-offs that may at times push you further from your « dreamed life ». You can be happy with it or not – that’s the point of life, isn’t it ? Taking you in directions you never suspected. But George here is not happy with it, which makes him vulnerable. Potter knows this and uses it against George to push him over the edge. Here, Stewart depicts every emotion superbly. Meanwhile, Donna Reed plays her role very well, dependable and rock-solid against Stewart's emotional swings.
At its core this film is about faith: faith tested, faith lost, faith restored.
The films big payoff comes after George realises how much he has to live for, embracing his family like he has not seen them in years, despite his financial troubles and the prospect of prison.
Yet it remains witty and funny
Annie: I been savin' this money for a divorce, if ever I got a husband.

George Bailey: A toast! A toast! A toast to Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar, and if you want to keep this old Building and Loan in business, you better have a family real quick.
Tilly: I wish they were rabbits.

The only critic I may have is that, as it lasts over 2 hours, the intervention of the angel comes a bit too late in the film.

James Stewart’s performance was number 8 in Premiere Magazine's 100Greatest Performances of All Time, and the American Film Institute ranked this as the number 11 Greatest Movie ofAll Time.
Not a surprise. Loved it.
And remember :
No man is a failure who has friends.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

127 Hours

Aron Ralston
127 Hours (2010), directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 days later), is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who, after getting his arm stuck while canyoneering alone in Utah, had to cut it off, after 5 days of attempts to get out, in order to survive. It stars James Franco as the main character, surrounded by secondary roles we barely see, including our very own Clémence Poésy, but also Treat Willialms and Kate Mara.

You would think that watching what is pretty much a one man show in pretty much one single location for about 90 minutes would be boring – it is not, thanks to the great filming, the flashbacks, and the acting of James Franco. Well, not completely. You know what to expect, no big surprise, no happy ending. And yet….

Franco is genuine and extremely believable an an arrogant adventurer who does not need anyone and just goes on canyoneering without telling anyone where he is. He shows a whole range of emotions as he reflects back on his life, his actions, his attitude : to friends, to girlfriends, to family.

Aron: Hey there, Aron! Is it true that you didn't tell anyone where you were going?

Aron : You know, I've been thinking. Everything is... just comes together. It's me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock... this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It's entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It's been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I've been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I've taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.

Aron : Did I say the weather is great? Well, it is. Though flash floods potential is still present. There's four-prong major canyons upstream from me that all converge in this 3 foot wide gap where I am. The rock I pulled down on top of me, it was put there by flood. Still, I'd get a drink.

The character reminded me of that of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild. And they come to the same conclusion : it is better to share. For one, it is just about letting people know where he is, for the other it is about how beauty can only be enjoyed if it is shared with someone.

The filming is great, and flashbacks are well inserted into the film to break the scenes in the canyon into short sequences. Sometimes i twas difficult to differentiate dream and reality, such as the flood scene, which I really thought was happening for real. That was a perfect way, to me, to show the character’s hallucinations. There was no slmowing down, and the scene where he cuts off his arm is extremely realistic.
The real Aron filmed a video diary while he was in the canyon ; only his friends and family saw it, and it is kept in a bank vault. Both Danny Boyle and James Franco were wllowed to watch it to be able to give an accurate portrait.

Another thing, as it turns out, James Franco was not Danny Boyle's first choice to play Aron ; Cillian Murphy was (come on.... main character in The Wind that Shakes the Barley). I probably would not have cared about that information, but now I know who he is, so it’s different and I find the information relevant. Although I think Franco was the right choice : he is Aron. He makes the movie.

To be perfectly honest, the story is not exactly what I tend to favour, in the end it is more like a documentary than like a drama – that said, for breathtaking views of canyons and to appreciate the incredible talent of both Boyle and Franco, it is worth it. After all, 90 minutes is not so long !

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Sting

4 years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are reunited on screen once again and directed again by George Roy Hill, for our great pleasure, in The Sting (1973), which won the best picture Oscar in 1973.

Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a conman whose partner-in-crime is assassinated by the mob. To get revenge on Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), the mob boss, he seeks the help of great con artist Henry Gondorff for the « big con ». The movie chronicles the plan, the set up, and finally, the sting. That's all I am going to tell you : the  real fun is in watching the story unfold !
Billie: Who told you this guy was in here?
Lieutenant Snyder: Nobody. I just know what kind of woman he likes. Going to check all the joy houses till I find him.
Billie: Oh, well maybe I could help you, if you tell me his name.
Lieutenant Snyder: I doubt it. Which way are the rooms?
Billie: Right through there. But I wouldn't go in there if I were you.
Lieutenant Snyder: What you are going to do, call the cops?
Billie: I don't have to. You'd be busting in on the Chief of Police just up the hall.

Floyd: Doyle, I KNOW I gave him four THREES. He had to make a SWITCH. We can't let him get away with that.
Lonnegan: What was I supposed to do - call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?

I’ll say this : this is just plain quality from beginning to and, with many twists and turns that leave the viewer speechless and  make this movie one of the best classics I have seen… so far. The whole plot of the movie is excellent, and the witty, smart, and sometimes funny dialogues only make it better.

Kid Twist: Now how do you want to work this? Flat rate or percentage?
Benny Garfield: Who's the mark?
Kid Twist: Doyle Lonnegan.
Benny Garfield: Flat rate.

I was going from surprise to surprise, and loved it. My own partner in crime had seen it before and was a bit frustrated with me at times : I got lucky a couple of times and guessed. Still, a couple of twists left me speechless.
Some things just go / fit together : salt and pepper, oil and vinegar, butter and jam, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They were excellent together in Butch Cassidy &the Sundance Kid ; they are still magnificent in The Sting. Although I felt the bond between them was tighter in Butch, but it’s likely because there they played guys who had been friends for years, whereas in The Sting, they have just met each other. 
Redford is the young, carefree conman, who just wants to avenge his dead friend, and Newman plays the role of a mentor, and teaching him the tricks that will make the big con successfull. He is wise and on several occasions protects Redford… from himself and from others. He oozes cool and class and, in the movie, he simply shines.

Henry Gondorff: You have to keep this con even after you take his money. He can't know you took him.

One more comment on Robert Shaw, who plays Lonnegan, and impersonates a perfect villain, that we love to hate. His recurring, menacing « You follow? » besomes his trademark. We do not know much about hima part from :
He's an Irishman who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, and doesn't chase dames. He's a grand knight in the Knights of Columbus, and he only goes out to play faro. Sometimes plays 15 or 20 hours at a time, just him against the house.[…] The croupier at Gilman's says he never plays anything he can't win. […] Likes to be seen with fighters sometimes, but he doesn't go to the fights or bet on 'em. […] Just poker. And he cheats. Pretty good at it, too.

Finally, some additional information, not very useful, but I always find it fun :

- Many characters drink Schlitz beer in the film. Schlitz was the largest beer company in the world during the 1930s.
- When Lonnegan first walks into "The Operation", over the P.A. you can hear one of the horses running is called Steve McQueen !!!

All in all, it is a great story, with excellent background music, and good settings that create a feel of the US in the 1930s. The times passes quickly, because it is an effortless, breezy, well paced film with no dull moments.