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Ilo Ilo & A Simple Life

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster

This is a gem of a film from Singapore I saw last September, when it opened in Paris, and that a stateside friend informs me is currently playing in the US (he saw it and liked it). The film—29-year-old Anthony Chen’s directorial debut and for which he won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last year (and to a 15-minute standing ovation)—is set in Singapore during the 1997 financial crisis and centers on a middle-class couple going through a rough patch—the office employee husband (actor Chen Tian Zen) having lost his job, which increases the already existing tensions in their relationship—and who hire a live-in Filipina housekeeper and nanny, named Terry (actress Angeli Bayani), to tend to their turbulent, headstrong 10-year-old son, Jiale (played by the remarkable Koh Jia Ler, in his first role), while his working mother (actress Yeo Yann Yann) sees through her pregnancy. The parents cannot cope with the bratty, undisciplined Jiale, and who torments Terry when she joins their household. But Terry is patient with him and the two eventually bond—and which arouses the jealously of Jiale’s mother, who was already cool toward her. As the couple’s financial difficulties mount they decide they can’t afford to keep Terry—and despite the important, stabilizing role she plays in Jiale’s life—, so she returns to the Philippines.

The film, as Kenneth Turan put it in his (stellar) review in the L.A. Times

quietly demonstrates that in the right hands [of director Anthony Chen] even the familiar stuff of everyday life can move us deeply. (…) Created in a sensitive, neo-realistic style, “Ilo Ilo” deals with how emotional connections are made and frayed, with the different ways individuals become important to us and how that dynamic plays out in the lives of children who are essentially powerless over their personal situations. (…) The great joy of “Ilo Ilo” is that, aided by naturalistic acting by all concerned…everything is allowed to happen believably in its own space and time, pulling us gradually but deeply into these people’s lives. It is difficult to overstate how real and touching all this feels and how much it ends up affecting us.

Yes, absolutely. The story was inspired by the director’s own childhood experience, of his family’s live-in Filipina maid until he was 12-years-old and to whom he was attached. She was an important person in his early life—he called her Aunt Terry—but the family lost touch but with her, remembering only that she came from the province of Iloilo in the Philippines (thus film’s international title; the Chinese title translates as “mother and father are not home”). Reviews of the pic have been tops across the board, in both the US—e.g. see Stephen Holden’s in the NYT—and in France. The trailer may be seen on the film’s website.

Similar to ‘Ilo Ilo’ was a film from Hong Kong I also saw last year, ‘A Simple Life’ (en France: ‘Une vie simple’), by director Ann Hui, about a 40ish film producer named Roger (actor Andy Lau) and his lifelong domestic, Ah Tao (actress Deanie Ip), who has served four generations of Roger’s upper middle class family over six decades. Roger, who’s a bachelor, is the only one left in the house, as his siblings have long married and moved out, his father has passed away, and his mother lives abroad, so Ah Tao tends exclusively to him, cooking his meals and all. But she’s in her late 60s and suffers a stroke, so obviously has to stop working. Roger wants to hire a caregiver for her at home but she insists on going to a nursing home, so he accedes to that. She’s been Roger’s family’s domestic all his life—and most of hers—and has become an integral member of the family—and to whom he is closer than he is to his own mother. And the situations are now reversed, with him now taking care of and tending to her.

I loved this movie, as did the friend with whom I saw it (it made my Top 10 list of 2013). It is so moving and touching, well-acted and just all around excellent. The relationship of Ah Tao to Roger and his family is at the center of the film but it also depicts, more generally, a world that is disappearing, of middle class families in Hong Kong—and other societies—and the domestics who worked for them, who were engaged by the families as children and served them for a lifetime. In Hong Kong, poor families who sent their children to be domestics with well-to-do families often named them “Chun” or “Tao,” to the point where these names came to be associated with domestics. There’s a great scene in the movie where Ah Tao, before she moves into the nursing home, is interviewing a job applicant to replace her. She informs the young woman of what will be expected of her, of how she is to tend to Roger—fussing over him, giving him massages, and all—, to which the applicant responds to the effect of “I’m not going to do that shit! Fuck that!” and then gets up and walks out. Lower class women in today’s Hong Kong are no longer available for that kind of work (as in Western societies, where housekeepers and nannies are invariably immigrants). As it happens, the film is based on the real life story of its producer, Roger Lee. Reviews were tops in France and in the US (see, in particular, this 4-star review by the late Roger Ebert). Trailer is here.

a_simple_life

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Omar

Omar

Saw this last October. I should have written about it then, or perhaps last month, when it opened in the US and was in the running for the best foreign language film Oscar (it lost out to ‘The Great Beauty’, which is not surprising, as it was a long shot to begin with; it’s hard to imagine the Academy awarding an Oscar to a film regarded—incorrectly in my view—as being so anti-Israel). When I first saw Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Omar’ I pronounced it a chef d’œuvre and the best Palestinian film ever. Period. Even better than Abu-Assad’s 2005 ‘Paradise Now‘. I’ve since had the opportunity to see ‘Omar’ a second time and, while still giving it the thumbs way up, will reserve judgment on it being the best ever Pal pic until I give ‘Paradise Now’ another look (re Elia Suleiman’s œuvre—which is favored by certain friends—, I find his films interesting but quirky; not masterpieces IMO). As for the reviews of ‘Omar’ by mainstream professional critics—very good in France, mostly good in the US—I’ve paid little attention to them. When it comes to films with such a heavy political content and on subjects I know well—e.g. Israel-Palestine, Algeria—I tend to ignore the regular film critics and look instead for the views of those with specialized knowledge (academics, journalists, political actors, etc) or who have a particular interest in the issue (activists, etc)—and with whom I may or may not agree. And on ‘Omar’, I find myself not entirely on the same page with the viewpoints on the film that I’ve come across (an exception being David Shulman’s fine review a week ago on the NYR blog). Those familiar with ‘Omar’ and the film’s politics will know that it is considered pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, which is perhaps normal given the identity of the director, the fact that it was entirely Palestinian-funded, and with all Palestinian actors (that some may be citizens of Israel—including director Abu-Assad—and that much of the film was shot in Israel—Nazareth and Beit She’an—is irrelevant; it’s a Palestinian film, period). And, of course, the manner in which it depicts the occupation and the question of collaboration. On this, the film has been praised by pro-Palestinian activists. One is the engagé Nazareth-based journalist and writer Jonathan Cook, who reviewed the film last September on The Electronic Intifada website. Cook thus describes the mechanisms of collaboration

The reality…is that collaboration is Israel’s chief tool for maintaining what is effectively an occupation for Palestinians inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It makes organizing resistance, or even struggling for basic rights, all but impossible. Over decades, Israel’s gatekeepers have devised a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring ordinary Palestinians. Once caught, as a fellow prisoner warns Omar, escape is impossible. And sure enough, Omar soon finds himself trapped by a seemingly harmless remark. (…) The film fearlessly dissects how this system of control works and why Palestinians, like Omar himself, are mostly powerless to evade or subvert it. Abu Assad’s decision to put the problem of collaboration at the heart of his film is therefore a bold one indeed. It is also vitally important because, until Palestinians confront the issue openly and honestly, they have little power to break Israel’s stranglehold on their lives.The film’s message is more hopeful than this synopsis may imply. Real awareness is possible, Abu Assad concludes in the final scenes, and with it comes the only hope for personal and social transformation.

Writing on his blog last month, the très engagé Richard Falk—UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the past six years (a post from which he will soon be retiring الحمد لله)‎—pronounced ‘Omar’ superior to ‘Paradise Now’ in a number of respects. In addition to examining the film’s treatment of collaboration, Falk did likewise with question of Palestinian violence targeted at Israelis

The reality of Palestinian violent resistance has two important consequences even though it seems currently futile from the perspective of challenging the occupation in any way that promises to liberation: it gives dignity to Palestinians who seem united in their will to live-unto-death despite their defenselessness and it makes Israelis vulnerable despite their seeming total control of the situation… (…) [F]rom the Palestinian side, nothing is worse than becoming a collaborator, and yet only a hero among heroes, would have the super-human capacity to avoid such a fate given the brutality used by Israelis to acquire the information they need to enforce their will on a hostile population. For the occupier recruiting collaborators is a vital part of improving security; for the occupied, it is the final humiliation, making the fate of the traitor far worse than that of the slave.

Pro-Israel reviewers liked the film rather less. E.g. Village Voice film critic Nick Schager, in a review last October, wrote that

A screed is a screed no matter its superficial genre trappings, as evidenced by Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, whose thriller machinations are merely a vehicle to deliver narrow-minded political preaching. (…) While Omar and his Palestinian loved ones are presented as uniformly funny, romantic and likable, Israelis are depicted as unjustifiably cruel and devious, be they the soldiers who harass Omar for no reason, the officers who torture him after he’s rightly arrested for the soldier’s death, or agent Rami…who tricks Omar into confessing and then blackmails him into becoming an informant. Throughout, Abu-Assad paints in such stark black-and-white terms that there’s no complexity to the ensuing saga, in which Omar is tasked with ratting out his friends if he ever wants to be with Nadia, only to discover that she may not be untrustworthy. With its deck so stacked that it plays out like a crude anti-Israeli sermon, the film – which ultimately determines that deception, betrayal and cold-blooded murder are acceptable if committed against Israelis (or by women), but not if done by Israelis – proves one-dimensional as both a political argument and a drama.

Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal also thought ‘Omar’ demonized Israelis

As was the case in Abu-Assad’s earlier movie, “Rana’s Wedding,” the protagonists in “Paradise Now” do not hide their antagonism toward Israelis; nevertheless, the latter are portrayed as recognizable human beings, not merely sadistic oppressors… However, in “Omar,” Abu-Assad forgoes such artistic and ideological balance, painting the Israelis as heartless torturers and connivers with no redeeming qualities.

In a lengthy review essay in the March issue of The Tower, conservative writer and blogger Rich Richman—quoting the work of Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, among others—likewise shredded ‘Omar’, labeling it propaganda and expressing indignation that it received an Oscar nomination over Yuval Adler’s ‘Bethlehem’, which was Israel’s Oscar submission and strikingly similar to ‘Omar’ (though is much more of a “genre film”; I saw it recently and will post on separately). And then there’s a review, which I stumbled across quite by accident, by a wacky right-wing blogger—and film critic à ses heures—named Debbie Schlussel, who called ‘Omar’ a “slow, boring, poorly-written Palestinian propaganda film” that shows how “Palestinians are lying, conniving pieces of crap who cannot be trusted…” Quelle conne.

People—myself included—read all sorts of things into movies. Palestinians on the West Bank have had mixed feelings about ‘Omar’, so I hear (seeing it, entre autres, as being destined mainly for Western audiences in the way it depicts the protag Omar). Hany Abu-Assad, for his part, said, in a Jerusalem Post interview, that “the heart of the film is the tragic love story” between Omar and Nadia. “[T]he pic’s romantic plot is the key component,” he insists: it’s “a love story, not a war story.” S’il le dit…

I have five general comments to make about the film—and in reaction to the reviews cited above, which are wide of the mark on several counts IMO. First, the depiction of the occupation is dead on accurate, notably the deleterious effects of the separation barrier on the daily lives of Palestinians—symbolized in the scenes of Omar scaling the wall at peril to his life to see his sweetheart Nadia—and of the behavior of Israeli soldiers toward the Palestinians more generally, and particularly young Palestinian men. The scene of the soldiers arbitrarily ordering Omar to stand on the rock—for no other reason than to humiliate him—happens everyday in some form or another somewhere in the Palestinian territories. It is utterly banal (as is the rifle-butting Omar received when he talked back to the soldiers). The aforecited pro-Israel reviewers may call the scenes in question propaganda but they cannot credibly claim that these distort reality. If the film made the Israeli soldiers look bad, it is because they indeed behave badly in such instances (and which is how Palestinians under occupation experience them). That said, it is inexact to say that the film demonizes Israelis. Israelis hardly figure in the film, in fact: of the ones whose faces we see—and apart from the soldiers who stop Omar next to the wall—there is only the Shabak agent Rami, who is not negatively portrayed. He is not an antipathetic character. He’s a professional doing his job and, as Omar’s handler, plays good cop more often than not.

As for the torture scene, it actually wasn’t clear to me at first that it was even the Israelis who were doing the dirty work. I assumed it was a joint PA-Israeli operation and with Pals inflicting the actual torture, mainly because of the manner in which it was carried out (bludgeoning, blow torches, stringing up from the ceiling…). Not that I don’t put it past the Israelis to behave brutally but, subsequent to the 1999 supreme court ruling, they’ve ceased these kinds of interrogation methods, and particularly methods that leave physical marks. Or so I assumed. To clarify the matter, I ran the question by persons-in-the-know—at NGOs that work on IP—, the response to which was that enhanced interrogation methods, if you will, are still practiced but not systematically and take forms other than what was depicted in the film (e.g. sleep deprivation, loud music, denial of medical treatment—i.e. not methods that draw blood and/or scar the skin). If one wants to be charitable here, one may say that Abu-Assad was taking artistic license in portraying Israelis employing torture techniques à l’arabe. Artistic license was likewise at work in the two chase scenes (the first of which I initially assumed involved PA cops), as the Shabak no longer stages hot pursuit daytime raids in the heart of the Nablus casbah… As so much of the film was metaphorical—e.g. it wasn’t explicitly set in any particular locale in Palestine—and accurately depicts the way Palestinians experience the occupation, I’ll give Abu-Assad a pass on this.

Second comment: the film effectively depicts the vise in which the Israelis have the Palestinians, “a spider’s web of techniques for ensnaring” them, to quote Jonathan Cook. When it comes to “organizing resistance,” the Palestinians are fucked, completely and totally, and through institutional mechanisms and methods that, as David Shulman notes, the Israelis have been honing since the Mandate era. But the Palestinians, with their patriarchal codes of honor and penchant for internecine violence—which is on full display in ‘Omar’ (e.g. Tariq willing to kill his best buddies over transgressions, i.e. sex, with his sister Nadia; it is not the case that the film portrays Palestinians as “uniformly funny” and “likable”)—, have greatly simplified the Israelis’ task, not to mention the manner in which the Pals’ “resistance” has been conceived. Resistance may take civil and armed forms—peaceful or violent—, and the Palestinians have almost always privileged the latter (even during the first Intifada, during which practically no demo did not involve mass stone-throwing; I doubt Gandhi or M.L.King would have approved). But the use of violence by the Palestinians has always been doomed to failure and which most of them have long been fully aware. Even during the 1960s to early ’80s heyday of the PLO and its fedayeen incursions into Israel, the constituents of the PLO all knew that they had no hope of posing even a modest military challenge to Israel, let alone defeating it. Their aim was to provoke a war between Israel and the Arab states—i.e. Egypt and Syria—, with the latter liberating Palestine and sending the Zionists packing. But that dream came to end with Sinai II and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. And if some Palestinian groups thought that kamikaze attacks on civilians could maybe provoke an exodus of Jews, that was put paid to by the catastrophic Palestinian defeat in the second Intifada and the erecting of the separation barrier.

Which leads to the third comment, on the shooting of the soldier by Omar and his pals (with ringleader Tariq pulling the trigger), which is the central event in the film. Given the vise of occupation and the futility of armed struggle, one has to ask WTF were Omar, Tariq, and Amjad thinking when they decided to kill the soldier? What was the strategic logic of the act? And did they really imagine that the Israelis—with their dense network of informers and mania over protecting the lives of every last one of their (Jewish) citizens—would not eventually find them?  Now it is indeed the case that many such killings in these kinds of conflicts lack a clear strategic goal, at least vis-à-vis the enemy. Men commit the acts to impress their comrades, prove themselves to superiors, or simply to wreak vengeance (e.g. vengeance was a central motivation in the FLN’s terrorist campaign during the 1956-57 Battle of Algiers). Richard Falk suggests in the quote above that Palestinians—presented as eternal victims—commit such acts to maintain their “dignity” and make the enemy—whom they have no chance whatever of defeating militarily—feel “vulnerable,” even though the momentary restoration of dignity will most certainly land one in prison—and with all the humiliations that entails—and only reinforce the enemy’s military vise. Fabulous. If this is the finality of the Palestinian “resistance,” then one can only conclude that the Palestinians have the stupidest resistance movement in history. If one grades resistance or liberation movements on their ability to set clearly defined objectives and then elaborate a strategy to attain them, then the Palestinian “resistance” movement—present and past—gets an F!

The fourth comment—and which further bears out the stupidity of the Palestinian “resistance”—has to do with collaboration and the Palestinian psychosis over this, which is the central theme of ‘Omar’. “Collaboration” is, in fact, a misnomer in the Palestinian case, as this implies active support offered willingly to the occupier, for ideological reasons—e.g. Frenchmen who collaborated with the German occupation during WWII—or financial or other non-political considerations—e.g. harkis during the 1954-62 Algerian war. Palestinians in the West Bank/Gaza who “collaborate” with the Shabak do not do so willingly; they are coerced or pressured into informing; they are made offers they can’t refuse. They’re informers under duress, not collaborators. Palestinians all know this; they know that those in their midst—e.g. Omar in the film—whom they suspect of being informers have been coerced into it and that such could happen to any one of them. The last thing Omar wanted to do was rat on Tariq to Shabak agent Rami. He was not a traitor. But he was nonetheless socially ostracized following mere rumors that he’d been turned by the Israelis and risked execution by his comrades—his best friends from childhood—if the suspicions were even halfway confirmed. The Palestinian armed groups, instead of trying to turn the problem of informers to their advantage—to make them double-agents, or adopt an approach that saves all their skins, or something—, murder their own. They make it so easy for the Israelis. Again, as far as resistance movements go and in view of the utter futility of engaging Israel in armed struggle, the Palestinians are just so fucking stupid.

Fifth comment. One sees no sign of the Palestinian Authority in the film. It’s as if the Palestinians have no (para-)state authority and are on their own in their interface with the Israelis—but which is, in fact, not the case for the majority of the inhabitants of the West Bank, and particularly in urban areas (where the film takes place). And while Tariq and his pals are presumably in a cell of an armed group and with a hierarchical superior, one does not see this. Cf. Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers‘, which focuses on the FLN’s operation in the Casbah—initiated by Yacef Saadi, who, in the larger FLN organization, counted for nothing outside the city of Algiers—but makes sure to show the higher political leadership. In ‘Omar’, as in other Palestinian films, the Palestinians are depicted as leaderless, and with the “resistance” comprised of freelancing armed gangs. If this is what the Palestinian “resistance” is about, then it had might as well hang it up now, as it is utterly doomed.

As for the aesthetic/cinema side of ‘Omar’, it’s first-rate: excellent acting—particularly Adam Bakri as Omar and Waleed Zuaiter as Rami—, good dialogue, well-directed, gripping, and with an ending that knocked the wind out of me… Great movie!

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand_budapest_hotel_ver2

I initially had no interest in seeing this—the trailer didn’t hook me at all; not my kind of movie, even though I thought that the one other film I’d seen by Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom,” was pretty good—but in view of the stellar reviews on both sides of the Atlantic plus the gushing recommendation from friends and colleagues, decided what the hell, so I went with a friend two evenings ago. And it’s not bad at all. Agreeably entertaining, droll, offbeat characters and an A-list cast… On passe un bon moment. But its Adventures of Tintin portrait of the Old Europe has a more somber side, as Wes Anderson was influenced by the work Stefan Zweig, who witnessed Europe’s descente aux enfers during the calamitous decade of the 1930s and committed suicide in 1942. Voilà a few articles on this aspect of the film:

Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ Promises to Make Americans Rediscover the Books of Stefan Zweig,” by Jason Diamond, in Flavorwire (February 7th).

‘I stole from Stefan Zweig’: Wes Anderson on the author who inspired his latest movie,” in The Telegraph (March 8th). The lede: As his film The Grand Budapest Hotel hits cinemas, Wes Anderson talks to George Prochnik about its inspiration, the early 20th century Austrian author Stefan Zweig.

Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson, and a longing for the past,” by Richard Brody, in The New Yorker (March 14th).

Wes Anderson’s Elegy to Stefan Zweig,” by Max Nelson, in the Los Angeles Review of Books (March 14th).

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The Lunchbox

the lunchbox affiche

I note that this gem of a movie from India has just opened in the US. I saw it in December and loved it, as did every last person I know who saw it. It is such a touching, charming, poignant film. Two souls in the teeming Bombay megalopolis—a mid 50s widower (played by the well-known Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan) and 30ish housewife with yet no children (the rather attractive actress Nimrat Kaur)—cross paths, though without their paths actually crossing. For a synopsis, go to the film’s website here. In addition to the heartwarming story, watching the pic quite literally made me salivate for Indian food, and particularly Indian home cooking. And one sees the dabbawalas at work: the caste of (illiterate) men who deliver thousands of lunch boxes daily from homes (meals prepared by wives) to offices and workplaces (of husbands) and without ever mistaking an address (except once, in this movie), such that the dabbawala business model, as it were, has been studied by the Harvard Business School (e.g. here and here). The story also concludes exactly as it should, and with the final scene particularly good. So thumbs way up! Don’t miss it! Kenneth Turan’s L.A. Times review is here, French reviews (very good) are here, interview (en français) with director Ritesh Batra is here, trailer is here. BTW, ‘The Lunchbox’ was incomprehensibly not India’s submission to the Oscars for best foreign language film. Had it been, it would be a strong contender to win that award later today.

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2014 Oscars

oscars 2014

For the first time ever I’ve seen every movie nominated in the top categories and before the ceremony (i.e. there were none of utterly no interest, that I declined to see, and/or wasn’t able to see). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on: 12 Years a Slave (excellent), American Hustle (overrated; it’s entertaining and with fine acting but is not that great of a movie), Gravity (good for 3-D but only for 3-D), Nebraska (loved it), and The Wolf of Wall Street (way overrated), plus Blue Jasmine (overrated). As for those I haven’t posted on, voilà my brief take on each:

Captain Phillips: Entertaining, well-done pic and “authentic”—as the Somali pirates are real Somalis, amateurs recruited in the Somali communities in Minneapolis and London—, but the suspense value of which is diminished by the fact that you know how it’s going to turn out. An inherent problem in movies that reenact actual events… As far as Somali piracy films go, I will rate the Danish ‘A Hijacking‘ a notch higher, as it, being European, contains an element of tragedy (as how can piracy on the high seas have no tragedy?). I also wasn’t overly impressed with Tom Hanks’s performance. And it seems that real life crewmen of the Maersk Alabama are hotly contesting the way the film presents Captain Phillips, who, they insist, does not merit hero status.

Dallas Buyers Club: Again, a movie based on a true story, though here I wasn’t well informed on the details going into the theater except that it was about the beginning the AIDS epidemic—in the 1980s—, when a positive diagnosis of HIV meant near certain death and in short order. The pic is very good, thoroughly entertaining, and with a stellar performance by Matthew McConaughey. The other performances, e.g. Jared Leto, are also quite good. Among other things, the film will gratify those who have it out for the pharmaceutical industry (and its often unholy collaboration with doctors). Thumbs up.

Her: First I’ve seen by director Spike Jonze. I normally don’t go for futuristic-type films but this one was very good. Absorbing and mesmerizing. A deep reflection on love and the virtual world spawned by technology. And the acting is first-rate: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (virtually), Amy Adams… Thumbs up!

Philomena: Okay, I thought this was a touching, moving, well done film and with some fine acting—particularly Judy Dench—, that jerked my tears (I’m sentimental, so no joke), and made me loathe even more those who claim to be close to God—here the personnel of the Catholic church—but who make simple, innocent people so unhappy. It’s a movie for the masses—not a chef d’œuvre—but may absolutely be seen.

And then there’s this:

August: Osage County: A two-hour psychodrama at a family gathering in bumfuck Oklahoma, of unattractive, uninteresting, antipathetic, indeed despicable people—with two or three exceptions—screaming at each other almost non-stop. And some of what happens or is revealed in this dysfunctional family’s grand déballage is scarcely believable to boot. Meryl Streep’s (best actress nominee) performance is overwhelmed by the wretchedness of her character. Julia Roberts (best supporting actress nominee) isn’t much better. What a disagreeable movie. Who needs this? Avoid it. At all costs.

Voilà my Oscar ballot:

BEST PICTURE: 12 Years a Slave.
Obviously.

DIRECTING: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave).
Obviously.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club).
I was initially leaning toward Bruce Dern but McConaughey was really first-rate in this.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Judy Dench (Philomena).
Not a hard choice. I couldn’t stand Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’ and Amy Adams was good in ‘American Hustle’ but not meritorious of the top prize. As for Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’, forget it.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Bradley Cooper (American Hustle).
This was a coin toss. I’d have normally gone with Barkhad Abdi but it’s so easy for a Somali to play a Somali. And playing a transsexual, as Jared Leto did in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, doesn’t seem overly complicated either. For the record, I’m not a fan of Michael Fassbender.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: June Squibb (Nebraska).
I loved her character in this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o are worthy runners-up. As for Sally Hawkins, nah.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Omar.
Best Palestinian film ever (and which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post). It beats out by a hair The Broken Circle Breakdown, which I loved. The Hunt is a fine film. As for The Great Beauty, see my post from two days ago. The Missing Picture I haven’t seen.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: The Act of Killing.
This is the only one of the five nominees I’ve seen but it doesn’t matter, as none of the others—two of which I know about, two I hadn’t heard of—could possibly rival this incredible documentary.

OscarsMoviesChecklist2014_web

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2014 César awards

39eme ceremonie des cesar

[update below] [2nd update below]

The French Oscars. The awards ceremony is happening tomorrow night, at the Théâtre du Châtelet (as always). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations is Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!, followed by La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) and L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) with eight each. When the nominees were announced a month ago, there were nine films in the top categories I hadn’t seen (and, for most of them, had little to no interest in seeing). But as I wanted to be fully informed when casting my ballot, as it were (see below), I managed to catch all nine in the past month (DVD, VOD, en salle). I have blog posts on most of the nominees. For the ones I don’t—those seen of late—here’s my brief take on each:

Alceste à bicyclette (Cycling with Molière): A duo of two aging stage actors played by Fabrice Luchini (nominated for best actor) and Lambert Wilson, who do an impromptu rehearsal of Molière’s “La Misanthrope” at the former’s home on the Île de Ré. There’s obviously a story behind this and other things happen but that’s basically the film. And it’s good. Fine acting and worth seeing.

Elle s’en va (On My Way): A mid 60ish restaurateur (or restaurateuse?), beauty queen in her youth, and with all sorts of personal problems and états d’âme drops everything and embarks on a road trip from Brittany to the Haute-Savoie and points in between, picking up bratty grandson along the way, meeting up with estranged daughter, ex-husband, ageing mother, former beauty queen contestants, and various other people. The pic is Catherine Deneuve (best actress nominee) front and center. It’s her all the way. If one is a fan of Mme Deneuve, it may be seen. Otherwise, one may decide not to see it.

Les Beaux Jours (Bright Days Ahead): Fanny Ardant (best actress nominee) plays an early 60ish dentist in coastal Dunkerque who’s taken early retirement, has a perfectly acceptable life with dentist husband (Patrick Chesnais, best supporting actor nominee), and with two married daughters and grandchildren in town, gets bored, and falls into a torrid affair with a man (Laurent Lafitte) some 25 years her junior—he puts the moves on her—, who is clearly not wanting for female companionship himself (what does he see in her? well, she has quite the body for une femme d’un certain âge, and the libido to go with it). She’s trying to figure out what she wants in this new phase of her life. It’s a small film. Inoffensive. Not worth going out of one’s way for but may be seen.

Michael Kohlhaas (Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas): A historical drama set in the 16th century and based on German author Heinrich von Kleist’s early 19th century novella. The film faithfully follows the novella, so it appears, except that it’s set in southern France (and mainly shot in the Vercors) and not in Germany. The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (best actor nominee), who plays Michael Kohlhaas, learned French for the role. He’s good, as is the film.

Mon âme par toi guérie (My Soul Healed by You; alternatively: One of a Kind): A mid 30ish laboring man named Frédi (Grégory Gadebois, best actor nominee) is on disability, lives in a trailer park near Fréjus on the Mediterranean, has a complicated marriage, whiles away his time drinking beer with his prolo buddies, and learns that his recently deceased mother had bequeathed to him the powers of faith healing. So the word gets around, including in the Fréjus well-to-do classes, that this pudgy schlump of a guy, but who has a really good heart, is a faith healer. With his hands only. A little massage and voilà. Gadebois puts in a good performance but the pic is far from perfect. One may see it, but one may also skip it.

Renoir: This one opened in the US last year and to mostly good reviews. As the title suggests, it’s a biopic of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (played by Michel Bouquet, best actor nominee) and is set in precisely the summer of 1915, during WWI, at his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur, and with the Master in his mid 70s and ailing, but still painting bare-breasted women away. His son Jean (who went on to become the great filmmaker) comes home wounded from the front and takes up with his father’s latest model, a comely young local girl, Andrée, and whom he later marries. The film is about the relationship between the three and with the backdrop all the women in the sumptuous Renoir household who tend to the Master. It’s slow paced movie but absorbing. I liked it.

And then there’s this one, nominated for Best Music, that I saw en salle in December:

Casse-tête chinois (Chinese Puzzle): The third installment in director Cédric Klapisch’s series on the intersecting lives of the friends and lovers—Xavier (Romain Duris), Martine (Audrey Tautou), Isabelle (Cécile de France), Wendy (Kelly Reilly)—who came together as flat-mates in their university year abroad in Barcelona in the 2002 L’Auberge espagnole (entertaining movie, not at all bad, and great publicity for the EU’s Erasmus program) and who we met again as they hit their 30s in the (less good) 2005 Les Poupées russes. In this one, which takes place mainly in New York, the gang is approaching 40 and middle age. It’s a featherweight of a film, the lightest of light comedies, and utterly forgettable. A decidedly sub-optimal manner in which to spend two hours of one’s time. If you haven’t seen the first two films of the series, absolutely do not see this one. If you have seen the two, it’s up to you.

A couple of remarks about the César nominees. First, the Césars have categories for “most promising actor/actress” (meilleur espoir masculin/féminin), for first-time performances. As this is France, you have to pay your dues and wait your turn in the age hierarchy before great things can happen to you—and even if you’ve already done something as great as any of your elders. And as it happens, Adèle Exarchopoulos, who had the co-lead role in ‘La Vie d’Adèle’, has been nominated in this category, whereas Léa Seydoux is an outright best actress nominee. This is scandalous, as this was Exarchopoulos’s film. She was in almost every frame and her performance was stunning. She should by all rights win the César for best actress tout court, over Seydoux and everyone else, and not be relegated to the lesser category. Equally scandalous—or maybe just preposterous—is the nomination of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani to this same “most promising actress” category, for her role in the (excellent) film Syngue Sabour, which is entirely in Persian, was shot nowhere near France, and has nothing French about it apart from it being based on a Goncourt-winning novel written in French and by a naturalized French author. But what is particularly ludicrous is that Farahani is already a major Iranian actress and who has had lead roles in major films. WTF was the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma thinking when it nominated her to this sub-category?

The second remark, which I’ve already made in two posts this week: Nominated in the best supporting actress category are Julie Gayet (Quai d’Orsay) and Marisa Bonini (Un Château en Italie), both of whose performances were unexceptional—and in Gayet’s case, lasted only a few minutes. But, as one knows, Mme Gayet is François Hollande’s companion and ladylove, and Mme Bonini is (since 2007) Nicolas Sarkozy’s mother-in-law. Coincidence? Bon, on est en France…

Voilà my vote:

BEST FILM: La Vie d’Adèle.
This is a no brainer. No hesitation whatever.

BEST DIRECTOR: Asghar Farhadi (Le Passé).
Farhadi directed this very good French movie without speaking a word of French. As for Abdellatif Kechiche, he was, by numerous accounts, an insufferable, tyrannical, odious jerk while directing ‘La Vie d’Adèle’, so doesn’t deserve it (and for a third time at that).

BEST ACTOR: Guillaume Gallienne (Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!).
Gallienne is excellent in this, and plays the two major roles in the film to boot. He edges out Mathieu Amalric (La Vénus à la fourrure), though all the nominees are very good.

BEST ACTRESS: Emmanuelle Seigner (La Vénus à la fourrure).
The other nominees are all worthy—and a couple very worthy (e.g. Bérénice Béjo)—but Seigner was outstanding in this.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Olivier Gourmet (Grand Central).
There are other worthy nominees but Gourmet is a very fine actor and deserves it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Géraldine Pailhas (Jeune & Jolie).
She was good enough here but this is sort of faute de mieux. Not an exceptional crop this year IMO.

As for the Most Promising Actor and Actress categories, I won’t vote in them out of principle (and haven’t seen all the movies in any case).

UPDATE: ‘Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!’ won Best Film and Guillaume Gallienne Best Actor (with the film winning five awards in all). Sandrine Kiberlain (’9 mois ferme’) won Best Actress (deserved). Roman Polanski took Best Director for ‘La Vénus à la fourrure’ (a strange choice, as it was great film but on account of the actor and actress, not the director). Adèle Haenel won Best Supporting Actress for her role in ‘Suzanne’ (pourquoi pas?) and Niels Arestrup (‘Quai d’Orsay’) Best Supporting Actor (why not?). Adèle Exarchopoulos naturally won Most Promising Actress—the only award for ‘La Vie d’Adèle’; Abdellatif Kechiche didn’t even show up for the ceremony—and Pierre Deladonchamps (‘L’Inconnu du lac’) Most Promising Actor. Nice that ‘Alabama Monroe’ (The Broken Circle Breakdown) won Best Foreign Film. ‘Sur le chemin de l’école‘ beat out Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Le Dernier des injustes’ for Best Documentary (which means that I’ll have to see it). The complete list is here.

2nd UPDATE: The très cinésnob Les InRocks (France’s answer to Rolling Stone) is most unimpressed with the Césars awarded last night.

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la-grande-bellezza-poster

‘The Great Beauty’. Just about everyone is praising this movie. It’s received top reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, audiences love it, and friends—Facebook and real life—have given it the thumbs way up. I had no intention of seeing it, as I am really not a fan of Felliniesque films—pas ma tasse de thé—, and this one—judging from the trailer and description—looked to be Felliniesque and then some. And I wasn’t overly taken with director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2008 ‘Il Divo’ and despite its compelling political subject matter. But in view of the praise and its best foreign film nominations for both the Oscars and Césars, I decided I really should check it out (as it’s still showing at several Paris salles nine months after its release). The verdict: it is, in the cinematographic sense, a beautiful film, no question about that. But I found it tedious and generally insufferable, and with the story—of a member of the Italian high bourgeoisie taking stock of his life as he enters the troisième âge—to be of no particular interest. I couldn’t wait for the thing to be over. My dislike of Felliniesque films was definitively confirmed. But that’s me and my taste. I don’t expect others to agree. So this is not a recommendation not to see it. Chacun son goût.

One may, however, heed my view of ‘Un Château en Italie’ (A Castle in Italy), which, like the above film, has as its subject the Italian upper bourgeoisie (here a family in a state of advanced deliquescence). This one is directed by the Franco-Italian Valeria Bruni Tedeschi—older sister of Carla Bruni Sarkozy—and is essentially autobiographical, with Valeria B-T, who goes by the name of Louise in the film, playing herself. VBT’s real life lover for five years and who was 20 years her junior, the actor Louis Garrel (Nathan in the film), also plays himself (as Louise’s lover, and with his father, the well-known director Philippe Garrel, also present, albeit interpreted by an actor). And VBT’s mother, the concert pianist and occasional actress Marisa Bonini, is Louise’s mother in the film. So the pic all about VBT’s family—with the notable absence of Carla and who is played by no actress—and their histoires, but that it would really help to know before seeing it, as otherwise the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. But even if one does know about VBT and the film’s autobiographical nature—I was familiar with some of it but not all—it still doesn’t make a lot of sense. In short, the film is self-indulgent, nombriliste, and of little intrinsic interest. It’s pointless. Like, who cares about the contemporary Bruni Tedeschi family? It would have been one thing if the film had been about the family’s past, before they decamped to France in the late ’70s, but to focus on what’s going on with them nowadays (and with no reference to Carla) and their financial difficulties: zzzzzzzzzz. Hollywood critics who saw it at Cannes were respectful but not too positive (here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

‘Un Château en Italie’ has received one César nomination, for Marisa Bonini as best supporting actress. But her performance was utterly unexceptional. As indicated above, Mme Bonini is the mother of Carla Bruni Sarkozy, whose husband is gunning for a comeback in the 2017 presidential election and to knock off President Hollande. I noted in my post a couple of days ago on the film ‘Quai d’Orsay’ that Julie Gayet, Hollande’s S.O.—and for whom he dumped Valérie Trierweiler—, was likewise nominated for her (unexceptional) performance in that one. A political balancing act on the part of the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma maybe? Essaie-t-on de faire plaisir aux uns et aux autres? Just asking.

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Venus in Fur & Jimmy P.

LA-VÉNUS-À-LA-FOURRURE

Here are two more films that have been nominated for several César awards—including best film—and both starring Mathieu Amalric. One is Roman Polanski’s ‘Venus in Fur’, a cinematic adaptation of David Ives’s 2010 stage play of the same name—itself inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella—, that takes place entirely inside a theater and with only two actors in the film, Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner. I won’t say anything about the film or the jeu sado-maso the two characters descend into except that it’s an acting tour de force of Amalric and Seigner. If there is a better contemporary French actor than Amalric and with his range, his name does not immediately come to mind. And as I’ve said before, Roman Polanski may be a lowlife sleaze but he’s one great director. French reviews of the film were tops. Trailer is here.

The other film is Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian’, which is set in the US (in 1948) and is in English. Briefly, the film, which is inspired by real events, is about a Blackfoot Indian in Montana named Jimmy Picard (Benicio Del Toro) who fought in France during the war and is suffering from vertigo, severe migraines, hallucinations, temporary blindness and hearing loss, and other maladies, so is checked into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, where is he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. But the clinic decides to solicit the opinion of French ethnologist-psychoanalyst—and specialist of the American Indians—, Georges Devereux (played by Mathieu Amalric), who happens to be in Washington and is thus summoned to Topeka. So the film—which is based on Devereux’s 1951 book Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (introduction by Margaret Mead)—is about his psychoanalytic work with Jimmy P. The story is engaging enough but it left me somewhat unsatisfied. Devereux, a Romanian Jew who emigrated to France, clearly had an interesting story of his own but which the film does not get into (e.g. I wanted to know what happened to him during the Occupation). I can accept that this may have been outside the scope of the film mais ça m’a laissé sur ma faim quand même (there were a couple of other things that left me unsatisfied but as I saw it last September, the details now escape me). But I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing the film—which will be of particular interest to anthropologists and those interested in the history of psychiatry. French reviews were good on the whole, US reviews are somewhat mixed, trailer is here.

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quai dorsay

Voilà two French comedies that came out last fall and which have been nominated for several César awards. Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Quai d’Orsay’ (English title: The French Minister) is the better one. It’s the cinematic adaptation of a two-volume hardcover comic book by a young aide to Dominique de Villepin during his stint as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-04; I assume everyone knows that the Quai d’Orsay is the French foreign ministry), in which he recounts with humor the ambiance at the Quai during Villepin’s period and the experience of working with him. I haven’t yet read the comic series (don’t feel like plunking down €32 for it) but have been assured by several persons that it’s very funny. As for the film, it’s hilarious. I was laughing from the get go and right up to the end (and wasn’t alone among the audience; trailer is here). Thierry Lhermitte plays Villepin—who goes by Alexandre Taillard de Worms in the film—and Raphaël Personnaz the young énarque aide and speechwriter, named Arthur Vlaminck. Lhermitte depicts Villepin to a tee (though plays down the well-known trash-talking, umbrageous side of his personality). He may exaggerate a little, but only a little.

Villepin was/is a man of considerable talent and boundless energy, churning out books of poetry, biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte (his idol), and pontifications on the state of the world and humanity, all while working what was no doubt more than a 40-hour a week job. But he was/is—at least to “Anglo-Saxons” comme moi—a preposterous, almost absurd figure. What struck one about him, as I wrote in a post two years ago, was his almost comical grandiloquence. When Villepin speaks—whether in a formal speech or television interview—one is bombarded with a torrent of verbiage. He takes three minutes to say what could be said in one (in this he is not out of the ordinary in France, though pushes it to the outer limits). His pomposity is on another level. The word in French is ampoulé. But after cutting through the verbiage one realizes that he has said little to nothing significant or profound, if he has said anything at all. Lhermitte brings all this out in the film and to great comic effect. And though Villepin is never designated by name, much of what the film recounts did indeed happen—the luncheon scene with the Nobel laureate in literature (played by Jane Birkin) is priceless—, and with Bruno Le Maire, DDV’s right-hand man of the time, making a momentary clin d’œil appearance. And the film ends with the UNSC speech of February 14 2003, when Villepin, speaking for France, said no to the impending US invasion of Iraq—and which (rightly) made him a hero the world over.

As for the acting Césars, Niels Arestrup, who plays the minister’s chief-of-staff, is a nominee for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Gayet for Best Supporting Actress. Arestrup put in a perfectly fine performance but it’s not overly exceptional. As for Mme Gayet, she appears for all of three or four minutes in the film (I had hard time even remembering who her character was). Now she does happen to be President Hollande’s new companion, though I’m sure that had nothing whatever to do with the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma’s nominating her for the award… Just a coincidence, bien évidemment… But what’s particularly noteworthy is that Lhermitte was not nominated for Best Actor, even though he was the perfect actor for the role and put in a great performance. But then, M. de Villepin, a culture maven, does have numerous friends in the cinematic milieu and though I have not read anything as to his reaction to the film, it is possible, in view of his umbrageousness, that he only moderately appreciated it. CQFD.

À propos of all this, Le Monde’s weekend magazine dated January 12 2013 had a cover article on Villepin’s post-political career—as he’s pretty much out of politics now—as a globetrotting homme d’affaires: “Un businessman nommé Villepin.” He’s founded a consulting firm, Villepin International—which has two employees: him and a secretary—, on whose account he travels the world for his numerous high-powered clients, who seem to be particularly well represented in the Arabian peninsula (he has long-standing ties to Qatar and is bosom buddies with anyone who counts for anything there). His declared consulting income is €29,000/month, which is probably peanuts compared to what Henry Kissinger makes with his business but is not insignificant in France. In reading the article, though, one comes away with no idea of what Villepin actually does to earn his money. There is no clue. It’s a mystery. When he comes out with his next volume of poetry or tome on Napoleon, we’ll probably have an idea, at least of how he spends his time.

The other comedy that came out last fall was ’9 mois ferme’ (English title: 9 Month Stretch), directed by Albert Dupontel, which was a box office hit (almost two million tickets sold) and received top reviews in the Paris press—and has been nominated for six Césars, including Best Film, Best Actress (Sandrine Kiberlain), and Best Actor (Albert Dupontel). As the pic was said to be riotously funny, I decided to see it. In brief, Kiberlain plays a 40ish pète-sec, workaholic magistrate, who has no family, no male companion, is not interested in having fun, and lives only for her work and professional ambitions. But on New Year’s Eve she gets shitfaced drunk, which can happen, and, four months later, learns in a routine doctor’s visit that she’s exactly four months pregnant. With no idea of how it could have possibly happened, she discovers in her personal enquête that the deed—of which she has no recollection—was committed on that fateful New Year’s Eve and with a lowlife, loutish multirecidivist (the Dupontel character) whom she is currently investigating for a heinous crime of which he has been accused. So the movie is of that and what happens between her and him. It has its comic moments and with zany characters—the acting is good, no dispute about that—, and pokes fun at the corps judiciare (French judges and prosecutors), but I can’t say I was bowled over throughout. A few chuckles here and there but no sustained belly laughs. But that’s me. When it comes to comedy, I’m hard to please. Also, the whole premise of the story is just a tad implausible. THR’s review is here, trailer is here.

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les_garcons_et_guillaume_a_table

This was a box office hit comedy in France late last year (with over 2.5 million tickets sold). I had no interest in seeing it and despite the very good local reviews, but in view of its ten César nominations—the most of any film—and recommendations from a couple of people, I decided to check it out (as it’s still in the theaters three months after its release). The pic is the cinematic version of actor-director Guillaume Gallienne’s 2008 autobiographical one-man show—he’s mainly a stage actor with the Comédie-Française—about his relationship with his mother during his childhood and teen years. He was an effeminate mama’s boy—he loved her more than anything—and though a pète-sec and somewhat caractérielle, she indulged and fussed over him. He was so effeminate that his family—including his two older brothers, who are regular guys—assumed he was gay; he was almost treated as being transgender, not really male. He figured he had to be gay as well but, as he headed into his 20s, turned out to be a hetero after all, who simply had to resolve his complicated relationship with his mother. It’s a wonderful movie. Heartwarming. I really liked it. While watching it I didn’t immediately realize that Gallienne plays both Guillaume and his mother. It’s an acting tour de force. Hollywood critics who saw it at Cannes gave it the thumbs way up (here, here, and here). Trailer is here. The pic’s English title, ‘Me, Myself and Mum’, will likely be modified if/when it opens in the US.

Another well-regarded French film with a gay theme that opened last year was ‘L’Inconnu du lac’ (English title: Stranger by the Lake). As with ‘Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table!’, I had no interest in seeing it but in view of its eight César nominations and top reviews, decided (a couple of weeks ago) that I should. This one is a thriller/drame psychologique, not at all a comedy. The entire film takes place on a nudist beach on a small lake (in Provence)—and in the wooded area behind it—that is frequented exclusively by gay men, who come to lie in the sun and cruise. Not a single woman appears in the film and only one non-gay male (a police inspector). At the center of the story is a young hunk named Franck (actor Pierre Deladonchamps), who develops a powerful attraction to another hunk, Michel (Christophe Paou), who, one learns, is a psychopathic killer, but with whom Franck pursues a relationship despite having witnessed Michel drown his previous lover in the lake. The film has scenes of explicit gay sex such that I have personally never seen on the screen (having never exposed myself to gay porn flicks). ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is Bambi compared to this. But the sex scenes are not gratuitous—not even the ones that are outright pornographic—, as they establish the ambiance of the place, depict the codes and hierarchies of gay men in those situations, and the nature of their relationships with one another. It’s a taught, tense thriller, very well acted, and with the suspense building to the final scene that had me on the edge of my seat. The film is quite good and, if one doesn’t have a problem with the explicit sex, absolutely worth seeing. I note that it opened in the US last month and to good reviews (here and here), but has been confined to the LGBT ghetto (as it was in France; it was not a box office hit here). I guess that’s normal but is too bad nonetheless. Trailer is here.

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IN BLOOM

Continuing from my previous post, I’ve seen two films in the past couple of months on lands of the ex-Soviet Union. One was ‘In Bloom’ (titre en France: Eka et Natia, Chronique d’une jeunesse georgienne), from Georgia, which is a coming-of-age film about two teenage girls—who are best friends—in Tbilissi after the end of Soviet Union (it is set in precisely 1992 and with the Abkhaz refugee crisis a backdrop, as it is in every Georgian film I’ve ever seen), of their trials and tribulations, and how, entre autres, they confront archaic practices of Georgia’s patriarchal culture, and particularly bride kidnapping. It’s an engaging, well-done film, and with first-rate performances from its young actresses. Is definitely worth seeing. The reviews in Variety and the NYT get it about right. French reviews were good to very good. Trailer is here.

The other was a French film, ‘Les Interdits’ (English title: Friends from France), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski, and which is set in Odessa in 1979, in the latter Brezhnev era. Here’s a description of the plot by critic Carole Di Tosti, who saw the pic at the New York Jewish Film Festival last month

The film focuses on the relationship of nineteen-year-old idealist, Carole ([French singer and actress] Soko in a powerful performance) and Jérôme (Jérémie Lippmann) who are cousins on a mission that in their naiveté they don’t quite understand. As aides to an Israeli organization in France, they go undercover traveling to Soviet Russia to connect with Jewish refuseniks.

Posing as a couple on tour celebrating their recent engagement, they enter the country sneaking in banned books and other items at great peril to themselves. Carole is the political one who has been to Israel and she especially is working with others in Israel and France in the hope of eventually securing visas for refuseniks who are secretly in touch with an Israeli organization via “tourists” who visit from France. Jérôme is with her because he is attracted to Carol and this adventure; he enjoys being with her more than upholding the cause. The code words they use to connect with the refuseniks who are being closely surveilled are, “We are your friends from France.”

Jérôme and Carole must suppress their words and actions because there are “bugs” everywhere and the KGB is on hand to question and take away anyone who appears to be suspicious. The atmosphere the filmmakers create is truly frightening, especially when the young couple nearly get caught and when those they are helping are taken in and forcefully interrogated. During their time in Odessa, they learn the dark underbelly of the subterranean  oppressed culture. They experience the harsh, seedy realities of totalitarianism, the potential exploitation of their youth by the Jewish organization, and the need for escapism through sex and drugs in the stultifying environment. And they befriend the refuseniks, especially Viktor (an excellent Vladimir Fridman) who entrusts Jérôme with a journal of his incredible survival story in the Gulag.

The journal is a subversive document. If it is found by the KGB it will result in imprisonment and torture of the one who possesses it and its author. To complicate matters Jérôme has fallen hopelessly in love with Carole and is devastated when she goes off with one of the “friends” from France. His jealously puts him in an emotional flux. The directors use his emotional state to heighten the suspense and further our anticipation that he is capable of taking unnecessary risks because of it.

Is Carole seeking love elsewhere to escape her love and desire for her cousin, Jérôme? In keeping his promise to Viktor, will Jérôme safely get the journal through customs? Or will he be caught, imperiling himself and jeopardizing the consummation of his love with Carole? The filmmakers are skillful in creating thrilling intrigue. The adventure culminates in an ironic surprise ending. Weill and Kotlarski successfully reinforce the themes which show the extent that love brings the cousins and friends together through sacrifice. It is a journey where only the finest can experience and fully understand the cost of political and personal freedom.

I was initially not going to see the film but decided to do so on the recommendation of a well-known political scientist, whom I hold in high esteem, who promoted it on Facebook and linked to this positive review in the monthly magazine L’Histoire, which highlighted the precision with which the film reconstitutes the ambiance of the Soviet Union of the period, of the appearances, psychology, even the interiors of the apartments of the refuzniks and intellectuals who were under KGB surveillance (the film was shot in eastern Germany). On this level, the film worked. But it worked less well in the specific story of the two cousins and their relationship. And Jérémie Lippmann’s acting wasn’t too good. So the verdict is mixed, though if one is interested in the subject matter it may be seen. French reviews were good. Trailer is here.

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Lulu femme nue

lulu-femme-nue

My post of a week ago on ‘Learning French’  got a fair amount of traffic and with numerous comments, both here and on FB. In my critique of John McWhorter’s absurd piece in TNR, I referred to a silly, off-the-cuff remark he made about how knowing French may enable one to see French movies without subtitles (as if such an ability is of no interest…) In fact, I see French movies all the time without English subtitles—some of which may not make it to the US—and am hardly the worse off for it. E.g. this is one I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks (English title: Lulu in the Nude) and which I liked. It’s the first film I’ve seen by the Icelandic/naturalized French director Sólveig Anspach, who’s done at least two others that have been highly regarded. This one, which is based on a graphic novel of the same title, is about a mid 40ish housewife, Lulu (Karin Viard), who lives in rural Anjou, has three kids and an unhappy marriage—her husband’s a real SOB—, and, on a coup de tête following a blown job interview—in seaside Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, in the Vendée—decides to take a break from her life in the sticks and stay in town. She quickly finds herself—quoting from a review in THR—”in an unlikely romance with Charles (Bouli Lanners), a charmer whose tramplike existence represents a temporary Eden; then with Marthe (Claude Gensac), an elderly woman who accepts Lulu in her lowest moment and becomes her best friend. Both relationships are presented as refuges too good to leave, but Anspach’s film always acknowledges what is left behind in ways that make a return inevitable.” The characters are offbeat and the acting first-rate, and particularly Karin Viard. It’s a nice film—sympathique—and that will, I think, be appreciated in particular by women over age 40. French reviews—very good across the board—are here and trailer is here.

Another French film seen in recent weeks, and which also stars Karin Viard, is ‘L’Amour est un crime parfait’ (Love is the Perfect Crime), directed by brothers Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu and based on the 2010 novel Incidences, by Philippe Djian (book and author both unknown to me). This one’s a crime thriller set in Switzerland, which I went to see for the A-list cast, notably Mathieu Amalric and Viard. Amalric’s character, named Marc, is a mid-late 40ish professor of creative writing at a university in Lausanne, lives in a chalet up in the Alps with his troubled sister, the Viard character, and with whom Marc has a complicated, incestuous relationship. But Marc is also a ladies man and seducer when in town, the main targets of his charms being his female students—all babes (funny how they’re always like that in movies)—and with whom he has a high success rate. The film indeed begins with Marc bedding one of his student conquests, whom he finds dead in bed when waking up in the morning. He doesn’t immediately recall her name—as he’s had so many of them—nor how she was killed, though he was the only one who was with her during the night. And he’s a sleepwalker and she’s not the only one who gets murdered while paying him a visit in the chalet, so one may guess who the culprit is…

Three comments about the pic. First, it’s an engaging thriller and more than holds one’s attention, but the story is ridiculous. It is not credible—and particularly Maïwenn’s character and what she reveals about herself at the end. Second, Amalric turns in a great performance, as usual—he’s one of France’s best actors hands down—, and Viard is typically good too, but Sara Forestier is typecast yet again (as a sassy, desultory eternal 22-year-old; and whose character in this one is, moreover, not believable); despite her Césars I have not been impressed with her as an actress. Thirdly, on middle-aged professor Marc scoring with his female students. Now it is not entirely unheard of for a male university professor to have casual sex with a current female student half his age (or more). Such has no doubt happened in the course of human history. But it is rare, indeed exceedingly so. And when it comes to profs having sex with students serially—bagging one after the other—, this simply does not happen. Period. It’s a middle-aged male fantasy (and a fantasy of men who are not academics). First, women in their early 20s—with the usual exceptions (and we can all cite examples)—are not interested in men who are the age of their fathers (and particularly if the men in question are not rich and famous). Second, a professor who hits on his students—wherever and under what circumstances such could take place (which is not obvious)—is not only engaging in unethical, unprofessional behavior but is taking a huge risk to himself, legally and to his career. Third, a prof who does hit on his students—who sees in them a pool of potential sexual partners—would, in addition to revealing himself to the world as a narcissistic pervert, have little success. He would be serially rebuffed. And these days he would get into big trouble and quickly. (N.B. I’m talking here about casual sex—as one sees in the movie—, not romances that may develop between a professor and a student, which, of course, do happen—anyone familiar with academia can cite several cases off the bat—and are wonderful for those involved in one). So on this level alone the film is BS. Hollywood press reviews—which are generally positive—are here, here, and here, French reviews—mostly good, though Allociné spectateurs liked it less—are here. Trailer is here. À chacun de décider ce qu’il en pense…

Another French film seen of late was ‘Suzanne’, directed by Katell Quillévéré. This one opened in December and which I wanted to see, on account of the trailer, good reviews, and its five César nominations (mainly in the acting categories). And as Sara Forestier had the lead role, I decided to offer her one last chance before definitively pronouncing her to be an overrated, one-dimensional ham actress. The verdict: she pulled this one off. She put in a good performance. She’s not a bad actress after all… Voilà! As for the film, it’s engaging enough. Briefly, it’s set in Languedoc—specifically in Alès, in the Gard (a small city I’ve been through several times)—and among the couches populaires, here a truck driver father who’s had to raise his two daughters all by himself—his wife having died when the girls were little—, the girls being adorable as children but the older one—Suzanne, the Forestier character—becoming less so into her teens, having a child out of wedlock to father unknown, falling in love with the wrong kind of guy, embarking on a life of crime and abandoning her child along the way, cutting her father and sister off—though she was close to both—, going to prison, gaining early release, having a child with the voyou love of her life—even though she did prison time for their joint criminal activities but not he—, tentatively seeking redemption, and etc etc. Thirty years of a life in one-and-a-half-hours. C’est rapide. The film is engaging enough and with solid acting but I thought it didn’t ring true at several points. So I cannot give it the unreserved thumbs up. But Hollywood critics who saw it at Cannes last year liked it on the whole (e.g. here, here, and here). Comme pour le film précédent, à chacun de décider…

L+AMOUR+EST+UN+CRIME+PARFAIT

suzanne

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The Woody Allen allegations

Dylan, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, and Ronan in 1988.  Photo credit: Photoreporters Inc/REX

Dylan, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, and Ronan in 1988.
Photo credit: Photoreporters Inc/REX

I don’t believe them. Not at all. This piece in TDB by filmmaker Robert B. Weide settles the matter for me. It’s as much as I need to read on the subject.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman R.I.P.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'

Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘The Master’

[update below]

I was shocked to hear the news last night. And I was not alone, in view of the reaction from numerous people on my FB news feed. How the f— does a man of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stature and fame—not to mention age—find himself with several packs of heroin and a needle in his arm? One associates this with underclass junkies, not someone so universally appreciated and with financial assets in at least the eight figures. Don’t get it. He’s being called the greatest (American) actor of his generation. I’ll put him in the top five, if not the top three. He played in some 50 feature-length films, according to IMDB. I’ve seen 12 by my count, the last one ‘The Master’. In my mini review of this last June, I wrote that PSH’s performance was extraordinary. He entirely carried what would have otherwise been a lesser film. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled off his performance. R.I.P.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has a great tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman and what Brody correctly calls PSH’s genius. He begins with this

Philip Seymour Hoffman gave one of the greatest onscreen performances that anyone ever gave, in “The Master”

Several friends on FB have taken me to task for I what I wrote above on heroin, arguing that heroin is less the issue than addiction, which is a chronic illness, and that PSH manifestly suffered from. Dont acte. (Feburary 4th)

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela-Long-Walk-to-Freedom-Poster-7

[update below]

Saw it the other day. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to make a really good biopic. This one is acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. William Nicholson and Justin Chadwick did a reasonably good job here—if one keeps in mind that it is indeed merely a biopic of a man, not a comprehensive treatment of apartheid South Africa or the ANC’s struggle in all its features and complexity. The film races through Mandela’s young adulthood as a lawyer and ANC activist and up to his 1962 arrest and the Rivonia trial; his early ’60s period is well portrayed, as are his 26 years on Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison. The film is particularly strong on Mandela the man, Winnie, their relationship, and how they began to diverge politically during his incarceration—of how Mandela was transformed from an “angry man” to one who “[came] to see that hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart,” whereas Winnie moved in the opposite direction (quotes are from Stephen Smith’s fine essay, “Mandela: Death of a Politician,” in the January 9 2014 London Review of Books). The film is not a hagiography, as this review in The Economist correctly observes. Idris Elba (Stringer Bell in ‘The Wire’) is very good as Mandela, as is (the rather beautiful) Naomie Harris as Winnie. The secret negotiations between Mandela and the white regime in the late 1980s are a high point of the film, though the four years between his release from his final prison dorée and the 1994 election are superficially depicted. E.g. those not familiar with the history will be utterly confused by the reenactment of the Boipatong massacre and who committed it (the Inkatha Freedom Party, the name of which is not uttered). All in all, Clint Eastwood’s feel good ‘Invictus’ is a more satisfying film. But this one may be seen—and should be by anyone with more than a passing interest in Nelson Mandela and South Africa. And it was a commercial and critical success in South Africa, which is a recommendation in itself. Trailer is here, the NYT review—the best on Metacritic—is here, French reviews—mostly good, and particularly the Allociné spectateurs—are here.

On the subject of South Africa, I saw last month Jérôme Salle’s ‘Zulu’, a French-South African police action movie set in contemporary Cape Town (and based on a 2010 novel by French crime fiction author Caryl Férey). The film, which stars Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker “as two detectives uniquely scarred by their nation’s cruel racial legacy” (quoting Justin Chang’s Variety review), is extremely violent. This should be normal given the exceptional level of violence in South Africa, but still… The cops are black and white, the criminals coloured and white, and there’s an Indian in there, so the entire Rainbow Nation is represented, as both good guys and bad. French reviews are mostly good (and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs up). The reaction of Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes was mixed. Trailer is here.

UPDATE: Uri Avnery saw the Mandela biopic and liked it. His review is here.

ZULU-Affiche

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American Hustle

american-hustle-poster

[update below]

Saw this yesterday. Didn’t know much about the film beforehand except that it received stellar reviews (with a 90 score on Metacritic; sortie en France le 5 février, sous le curieux titre ‘American Bluff’). It’s moderately entertaining but not essential. And the family members with whom I saw it gave it the thumbs down. But then, a highbrow cinephile friend—and whose recommendations (film and otherwise) I follow without fail—put it in his ‘favorite films of the year’ list and with this comment

Dylan: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale in David O. Russell’s delightful screwball comedy, may be a con man, but he’s got his pride, and his ethical standards, and his devotion to the man he’s conning gives this film an unexpected tenderness. With an insanely good cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K.

Yes, the cast is indeed very good. And I liked the 1978 setting and accompanying soundtrack, which brought back memories. The main thing that went through my mind while watching the movie was the American law enforcement practice of sting operations, or entrapment—the film is a loose reenactment of the Abscam affair—, which is quite outrageous when you think about it—and is illegal in France and just about every other country governed by the rule of law. Crazy stuff in the American legal system.

All the songs in the soundtrack naturally predated mid 1978, except for one (sort of), which was the contemporary Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa’s cool rendition—in Arabic—of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Le voilà on YouTube.

Another film seen in the past few days—this via Netflix—was ‘The Impossible’—which came out a year ago in the US and France—, based on the true story of a Spanish family (British in the film) with three children—the film was Spanish-produced and directed—who were at a Thai beach resort in December 2004 when the tsunami hit, were swept up in it, but miraculously survived and managed to all find one another. The disaster side of the film—of the tsunami—is very well done given that it’s not Hollywood, and therefore did not have the budget for Hollywoodish special effects. What a nightmare for all those who were affected by the tsunami. Thai society—the film was shot in Thailand—is portrayed very positively, expressing an exceptional level of solidarity and toward all the foreigners who were caught in the disaster. The film is gripping and well-acted, albeit marred somewhat by the annoying soundtrack—saccharin and overly loud—at the end, when the family is reunited. But it may definitely be seen.

UPDATE: Critic Willa Paskin has a spot on piece in Slate on how “‘American Hustle’ is the flashiest, emptiest, worst Best Picture nominee of the year.” (January 26, 2014)

The Impossible poster

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12 Years a Slave

12-years-a-slave-poster

[updates below]

I’m presently in the US on holiday. Seeing a movie a day. And since I don’t feel like writing about politics at the present time, I’ll write about movies. This one I saw last week, catching it at the very last theater in the area where it’s still showing. As it’s at the end of its US run—sortie en France le 22 janvier—presumably everyone who has had any interest in seeing it has done so by now. I don’t have anything original to add to what’s already been said about it. It is quite simply the most powerful film ever made on slavery in the American South. It entirely merits its 97 score on Metacritic—and is the best American movie of the year IMO.

Two things that went through my mind during the film and thinking about and discussing it after. One was the terrorist regime in the American South—where I happen to be at the moment (in a civilized part)—and that persisted for a century after the end of the Civil War. The American South was the most politically reactionary, violent, quasi feudal, and least democratic part of the Western world into the mid 20th century. And the entire white population was complicit. There may have been a few relatively kindly or benign slave owners—and one sees two in the film—but they were still slave owners. During the post Civil War century of Jim Crow, no sector of white society, not even a small minority, challenged the existing order. Practically no Southern whites participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s or openly supported it. Cf. South Africa, where a minority of whites did oppose apartheid (some even joining the ANC). And also unlike South Africa, there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-Jim Crow South. The federal government imposed the change on the South via legislation, court rulings, and even troops, and that was that. The South had no choice but to acquiesce. Of course there’s been accommodation, some at least, and life for black Americans in the South today bears little resemblance to what it was sixty years ago, but there’s still a direct line between the white Weltanschauung depicted in the film and that of the current Tea Party GOP, which dominates (white) Southern politics. How else to comprehend the GOP’s determination to restrict the suffrage via undermining the Voting Rights Act (America being the only country in the Western world—or even among non-Western democracies—where there is a concerted effort by one of the parties of government to effectively deny eligible citizens the right to vote, or to render it as difficult as possible)?

Second thought. In the scene in the film where the slaves are chopping trees with axes, one can almost feel how tempted they are—and particularly Solomon Northup/Platt—to swing around with those axes and use them on the slave owner and his overseers. White Southerners lived in permanent dread fear of slave revolts, which is one reason the violence meted out to the slaves was so extreme. If one was whipped for not meeting the quota for picked cotton, then the penalty for killing a white man could only be a slow, hideous death following torture and mutilation, and which the slaves knew well (and not even the slave owners had law on their side if they tried to shield their slaves from the wrath of whites of lesser standing; e.g. the scene of Solomon Northup/Platt being told by his first owner that he couldn’t protect him after the altercation with the overseer and the latter’s lynching posse). Thus the Second Amendment and the “right to bear arms,” here the white population forming armed militias to control the slaves. The Second Amendment was demanded by the Southern states to this end, so explicates law professor Carl T. Bogus in his 1998 article “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” published in the University of California at Davis Law Review. America and guns: it was all about controlling slaves. Yes, it was.

UPDATE: The Guardian has an interesting and informative article on the film’s director, “Steve McQueen: my hidden shame.” The lede: “His new film 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look at human brutality. But director Steve McQueen’s childhood contains a painful secret he has never confronted.” (January 4, 2014)

2nd UPDATE: Jonathan Chait has a quite good essay, dated December 4th, “12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era,” on the New York magazine website.

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Nebraska

Nebraska-Poster

[update below]

Saw this last night. It’s a wonderful movie. I loved it. I slipped it in to my ‘Best (and worst) movies of 2013′ (previous post) but had I seen it before drawing up the list, it would have likely made one of the top categories. For what it’s about, see the trailer and reviews (tops), in particular Kenneth Turan’s in the LA Times. In the video part of his review, Turan concludes with this

This is a road movie, this is a movie about fathers and sons, this is a comedy, this is a poignant film, this is a film that will make you happy that you have gone to the movies…

Absolutely. I didn’t know a thing about the pic before seeing it—apart from its 86 score on Metacritic and that it was directed by Alexander Payne—and had forgotten that Bruce Dern won the best actor award (richly deserved) at Cannes for his performance. As for Payne, it is further confirmation that he is one of America’s premier directors. Apart from his previous film, ‘The Descendants’, which I didn’t like too much, everything he’s done has been very good to excellent: ‘Sideways’, ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Election’, and ‘Citizen Ruth’ (and also his segment in ‘Paris, je t’aime’, which was the best in that otherwise uneven film). So: thumbs way up! Highly recommended. Sortie en France le 2 avril 2014.

ADDENDUM: A comment about the film. It portrays a slice of America and American society that almost no one sees: of small towns in the deepest heartland—here, the Plains states—, the people who live in them, and their particular cultural style and values (the latter of which are no different from those anywhere else). It is a part of America ravaged by unemployment, drug abuse, and of no future, that is slowly dying and is rarely the subject of Hollywood movies.

UPDATE: ‘Nebraska’ has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best actor (Bruce Dern), and best supporting actress (June Squibb). Dern and Squibb get my votes hands down! (January 16 2014).

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Best (and worst) movies of 2013

Voilà my annual list of the best and worst movies of the year (for last year’s list, see here). The movies here came out in the cinema this year in France or in the US. All have separate posts on this blog or will soon. N.B. I see a lot of movies but haven’t seen everything, including some that have been highly recommended by cinephile friends (e.g. I missed or have yet to see Cristian Mungiu’s ‘Beyond the Hills’, ‘La grande bellezza’, and Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Le Dernier des injustes’). And several recent, well-regarded American films are opening in France after the new year.

TOP 10:
12 Years a Slave
A Simple Life (桃姐)
A Touch of Sin (天注定)
Blue is the Warmest Color (La Vie d’Adèle)
Home from Home—Chronicle of a Vision (Die andere Heimat—Chronik einer Sehnsucht)
No
Omar (عمر)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Alabama Monroe)
The Repentant (Le Repenti التائب)
Wadjda (وجدة)

HONORABLE MENTION:
Horses of God (Les Chevaux de Dieu يا خيل الله)
Out in the Dark (עלטה ظلام)
Rush
Syngue Sabour, the Patience Stone (سنگ صبور)
The Past (Le Passé گذشته)

BEST MOVIE FROM SINGAPORE:
Ilo Ilo (爸妈不在家)

BEST MOVIE FROM SRI LANKA:
Ini Avan

BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
In Bloom

SECOND BEST MOVIE FROM GEORGIA:
Keep Smiling

BEST MOVIE FROM TURKEY:
Beyond the Hill (Tepenin Ardı)

BEST MOVIE FROM ICELAND:
The Deep (Djúpið)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON COURTSHIP AND ROMANCE AMONG THE HAREDIM IN A TEL AVIV SUBURB:
Fill the Void (למלא את החלל‎)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON FANATICISM AND VIOLENCE AMONG THE HAREDIM IN A TEL AVIV SUBURB:
God’s Neighbors (המשגיחים)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ON CONFLICT BETWEEN ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS DURING THE FIRST INTIFADA IN GAZA:
Rock the Casbah (רוק בקסבה)

BEST MELODRAMATIC COMEDY FROM MOROCCO ON CONFLICT BETWEEN MEMBERS OF A MOROCCAN FAMILY IN TANGIER:
Rock the Casbah

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO ON A LOWLIFE POLICEMAN WITH A HEART OF GOLD IN CASABLANCA:
Zero (زيرو)

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO ON LOWLIFE LAYABOUTS IN TETOUAN:
Death for Sale (Mort à vendre بيع الموت)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK ON LOWLIFE LAYABOUTS IN COPENHAGEN:
Northwest (Nordvest)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK ON LOWLIFE SOMALI PIRATES:
A Hijacking (Kapringen)

BEST MOVIE FROM HOLLYWOOD ON LOWLIFE SOMALI PIRATES:
Captain Phillips

BEST MOVIE FROM HOLLYWOOD ON 1970s VIOLENT AMERICAN RADICAL LEFTISTS:
The Company You Keep

BEST MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA ON 1970s VIOLENT ARGENTINIAN RADICAL LEFTISTS:
Clandestine Childhood (Infancia clandestina)

BEST MOVIE FROM INDIA THAT WILL HAVE YOU SALIVATING FOR INDIAN HOME COOKING:
The Lunchbox

BEST MOVIE FROM GERMANY ON AN INTELLECTUAL WHO DID NOT SHY AWAY FROM CONTROVERSY:
Hannah Arendt

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON FRANCO-ALGERIANS PROTESTING RACISM AND INJUSTICE IN FRANCE:
La Marche

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF DYNAMICS BETWEEN FRANCO-ALGERIANS AND ALGERIANS IN ALGERIA:
Homeland (Né quelque part)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF INTER-GENERATIONAL DYNAMICS AMONG PORTUGUESE IMMIGRANTS IN FRANCE:
The Gilded Cage (La Cage Dorée)

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE MAKING SPORT OF A FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER WHO REALLY IS THE WAY HE’S MADE OUT TO BE IN THE COMEDY:
Quai d’Orsay

BEST COMEDY FROM FRANCE THAT WAS IN FACT ONLY AN OCCASIONALLY FUNNY COMEDY:
9 mois ferme

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON A GREAT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN SINGER WHO PRACTICALLY NO ONE IN AMERICA HAS HEARD OF:
Searching for Sugar Man

BEST DOCUMENTARY FROM ISRAEL PERIOD:
The Gatekeepers

BEST MOST CHILLING DOCUMENTARY ON COLD BLOODED GENOCIDAL KILLERS IN INDONESIA WHO REGRET ABSOLUTELY NOTHING:
The Act of Killing

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON THE GOVERNING STYLE OF THE CURRENT FRENCH PRESIDENT:
Le Pouvoir

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON LEBANON’S 1960s AEROSPACE PROGRAM:
The Lebanese Rocket Society

BEST AGITPROP DOCUMENTARY ON THE 1970s TRIAL OF A CELEBRATED AMERICAN COMMUNIST WHO REALLY DOES NOT MERIT HER CELEBRITY:
Free Angela and All Political Prisoners

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON MOROCCAN JEWS WHO EMIGRATED TO ISRAEL BUT REMAIN PROFOUNDLY ATTACHED TO MOROCCO:
Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echos from the Mellah

BEST DOCUMENTARY ON THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE END OF APARTHEID IN SOUTH AFRICA:
Plot for Peace

BEST MOVIE IN 3-D:
Gravity

BEST MOVIE BY ROMAN POLANSKI:
Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure)

BEST MOVIE BY JOEL AND ETHAN COEN:
Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST MOVIE BY GUS VAN SANT:
Promised Land

BEST MOVIE BY ALEXANDER PAYNE:
Nebraska

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
Blue Jasmine

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY STEVEN SODERBERGH:
Side Effects

MOST CONTRIVED MOVIE BY LEE DANIELS:
The Butler

MOST TRIVIAL MOVIE BY SOFIA COPPOLA:
The Bling Ring

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE BY HONG SANG-SOO:
Nobody’s Daughter Haewon

MOST UNSATISFYING MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian

MOST DEPRAVED MOVIE BY CLAIRE DENIS:
Bastards (Les Salauds)

MOST BLOATED UNORIGINAL MORALLY DEGENERATE MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE:
The Wolf of Wall Street

MOST VIOLENT POLICE ACTION MOVIE FROM SOUTH AFRICA DEPICTING THE RAINBOW NATION UNITED IN JUSTICE AND IN CRIME:
Zulu

MOST COMPLICATED MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA ON STUDENT-FACULTY POLITICS IN ARGENTINIAN UNIVERSITIES:
El Estudiante

MOST LUGUBRIOUS MOVIE FROM AFGHANISTAN ON PATRIARCHY AND GENDER DYNAMICS AMONG THE EDUCATED AFGHAN ELITE:
Wajma, An Afghan Love Story (وژمه)

MOST ABSTRUSE MOVIE FROM GUINEA-BISSAU:
The Battle of Tabatô (A batalha de Tabatô)

MOST SUCCESSFUL SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF A YASMINA KHADRA NOVEL:
The Attack (L’Attentat)

MOST FAILED SCREENPLAY ADAPTATION OF AN ALBERT CAMUS NOVEL:
The First Man (Le Premier homme)

CREEPIEST MOVIE FROM JAPAN:
Penance (Shokuzai 贖罪)

TRASHIEST MOVIE FROM SERBIA:
Klip (Клип)

WORST MOVIE BASED ON A 1940s FRENCH CULT NOVEL:
Mood Indigo (L’Écume des jours)

WORST MOVIE BASED ON A 1980s FRENCH CULT COMIC SERIES:
Snowpiercer (Le Transperceneige)

WORST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL PERIOD:
Zaytoun (להישאר בחיים)

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The Wolf of Wall Street

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Saw this today. Three f**king hours of a movie that merited no more than 1 hour 50 max. The pic is not totally uninteresting—it does have a certain entertainment value, though not for three hours—but absolutely, totally does not merit the top reviews it has received in the US and (above all) France. This one by Lou Lumenick in the NY Post gets it right. Money quote

If you’re going to invest three hours watching a movie about a convicted stock swindler, it needs to be a whole lot more compelling than Martin Scorsese’s handsome, sporadically amusing and admittedly never boring — but also bloated, redundant, vulgar, shapeless and pointless — “Wolf of Wall Street.”

Yes, bloated, redundant, vulgar, and pointless. And unoriginal. Haven’t we seen this several times over the past 25 years already? E.g., Gordon Gekko/greed is good, etc, etc. And one wonders how to interpret Martin Scorsese’s message (if he had one), if he intended to critique the general Weltanschauung of protag Jordan Belfort (the Leonardo DiCaprio character) or unwittingly present it as some kind of model. He no doubt did not intend the latter, though Wall Street types who saw advanced screenings interpreted it otherwise, so it seems. Scorsese apparently hued closely to the real Jordan Belfort’s account; if so, I don’t believe half of it. I quite simply do not believe that traders and brokers shagged prostitutes in their open space offices in front of their colleagues, consumed hard liquor, quaaludes, and crack cocaine, among other intoxicating substances, during lunch hour and before returning to work, or engaged in even a fraction of the debauchery depicted. Okay, maybe a couple of nights a week after quitting work, but not 24/7. I am willing to believe the worst of these people, mais pas à ce point-là… Normally if one is out to make millions of dollars and efficiently dupe and exploit people in the process, one needs to have a sober head on one’s shoulders. If Jordan Belfort recounted this working hour decadence and debauchery in his book, he’s bullshitting.

So if one wishes to fritter away three hours of one’s time (plus transportation time to the theater) for entertainment that will yield little to nothing of intellectual or cinephilic value, then by all means see the movie. But if one has other things to do with one’s time, then skip it.

UPDATE: Cinemablend.com has a post (via Business Insider) on the “3 reasons why audiences hate ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’” (December 30th)

2nd UPDATE: Blogger and translator Arthur Goldhammer, agreeing with my take on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, informed me that the 2000 movie ‘Boiler Room’, which is based on the same memoir by Jordan Belfort, is much better. I hadn’t even heard of it, let alone seen, so got it from Netflix. And Art is right: it is indeed a better film than Scorsese’s (it stars Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, and Ben Affleck, among others). The pic portrays well the social class and ethnic subcultures—petit bourgeois/working class Italian and Jewish—of this category of alpha male traders—who are not Harvard MBAs, loin s’en faut—, the one exception being the middle-class Jewish protag (the Ribisi character)—and who turns out to have half a conscience. And here it shows actual victims of the firm’s stock scams and the effect this had on the life of one. The decadence and debauchery that are at the core of Scorsese’s film are implied in this one but not depicted. The baratin of the traders is also well done, of how they were able to sell a bill of goods to the most skeptical targets of their schemes and persuade them to part with their money (I was reminded here of how, some twenty years ago, a very slick, fast-talking saleswoman persuaded me to buy a new car before I had made up my mind; I was signing on that dotted line before I knew it). Here are reviews from the time by Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott. French reviews (titre en France: ‘Les Initiés’) were good. (January 1, 2014)

3rd UPDATE: TNR’s Isaac Chotiner has a piece on “The silly liberal attacks on ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’,” in which he mentions Christina McDowell’s “Open Letter to the makers of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the Wolf himself,” that’s been making the rounds, and links to a December 20th column by Matthew Yglesias on how “Wolf of Wall Street whitewashes the real problems with Wall Street.” (January 2nd).

4th UPDATE: William D. Cohan, a former Wall Street banker and author of the 2012 book Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, has an op-ed in the Sunday NYT on “The tame truth about the Wolves of Wall Street,” in which he says that “Unlike Hollywood’s idea of Wall Street partying, the only all-nighters I pulled were over spreadsheets.” (February 16th)

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