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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Bobby Womack R.I.P.

bobby womack

I listened to him as a kid and teen, in the late ’60s-early ’70s. His best song—and there is likely a consensus on this—was “Across 110th Street”—which got a second life in Quentin Tarantino’s great ‘Jackie Brown’, in one of the greatest ever opening movie scenes (watch here).

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Two Days, One Night

Deux jours une nuit - Affiche

The Cannes film festival ended on Saturday night. Congratulations to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for winning the Palme d’or for his 3¼-hour ‘Kış Uykusu’ (Winter Sleep). He’s a fine director—I’ve seen five of his previous six feature-length films (the last I had a post on)—and will look forward to this one when it opens in the summer.

One film that was in competition at Cannes, but which came away with nothing, was Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s ‘Deux jours, une nuit’ (Two Days, One Night). This is too bad, as it’s an excellent film. It opened in France on Wednesday and I, of course, had to see it illico. I will see anything and everything by the Dardenne brothers. The subject of this one is a 40-ish woman named Sandra—played by the always excellent and sublime Marion Cotillard—, a mother of two with devoted husband (Fabrizio Rongione), who’s coming off a bout of depression that got her onto sick leave for a few months, and who is suddenly being laid off from her job at a small company (in the greater Liège area, where all the Dardenne brothers’ films are set) that makes solar panels. The procedure for her layoff—the Belgian Code du travail is clearly different from the French—was a voice vote by the personnel, the choice being for her to be laid off in return for each of them receiving a bonus of €1,000, or her not being laid off but then no bonus—and, apparently, with not-so-subtle pressure from the plant’s foreman (Olivier Gourmet) for the personnel to opt for the former. So she was canned, though with the boss, after entreaties from her and a colleague friend in the parking lot after work on Friday, agreeing to do the vote over on Monday morning and by secret ballot. So Sandra, desperate to keep her job—the unemployment rate in Belgium’s Wallonia being around 13% these days—, had the weekend to find each of her sixteen co-workers and try to persuade them to vote to retain her, but thereby foregoing their bonuses. And that’s the movie, of her, in a defeatist mood, but prodded by her supportive husband, tracking down her colleagues one-by-one, at their homes, in cafés, at their places of work in their second jobs, and putting them on the spot… It’s the best film I’ve seen in some time on the world of work for those in the lower half of the 99%, who live from paycheck to paycheck, need every last euro they make—not just to survive but also to realize their middling class consumption dreams—, and for whom the prospect of unemployment, always looming, is something that cannot be contemplated. If one wishes to be convinced of the necessity of strong trade unions and/or robust labor law—neither of which is mentioned in the pic, BTW—, see this movie. The acting is first-rate—which may be seen in range of the reactions of Sandra’s co-workers, and, of course, Marion Cotillard, who’s in almost every frame. Hollywood press reviews (tops) are here and here, French reviews (tops) are here, trailer is here. Don’t miss it!

I’ve seen two other films in the past week that premiered at Cannes. One was David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’—for which Julianne Moore won the best actress award—, which delivers a biting critique, to put it mildly, of the us et coutumes of the amoral—when not immoral—, superficial, cynical world of Hollywood and its obsession with money and fame. Not an original theme but one that can always be approached from unique angles. The pic is definitely more watchable than Cronenberg’s last one, ‘Cosmopolis’—which was the worst film I saw in 2012—, but left me somewhat cold, as every last character is so loathsome and odious. And while I am quite sure that many in Hollywood are like those in the movie, I have a hard time believing that most are. It is not an essential film IMO but may be seen. Reviews so far are good (e.g. here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

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The other Cannes film seen was ‘The Homesman’, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. I like Tommy Lee Jones and will a priori see anything he directs. This one is a sort of road movie on the high plains, set in mid 1850s Nebraska—though mostly shot in New Mexico—, with the Jones character, named George Briggs, accompanying a headstrong, independent, no-nonsense unmarried woman—but who is actively seeking a man—, named Mary Bee Cuddy, played by a fine Hillary Swank, who has volunteered to transport three mentally disturbed plains women to Iowa. Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter called it “[a]n absorbing, melancholy look at the hard lot of women in the Old West.” I was absorbed enough, I suppose, but won’t say it’s an essential film. I mean, it was okay. It may certainly be seen. One criticism: I was not convinced by the act Mary Bee committed fifteen minutes from the end—of why she did it; I didn’t like the scene too much—or by the film’s ending. Variety’s review is here and French reviews (good) are here. Trailer is here.

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Another film seen lately, that premiered at the Berlinale in Febrary, and which, like the above, was shot in New Mexico, was Franco-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Two Men in Town’ (French title: La Voie de l’ennemi). It’s a remake of Franco-Swiss director José Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title—which I have not seen—, entirely set in a New Mexico border county (it’s not the first film Bouchareb has shot in the US and in English) and with the kind of Western vistas that French/European audiences like. The cast—Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Brenda Blethyn—is great. The pic is well-acted and absorbing. But it has a few implausibilities and an unsatisfying ending. So I really can’t give it the thumbs up (though it is far superior to Bouchareb’s calamitous 2010 ‘Hors-la-loi’, which is the worst movie ever made on the Algerian war of independence). Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety got it right. See also Deborah Young’s review in THR. French reviews were good overall. Trailer is here.

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The Immigrant

The Immigrant

I note that this film has just opened in the US and to decent reviews. I saw it late last year here in Paris, where the reviews were also decent. And I’ll see just about any film with an immigration theme if the reviews are even half-way decent. Here’s a description by Variety’s Peter Debruge, who saw the pic last year at Cannes

Cementing himself as the great classicist of his generation, James Gray turns back the clock to 1921 in “The Immigrant,” a romantic tale that cuts to the very soul of the American experience. This rich, beautifully rendered film boasts an arrestingly soulful performance from Marion Cotillard as a Polish nurse-turned-prostitute for whom the symbolic promise of Ellis Island presents only hardship. (…)

From the American canon, novels like Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” offer charitable accounts of the lures and snares big-city life posed on single working women of the early 20th century. Such influences suggest a radical shift from the male-driven concerns of Gray’s strong but underappreciated oeuvre (which includes “The Yards” and “We Own the Night”). No doubt, the director’s newfound female focus owes an equal or greater debt to Tolstoy and Flaubert, as he follows their lead in crafting the picture’s strong, well-rounded tragic heroine. (Never fear: No one swallows arsenic or throws herself in front of a train here.)

Meeting with a naturalization officer upon her arrival in New York, one year after the U.S. ratified women’s suffrage, Ewa (Cotillard) discovers that American immigration policy bars unescorted females from entering the country — a judgment compounded, in her case, by reports from the ship manifest that she may be a woman of low morals. What Ewa doesn’t realize is that she’s being auditioned by “immigration aid” worker and part-time pimp Bruno (an uneasy Joaquin Phoenix), who manages a burlesque theater not far from the seedy Five Points neighborhood where “Gangs of New York” was set a few decades earlier.

But Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) didn’t escape war and cross the Atlantic to be turned away at the front stoop of their destination. Though the film ultimately concerns the heartbreaking compromises Ewa makes to adapt to this better life, Gray depicts these transgressions as magnanimously as possible: A scene vital to the film’s tragic tone takes place in the confessional of a Catholic church, where, even as Ewa sounds convinced of her own damnation, the film makes clear that however low her behavior may have sunk, her moral center remains pure. (…)

The film is melodramatic in parts and rather depressing overall, but I thought it was pretty good. And Marion Cotillard—who learned Polish for the role—was sensational. She’s one great actress. So: recommended.

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diplomatie

Today is May 8th—the end of WWII in Europe (69th anniversary)—and a public holiday in France. France is the only country in the world that marks VE Day with a public holiday (on the 8th at least; Russia does it on the 9th). It’s ridiculous that France should have this holiday, as the country had already been entirely liberated by VE Day. Also, with May Day—la Fête du travail—this means that there are two public holidays on the same day two weeks running, which creates problems for people like me, who have to reschedule classes. President Giscard d’Estaing abolished the May 8th holiday but his successor, François Mitterrand, restored it illico when he took office. Hopefully some day it will be abolished again, replaced with some other, more significant date marking WWII, like De Gaulle’s Appeal of June 18th, or the liberation of Paris on August 25th.

À propos, this very good film by German director Volker Schlöndorff, which takes place entirely in Paris on August 24-25, 1944, came out a couple of months ago. It’s adapted from a 2011 play of the same title, set almost entirely in the Hotel Meurice on the Rue de Rivoli—the HQ of the German high command in the city—, of Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul general in Paris, striving through the night to persuade the German military governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to disobey Hitler’s orders to destroy the city the next day (and everything was in place to do so, which would have indeed accomplished Hitler’s evil goal and killed at least 100,000 Parisians in the process). The performances of André Dussollier (Nordling) and Niels Arestrup (von Cholitz)—who were also the actors in the play—are tops. A tour de force. As it happens, the film distorts in some important respects the history of that dramatic night in the Hotel Meurice, mais peu importe. It’s fictionalized history, making for an engaging film. So thumbs up. Hollywood press reviews (tops) are here and here, French reviews (also tops) here, trailer is here.

One WWII-themed film seen of late that does not get the thumbs up is George Clooney’s ‘The Monuments Men’. I would normally run out to see a film on a subject such as this one’s but hesitated for weeks after it opened, as I had read that it played fast and loose with the historical record of a not insignificant episode in the final year of the war—the Allied effort to recover the vast trove of artwork stolen by the Nazis—, playing up the role of the Americans, but not compensating for distorting the historical record—no doubt for base commercial reasons, to appeal to American audiences—by making a riveting and/or engaging film. I have a friend—US based—who happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the film’s subject, so I invited him to write a guest review for AWAV. He replied to my offer saying that he hadn’t yet seen it, as he feared the worst. He wasn’t way off base in his premonitions. The cast may be all-star but the performances are uninspired and by-the-numbers. The film drags in stretches, indeed throughout. It’s a clunky, forgettable Hollywood grand spectacle, et avec toutes les ficelles. It doesn’t work at all. George Clooney’s heart is in the right place but he has yet to prove himself as a director. Reviews were not too good on either side of the Atlantic. So unless one really, truly wants to see this one, skip it.

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24 jours film affiche

J’ai vu ce film hier. Vu qu’un autre film sur Ilan Halimi et le “gang des barbares” est actuellement en production—’Tout, tout de suite’, réalisé par Richard Berry—, je vais attendre la sortie de celui-là avant de faire un billet de blog sur le film d’Alexandre Arcady (c-à-d, je vais écrire sur les deux ensemble). Entre-temps, voici une critique de spectateur (3-étoiles: pas mal) que j’ai publié aujourd’hui sur Allociné:

J’hésite normalement à voir les films d’Alexandre Arcady, réalisateur très “moyen de gamme” et qui, jusqu’à preuve du contraire, n’a jamais fait un chef d’œuvre, mais vu le sujet de celui-ci, je ne pouvais pas ne pas le voir. Le film est dur à regarder, voire insoutenable, mais nécessaire. Le crime antisémite le plus atroce en France depuis la 2ème guerre mondiale — qui a eu lieu au 21ème siècle et en bande organisée composée de membres de la jeune génération – justifie bien un traitement cinématographique et de ne pas tomber dans l’oubli du grand public. Hormis quelques scènes mélos, Arcady s’en sort assez bien. Ce qu’il montre sur l’enquête policière provient du livre de Ruth Halimi (la mère de la victime) – qui a collaboré avec lui dans le développement du film – donc le point de vue d’un acteur dans le drame. Mais quant à la manière dont Arcady dépeint les conditions de la séquestration d’Ilan Halimi et le comportement du psychopathe Youssouf Fofana et la bande de tarés sous son emprise, celle-ci est 100% juste. Les faits de l’affaire sont avérés. Il n’y a pas de quoi discuter là-dessus. Pour tout ce qui concerne le “gang des barbares” il n’y a pas une seule scène dans le film qui est exagérée.

À ce titre, je suis ulcéré par les commentaires de demi-étoile (‘nul’) des spectateurs Allociné (27% à ce jour), qui s’en prennent, dans leur grande majorité, au côtés prétendument “communautariste” et “clivant” du film, c-à-d, ils sont contrariés par un film dont les protagonistes sont juifs et qui traite d’un crime antisémite commis par une bande de racailles de toutes les couleurs mais menée par des blacks et des beurs. Mais vu que le film montre exactement ce qui s’est passé, où est le problème? Comment Arcady aurait-il pu le faire autrement? Peut-étre ces brillants spectateurs auraient préféré que le film ne soit pas fait du tout, qu’on n’en parle plus de cette histoire d’Ilan Halimi et le “gang de barbares”? Et pourquoi? Parce que l’histoire d’un feuj torturé à mort par des blacks et beurs – et parce que feuj – ça les emmerde. Parce que ces sympathiques spectateurs ont un problème avec les juifs. En effet, je suis sûr et certain qu’un certain nombre – sinon la majorité – de ces détracteurs du film ne l’ont pas vu, que leurs commentaires sont basés sur la bande-annonce, ou d’un commentaire sur le film par Dieudonné (dont ces détracteurs sont très certainement des affidés dans leur quasi-totalité). Voilà, la judéophobie est bel et bien vivante dans une frange de la société française.

MISE AU POINT: Il se peut que je sois allé un peu vite en besogne en laissant entendre que les détracteurs du film étaient dérangé par le côté feuj-beur-black. D’autant que je sache, un grand nombre de ces spectateurs d’Allociné – peut-être même l’écrasante majorité – sont des petits blancs: des Français BBR bien-de-chez-nous. On sait bien que Dieudonné a beaucoup de fans chez les “souchiens”, qui n’aiment pas trop les juifs – c’est une litote – mais qui fustigent tout “communautarisme”. Sauf le leur, évidemment, le communautarisme des Français…

Par ailleurs, j’ai des commentaires sur Dieudonné, qu’on peut lire ici et ici; aussi ici et ici.

Mise en page 1

ilan_halimi

Paris,_Jardin_Ilan-Halimi,_Plaque

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ida-pawel-pawlikowski

I note that this film, by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, has opened in the US and to stellar reviews. I saw it in February here in Paris—where the reviews were similarly rapturous. It’s a short, austere film—80-minutes in length—set in Poland in 1962, of an 18-year-old novitiate nun, Ida (first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska), who is summoned to visit her aunt—the one surviving member of her family and whom she has never met—, Wanda (played by a well-known TV actress, Agata Kulesza), a hard, bitter woman in her 40s who is a magistrate and Communist party member, i.e the total opposite of Ida and in every respect. Wanda reveals to Ida the dark secret of her past, that she was a Jew whose parents had put her up for adoption during the war before seeking refuge with a Catholic family, and were murdered—and not by the Nazis. And Wanda then takes Ida on a journey to her family’s onetime home in the countryside, to find out how her parents were killed. And while she’s at it, she advises Ida to experience life in the outside world—with nightlife and men—before deciding if she really wants to live her life in a Catholic convent. It’s a haunting film, beautifully shot in black-and-white, and in which, in the words of one critic, there is not a frame “that isn’t composed with superb artistry and attention to detail.” The one mixed review of the film—in Variety, as it happens—opines that it will appeal only to “the most rarefied” of cinephiles. Well, it’s still playing at several Paris theaters three months after its opening and has been given the thumbs way up by Allociné spectateurs—over a thousand of whom have graded it—as much as it has by the critics. Trailer is here.

I’ve seen a few other Holocaust-themed films over the past several months. They are, very briefly:

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Le Dernier des Injustes’ (The Last of the Unjust). I hesitated on going to see this one, on account of its 3½+ hour length—the arrogant Lanzmann clearly doesn’t have much consideration for the eventual time constraints and attention span of his audience—and because I have yet to see his 9-hour ‘Shoah’ in its entirety, which I figured I should do first (one of these days I’ll get the DVD, draw the curtains, turn off all lights, and watch it in one sitting). But after listening to the dithyrambic reaction to this one by a (very smart and insightful) friend and reading Mark Lilla’s review essay in the NYRB, I decided that I really should take a Sunday afternoon and catch it before it vanished from the Paris salles obscures. And despite briefly nodding off at a couple of points, I will say that it was well worth it. Those who have any interest in the subject and in seeing the film already know the story: Lanzmann took footage of the many hours of interviews he conducted in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna after the Anschluss and who headed the Judenrat at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the final years of the war, and made a documentary of the painful—and, as we learn, misunderstood—history of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis in the implementation of the Final Solution. Murmelstein was hated by Holocaust survivors—and would have likely been arrested, if not possibly killed beforehand, had he ever set foot in Israel—and lived out his life in Rome in relative obscurity. Lanzmann was ill-disposed, to put it mildly, toward Murmelstein when he began the interviews but, as Murmelstein told his side of the story, Lanzmann’s attitude evolved, and he finally embraced him in the end. Murmelstein, who was neither an angel nor a devil, presented himself—convincingly—as a man put in an impossible position who tried to do the best he could for his fellow Jews at Theresienstadt given the circumstances. The documentary—which refutes Hannah Arendt’s thesis (and particularly her view of Eichmann, with whom Murmelstein had extensive dealings)—is a tour de force. Trailer is here.

le dernier des injustes

‘The German Doctor’ (titre en France: Le Médecin de famille). This is an Argentinian film set in 1960, of a couple with three children who travel to Barlioche, on the edge of the Andes in northern Patagonia, to take over a lakeside hotel-lodge. Beautiful area. And far away from everything. There is a German community in town, with its own school and all—and where Nazism is still in vogue. On the way to Bariloche the family crosses paths with a man who presents himself as a doctor of German origin and also happens to be heading in precisely their direction. The family’s 12-year-old daughter, named Lilith, is fascinated by the mysterious doctor—who gives her a doll that she names Wakolda (thus the Argentinian title of the film, taken in turn by director Lucía Puenzo’s novel on which it is based)—and as Lilith is short for her age, the doctor, who takes up residence in the lodge, says he has a special treatment for her. And so he treats her. The doctor turns out to be Josef Mengele, who is continuing to perform his evil experiments on guinea pig humans. The father gets suspicious and, as it happens, the Mossad is hot on Mengele’s heels, so he hightails it out of the area in the nick of time—with the aid of the extensive Nazi network in the area (and in southern South America more generally)—, though not before wreaking some havoc. The film is engrossing, well-done, well-acted, and all but I had mixed feelings about it, mainly as Mengele gets away in the end and that was that. So what was the point in even making the movie? French critics mostly liked it (and with Allociné spectateurs liking it even more). Trailer is here.

WAKOLDA

‘Victor Young Perez’. This one’s a biopic, directed by Jacques Ouaniche, of the Tunisian Jewish boxer Victor “Young” Perez, born in 1911 in a quartier populaire of Tunis, who was brought to France in the 1920, went on to win the French flyweight championship in 1930 and then the world flyweight crown the following year. He boxed through the decade, becoming a celebrity in Paris high society circles—and taking up for a time with the movie star Mireille Balin—, but who went into a tailspin and, remaining in Paris during the Occupation, was deported in 1943 to the AuschwitzIII-Monowitz concentration camp—where Nazi guards amused themselves by staging boxing matches with him, now emaciated, and the strongest among them—, before he was killed during the death march in 1945. A tragic story but an interesting one, and an a priori good subject for a biopic. But the film doesn’t work. It’s by the biopic numbers and with big gaps in the chronological narrative. And there are casting errors, of the actress who plays Mireille Balin—the Italian Isabella Orsini, who was likely chosen for the role because she’s beautiful tout court—and, above all, Brahim Asloum, who plays Victor “Young” Perez. Asloum was a professional boxer himself, winning the light flyweight gold medal for France at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and, in 2007, the WBA light flyweight crown. He’s okay as an actor but is 100% Algerian in physical appearance. He looks nothing like a Jew (even a Sephardic one), so is not entirely credible in the role. Too bad. French reviews were mixed. Trailer is here.

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student_darezhanomirbayev1

This may seem out-of-the-ordinary but I’ve seen two films from Kazakhstan in the past week. Kazakh cinema is not uninteresting, having produced some noteworthy pics over the years, e.g. Schizo (2004)—which, entre autres, offered a searing portrait of a country and society ravaged by seven decades of Soviet communism—, Tulpan (2008)—I loved this movie, which made my Top 20 best-of list of the last decade—, and Songs from the Southern Seas (2009), to which one may add the 2007 grand spectacle Mongol, which was multinationally produced and acted, and perhaps also the wonderful 2008 Tengri: Blue Heavens, which was directed by a Frenchwoman and mainly set in Kyrgyzstan but whose main character was Kazakh.

The first of the films seen last week was ‘Student’ (en France: L’Etudiant), which showed at Cannes two years ago. Variety’s (positive) review sums it up

A roughly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” despite its setting in contempo Almaty, Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbayev’s “Student” unspools a stark, Bressonian tale of a young man who commits an almost random act of murder. With its deadpan perfs, retro visual style and crime-story plot, the pic almost feels like an Aki Kaurismaki movie but without the jokes or rockabilly music, just the despair.

Contempo Almaty. Looks like a dreary place, with gleaming but soulless office towers, fancy cars, and the accompanying sans foi ni loi nouveau riche guided by the ethos of capitalisme sauvage—Kazakhstan has lots of oil and natural gas, the profits from which accrue to a happy few—, and drab quartiers populaires with crumbling apartment blocks à la sovietique, where the non-nouveau riche live. The film does indeed conjure up Kaurismäki, though I can’t speak about Bresson (whose œuvre, I am embarrassed to admit, I am insufficiently familiar with). The film is, shall we say, languid and with the nameless student protag uttering all of three or four sentences total. Slant magazine’s (not so positive) review, remarking on “the film’s static shots and somnambulistic pacing,” thus concluded

Granted, the obvious precursor here is Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. But whereas Bresson broke the world and humankind down into shards of perceived experience, only to recast them in what Paul Schrader termed “transcendental style,” Omirbaev adopts rigorous montage as nothing more than a fashion, and narrative ambiguity becomes a ploy just to leave shit unexplained.

A lot of “shit” is indeed unexplained, leaving in the dark those who have not read Dostoyevsky’s classic (and I have not, I am not embarrassed to admit). In respect to the novel, THR’s reviewer wasn’t overly impressed

Of course, Omirbaev has full artistic license to rework his literary source material however he sees fit. His dream sequences are certainly striking, especially one involving a donkey pulling a Range Rover, which pays neat homage to both Dostoevsky and Bresson. Unfortunately, his more conventional dramatic scenes mostly feel flat and banal. By showing us the ill-judged actions of a depressed slacker rather than the tormented confessions of a dangerous mind, Student succeeds only in sucking all the life out of a classic plot.

Dostoyevsky fans may want to check out the pic and decide for themselves, but others should probably hesitate before putting it in the Netflix queue. French reviews, not surprisingly, are mostly very good. Trailer is here.

The other Kazakh film seen last week was ‘Harmony Lessons’ (en France: Leçons d’harmonie), which premiered at the Berlinale last year. This one is good, though makes for tough watching. I’ll let Variety’s Leslie Felperin—also the reviewer of ‘Student’—describe it

Writer-helmer-editor Emir Baigazin demonstrates near-perfect pitch with his first professional feature, “Harmony Lessons,” an immaculately executed study of bullying and revenge in a small town on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Coaxing intense perfs from a young non-pro cast and demonstrating a painterly eye with austere, digitally shot compositions, Baigazin has crafted a disturbing study in crime and punishment that evokes, among others, Kieslowski and Bresson, but still speaks in its own unique voice.

Kieślowski and Bresson. Kazakh directors are definitely inspired by the greats. And they’re into crime and punishment. The protag in this one, Aslan, is, like his counterpart in ‘Student’, catatonic—he hardly utters a word—and is a student, albeit in high school (not university). The school here may be out in the steppes somewhere but it’s elite-looking, with the students in uniform and being prepared for higher education. The underlying theme of the film, or so I interpreted it, is the hierarchically organized violence that permeates Kazakh society at all levels. Even Aslan, who is victimized by the bullies at his school, tortures insects as part of his science experiments. It’s a bleak film but is powerful and well-done. So I recommend it. Other Hollywood critics who saw the pic at film fests gave it the thumbs up (here, here, and here). French reviews are tops. Trailer is here.

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my_sweet_pepper_land_omu

This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it

The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.

Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.

The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.

The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.

Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.

Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.

While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.

Wajma-une-Fiancee-Afghane

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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

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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.

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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.

jimmy-p-psychotherapy-of-a-plains-indian

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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.

9MoisFerme

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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.

les interdits

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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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