Archive for February, 2015

Stuart Carlson United Press Syndicate

So says James C. Roumell—founder and president of Roumell Asset Management LLC—in a post on the Huff Post politics blog. Best thing I’ve read today. Roumell, a self-described “committed private-sector loving guy who invests capital for a living,” likes the public sector and has no patience with the GOP’s nonsense about “small government.” Money quote

Government haters remind me of adolescents pumping their chests to proclaim that they don’t need mom and dad. And then Katrina, Sandy or Ebola hit and the most ardent detractors, and often their Republican Governors, come crawling to Uncle Sam asking for help. Or a malady strikes a family member and the erstwhile detractor supports a big government-funded research effort in that disease. Representative [Paul] Ryan wants to reduce government social spending but when his father unexpectedly died when he was 16, it was Uncle Sam showing up in the form of a social security survivor’s check that helped him pay for college. Was he one of Romney’s “takers” during this period?

And his conclusion

[T]he current Republican Party, hijacked by government haters, has boxed itself off from its more balanced history. Imagine a Republican Party animated by its 1958 Platform which said, “We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs–expansion of social security, broadened coverage in unemployment insurance, improved housing and better health protection for all our people.” Socialism? Government is a collective insurance policy from which we all draw wherein taxes are the annual premium. Yesterday’s Republicans didn’t argue that very simple point and yesterday’s Democrats didn’t shy away from defending that truth.

Great piece. Read the whole thing here.

ADDENDUM: Robert Kuttner has a fine essay in The American Prospect on “The libertarian delusion.” The lede: “The free-market fantasy stands discredited by events. The challenge now: redeeming effective and democratic government.” Kuttner’s article is part of a special report, “What the free market can’t do,” in TAP’s Winter 2015 issue.

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What Greece needs


[update below]

My last post on Greece was a month ago, the day after the Syriza victory. This in no way means that I have not been following that country since. In fact, I read about Greece every day—newspaper articles, op-eds, sundry commentaries—and tweet stuff I find interesting (see Twitter feeds on the right). I have said more than once that my main clearinghouse specialist on all matters Greek is Yale prof Stathis Kalyvas. If Stathis recommends something to read on Greece—as on other subjects, d’ailleurs—I will read it. And, as it happens, Stathis has posted on social media this NYT op-ed by Aristos Doxiadis—identified as an economist and venture capitalist—saying that “if you must read one piece about Greece this is it.” So voilà. Doxiadis’s op-ed explains why Greece has done worse than everyone else in the Eurozone. The lede: “Bigger businesses, more innovation and foreign investment are the key. But Syriza seems to be against all that.”

FWIW, here’s a piece from four days ago by the libertarian jurist and scholar, Richard A. Epstein, “Greece on the brink,” published on the Hoover Institution website.

And as long as I have it in mind, here is Paul Krugman’s column today, “What Greece won.” The lede: “Why all the negative analysis about the debt deal that has actually done the rest of Europe a favor?”

UPDATE: In the comments thread below see the text of a commentary published in an Athens daily by Konstantinos Meghir, the Douglas A. Warner III Professor of Economics at Yale University, entitled “Supporting Growth and Surviving in the Eurozone.”

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Bernie & Joe


Too bad Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It was the best American film of 2014 hands down and definitely more meritorious than ‘Birdman’. As for Alejandro G. Iñárritu winning Best Director over Linklater, this was a closer call, though Linklater still should have gotten it. As I wrote last summer, ‘Boyhood’ was the first Linklater film I had ever seen, so I spent a few evenings of my US vacation catching up on some of his œuvre. One that I saw (via Netflix) was his 2012 black comedy ‘Bernie’. I loved this movie. If one doesn’t know it, it’s based an actual fait divers in the mid 1990s, in the east Texas town of Carthage (pop. 6,700)—Linklater learning about it from this Texas Monthly article—of funeral home director and well-liked newcomer in the community, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II (actor Jack Black), who befriends rich 80-year-old widow Marjorie “Marge” Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), whom everyone in the town hates, as she’s a mean, nasty old woman. Bernie, in his late 30s, and Marge are inseparable until, one day, he kills her. Comme ça. With a shotgun. He readily confesses and is indicted for murder by local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), but with the latter finding it impossible to constitute an impartial jury in Carthage, as so many of the locals think Bernie was right to have killed Marge (the trial was moved to another town and Bernie was convicted). The story really happened. The film is a riot. It was shot in Carthage and with all the extras local citizens who knew Bernie and Marge, and speak about what happened. E.g. as one put it: “They don’t care that he did it, they think he should have done it.” And another, describing the general situation: “I’m walking into a story that’s part slapstick comedy, part small town gossip, part Shakespeare tragedy.” I am no fan of Texas—politics, culture, mentality, you name it—but these Texas folks are hilarious! Watch the trailer here and see for yourself. Reviews were good on the whole. The film has yet to open in France.

Pour l’info, Carthage is in Texas’s 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Louie Gohmert, a Republican bien évidemment, who is wacky and extreme even by Tea Party standards. Voilà some of his more notable public pronouncements (paraphrased by this website): “Jesus hates taxes! Gun control will lead to bestiality! The American Jobs Act is an attack on marriage! Obama talking to BP about the 2010 oil spill is just like Hitler! Foreign aid to China will lead them to sell us food with cats and dogs in it! Oil pipelines are good for wildlife! Hate crimes legislation leads to necrophilia!…” He’s also one of those who thinks Obama may be a “secret Muslim” trying to Islamize America. Liberal/progressive websites and commentators like to call Gohmert an “idiot” and “moron”—which he may well be—but I think he’s a cut-up, along with the residents of Carthage TX he represents. Texas folklore.

As it happens, I saw a film last spring (this one at the cinoche), ‘Joe’, directed by David Gordon Green—previously unknown to me—that was also set in the Texas 1st CD or not far from it. The people in this one are not cut-ups. At all. In short: Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage)—an ex-con with a lot of problems but not a fundamentally bad person—is the foreman of a tree-clearing crew out in the woods and hires a self-reliant 15-year-old boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), who wants to make money out of sight of his abusive, alcoholic white trash father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe takes Gary under his wing and gets caught up in the latter’s family shit, and with all sorts of shit happening. It’s a well-done, well-acted film whose subject is poor people in one of the most backward corners of America (the pic reminds one of Jeff Nichols’s Mud, which also starred Tye Sheridan). If one doesn’t mind a certain level of violence, it may definitely be seen. Reviews were good in both the US and France. Trailer is here.


Back to Richard Linklater, last summer I also saw, on DVD, his 1993 ‘Dazed and Confused’, a coming-of-age film about teenagers on the last day of high school in Austin—it could be nowhere else in Texas—in precisely 1976. It’s pretty clearly autobiographical on Linklater’s part. I watched it with several people—middle-aged and older—and we all enjoyed it, though my mother (age 83) was disturbed by the hazing scenes, which I opined had to be a local Texas tradition (and that has no doubt died out since the era in which the movie was set). The ensemble cast (including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich) is great. I was thinking of ‘American Graffiti’ throughout, which, not to detract from this one, is a superior film. Roger Ebert’s review is here, trailer is here.


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2015 Oscars


I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories (unlike last year, when I managed to see all). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on (or will imminently): American Sniper (reprehensible film), Boyhood (excellent), Gone Girl (way overrated), Selma (meritorious but not a masterpiece), The Grand Budapest Hotel (good), Two Days, One Night (excellent). As for those I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): I’ll see anything by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who is always interesting even if his films are not without issues (‘Amores Perros’ is his best IMO). I had high expectations for this one, in view of the top reviews and strong word-of-mouth on social media. I will readily acknowledge the film’s merits, notably Iñárritu’s direction—which is impressive—and the acting. And it certainly held my attention, which is saying something for a two-hour film that takes place almost entirely inside a theater. But while it is, in an objective sense, a good movie, I found the characters so unpleasant, indeed antipathetic, that I just couldn’t gush about it afterward. And Michael Keaton is a tête à claques (an admittedly subjective opinion). C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

The Imitation Game: Good quality Hollywood entertainment and a biopic that works to boot, as I knew nothing about the personality—Alan Turing—beforehand, so didn’t know what was going to happen or how the pic would end. And it’s always good to see a well-made WWII movie. The message—admittedly not original—was salutary too: of how prejudice (here, against gays) not only shatters lives but also undermines the interests of nations and states. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid in his role and Keira Knightley is too (and I am normally not a fan of hers). So thumbs up to this.

The Theory of Everything: This biopic works less well than the one above. Eddie Redmayne is exceptional as a quadriplegic Stephen Hawking but Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, hardly merits an Oscar nomination for her performance. The pic left me unsatisfied, as its main focus is the relationship between the two, with Hawking’s science getting short shrift. And one does not come away with a clear sense of how he has managed, with his debilitating handicap, to keep so productive, make new scientific breakthroughs, write books, and all. In other words, how did he do it? So my reaction to this one is neither thumbs up or down but just bof

Whiplash: I was originally not going to bother with this one, as I am not a great fan of jazz—except for jazz piano (Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, etc)—and do not understand why anyone out to learn a musical instrument would choose drums (sorry if I offended any drummers out there; I respect you all the same; and if it makes you feel better, I just came across this piece on social media informing us that “drummers are smarter than…everybody else”). But as the pic received top reviews—and particularly in France—and was playing at my neighborhood theater during Xmas week, I decided WTH. In short, I was absorbed in the story from the outset, at the midway point started think that it was a very good film indeed, and decreed toward the end that it would make my Top 10 list of the year. It’s an excellent movie. And J.K. Simmons is redoubtable as the sadistic psychopathic fascist jazz maestro. Voilà!

And then there are these:

Foxcatcher: I knew nothing about the story going in except that it was about wrestling, and have no memory of the 1996 fait divers that concludes it (which apparently didn’t receive much media attention in France). It’s an absorbing, well-paced, well-acted movie that held my attention throughout, which is saying something in view of its 2+ hour length and the fact that I don’t find wrestling particularly interesting. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo deserve their Oscar nominations (though I don’t know if they deserve to win). The film also has a politically progressive message—if one wants to see it that way—which is the parasitical character of the scions (a certain number of them) of wealthy families—the kind of people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple—and who are destined to occupy an increasing portion of America’s ruling class in the coming decades (for an elaboration on this theme, see the review in Le Monde, which calls the film a “chef d’œuvre” and “intellectuellement passionnant”). If one wants an ironclad argument for a steep estate tax on wealth in the eight or nine figures, this movie is it. So: recommended.

Wild: Woman in her late 20s, whose life is a mess, sets out to walk the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail—despite having no hiking or camping experience—so she can work through her personal problems (pic is based on a true story). Why did I go see this? I was on vacation (in the US) and had seen all the other interesting-looking movies playing at the local multiplex. It’s okay, memorable mainly for the impressive nature scenes. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern put in perfectly fine performances but do not merit their Oscar nominations. The movie may be seen, but may also not be seen.

Voilà my ballot:

A no-brainer.

DIRECTING: Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a credible winner for this, as is Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), but Linklater deserves it for his tour de force.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).
This is by default, as the real winner of this should be Jake Gyllenhaal for his role in Nightcrawler, but for which he was incomprehensibly not nominated. Michael Keaton, who is likely to win it, is worthy, I suppose (even though he’s a tête à claques).

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).
This one is also by default, as it is an almost forgone conclusion that Julianne Moore will win for her role in ‘Still Alice’, but which I have not seen, as the film hasn’t opened in France yet (and hadn’t nationally when I was in the US last month). Now I love Marion Cotillard and who was excellent in her film, but as it’s not American I don’t know what she’s doing in this category. But as the remaining nominees absolutely do not deserve it, I have to go with her. [UPDATE: Having now seen ‘Still Alice’ (March 19th), I will confirm that Julianne Moore absolutely deserved to win the best actress award; her performance in the film is exceptional.]

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).
Obviously. I’m sure Robert Duvall is great in ‘The Judge’ but I missed it.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood).
A natural choice. I didn’t see ‘In the Woods’ (and have no intention of), so can’t speak to Meryl Streep’s performance, but hasn’t she won enough already?

This is the nº1 of the five available options, with Timbuktu a close second. Ida is a haunting, impressively shot film but it didn’t blow me away the way it did to everyone else. ‘Wild Tales’ is fun but doesn’t merit the top prize in any awards ceremony outside Argentina. I haven’t seen ‘Tangerines’.


2015 academy awards nominations

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[update below]

I saw this three days ago, the day it opened in France. I made it a point to read nothing on the movie beforehand—either reviews or articles—though am aware that it is a big box office hit in the US—beyond all expectations—and particularly among conservatives. And I still haven’t read anything about the movie, though will, after writing this. My verdict: It is a reprehensible film. It is so because it makes a hero out of a man who is, in fact, not a hero and who achieved his heroic status—in the eyes of those who accord him this (and they are numerous in l’Amérique profonde, as one sees at the end)—in fighting and killing in a war that America had no business fighting. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is considered a hero because he killed 160 combatants and other irregulars who were out to kill American soldiers in a war zone. Bully for him. Soldiers protect their own in all wars, no? What else is new in the history of warfare? CPO Kyle, we learn, went beyond the call of duty to protect his buddies. He was a brave man, intrepid even. Bully for him again. One may understand why he was considered a hero within the US military—fellow soldiers called him “the legend”—but there is no rhyme or reason for him to be considered as such by any citizen outside the military.

It would be otherwise, of course, if CPO Kyle had been killing enemy combatants who were at war with America and posed a threat to America inside its borders. Celebrating his feats in the larger society would thus be comprehensible. But this was the Iraq war. The nagging (rhetorical) question that went through my mind throughout the film, in watching Kyle and his fellow soldiers engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah and Ramadi, was WTF were they doing there in the first place? What enemy were they fighting? Now it is established early in the film that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs following 9/11, as a patriotic reflex of an American whose country was attacked. Lots of Americans had that reflex (for the anecdote, in the days after 9/11 I let the US embassy in Paris know that my services were available—including to any intelligence agency—should they want them; I didn’t hear back). After completing SEAL boot camp the film jumps to Kyle in Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq posed no threat to America. Now the US government of the time and all sorts of other Americans intoxicated by nationalist hysteria or Washington groupthink believed that Iraq was indeed a threat to the United States, but those who knew something about the Middle East and, more generally, how to analyze and think coherently—which includes myself, obviously—knew this was preposterous and argued it to all and sundry.

At one point in the film, Kyle tells one of his buddies that “we have to kill the enemy here so they don’t come and kill us in New York or San Diego” (approximate quote). That even an ignorant soldier could believe such bullshit by 2005 is breathtaking. The enemy that Kyle & Co were fighting is clearly identified: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida in Iraq (not once is Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime—the ostensible threat to America in 2003—mentioned in the film). Now Zarqawi and AQI were definitely not nice people. I will even agree with Kyle that they were Evil (capital E) (the notion that America is fighting Evil, and not just in Iraq, is evoked more than once in the film). But here’s the thing: America did not invade Iraq to fight Zarqawi and AQI. AQI, which posed no threat to the American homeland, did not even exist when America launched the Iraq war. The very existence of AQI—and its presence in Iraq’s Sunni triangle—was a direct consequence of America’s invasion. And Fallujah being reduced to rubble and its population driven from the city was directly caused by America being there (the scene in the house that the soldiers have stormed—with Kyle demanding to know what the family is doing there and why they hadn’t evacuated the city—is incredible, as if people should naturally abandon their homes and worldly possessions—to looters, criminals, terrorists, whoever—because a foreign army tells them to). None of this is examined in Eastwood’s film. America is in Iraq fighting the enemy because that’s what it’s doing. America is there because it’s there. Fighting Evil there, before it comes for us here.

Further contributing to the film’s reprehensibility is its backhanded celebration of America’s gun culture—and of militaristic values more generally (American society being the only one in the Western world, as Tony Judt observed in one of his later essays, that continues to exalt the military and its values). In the opening scene we see seven-year-old Chris in rural Texas bagging a deer on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle père is teaching his son how to handle firearms. Now I can accept that rural people the world over and since time immemorial hunt and have rifles at home. I don’t relate to it but, for rural folk, that’s just the way they live and I pass no judgment on it. But the moral code that daddy Kyle seeks to instill in his sons around the dinner table—which is underpinned with violence and accompanied by stupid ass references to God and the Lord—is another matter. I’m sorry but Chris Kyle’s father—who was ready to whip his sons with a belt—was an asshole. And then there’s the scene toward the end, of Kyle at home with wife and kids—before he drives off in his pick-up and gets murdered—goofing around the living room and kitchen with a six-shooter, which may or may not be loaded (but if the gun’s not loaded, what’s the point of having it in the first place, if, acting with hair-trigger presence of mind, one can’t immediately neutralize a bad guy entering the house uninvited, or some shit like that?). Anyone who keeps a handgun at home, in proximity to children, and plays around with it in front of children to boot is a reprehensible SOB.

On ‘American Sniper’ as cinema, it’s okay. Bradley Cooper puts in an acceptable performance, though hardly deserves an Oscar nomination for it. Sienna Miller is likewise acceptable as Chris’s wife Taya—she’s certainly attractive—but spends too much of the film weeping over her husband going off on yet another tour with his beloved SEALs (for Chris Kyle, Iraq was a war of choice). And the scenes of their lovey dovey satellite phone conversations while he’s picking off enemy fighters from rooftops or heading into combat stretched credulity. One would think that any soldier who chats up his wife or g.f. on the phone while under fire would be reprimanded by his commanding officer, if not subjected to disciplinary action. Generally speaking and in view of its inescapable political parti pris, I don’t see how anyone outside of Jacksonian America—to borrow from Walter Russell Mead—can possibly adhere to the film and its message. But, as it happens, the early reaction in France has been positive, among both critics and Allociné spectateurs. The French love affair with Clint Eastwood continues. Every last Eastwood movie—including his worst and/or schlockiest—receives a rapturous welcome here and ‘American Sniper’ appears to be no exception. Hélas.

ADDENDUM: A further comment. Toward the end of the film Chris Kyle, in dealing with his PTSD, attends rehab sessions with Iraq war vets who have suffered serious injury (limbs blown off, etc). Some 40,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in Iraq, many of the latter saved thanks to advances in military medicine, who would have died of their wounds in previous wars. What do Jacksonian, Fox News-watching Americans make of this? In fact, they almost have to uncritically accept the thesis of the film—that America was fighting Evil, no questions asked—as if one were to accept that the Iraq war was a catastrophic mistake—the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history—then there would be no escaping the conclusion that Americans died or had their lives shattered for absolutely nothing. And then there is, of course, the number of Iraqis killed, which, since 2003, is heading upwards of 200,000 (if not more). Now most of those Iraqis were killed by other Iraqis. But if Iraq in 2003 was a Pandora’s Box of simmering sectarian hatred, America came in with a baseball bat and smashed that box open. The catastrophe in Iraq happened on America’s watch. And while there’s a lot of blame to go around, the catastrophic situation in Iraq today is ultimately America’s fault.

2nd ADDENDUM: One bit about the movie that caused me to jolt in my seat, but which slipped my mind while writing this post, was the final battle scene, where CPO Kyle finally terminates AQI sniper Mustafa with the golden bullet. The battle took place in Sadr City, which, as any halfway knowledgeable person knows, is the big Shi’ite quartier populaire of Baghdad. But AQI—which has since mutated into ISIS—is Sunni. AQI was killing Shi’ites when it wasn’t killing Americans. Sadr City at the time was Muqtada al-Sadr’s fiefdom, and he and his followers didn’t like AQI, to put it mildly. So on this level the scene makes no sense. Clint Eastwood and his team betrayed inexcusable ignorance here.

A correction: I wrote above that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs after 9/11. In fact, he did so after the 1998 Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings.

UPDATE: I’ve come across an excellent review/commentary on ‘American Sniper’, dated January 10th, by Ross Caputi, a former Marine who, like Chris Kyle, participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Caputi’s reaction to the film is similar to mine. His review is well worth reading. (February 28th)

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2015 César awards

40ème César

[update below]

The French movie industry’s carbon copy imitation of the Oscars. The awards ceremony is happening tomorrow night—two nights before the Oscars (as usual)—at the Théâtre du Châtelet (as always). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations is ‘Saint Laurent’, followed by Les Combattants (Love at First Fight) with nine, Timbuktu with eight, and Hippocrate and ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ with seven each. There were several films in the top categories I hadn’t seen when the nominations were announced last month. In order to cast my ballot, as it were, I managed to catch all in the past three weeks (DVD and 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:

La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family): This is the crowd-pleasing, heartwarming, feelgood smash hit comedy of the season, with over six million tix sold since its release the week before Xmas and racking up six César nominations, including Best Film. I originally had no intention of seeing it but, César oblige, had little choice. The story: The Béliers—husband Rodolphe (François Damiens, Best Actor nominee), wife Gigi (Karin Viard, Best Actress nominee), 16-year-old daughter Paula (Louane Emera, Most Promising Actress nominee), and 13-year-old son Quentin (Luca Gelberg)—are a zany family of deaf dairy farmers (they make cheese) in the bucolic Mayenne Angevine—except for Paula, who has normal hearing and thus acts as family interpreter, as it were (Damiens, Viard, and Emera learned sign language for the film; Gelberg is hearing impaired in real life; Viard also looks to have dropped 50 or 60 IQ points for her role). At school Paula chooses chorus as an elective—as that’s what the boy she has a crush on is taking—the teacher of which (Eric Elmosnino, Best Supporting Actor nominee) is a slave-driver who relishes skewering students for their lack of talent (recalling the jazz teacher in ‘Whiplash’, though without the sadistic psychopathic side). But Paula turns out to have talent indeed, so impressing her hard-to-impress teacher—a Parisian who lives his posting in bumfuck rural Anjou as a sort of purgatory—that he takes her under his wing, telling her that she absolutely has to go to music school in Paris, which would, of course, mean leaving the farm and her loving, zany, deaf family. And that’s what she decides to do. The pic actually has a few good laughs and gags, notably from Rodolphe (François Damiens is a well-known Belgian comic actor), who, in a subplot, decides that the mayor of the village is such a condescending idiot that he, Rodolphe, is going to run in the local election to unseat him, even though he can’t hear or talk; to surmount the insurmountable odds he draws inspiration from François Hollande’s writings, which he carefully studies in bed at night; now that’s funny (he wins, of course). The bons sentiments naturally kick in toward the end (have hankies ready, for the tears of joy). Middlebrow family entertainment for the masses (though it will likely be hit with an R rating in the US for the sex talk and allusions, of which there’s a lot). If it wins Best Film I will definitively lose all respect for the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma.

Pas son genre (Not My Type): Clément (Loïc Corbery) is a late 20ish Parisian philosophy professor—in lycée (philo being a required subject for all 12th graders in France) and university—high culture maven, and author (with prestigious publishing house), who cannot conceive of life outside the 6th arrondissement, with morning café and croissant at Les Deux Magots and all. But being a fonctionnaire with l’Education nationale he pretty much has to go where he’s assigned, so when informed that he’s being posted to teach high school philo in Arras—Prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais, which is only an hour on the TGV from the Gare du Nord but not really practical for a daily commute, so he has to live there for at least part of the week—he reacts like he’s being sent to French Guiana, or to a provincial town in Madagascar. Purgatory (a refrain in French movies; see above). Now Clément is not the most outgoing guy: he’s a psychorigide cold fish and arrogant snob to boot, and clearly has problems in his relationships with women (established in the opening scene). But once in Arras, he takes a liking to bubbly hairdresser Jennifer (Emilie Dequenne, Best Actress nominee), asks her out on a date, and stuff inevitably happens. Educated intellectual guy takes up with girl down the education/social class ladder. Not exactly an original cinematic theme, nor what happens between them: she falling for him more than he for her, but then she melting his ice-cold exterior, causing him to fall for her but while she, cognizant that the relationship can’t possibly go anywhere, pulls back. Director Lucas Belvaux’s film—otherwise unexceptional—is carried by Dequenne’s performance. She’s very good and deserves her César nomination (pour mémoire, Dequenne, who’s Belgian, won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film ‘Rosetta’). So while the pic is not worth going out of one’s way for, it may be seen chez soi on DVD.

Saint Laurent & Yves Saint Laurent: Two biopics on the famous fashion designer in the same year. Can you believe it? Crazy. Don’t producers coordinate these things? I had zero interest in seeing either but, in view of their respective slew of César nominations, decided that I really should. The seven nominations for ‘Yves Saint Laurent’—the first of the two to come out (Jan. ’14)—include Best Actor (Pierre Niney), Best Supporting Actor (Guillaume Gallienne), and Best Supporting Actress (Charlotte Le Bon). This one is the more conventional biopic, covering the couturier’s life from the launch of his career in Algeria at age 21—in 1957, during the war; YSL was a Pied-Noir from Oran—and apprenticeship with Christian Dior to his “Russian ballet” collection of 1976—considered his greatest—with flashes ahead to his later years. The relationship with the high-flying businessman and philanthropist Pierre Bergé, YSL’s companion to the end of his life (d.2008), is a natural focus of the film (Bergé collaborated with director Jalil Lespert, lending him the original 1976 outfits for the reenactment of the runway show). The film, which did well at the box office, received generally good reviews, with Allociné spectateurs giving it even higher marks. It’s a perfectly acceptable by-the-numbers biopic that may be seen (at home; not worth schlepping to the cinoche for). The second one, ‘Saint Laurent’—which came out in October and whose ten nominations include Best Film, Best Director (Bertrand Bonello), Best Actor (Gaspard Ulliel), and two for Best Supporting Actor (Jérémie Renier and Louis Garrel)—covers only YSL’s 1967-76 period. It’s stylized, impressively shot, well-acted, and got top reviews, though Allociné spectateurs were more lukewarm (and the film was not a box office success). On this, I go with the vox populi. The pic, which is an unreasonable 2½ hours long, is tedious and drags for long stretches. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The one thing I’ll say in its favor, though, is the beautiful outfits for the 1976 collection, which were created by costume designer Anaïs Romand—they look more Arab than Russian in style—as Pierre Bergé and the YSL house refused to have anything to do with Bonello’s film. I know nothing about fashion and care even less about it but was impressed with Romand’s creations, which, IMO, are even better than YSL’s originals.

Un beau dimanche (Going Away): Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort, Most Promising Actor nominee) is an early 30ish itinerant primary school teacher—who appears more intello than your average instituteur—in a beach town near Montpellier, who takes charge of a pupil whose father forgot to pick up at school. When Baptiste takes the boy to his mother, Sandra (Louise Bourgoin)—who works as a waitress in a restaurant on the beach—they strike up a conversation and one thing leads to the next. Yet another movie about bourgeois guy—Baptiste being, as we learn in the latter part of the pic, the brebis galeuse son of a very wealthy local family—and prolo girl (and who has made bad choices in her life and frequented the wrong type of people). It’s a small film, nothing to write home about, and utterly forgettable. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

Voilà my vote:

BEST FILM: Hippocrate.
This was the best French film of the year. ‘Timbuktu’—which will almost certainly win—is a fine runner-up, though it’s not a French film.

BEST DIRECTOR: Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu).
A semi political choice but deserved nonetheless.

BEST ACTOR: Guillaume Canet (La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur).
Pierre Niney will probably win this one for his role in ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ but Canet is utterly convincing as a serial killer in his film.

BEST ACTRESS: Sandrine Kiberlain (Elle l’adore).
Most of the nominees here—Marion Cotillard, Adèle Haenel, Catherine Deneuve, Emilie Dequenne—are worthy winners but Kiberlain hit it out of the park with her performance in the film for which she has been nominated. She won the big prize last year and deserves it again.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Reda Kateb (Hippocrate).
Other nominees are worthy but Kateb is The Man, hands down.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria).
Stewart may be an American and who speaks not a word of French in the film but as it’s French-made, directed by a Frenchman, and her performance was tops, she gets it in my book. Claude Gensac, the adorable mamie in Lulu femme nue, is the runner-up.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Ahmed Dramé (Les Héritiers).
Kévin Azaïs will likely win this one for his role ‘Les Combattants’ but Dramé is my sentimental choice (see post on film).

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ariane Labed (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice).
This is a very strong category, with all the nominees worthy winners, but Labed is my favorite.

BEST COSTUMES: Anaïs Romand for ‘Saint Laurent’.
I would normally pay no attention to this category but Romand’s beautiful outfits (see above) merit an award.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Elle l’adore’, by Jeanne Herry.
Of the films nominated this is nº1.

All of the nominees are good and some are great, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chef d’œuvre is the best.

BEST SHORT FILM: ‘Les Jours d’avant’, by Karim Moussaoui.
This is the only one I’ve seen in this category—it’s Algerian, though French produced—and is very good (I’ll eventually have a post on it). As it’s a sophisticated little story about the 1990s “dark decade” in Algeria and by a new, young Algerian director, I hope it wins. The New Algerian Cinema deserves the recognition.

UPDATE: ‘Timbuktu’ was the big winner, with seven awards out of eight nominations, including Best Film (obviously). The YSL biopics got only one apiece. I was on the money with most of my choices or predictions. The awards list is here. Variety’s dispatch is here.

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Voilà a few noteworthy French films of late 2014 that have received César nominations (the awards ceremony is tomorrow). This one (English title: Fidelio, Alice’s Journey), directed by newcomer Lucie Borleteau (Best First Film nominee) is about a merchant mariner named Alice (Ariane Labed, Most Promising Actress nominee), who’s around 30, lives somewhere near Toulon with her Norwegian graphic designer b.f., Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie)—he’s the man of her life—and receives an urgent summons to join an aging cargo ship, the Fidelio, en route to Dakar, to replace the chief engine room mechanic—Alice being one herself—who has suddenly died aboard (was it a suicide, as she is told, or an engine room accident that the shipping company wants to hush up?). She’s the only woman on the ship—in a man’s world and doing a job normally not done by women. Her cabin is the same as her deceased predecessor’s, where she finds his personal diary and reads (throughout the film), in which he recounted, entre autres, his many love and sexual affairs at the ports of call on his long voyages away from home—but also his sentiments of melancholy and loneliness—and which resonate with her own life at sea. Love and sex—above all sex, of her own sexuality but also of the other crew—are a central theme of the film. Soon aboard the ship she discovers that the captain, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), is an ex-lover of hers, whom she hadn’t seen a long while. They cautiously reconnect and though he’s married and she all but is—she regularly Skypes with Felix, professing her love (genuine)—they briefly rekindle the flame, but that should, in principle, not affect their relationships back on land, as “what happens at sea stays at sea” (dixit the poster above). As for her fellow shipmates—who, in their free time, play cards, drink, and watch porn movies—they treat her as one of the guys. She’s sexually off-limits to them and vice-versa, so when she has a one-nighter with a Romanian mariner who boards en route, she is upbraided by a colleague for violating the taboo. Her commitment to Felix is never questioned, but she can’t reconcile her desire for a stable life with her man and the realities of her career on the open sea, which keep her away from home for weeks, even months, at a stretch, and with the inevitable straying. Back with Felix after the voyage to Senegal, she makes a mistake that upends their relationship, though the film’s ending—in Gdansk, where, now promoted to captain, she’s taken the Fidelio to be scrapped—leaves open the possibility of reparation.

I really liked this movie. Ariane Labed, who’s in almost every frame, is terrific. She’s a real screen presence. And I will readily admit to finding her extremely attractive, not only physically but her persona in the film and the work she does (I think it’s cool seeing women as engineers and working with heavy machinery, and in other such jobs that one normally associates only with men). She’s mainly a stage actress and, until this one, has mainly had small roles in films (she lives in Greece, so away from the French cinema scene; she had a bit part in Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Midnight’—set in the Peloponnese—in the luncheon sequence). French reviews are very good and Hollywood critics gave the film the thumbs up (here and here). Trailer is here.

My brief take on the other films:

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’, directed by Olivier Assayas. This one has netted six César nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), and Best Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart). Since I’m lazy I’ll let this website give a synopsis of the story

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is an actress at the peak of her international career who is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous twenty years earlier. Back then she played the role of Sigrid, an alluring young woman who disarms and eventually drives her boss Helena to suicide. Now she is being asked to step into the other role, that of the older Helena. She departs with her assistant (Kristen Stewart) to rehearse in Sils Maria, a remote region of the [Swiss] Alps. A young Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal (Chloë Grace Moretz) is to take on the role of Sigrid, and Maria finds herself on the other side of the mirror, face to face with an ambiguously charming woman who is, in essence, an unsettling reflection of herself.

The film, which is almost entirely in English, is driven by the dynamic between the Binoche and Stewart characters: the famous actress rehearsing a role she is greatly ambivalent about playing and her youthful assistant who pulls her along. I’m not a great fan of Juliette Binoche—I think she’s overacts—but thought that Kristen Stewart—a well-known American actress, so I learn, with roles in films I would never consider seeing, so knew nothing about her—is first-rate. As for the film, it held my attention, despite the story not being overly compelling IMO. I’ve found Olivier Assayas’s films to be uneven—the ones I’ve seen (though his 5½-hour biopic on the terrorist Carlos is a near chef d’œuvre)—but will put this one in the thumbs up category (for home viewing, not worth traveling to the cinema for). French reviews (very good) are here, early US reviews (generally good) are here, trailer is here.


‘Eastern Boys’, directed by Robin Campillo. This has been nominated for three Césars: Best Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor (Kirill Emelyanov). The story: Mid-40s gay white-collar professional, Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin), engages a youthful prostitute—whose name is either Marek or Ruslan (Emelyanov), and may or may not be a legal adult—he spots at the Gare du Nord. Marek/Ruslan is part of a gang of Eastern European guys, over and under age 18, who hang out at the Gare and are clearly up to no good. To consummate the transaction Daniel has Marek/Ruslan come to his apartment, which was a real mistake, as the entire gang comes along and, led by the gang leader—a not-nice Russian dude they call Boss (Daniil Vorobyov, perfectly cast)—proceed to relieve Daniel of his worldly possessions. But despite having set a trap for himself, Daniel continues to seek remunerated sex from Marek/Ruslan. With his life manifestly devoid of something (meaning? love?), Daniel develops a genuine attachment to Marek/Ruslan—who at first claims to be Ukrainian but turns out to be Chechen—stops the sex, begins to treat him as almost a son, and decides to save him from Boss’s gang (made up of undocumented bogus asylum seekers). It’s a gripping film and from beginning to end. Setting aside two implausibilities in the story and one leap of faith, I’ll give it the thumbs up. French reviews (very good) are here, US reviews (mostly good) are here and here, trailer is here.

eastern boys

‘Party Girl’, directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger, Samuel Theis. No less than three directors. It’s been nominated for two Césars, including Best First Film (for the three directors). I saw it last September, on the recommendation of Guillaume Duval of Alternatives Economiques, if I remember correctly. The film is a real life story about a 60-year-old almost lifelong bar woman, Angélique Litzenburger, who works in downmarket cabarets in the declining industrial Lorrainer town of Forbach on the German border. She’s had four children—one of them a co-director of the pic (Theis)—presumably not of the same father, and, given her lifestyle, has not been the greatest mother to them. But they’ve stayed in touch with her and done okay for themselves (we meet them in the film). The pic’s main story—it’s a semi documentary, with not much of a plot—is the marriage engagement of Angélique with regular bar patron Michel (Joseph Bour). He wants her to finally settle down and with him, and she agrees, but then gets cold feet, because she’s been a bar woman her entire adult life and can’t conceive of leaving that life. It’s a small film but interesting and totally original. French reviews were good, as were those of Hollywood critics (here, here, here, and here). Trailer is here.

party girl

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