Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

fair play

I’m sort of following the Olympics, watching a bit on TV, keeping up with the medals table. I’ve read about the Russian doping scandal over the past couple of weeks. Am not surprised the Russkies got off with a slap on the wrist. The affair recalled a good Czech film I saw last year, Fair Play (in France: Sur la ligne), about state-organized doping of athletes in Czechoslovakia during the communist era (and that was likewise in the other eastern bloc countries). Here’s a plot summary culled from IMDB

The 1980s in Czechoslovakia. The young talented sprinter Anna (Judit Bárdos) is selected for the national team and starts training to qualify for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (before the Soviet decision to boycott). As part of the preparation she is placed in a secret “medical program” where she’s getting doped with anabolic steroids. Her performance is getting better, but after she collapses in training, she learns the truth about the drugs. Anna decides to continue her training without the steroids even though her mother (Anna Geislerova) is worried that she won’t be able to keep up with other athletes and might not qualify for the Olympics, which she sees as the only chance for her daughter to escape from behind the Iron Curtain (her parents having been dissidents and her father living in exile in Vienna). After Anna finishes last in the indoor race, her mother informs the coach (Roman Luknar) that Anna had stopped using steroids. They decide to apply the steroids to Anna secretly, pretending it’s nothing but doses of harmless vitamins.

The film offers what is certainly the most accurate cinematic treatment one will find of state-organized doping in communist countries: of the collaboration of doctors, oversight of the secret police and the party, and the pressure that was brought to bear on the athletes to comply—e.g. access to higher education and other resources, post-sporting career employment—and particularly if the athlete’s family was already politically suspect, as was Anna’s in the film. In short, it lays bare the overall insidiousness of the really existing socialism of the Soviet bloc countries. The pic did well at the box office in the Czech Republic (it has yet to open in the US or UK). The reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are good. Trailer is here.

Not all was dodgy or somber in the Soviet bloc sports scene, it should be said. Last year I saw the terrific documentary, Red Army, by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky, about the saga of the HC CSKA Moscow ice hockey team, nicknamed “Red Army”—that formed the core of the national team the Soviet Union fielded in international competition—mainly from the 1970s to the early ’90s. The Red Army/USSR ice hockey team may well have been the best ever in any sport—and, under the yoke of the legendary slave-driver coach, Viktor Tikhonov, no doubt the most militarily regimented. The national team regularly blew away the competition in international sporting events (though was shocked by Team USA—then comprised of college-level amateurs—at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, in what was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports). They were amazing. One does not need to know a thing about ice hockey or have the slightest interest in it to find the documentary riveting and all-around excellent—critics in France and the US/UK alike gave it the thumbs way up—as it’s about politics, the Cold War, and the Soviet Union in his waning years as much as it is about sports (see the trailer here). Among those interviewed throughout the documentary are two of the USSR national team’s great players, Vladislav Tretiak and Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov—the latter, along with others on the team, going to the US and Canada in 1989 and after to play in the NHL—and the journalist Vladimir Posner, who was a fixture on American television in the 1980s, as a slick, English-speaking spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Did the Soviet hockey players take anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs? Probably, though in that they would not have differed from their counterparts in North America.


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Mexico/Central America-USA edition. Continuing from the previous post, this Mexican film, ‘La juala de oro’ (English title: The Golden Dream; French: Rêves d’or), directed by Diego Quemada-Díez, is one of the more powerful I’ve seen on Mexican/Central American migration to the US—and I’ve seen several over the decades, beginning with the 1983 ‘El Norte’ (perhaps there was one or more before that one but which does not immediately come to mind). It begins in Guatemala, with three mid teenagers—Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Noemí Martínez Pineda), and Samuel (Carlos Chajon)—who set out for the US (the reasons look to be economic, not flight from gang or political violence). Once across the Mexican border, they meet Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez), a teen from Chiapas who doesn’t know Spanish—speaking only the Maya language Tzotzil—but attaches himself to them, and particularly to Sara, to whom he takes a liking. Samuel dropping out and returning home, the three head north on the dangerous trek, where they are prey to both police and criminal gangs, the latter who demand their addresses in the US—and they necessarily have them written down—to extort ransom from their families there (gangs these days being transnational). And for girls like Sara—who tries to disguise herself as a boy—the probability of being sexually violated is in the high 90% range. If the reasons for migrating may be economically motivated—at least for the characters in the film—the youthful migrants would have clearly had a strong case for receiving asylum in the US.

The film—which came out in France in late ’13 and the US last year—is certainly topical, in view of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied, mostly Central American minors who sought admission into the US in 2014. Most were fleeing violence—indeed terror—in their countries, and should have consequently been considered refugees. And it’s not just Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but also Mexico, where the violence and cruelty of the drug gangs puts the Islamic State to shame, and with the Mexican state often being in league with the narcos. One bit in the film that I was initially dubious about was the Chauk character not speaking Spanish. I am aware that such is the case for a certain number of indigenous persons in Mexico but couldn’t imagine that they would be able to navigate the journey to the US. Shows how much I know, as it turns out that there are indeed quite a few Mexican migrants in the US who do not speak Spanish (see here and here). One can imagine the challenges of living in the US and speaking only Tzotzil or Nahuatl. Sort of like being an Algerian in France and only speaking Taqbaylit. Bonne chance.

The film received top reviews in France and good ones in the US. Mexican reviews must have been stellar, as it is apparently the most awarded Mexican film in that country’s cinematographic history. See the interviews with director Quemada-Díez in the gauchiste webzine Counterpunch, the progressive Democracy Now!, and in IndieWire. Trailer is here.

Another Mexican film on the migration theme that received a slew of awards is ‘Aquí y Allá’ (English title: Here and There; French: Ici et là-bas), directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza. This one is rather different from the above, focusing on migrant return after many years away. Here, the middle-aged Pedro (Pedro De los Santos) returns home to his family—wife and two now teenage daughters—in his mountain village in Guerrero, after years of living and working in New York. His family is happy that he’s home but things have changed, particularly as he now hardly knows his daughters. As Variety’s Jonathan Holland’s review begins

A migrant worker returns to his native Mexico from the U.S. in “Here and There,” a quietly devastating exploration of the cruel paradox that, in order to feed their loved ones, emigrants have to leave them behind. Combining moments of lyricism with a documentary-like feel for truth, Antonio Mendez Esparza’s debut feature is far from hard-hitting, aestheticizing its tale with artful ellipses and juxtapositions. But its delicate portrayal of the emotional effects of immigration nonetheless amounts to a punchy social critique. Pic’s canny blend of artistry and politics should win it fest admirers.

I certainly admired the film, which is touching and, dare I say, poignant. IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio called it

the best film yet to screen at [the 2012] Cannes’ Critics’ Week, confidently made without a single wasted scene. The quotidian reality of Guerrero village life is realized with lyricism and lack of sentimentality. (…) Peaceful, almost biblical and completely absorbing, this film is a masterpiece.

French reviews were good to very good. Trailer is here.


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Last week I had a couple of posts on immigration, migration, and refugees. Continuing in this vein, I want to mention a few films I’ve seen over the past couple of years on the general theme. One of the more noteworthy was ‘Mediterranea’, by American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano, which opened to good reviews in France last September and in the US two months later. Its timing was uncanny, in view of the refugee crisis of last summer and fall (and ongoing, of course). The film follows the journey of two young men from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), who head across the Sahara to the Libyan coast, to be smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. This part of the film—much of it, in fact—is documentary-like, particularly the scene, in Algeria or Libya (shot in Morocco), where the African migrants are robbed—and with a few killed—by criminals/terrorists (AQIM or one of those groups). The pic doesn’t linger on the maritime crossing—a whole film, La Pirogue, has been devoted to this aspect of African migration to Europe—the story mainly focusing on what happens to Ayiva and Abas once they make it to Italy, where they work as agricultural laborers, obviously exploited, with some of the locals being kind and welcoming but more not. Europe is not the promised land they imagined, that’s for sure. One naturally sympathizes with the two Burkinabé protags, though they’re not always angels (not that there’s any reason they should be). And, as tends to be the case with migrants, they are not les damnés de la terre in their home country, communicating regularly with their folks there via Skype—conversations in which they accentuate the positive and downplay the negative—home computers in a country like Burkina Faso signifying what may be considered middle class status there.

Director Carpignano’s inspiration for making the film was the events in Rosarno—a town of some 15,000 on the southern tip of Reggio Calabria province—in January 2010, which witnessed a riot by Africans after repeated harassment, beatings, and shootings of migrants by local residents (and with implication of the mafia), and which the pic reenacts. And, as it happens, actor Seihon was an actual Burkinabé/Ghanaian migrant in Rosarno, who had made the clandestine passage to Italy and participated in migrant protests there, which is where Carpignano met him (and with the two becoming close friends). In order to make the film, Carpignano did anthropological-like field research in African migrant communities in southern Italy, as he discussed in this interview. Carapignano also explained the reason for casting the film’s protags as Burkinabé, as he didn’t want to focus on refugees fleeing war but rather on people migrating to better their lives, as did the Sicilians and Calabrians who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century—and with southern Italy having been as “Third World” compared to the US—and as culturally alien to American society of the time—as sub-Saharan Africa is to Italy today. Trailer is here.

Another film on African migration seen last year was ‘Hope’, by French director Boris Lojkine. This one follows the journey of a Nigerian named Hope (Endurance Newton), as she crosses the Sahara to Morocco (where the entire film was shot), with Spain the destination. A single woman in a pitiless world of men, where it’s chacun pour soi. No need to say what happens to her along the way or what she has to do to survive financially. The social organization of African migrants is depicted in detail, particularly in the sequence in the migrant shantytown in Tamanrasset, Algeria, which is segregated by nationality, the migrants sticking with their own—Ivorians with Ivorians, Malians with Malians, etc—imposing strict rules of conduct and with hierarchies replicating those back home. Like Carpignano, Lojkine—who normally makes documentaries—did field research among African migrants, here in Morocco and particularly in Rabat’s African quartier, Takkadoum, where he recruited the cast, including the remarkable Newton, who was a migrant herself (she recounts her personal story here). In the words of one critic, some of the actors are basically playing versions of themselves on screen. After an act of sexual aggression committed against her, Hope hooks up with a Cameroonian named Leonard (Justin Wang)—she wants nothing to do with her fellow Nigerians—the sole man in the migrant column who showed concern for her. Their relationship is purely self-interested at first but they develop mutual affection in the course of their journey. The film does not, however, descend into sentimentality or pathos, nor is it misérabiliste in its portrayal of the migrants’ plight. It’s a good film and that I recommend, particularly to those who have a prioris on the subject. Reviews in France were good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. See, in particular, the reviews in Africultures and Variety. Trailer is here and here.

Though the two films portray “economic” migrants, many Africans who reach the shores of Europe are indeed bona fide refugees. For the anecdote, last August I went to a corner of the 18th arrondissement—near La Chapelle, on a quiet side street, seen only by riverains—where recently arrived migrants from the Horn of Africa congregate, just to try to talk with them. They were all from Sudan and Eritrea, with a few Ethiopians, so I was told. A couple of dozen men were lingering about, most riveted to their cell phones. None spoke French and only one English with any level of proficiency, the oldest man present—around 40 years of age—who said he was from western Sudan (i.e. Darfur). He was a truck driver by profession and said that he had decided to leave Sudan due to the security situation, i.e. civil war and absence of state protection. Sudan was a country one fled from if one could. He made his way to Europe via Libya, which he described as in a state of anarchy, with armed gangs running the show. I thought better than to ask nosy questions about the Mediterranean crossing or how they all made it to Paris. Or to delve too deeply into their actual circumstances back home and decision to migrate (which one cannot know or verify). One young Eritrean, who was listening to our conversation—which went on for half an hour—and spoke rudimentary English, said that he left his country because of its military service requirements, which last many years—ten years or even longer; it’s totally arbitrary—and that such was the case for all the Eritreans in the group. All had England as their final destination—naturally via Calais—though not necessarily because they knew anyone there (migrants invariably heading to a place where they have family or friends) or saw it as some kind of El Dorado. As asylum seekers—but in a legally precarious situation—they would, in principle, have been wiling to stay in France, except that the French state administration, such as they had dealt with it, was impenetrable. Not knowing French, they couldn’t communicate with it, and no translators were provided. And they were bereft of resources and with no local organism to help them (a middle-aged woman—in a hijab, no doubt Algerian—came to speak with some of them while I was there; my Sudanese interlocutor, who identified her as “French,” called her their guardian angel, a wonderful person who brought them cooked meals daily; no one else in Paris had shown them such kindness). As there was “nothing in France for us,” so I was told, the men wanted to move on to England, where they knew asylum seekers received temporary accommodations and assistance.

After a point I began to feel embarrassed with my inquiry, me the well-to-do, bleeding heart local who would go back to his comfortable home and life, and with nothing to propose or say to these desperate persons in a desperate situation. Apart from my questions, what could I say to these men or do for them? The one thing I did feel was revulsion at the demagoguery and general insensitivity of politicians and other public personalities who were piping off on the migration/refugee issue, presenting it uniquely as a threat to France and Europe. The men I met clearly cannot be sent back to their countries and it would be unconscionable, indeed downright immoral, to demand otherwise. Any ideas of what to do for them?


Briefly, two other films. One, ‘Macondo’, by Iranian-Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai, came out in France a year ago—and to good reviews—under the title ‘Le Petit homme’. Borrowing from Variety’s positive review

This sensitive Austrian social drama from docu helmer Sudabeh Mortezai focuses on a [Chechen] refugee settlement outside Vienna.

Visit Vienna as a tourist and you aren’t likely to see kids like Ramasan, the 11-year-old [Chechen] subject of docu director Sudabeh Mortezai’s empathetically observed fiction debut, “Macondo.” To find such foreigners, one must venture to the outskirts, where the eponymous immigrant settlement offers housing to nearly 2,000 refugees taking shelter from their home countries. As an Iranian who split her childhood between Tehran and Vienna, Mortezai can clearly identify with the confused emotional state of her young protagonist, treating his unique situation as one example of Austria’s complex immigrant experience — a deeply humanist perspective…

It’s a coming-of-age story about a Chechen refugee boy caught between two cultures, whose combattant father was killed by the Russians, and who thus has to assume the role as head of the family, composed of his mother and two sisters. An impressive performance by the youthful actor Ramasan Minkailov. Hollywood Reporter and Indie Wire critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale also gave it the thumbs up. I thought it was pretty good too. Trailer is here.

The other film is a documentary seen in late 2013, ‘Stop-Over’ (in France: ‘L’Escale’), by Iranian-Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari, which offers an up-close portrait of the daily tribulations of seven undocumented migrants—six Iranians and an Armenian—in Athens, who had been smuggled into Greece from Turkey but found themselves blocked in the country, that they initially considered to be a mere stop-over in their projected journeys north (to Germany or Scandinavia). And given the situation in Greece, it clearly could not be their final destination. The film is worth seeing for those with a particular interest in the subject. Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg reviewed it here, The Hollywood Reporter’s review is here. French critics were particularly enthusiastic. Trailer is here.



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Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

Ronit Elkabetz (Photo credit: Bebert Bruno/SIPA)

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

She died today, at age 51. Cancer. I was shocked, as I had no idea. She was Israel’s leading actress, well-known in France, and one of my favorites (of any nationality). She was terrific. I saw her in eleven films, almost all good—with the best being the 2007 The Band’s Visit (in France: La Visite de la fanfare). I love this movie. She also co-directed (with her brother, Shlomi) three very good films—a trilogy, in which she had the lead role—two in the last decade: To Take a Wife (Prendre Femme) and The Seven Days (Les Sept jours), which, entre autres, are almost ethnographic in their depiction of Moroccan Jewish sub-culture in Israel.

The third part of the trilogy, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (in France: Le Procès de Viviane Amsalem), came out in 2014. It is entirely set in a rabbinical court room in Israel, with the protag, Viviane (Elkabetz’s character, who is loosely modeled after her own mother), seeking a divorce—gett, in Hebrew—from her husband, Elisha (Simon Abkarian), from whom she is separated, can no longer stand, and doesn’t want to even try patching things up with. She wants a divorce, period. But as personal status in Israel—as in majority Islamic countries, Turkey and Tunisia excepted—is governed by religious law, she has to seek the divorce in a rabbinical law court, presided by three rabbinical judges. Husband Elisha refuses the divorce—and only he can grant it—and the rabbis take his side, at least initially, so she is constrained to remain married to the man she loathes. The entire two-hour film is of Viviane’s judicial nightmare and which lasts five years, of her and her lawyer trying to persuade three rabbis, who are no more sympathetic to the woman’s plight than would be any qadi in a Shari’a law court. It’s a gripping film, though seemed interminable after a certain point—it just goes on and on—but which was certainly deliberate on the Elkabetzs’ part, for the spectator to feel the exasperation of the wife with the interminability of the divorce proceeding—Jewish halakha law, objectively speaking, being archaic and retrograde when it comes to such a matter (for an elaboration on the subject, see the interview with Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz in The New Republic, “In Israeli divorce, ‘the man has all the power’;” an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post by rabbinical court advocate and attorney Osnat Sharon, “When film and reality meet;” and an article by Adam Janofsky in Tablet on “chained wives” refused Jewish divorces by their husbands).

Le Monde’s Middle East grand reporter Christophe Ayad posted on social media today a portrait of Ronit Elkabetz he published in Libération in September 2009. And writer Ayelet Tsabari has a piece in the Forward today on “How Ronit Elkabetz gave Mizrahi women like me permission to dream big.”

UPDATE: Haaretz has a tribute to Ronit Elkabetz with this lede: “In the span of only 25 years, Elkabetz grew to become one of the most respected Israeli creators, pushing Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront.” Accompanying the tribute is a one-minute video on her life and career.

2nd UPDATE: In an interview in Le Monde in 2007, Ronit Elkabetz had this to say about Israel and Arabs:

Je fais donc partie des deux peuples, Israël et Palestine, depuis toujours et pour toujours. La culture arabe est dans nos veines, dans notre cuisine, notre musique et notre langue. Les gens qui le nient sont loin du réel.

Pour l’info, Elkabetz was opposed to the occupation. N.B. her role in Michal Aviad’s film ‘Invisible’, which I posted on three years ago.

3rd UPDATE: Le Point has an article (May 1st) by its Jerusalem correspondent, “Les Rabbins et le divorce,” in which the film ‘Gett’ is discussed.

gett the trial of viviane amsalem

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2016 Oscars


I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on: Bridge of Spies (tops), Spotlight (excellent), The Big Short (good), The Hateful Eight (sucked), The Martian (very good). As for the more numerous among them that I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Brooklyn: A good movie about emigration, love, commitment, loss, and not being able to go home again, set in early 1950s Ireland and New York City, and based on the novel by the well-known writer Colm Tóibín. Best Actress nominee Saoirse Ronan is meritorious but I’m not voting for her, and I would be most surprised if it won Best Picture. Those who have not seen it should by all means do so, however, as it is worth the while.

Mad Max: Fury Road: I have not seen this. It did not occur to me to see it when it opened last May, not even for a split second, and despite the stellar reviews. Not that I have a principled objection to seeing movies like this, but it’s just not my genre. And one can’t see everything. Noting that it made the “best of” list of the year of practically every Le Monde and New York Times critic, however, I thought that maybe I’d open my mind and catch it on DVD. But that thought was quashed after watching the trailer. Not a chance I’ll sit through such a film for two hours (and send my wife fleeing while I’m at it). As for its ten Oscar nominations, I don’t doubt that it deserves some of the technical ones but as for Best Picture, this I cannot imagine for a split second.

Room: I haven’t seen this one either, as it hasn’t opened in France yet. When it does (next month), I will.

The Revenant: Is there anything to be said about this movie that has not already been? It is, of course, great Hollywood genre entertainment—the classic revenge story of two men, only one of whom will survive to the end—notable for the extreme climatic conditions under which it was shot, which everyone has heard or read about by now. It is a directorial tour de force by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and, above all, Leonardo DiCaprio’s role of a lifetime. Amazing to think that he actually did the things one sees him doing in the film, that it wasn’t special effects.  [UPDATE: Gilles Havard, director of research at the CNRS and member of the Centre d’Études Nord-Américaines, has an essay (March 14th) in the intello/academic webzine La Vie des Idées, “Le trappeur, fantôme d’Hollywood: À propos du film d’Alejandro González Iñárritu.” And there’s an essay in Le Monde’s Culture & Idées supplement (dated February 20th) by Marc-Olivier Bherer, “Dans ‘The Revenant’, un méchant à l’accent délicieusement français,” in which Gilles Havard’s new book Histoire des coureurs de bois is reviewed.]

And then there are these:

45 Years: Critics fell over themselves with dithyrambic praise for this film but I’m going to come straight out and say that I didn’t like it. Sure, the acting and all that is fine, and with Charlotte Rampling’s Best Actress nomination no doubt deserved, but I simply did not relate to the story, which is the discomfort, bordering on jealously, of Rampling’s character when her husband of 45 years—and it’s been a reasonably successful, trouble-free marriage, so we understand—has sudden occasion to think and reminisce about the first love of his life, tragically deceased before he met his wife, and whom he would have married had she lived. So people have a past. La belle affaire. I simply do not see how a partner in a decades-long marriage could get all upset about such a thing and into his or her 70s no less. This is alien to my way of being. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

Carol: The reviews of this were even more stellar than for the one above, and with everyone I know who saw it praising it to the heavens. I thought it wasn’t bad, though won’t say it knocked my socks off when I saw it. The depiction of early 1950s America was, for me at least, easily the most impressive aspect of the film. This was really good. But I was not initially convinced by the story, of the relationship of the Cate Blanchett (Best Actress nominee) and Rooney Mara (Best Supporting Actress nominee) characters. A discussion of the film with a young female colleague, however, prompted me to rethink my reaction, as she convincingly explained that the lesbian relationship of the two women was credible and well-portrayed, that the dynamics between two gay women are quite different from those between men (which I have no problem believing). Looking at the film in a slightly different light, I now think more highly of it. And it does merit comparison to ‘Brokeback Mountain’—a chef d’œuvre IMO—as a portrayal of a relationship between two gay women in an era before such became socially acceptable.

Creed: I would not have seen this had it not been for Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). Now I knew this one was related to the films in the Rocky series—of which, believe it or not, I had not seen a single one—but I did not realize going in to the cinoche that it was a sequel, that the pic was, in effect, Rocky VII. Moreover, this was only the second film I had ever seen starring Stallone—the previous one, ‘Fist’, dating from 1978 (I also watched part of ‘First Blood’ in a bar in Tel Aviv in 1985). Crazy, no? Now I did know something about the Rocky series, as it’s been part of popular culture for four decades now, but not all the details and characters. I must have been the only person in the salle in this situation. Three short comments: First, seeing this movie was not a judicious use of my time. Second, if one has not seen the other Rocky movies, there’s no point in seeing this one. Third, Stallone’s Oscar nomination has to be purely sentimental, as he looks to be playing his stock character. Voilà, c’est tout.

Joy: I saw this for one reason and one reason only, which is Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress nomination. What to say, it’s light Hollywood entertainment, a biopic about a person, Joy Mangano, a rags-to-riches born entrepreneur in my adult lifetime, whom I had not heard of before seeing it, and played by Lawrence (Mangano apparently liked Lawrence’s performance, despite an age difference). I thought it was an okay movie—I don’t sign on to the mixed reviews of it—made watchable by Lawrence, who’s very good. The end was not satisfying, though: Joy is a struggling, near-failed businesswoman for almost the entire film, but does not give up, finally achieving wealth and fame in the end. I thought this part was sort of by the numbers. It is, however, a film that may be seen (at home, on the small screen) if one wants something light and that won’t tax brain cells or critical faculties.

Steve Jobs: This is not a conventional biopic, if one doesn’t know the film. It is structured into three acts, of the behind-the-scenes psychodrama (professional and personal) in the hour preceding Steve Jobs’s presentation at the formal roll-out of three products of companies he headed at the time (Apple and NeXT): the Macintosh (1984), NeXTcube (1990), and iMac (1998). Michael Fassbender (Best Actor nominee) is very good as Jobs—though the latter was, it seems, not as odious of a prick as he’s made out to be here (which would be the doing of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay)—as is Kate Winslet (Best Supporting Actress nominee) as Jobs’s right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman. The film does not evoke Jobs’s pre-Apple years, except in one scene, where, at a restaurant, he points out to an associate the restaurant’s owner, who Jobs says is his biological father. The restaurateur, Abdulfattah “Abed” Jandali—who hailed from Homs, Syria—had no idea at that moment that Jobs was his son. For the anecdote, my parents were friends with Abed Jandali and his first wife, Joanne Simpson, during the 1950s in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother has written on her blog about Abed & Joanne. If one is interested in reading her account, go here and scroll down several paragraphs.

The Danish Girl: I was initially not going to see this and despite the Oscar nominations—Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor, la belle Alicia Vikander for Best Supporting Actress—as I am not interested in transgender as a subject (apologies to any transgender persons out there mais c’est comme ça). But I was persuaded to see it by a colleague—the above-mentioned one, who got me to modify my view of ‘Carol’—who gave it the enthusiastic thumbs up. And she was pretty much right, as I liked the movie more than I had expected to. It’s beautifully shot and tells a moving story. My attitude was also perhaps influenced by the fact that I got a crush on Alicia Vikander while watching it (which can happen). The film is apparently riddled with inaccuracies and other distortions. Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. It’s just a movie.

Trumbo: Haven’t seen it. It opens in France in April.

My vote:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Spotlight’.
No two ways about it. ‘Bridge of Spies’ is the second choice, ‘The Martian’ third.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (‘The Revenant’).
He got it last year (for ‘Birdman’) and deserves it again.

BEST ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio (‘The Revenant’).
This is so obvious that nothing more need be said.

BEST ACTRESS: Jennifer Lawrence (‘Joy’).
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Brie Larson will win this one for her role in ‘Room’ but I haven’t seen it, so have to go with Lawrence here. [UPDATE: Having now seen ‘Room’ (March 20th), I will confirm that Brie Larson deserved to win the best actress award; she’s very good, as is the film.]

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Ruffalo (‘Spotlight’).
He’s a good actor and deserves it. Tom Hardy (‘The Revenant’) is nº 2.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Alicia Vikander (‘The Danish Girl’).
But of course (see above). Kate Winslet (‘Steve Jobs’) is a close second.

The criteria for selecting the pics in this category are, of course, ridiculous but one goes with what one gets. Mustang and ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ are also credible winners. I haven’t seen ‘Theeb’ or ‘A War’.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘The Look of Silence’.
I have seen none of the others in this category but don’t imagine that any could rise above Joshua Oppenheimer’s mind-blowing masterpiece on the memory of the 1965-66 bloodbath in Indonesia. Will eventually have a post on it.

Table showing 2016 Oscar nominees in top categories. TNS 2016

Table showing 2016 Oscar nominees in top categories. TNS 2016

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This is a terrific film. Period. And, for the record, everyone I know who’s seen it agrees. It is not a fluke that it has received a 93 score on Metacritic and 4.0/4.2 on Allociné. If one doesn’t know by now—if that’s possible—the pic tells the story of the Boston Globe’s 2001-02 investigation into reports of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese, and which yielded the revelations that everyone knows. I remember the story from the time, of course, but didn’t pay undue attention to it, as I’m not a Catholic, was consumed by 9/11 and its aftermath, and it somehow didn’t surprise me that there would be a sex scandal on a mass scale in the only religion in the world that prohibits its official propagators of the faith from marrying and having normal sex lives. Objectively, scientifically speaking, the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition of sexual relations for members of its ecclesiastical hierarchy is totally abnormal.

The film, in addition to being riveting, well-acted, top-notch entertainment, has a couple of important messages. One, obviously, is the centrality of a free press. A free press, however, does not only signify the absence of formal censorship or assurance that reporters and/or their bosses won’t be prosecuted for merely doing their job. It also means financial independence—of not being dependent money-wise on public or private power—i.e. being truly independent. Moreover, a free press also necessitates professional journalists who are operating in a polity with a certain degree of transparency, know how to do investigative reporting (Spotlight being the Boston Globe’s investigative unit), and do not fear taking on powerful, respected institutions.

A second message, or takeaway, is precisely the courage it takes to investigate these powerful institutions. One learns in the film that the behavior of the abusing priests had been well-known for a long time, and even reported in passing in the Globe several years earlier. But the Globe came up against the omertà of the Boston ruling elite, of men who all knew one another (and that included the Globe itself)—and often since childhood—and the acquiescence of ordinary people who uncritically accepted the moral authority of the church. And when a newspaper report is buried in the inside pages and not picked up by other news outlets, it dies. A big story has to be on page one to have legs. And having outsiders making editorial and reporting decisions in the newspapers—persons who are not from the city and therefore don’t have longstanding personal relationships with those they’re investigating—is of central importance.

The film has been nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. It deserves to win this.

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The Martian & Bridge of Spies


These are two good, entertaining Hollywood movies that, as one likely knows, have been nominated for several Oscars each, including best picture. I saw both last fall with an academic friend—a brilliant Africanist and specialist in the domain of development economics—with whom I often go to movies. My friend is culturally refined and with highbrow tastes in everything but, when it comes to cinema, has a marked preference for Hollywood blockbusters (and over any French film whatsoever; if it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t see half the movies I do in the Hollywood mega-production genre). When we exit the cinoche and exchange initial reactions to the film just seen, I’ll usually say something like “ouais, c’était pas mal” (yeah, it wasn’t bad), whereas she will embark on a complex analysis and with all sorts of insights, and which invariably leads to an interesting discussion. On The Martian (in France: Seul sur Mars), we were in entire agreement as to the film’s merits, both as entertainment and the larger, subliminal messages conveyed. On the latter, we identified four.

The first is the praise bestowed on science and scientists—astrophysicists, botanists, all of them—and with particular attention to those who think originally—outside the box—the kind of research scientist who risks having his or her precociously cutting edge papers heavily critiqued, when not rejected outright, by mainstream scientific journals in the peer review process (a point made by my friend, who has had rather more experience with this than I). Seeing scientists extolled in the way Ridley Scott’s film does is gratifying in the present period, characterized as it is by increasing obscurantism in large parts of the world—including the United States, e.g. climate change denial—the domination of the world of finance—which is sucking away top mathematical minds—budget cuts for research, and short-term thinking.

The second takeaway from the film is the celebration of a multicultural society—here, that of the United States—and, implicitly, of a liberal immigration regime. The teams of scientists in the film are straight out of a Benetton ad. One reason—perhaps the principal one—why the US has been able to maintain its edge in science and technology has been its liberal immigration policies over the past five decades, which has made America a magnet for talent throughout the world (America’s great, well-endowed research universities also play a role, obviously).

A third takeaway is the dead-on accurate portrayal of the scientific milieu and of the conditions in which the scientists in the film work, with an absence of hierarchy and the only thing mattering being excellence and results. This particularly struck my friend, who has spent her career in the French scientific research establishment, which, while producing excellent work, is riven by steep hierarchies (notably age) and clientelism (and money-wise is less well-endowed than in the US). In America—but not so much in France—if you’re young and good, you will be catapulted over your less good elders. My friend hopes that the movie will be an inspiration to young people—and particularly women—who are contemplating scientific careers.

The fourth implicit message of the film is international cooperation. NASA, despite its massive brain power and resources, could not bring Matt Damon back from Mars on its own. It needed the help of other countries, notably China, and their scientific know-how. America can do great things but not all by itself. And that’s okay.

Another good thing about the movie is the soundtrack. Great pop songs from the 1970s!

On how scientists evaluated the film, my friend sent me an interview with planetologist François Forget, “Peut-on vraiment rester ‘Seul sur Mars’?” in the CNRS’s online magazine. His verdict: the film was inaccurate or implausible on several points but largely got the science right. And he enjoyed it.

As for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (Le Pont des espions), we both liked this one too (as did, for the record, three well-known Parisian intellos with whom I discussed the film on social media a couple of months back). It’s a riveting geopolitical thriller, even if one knows how it’s going to end, which impeccably depicts—down to the smallest detail—its historical period. One feels transported back to the late ’50s-early ’60s. And it conveys well the political climate in the US during the height of the Cold War, when the American public viewed the Soviet Union and communism in the same way as it does radical Islamist jihadism today (though the Soviet Union—with its nuclear arsenal and superpower military—did pose a threat to the United States in a way that Al-Qaida and the Islamic State objectively do not). To merely provide disinterested legal counsel to a suspected Soviet spy could get one labeled a traitor. Despite Spielberg’s attention to detail, though, there was a little error that most people, myself included, did not pick up on. The American doctoral student in Berlin—whom Tom Hanks’s character goes to rescue—crosses into the Soviet zone as the wall is going up. The weather is cold and there are snow flurries. But the Berlin Wall went up in August, i.e. in the summer. Spielberg no doubt wanted to depict a Cold War both figuratively and literally… Also, it took a few weeks for the wall to be built, whereas in the film it looked to happen over a couple of days. There’s also another weather-related goof in the pic, mais c’est petit et pas bien grave. It a fine film and totally recommended.

Bridge of Spies

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