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2019 Oscars

I’ve seen all but two of the films in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. I have posts on three: Vice and a single one on Bohemian Rhapsody & A Star Is Born. As for the others, here are my brief takes:

BlacKkKlansman: It’s about time Spike Lee got some Oscar nominations. This is his best film in years—I have admittedly not seen his entire œuvre but know I haven’t missed any masterpieces—indeed since ‘Do the Right Thing’ (which should not only have been nominated for best picture that year but also won it). I did enjoy ‘Inside Man’ and ‘Summer of Sam’ but these were popcorn movies, not political. This one is good, entertaining, and with a worthy message—seen at the end, with the commentary on the present day (Charlottesville, etc)—though not equal to the aforementioned ‘Do the Right Thing’. I hadn’t heard of Ron Stallworth before seeing the film, let alone know of his audacious operation against the Klan. Great material for a screenplay. On this score, I actually had a few issues with Spike Lee, as he takes a four year story—Stallworth joining the Colorado Springs police department in 1975 and infiltrating the Klan in precisely 1979—and compresses it into a single year, and 1972 at that (the year is not mentioned in the film but it’s pretty obvious, as one sees Nixon reelection campaign posters and with the Vietnam War still going). Directors invariably take liberties with the historical record when making a film about real-life events, which is okay so long as there are no egregious or flagrant errors. Spike Lee does not go over the line here but there were still a number of little anachronisms and unlikelihoods that I noted. E.g. police departments, particularly in conservative towns like Colorado Springs, were thoroughly racist in the early ’70s and did not set out to hire blacks until well into the decade, once affirmative action was instituted (and none would have allowed a beat cop to wear an afro); David Duke was not a KKK member in ’72 and Stokely Charmichael was in “exile” in Guinea that year (FYI, he spoke at my college in the fall of ’74 and the audience was mostly white, whereas in the film there is no white in sight at Charmichael’s event); answering machines were rare at the time and the model one sees in the film did not exist then. And then there’s the black student militant and love interest of Stallworth—played by the rather beautiful Laura Harrier—who talked too much like a white person from an educated family (not that there weren’t educated Afro-Americans back then but they didn’t talk like white people among themselves). Her character would make more sense today than in the 1970s. I may be buggering flies here (French expression) and do know that most people don’t care about these things—when they even notice them—but am just sayin’. And one other thing, as pointed out by Howard University communications professor and Huffpost columnist Natalie Hopkinson: Spike Lee is too nice to the police. He cuts them way too much slack. There’s only one outright racist cop among Stallworth’s colleagues, whereas in real life there would have been far more (if not practically all of them). And Klansmen of the time (as in the past and present), whom Lee depicts as bumbling low-IQ losers, were dangerous people and nothing to laugh about. All this said, it’s still a good film and should be seen. And if it wins the Oscar, that will be fine.

Green Book: Just about everyone I know—particularly in France—thinks this one is wonderful, as it is both an amusing—and ultimately gratifying—interracial buddy film but which also reminds us yet again of what a thoroughly wretched place the Jim Crow American South was. I gave it the thumbs up myself after seeing it. I do go for impeccably reenacted period pieces, particularly of historical periods of my youth. And having learned about the Negro Motorist Green Book in the last few years, this hook was of particular interest (and I’ll see any film on race in the US that receives halfway decent reviews). On this, the film disappointed somewhat—the actual Green Book was not its main subject (but is in a new documentary)—but still. I thought Viggo Mortensen was great in his role as Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, as was Mahershala Ali as Donald Shirley. But then a faithful AWAV reader (French) sent me an email about how much he hated the film, shredding it for, among many other things, the superficial and caricatured manner in which it dealt with the grave subject of Jim Crow and the violence that was consubstantial with this. I thought his critique a little strong but the points were well taken. And we both agreed that certain scenes did not ring true, e.g. the Memphis YMCA incident; in real life at that time, Shirley would not have made it out of there in one piece. My AWAV reader followed up in emailing me a critique in the NYT by Oklahoma State University philosophy professor Lawrence Ware, “How ‘Green Book’ gives short shrift to a gay life.” And then a stateside friend with expert knowledge on race in the US—who has avoided seeing the film, as he fears the worst—sent me two must-read pieces on the pic. One is by NYT arts critic-at-large Wesley Morris, “Why do the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies?” The lede: “In many Oscar bait movies, interracial friendships come with a paycheck, and follow the white character’s journey to enlightenment.” Morris’s dissection and dismantling of the Hollywood interracial buddy movie is thorough. The other article is by the Shadow and Act website’s managing editor Brooke C. Obie, “How ‘Green Book’ and the Hollywood machine swallowed Donald Shirley whole,” in which she details the many fictions and inaccuracies of Peter Farrelly’s film—e.g. the relationship between Vallelonga and Shirley did not, in fact, evolve into a veritable friendship—and the vociferous objections of Donald Shirley’s family to the making of the film when they learned how it was going to depict him (the family was not consulted at any point by Farrelly or Vallelonga’s son, Nick, who co-wrote and co-produced it). After reading these critiques, I’ve had to revise my assessment of ‘Green Book’ downward. If Mortensen or Ali win Oscars for their performances, that will be fine (particularly Ali), but not the film itself. [UPDATE: L.A. Times critic Justin Chang has a slash-and-burn post-Oscars piece, “Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’ is the worst best picture winner since ‘Crash’.”] [2nd UPDATE: NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers has a brilliant, hilarious satire, “White Savior,” of the way Hollywood depicts race relations, as in movies like ‘Green Book’.]

Black Panther: I don’t think there’s been a film in the history of my Facebook news feed over which so much virtual ink has been spilled, notably by gauchiste academics, intellos, and other engagé types. Lefties seemed to like it on the whole and find it entertaining, though assessments of its putative political subtext varied, with, e.g., one Über-gauchiste academic friend, in critiquing the “heroic role by the CIA,” deplored the fictitious Wakandia’s “complicit[y] with US imperial designs…” Lefty suspicions will indeed not have been allayed by the effusive praise of the film in Breitbart, whose critic favorably compared King T’Challa (the Black Panther) to Donald Trump. Sans blague. As I’ve never read a Marvel comic in my life, know nothing of its stories and characters, and quite simply do not bother with such movies, I would not have considered seeing this one had it not been for the buzz in my socio-political-professional milieu and the putative political themes people were reading into the pic. So I saw it, last March. It was entertaining enough, even fun, but overrated, And I deemed that gauchistes and others were seriously over-interpreting it, sometimes laughably so. I archived some twenty-five analyses of the film from various publications and websites, with the view to writing a full post on it, but finally didn’t. Pourquoi faire? Life is too short. As for interpreting the film politically, one friend remarked that it represents “a great triumph of (black) capitalism,” with me submitting that none of the analyses and gauchiste commentaries I’d seen noted that Wakandia was a rentier state—a Dubai in the savanna—that got rich because of a natural resource (the magical vibranium). And the only Wakandians we see are the royal family and its praetorian guard. A People’s Republic Wakandia is not.

The Favourite: I saw this last Tuesday evening, at a multiplex in the center of Paris. The large salle was packed, signifying strong word-of-mouth. I have tended to avoid Yórgos Lánthimos’s films, finding them odd, but as this one was nominated for a slew of top Oscars, I wasn’t going to miss it. A friend later asked me to describe it with just one word. My response: loufoque (zany, wacky, crazy). It’s a black comedy. If one doesn’t know, it’s set in 1708 in the court of the wacky, zany Anne, Queen of Great Britain, and with a bevy of wacky, zany characters. What drives it, though, is the three lead female characters: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). They’re terrific—it’s a collective acting tour de force—and the movie is engaging, so I do not regret seeing it, au contraire. I will henceforth be more open to Lánthimos’s films.

Roma: I had to see this on Netflix, as it could not debut theatrically in France in view of French legislation—that imposes a four month delay before movies can go from the cinema to VOD—which was too bad, as it’s a film that should ideally be seen on a wide screen. But better my 42″ flat screen than nothing. The only thing I’ll say about it is that it’s very impressive and on every level: technically beautiful, very well acted, and with a strong, compelling story (of a slice of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City, though without him being the protag). I will willingly watch it again. For more on the film, I refer readers to Alma Guillermoprieto’s review in The New York Review of Books—growing up herself in Mexico City at the same general time, it hit close to home for her—and Anthony Lane’s in The New Yorker. If you’ve seen ‘Roma’ and maybe have a reservation or two about it, these reviews will put them to rest.

And then there are these, with nominations in the best acting categories:

The Wife: I’m not going to say much about this one, which I saw in the US last month with my mother, who’s 88, has written a lengthy review of it on her blog, and to which I refer the reader. Just three things. First, Glenn Close carries the film. Her performance is a tour de force, in the absence of which the film would have likely not been nominated for any awards. Second, Glenn Close was too old for the role she was playing. She was 71 when the movie was made and looks it, but when her husband, Joe Castleman (actor Jonathan Pryce), wins the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1992, she could not have been over 56, as she met him as an undergraduate at Smith College in 1958—the dates are flashed on the screen—when he was her professor. And when he won the Nobel, he would have been in his mid 60s—some ten years his wife Joan’s senior—except that Pryce is the same age as Close but looks older. So the ages are way off for both of them, but particularly Close. But critics seem not to have to picked up on this, nor a couple of friends who’ve seen it (the film has curiously gone directly to a streaming service in  France, which means that almost no one here will see it). Director Björn Runge could have made them up to look a little younger but maybe he didn’t think of it either. Third, sexism and the (very low) glass ceiling is a leitmotif, with Joan, we learn, a far superior writer to her future Nobel laureate husband Joe, but who sacrificed a career as a writer and in publishing, and gave all to Joe, working in the shadows to advance his fame, and with him basking in the glory and accolades, all while cheating on her right and left. But was this a fatality? Was she condemned to this subservient role given the ambient sexism of the era? Seeing the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg afterward, who is about three years older than Joan would have been, one wonders, as RBG forged ahead career-wise malgré tout, and ended up we know where. Likewise with one of my professors in graduate school, also older than Joan would have been but never played second fiddle to her accomplished husband and was a major figure in American political science. Joan, as one sees the latter part of the film, blows a fuse and decides to even the score with her jerk Nobel laureate husband. Too bad she didn’t do so far earlier, as she could have.

If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins’s previous film, ‘Moonlight’, was a chef d’œuvre, which any sentient person will readily second. This one may not be that but is still quite good. The cinematography and atmospherics are very Barry Jenkinesque, as is the pacing. And the young couple, Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne), moved me with their unbending love (a US friend sniffed that they were an “insipid Ken and Barbie couple” but that’s too harsh). And Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, Best Supporting Actress nominee), is first rate in the role. The film’s value, above all, is in the depiction of the Kafkaesque judicial nightmare which Fonny got ensnared in, which was almost the rule for young black males in the 1970s, when the film takes  place, not to mention afterward (or before, of course), and which wrecked his life, i.e. in sending him to prison for seven years for a crime he didn’t commit. It may not have been director Jenkins’s intention but the film is, entre autres, an indictment of the American judicial practice of plea bargaining, which is happily non-existent in legal systems underpinned by Napoleonic or other such codes. The scene of Fonny’s interface with the cop in Greenwich Village is also bone-chilling. Another reminder of the shit black men in America have had to put up with….

And this, nominated in technical categories:

First Man: I thought this biopic of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and the Apollo 11 mission was both very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The RIght Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

My choices:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Roma’.
As this is not an American film or even in English, it should by all rights not be in this category, but it is and is by far the best of the eight nominees. If not ‘Roma’, then ‘The Favourite’ or ‘A Star Is Born’.

BEST DIRECTOR: Spike Lee.
For his lifetime œuvre, not the film (BlacKkKlansman) for which he’s nominated. If not Lee, then Alfonso Cuarón (Roma).

BEST ACTOR: Christian Bale in ‘Vice’.
He killed it as Dick Cheney. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) is second. Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) is acceptable but absolutely not Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). Don’t know about Willem Defoe, as I haven’t yet seen ‘At Eternity’s Gate’.

BEST ACTRESS: Glenn Close in ‘The Wife’.
A no-brainer and despite the age thing I discussed above. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) are second ex æquo. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) would be an edgy choice. Can’t speak about Melissa McCarthy, as ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ has not yet opened in France.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali in ‘Green Book’.
Obviously.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Regina King in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.
All the nominees are equally good, actually.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ‘Cold War’ (Poland) and ‘Shoplifters’ (Japan) ex æquo.
Only if ‘Roma’ doesn’t win best picture (in which case it should this). ‘Capernaum’ (Lebanon) is not a good film. Don’t know ‘Never Look Back’ (Germany).

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2019 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations each are ‘Le Grand Bain’ (Sink or Swim) and ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (Custody), followed by nine for ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘En liberté!’ (The Trouble with You), eight for ‘La douleur’ (Memoir of War), seven for ‘Pupille’ (In Safe Hands), and six each for ‘Guy’ and ‘Mademoiselle de Joncquières’. I’ve seen most of the films in the top categories. I’ll eventually have separate posts on some of the nominees—the best of them—but, in the meantime, here’s a brief mention of a few.

Le Grand Bain (Sink or Swim), directed by Gilles Lellouche. This was the huge hit comedy in France of the fall—indeed the year—that packed the salles (4.3 million tix sold, i.e. a mega-hit), which the critics (French)—at one with the masses—loved to boot, and that has consequently been nominated for a slew of Césars, including Best Film, Best Director, and four in the supporting acting categories. The pic, with its ensemble cast of A-list actors and actresses (Guillaume Canet and the overexposed Mathieu Amalric play the lead roles), tells the tale of seven sad sacks in their 40s and 50s who are down on their luck—divorced, unemployed, going nowhere in their lives, and/or just washed out, over the hill, and/or out of it—who join a club to train for a synchronized swimming championship in Norway—why not?—where they will represent the French nation, i.e. they will be the national team of France. Sans blague. They’re all out of shape and have never synchronized swam in their lives—some barely know how to swim at all—mais peu importe. Two slave-driving female coaches (Virginie Efira, Leïla Bekhti), who have life issues themselves, set out to whip them into shape. There is no hint that the seven slobs can perform at any level when they arrive at the tournament in Norway, but lo and behold—SPOILER ALERT!—they put on a performance worthy of Olympic champions. Comme ça. The whole movie is a buildup to the crowd-pleasing denouement. Of course. It is, as I read afterwards, a French ‘The Full Monty’ (a film that I have never seen, believe it or not). I think one has to be culturally French from a young age—or just have a sense of humor and taste in comedies different from mine—to appreciate the pic and find it funny, as I simply did not. I mean, it’s okay and all, but nothing more. I may have smiled at a couple of points but no chuckles, let alone gros rires. On this, the handful of US critics who’ve seen it largely share my view. But it will surely win its share of Césars and a Hollywood remake goes without saying.

En liberté! (The Trouble with You), directed by Pierre Salvadori. This one, nominated for Best Film and Best Director, is also a comedy, of the madcap variety. French critics loved it (US critics liked), with audiences rating it not bad to good. The story: Yvonne (Adèle Haenel, Best Actress nominee)—a police inspector in a seaside town near Marseille—suddenly learns that her beloved cop husband, Captain Jean Santi, who was heroically killed in the line of duty two years earlier, was not the squeaky clean, upright police officer of integrity that she believed him to be but rather a sleazy, corrupt ripou, and who had sent an innocent man, Antoine (Pio Marmai, Best Actor nominee), to prison eight years earlier no less. Horrified by the discovery, she sets out to make amends to Antoine upon his release, first via his wife, Agnès (Audrey Tautou, Best Supporting Actress nominee), and with crazy stuff ensuing, and with Yvonne’s colleague, Louis (Damien Bonnard, Best Supporting Actor nominee), who’s secretly in love with her, complicating the situation. The pic does have some amusing scenes—particularly its running gag (repeated several times), in which Yvonne theatrically recounts, and with embellishment, a bedtime story to her young son of one of his father’s/her husband’s more spectacular exploits in catching bad guys—but I found the plot overly complex and confusing. I struggled at times to figure out what was going on. So my verdict is mixed.

The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard. The only thing French about this one is the director, qui n’est pas le moindre d’ailleurs. It’s otherwise 100% American—based on the eponymous 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt—set in the Old West (Oregon and California)—though shot in Spain—during the late 1840s Gold Rush, about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix), who are professional killers, both cold blooded—though the latter more than the former, who sometimes has a conscience—and who are hired to track down and eliminate a fortune seeker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), but who continually throws them off the scent. It’s well-done, the cast is great, and is thoroughly entertaining but if director Audiard was seeking to convey a message, it escaped me, as I gave the film no thought after leaving the theater (except to recount the spider scene to my arachnophobic wife and daughter)..

Nos batailles (Our Struggles), directed by Guillaume Senez. Olivier (Romain Duris, Best Actor nominee) is a foreman at a big e-commerce warehouse in a town near Lyon, with wife and children, and a normal-looking working class life. And he’s a union delegate, investing time at work defending the interests of fellow workers vis-à-vis management. A good man. But one day his wife vanishes, leaving a note saying she’s taken off, though offering no explanation. She occasionally sends a post card to the family saying she’s fine, though doesn’t say where she is. And that’s that; she’s never seen again. So Olivier is left to raise two young children alone, getting help from his supportive sister and mother, but still having to assume the big responsibility in addition to his day job and union activities. And that’s the film. Critics (French and American) and audiences alike gave it the thumbs way up. But not me. The film certainly has merit but the wife’s disappearance—and, above all, leaving her children—for no apparent rhyme or reason bothered me. Mothers/wives who are overwhelmed with family responsibilities do sometimes blow a fuse and take off for a stretch of time (as, e.g., depicted in the excellent 2017 Georgian film My Happy Family), or seriously contemplate doing so. People need to take a breather and have their own space. But a mother definitively abandoning her children and going incommunicado requires minimal explanation, but which the pic does not give. This is a flaw IMHO. I am, however, clearly in a minority in my mixed feelings about the film..

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love), directed by Catherine Corsini. I’m in a minority on this one as well, which critics (French and US/UK) and audiences praised mais pas moi. It’s an adaptation of the eponymous, autobiographical 2015 novel by the well-known, très médiatisé writer Christine Angot, whom I personally think is a nutter and a flake. The story, which spans five decades, begins in the 1950s in Châteauroux, where Rachel (Virginie Efira, Best Actress nominee), a secretary from a modest background, meets Philippe, a young litterateur from an upper bourgeois Parisian family. They have a torrid affair—Rachel being beautiful, thus Philippe’s attraction to her—and with a child, named Chantal (Christine Angot, in effect), being the outcome, though Philippe will not a marry Rachel, as, for him, the social class gap (and certain parental objection) is insurmountable. So mother (with help from mamie) raises daughter alone—and with the two naturally being extremely close—though Philippe shows up in Châteauroux every once in a blue moon, to check in on Rachel and Chantal. Rachel, who’s had other prospects, inexplicably remains in love with him for years and never marries. When Chantal becomes a teen and with a literary streak, she seeks out a closer relationship with her absent father and vice-versa, spending time chez lui in Paris. He’s finally becoming the responsible, attentive father, or so it seems, and that she so yearned for. And then everything goes off the rails, as it is ultimately revealed that he has been sexually abusing her, and which exacts its lasting psychological toll, with Chantal, into her 30s, taking the whole thing out on her mother, with whom she breaks off relations. I have no idea what specifically happened to Angot—though could probably inform myself by reading her books and accounts, which I have no intention of doing—but something in this part of the movie didn’t add up, particularly with Chantal’s sudden rejection of her mother, who, at least as far as she’s portrayed in the film, was attentive, loving, and could not be reproached for what happened with the father (except, perhaps, for having maintained a link with him). So I left the theater with mixed feelings. But again, that’s me.

Les Chatouilles (Little Tickles), directed by Andréa Bescond and Eric Métayer. Voilà another movie, this nominated for Best First Film, about sexual abuse of minors, here outright pedophilia, based on co-director—and professional dancer—Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman play. The film goes back and forth between protag Odette as an eight-year-old who wants nothing more than to be a ballerina, and her as a professional dancer in her 20s (Bescond plays the role here), and her trauma of the sexual abuse she sustained as a child by close family friend Gilbert (Pierre Deladonchamps), often when her parents, Fabrice (Clovis Cornillac, Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Mado (Karin Viard, Best Supporting Actress nominee), were in close proximity or had confined Odette to Gilbert’s care (the chatouilles, or little tickles, of the title is what Gilbert told Odette he was doing to her). Adult Odette has Gilbert prosecuted and confronts her parents about their implicit responsibility, as Gilbert was their good, trusted friend. Father Fabrice accepts it—expressing contrition at having seen nothing, or not wanted to—but mother Mado defensively refuses to, going so far to imply that maybe Odette was, at age eight, at least partly culpable, that perhaps she egged Gilbert on. We know that this does happen in real life, that some mothers simply will not be held to account for the sexual abuse sustained by their daughter at the hands of a family member or friend, and practically under their eyes. Reviews of the pic were good, including in the Hollywood press. I go with the general consensus. The film ends with a reminder to the audience that a significant percentage of children—mostly girls, of course—are victims of sexual abuse and that proactive action against the perpetrators must be taken. Bien évidemment.

Amanda, directed by Mikhael Hers. This one is about an early twentysomething named David (Vincent Lacoste, Best Actor nominee), who lives in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, makes a living doing odd jobs, and often helps out his older schoolteacher sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), with her seven-year-old daughter (and David’s niece), Amanda (Isaure Multrier), with childcare, as there’s no father in the picture or, for David and Sandrine, a mother (who lives in London and hasn’t seen them in ages; this estrangement later being explained, unlike in ‘Nos batailles’). But then tragedy hits, when Sandrine is killed in a terrorist attack on picnickers in the Bois de Vincennes, and with David’s new companion, the very attractive Léna (Stacy Martin), seriously injured (the attack obviously recalls what Paris experienced on November 13, 2015). So in addition to the devastation of losing his sister, David now has to inform Amanda of what happened, to help her try to comprehend it and traverse the stages of grief, but, above all, to take full responsibility for her—to adopt her, in effect, as she is orphaned—but for which he is neither psychologically nor financially ready. He has to grow up and fast. It’s a well-done, understated film. Reviews were very good, both French and US/UK, and it did respectably at the box office.

Sauvage (Wild), directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet. Here’s a description culled from the web: “Léo (Félix Maritaud) is 22 and sells his body on the street for a bit of cash. The men come and go, and he stays put… longing for love. He doesn’t know what the future will bring. He stays on the streets. His heart is pounding…” The backdrop of this one, which is nominated for Best First Film, is the underworld of gay street prostitution, which is as glauque as one imagines it to be (as with any kind of prostitution). I’ve seen gay-themed films that are borderline hard (e.g. the first-rate L’inconnu du lac) but this is particularly so, with scenes that are downright pornographic. And violent: not in the blood-and-gore sense but in the interactions among that substratum of gay men. The pic will inevitably be seen almost exclusively by LGBTQs, though may certainly be by others (US/UK reviews are good, BTW). And à propos, I will rate it above Christophe Honoré’s well-received gay-themed Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Sorry Angel), which, with due respect to the good US/UK reviews, left me indifferent,

BEST FILM: Pupille.
This, about the adoption of a baby at birth and the manifold complexities entailed, was the best French film of 2018. Runners-up are the excellent Jusqu’à la garde—about a child custody battle between two divorced parents—and Guy, a mockumentary about a fictitious, over-the-hill crooner in his 70s. ‘The Sisters Brothers’: No. ‘En liberté!’: No! ‘Le Grand Bain’: Inconceivable. I have yet to see La douleur, but which I cannot imagine would finish ahead of the top three above.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alex Lutz for ‘Guy’.
Most of the others are worthy but Lutz should get it for conceiving this original film.

BEST ACTOR: Alex Lutz in ‘Guy’.
Lutz is not even 40 but makes himself up to look like he’s in his 70s. He totally pulls off the role. All of the nominees are good and worthy. This is a strong category this year.

BEST ACTRESS: Cécile de France in Mademoiselle de Joncquières.
She’s stellar in this marvelous 18th century romantic drama. Sandrine Kiberlain, whom I love, is also great in ‘Pupille’ and Adèle Haenel (En liberté!) is excellent in any role she plays (even if the movie in question may not be). A strong category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Philippe Katerine in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is a coin flip with Jean-Hugues Anglade in the same pic, as the other three nominees did not have significant enough roles to merit any award. A weak category this year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Virginie Efira in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is by default, as none of the others deserve it. I normally love Leïla Bekhti but couldn’t stand her surly, insufferable role in ‘Le Grand Bain’. Isabelle Adjani in the trivial ‘Le monde est à toi’ (The World Is Yours) is utterly unremarkable. As for Karin Viard (Les chatouilles) and Audrey Tautou (En liberté!), they’ve had stronger roles. Also a weak category this year.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Dylan Robert in Shéhérazade.
William Lebghil in ‘Première année’ (The Freshman) is also good.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ophélie Bau in Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno.
Abdellatif Kechiche has launched the careers of several A-list actresses (Sara Forestier, Hafsia Herzi, Adèle Exarchopoulos) and will likely do so for Ophélie Bau. One takes note of the pretty Lily-Rose Depp—whose father is a somewhat well-known American actor—in Louis Garrel’s otherwise forgettable ‘L’homme fidèle’ (A Faithful Man). Likewise Kenza Fortas in the not forgettable ‘Shéhérazade’.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’.
If this one wins Best Film—for which it is also nominated—then let it be ‘Shéhérazade’. If L’amour flou wins, I will be scandalized.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Cold War’ and ‘Une affaire de famille’ (Shoplifters) ex æquo.
If the hugely overrated ‘Capharnaüm’ wins, I will moan and groan.

UPDATE: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ won best film (deserved), Jacques Audiard best director (inevitable), Alex Lutz best actor (totally deserved), Léa Drucker best actress for her role in ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (she was good, so yes). ‘Shéhérazade’, about Maghrebi-origin Marseille teenagers at the bottom of the heap, won best first film plus most promising actor and actress (great!). Variety’s report is here.

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as everyone knows, has been a huge hit since its release 3½ months ago—in the US (making over $200M), France (where it’s had 4.3 million box office entrées—which is a lot—and is still playing in several Paris theaters), and elsewhere—and despite the decidedly mixed reviews (French ones were a little more positive than American). And now the pic—and notably lead actor Rami Malek—is winning a slew of awards (Golden Globes and BAFTA, among others) and has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

As a film, I thought it was okay. I had never been a big fan of Queen and probably wouldn’t have bothered with the pic had it not been for my wife, who has long been a Queen fan and was thus eager to see it. I almost entirely associated Queen with its stadium chant songs—’Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Will Rock You’—not to mention the inevitable ‘We Are the Champions’—played endlessly after Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup victory—and which everyone’s heard a hundred thousand times. Learning about the history of the group and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara)—e.g. I didn’t know he was a Parsi from Zanzibar and who arrived in England only in his late teens—was interesting enough (though the film, one reads, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and untruths). To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Mercury was gay and had died of AIDS in 1991. There are indeed gaps in my musical culture générale. If the film had merit in filling this cultural gap, both my wife and I felt that Rami Malek’s performance was its weakest part—that he’s not a very good actor—and are somewhat incredulous that he’s winning all these best acting awards—and may well win the big one at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. Va savoir.

Continuing with the film’s merit in filling my cultural gap, seeing it prompted me to review Queen’s musical œuvre and reassess my prior view. And I have to say, my assessment has moved up several notches. Queen was indeed a great concert band—with Mercury one hell of a stage performer—and had some very good songs. The film appropriately ends with a reenactment of the June 1985 Live Aid concert, with Queen’s performance ranked in one music industry poll as the greatest live act ever. No less (watch it here; it is indeed something). I also rediscovered ‘Under Pressure’, which Mercury created with David Bowie in 1981. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song! Check it out in this YouTube mix of Mercury and Bowie (they actually never did perform on stage together).

So yeah, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a merely okay movie, is indeed worth seeing. I’m certainly glad I did.

Another recent music-themed movie I’m glad I saw—though had planned to from the outset—is ‘A Star Is Born’, the reviews of which were decidedly superior to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the US and good in France. And it was naturally a box office hit (2 million entrées in France). As it’s the fourth remake of the film, or something like that, everyone knows the story. What to say, it’s entertaining, well-acted—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are tops—and with very good music. The soundtrack deserves every award it will receive. We (my daughter, her bf, and I) enjoyed it. Lady Gaga is a great chanteuse—that we know—but we were impressed to learn that Cooper did indeed sing his songs too. Pas mal. Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire sur le film.

On the subject of Lady Gaga, her halftime show at the 2017 Super Bowl may well be the greatest such musical performance—the act and with all the props—I have ever seen. It is quite simply incredible. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here and decide for yourself.

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This just opened in France. The reviews are good to very good—better than in the US—and with friends asking what I think of it (as I saw it in the US last month). My succinct take: the film is brilliantly cast and acted—particularly Christian Bale, whose performance is exceptional—the politics are impeccable—Dick Cheney was/is a right-wing reactionary de la pire espèce, not to mention a despicable human being—and is well-done overall and entertaining, but it’s just a little too un-nuanced and heavy-handed. The pic is a red meat crowd-pleaser for liberals and lefties: agitprop for that very sizable portion of America’s citizenry—of which I am a part—who despised and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration, indeed the Republican Party tout court (don’t even talk about the Trump regime).

Journalist-writer James Mann—who authored the most important book on the war cabinet of Bush-Cheney’s first term—had a spot-on critique of the film, dated December 28th, in The Washington Post, “The Dick Cheney of ‘Vice’ just craves power. The reality was worse.” The lede: “The former veep’s ideological agenda did far more damage than his quest for clout.” The film does indeed focus mainly on personality and gives short-shrift to key historical moments, e.g. the 1990-91 Gulf War—which is barely mentioned—as well as to Cheney’s ideological motivations, which, as we know, were deep, and on domestic policy as well as foreign.

I also had a problem with the implicit suggestion that the Iraq war was driven by oil and Halliburton contracts, which was not only nonsense but stupid, boneheaded nonsense (for my own view of the Iraq war, go here). In short, while Adam McKay’s film may certainly be seen, my assessment of it is mixed.

Another movie about US politics I’ve seen of late is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, about the sudden demise of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in May 1987. The film opened in France in mid-January, vanishing from the salles obscures after two weeks (I caught it in the nick of time). Hollywood movies on subjects of little interest to the French public (e.g. baseball, US politicos almost no one has heard of or remembers) usually linger a little longer. The film is based on journalist Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which chronicles what was the first-ever media-fabricated sex scandal (or “scandal”) that felled a presidential candidate. Bai’s book—which the NYT’s reviewer called “a miniclassic of political history”—is also an indictment of the behavior of the media—the Miami Herald and Washington Post in particular—during the miserable episode. Bai is still indignant three decades later at the media feeding frenzy that ended the political career of the Democratic Party’s most promising politician of the time—and certainly one of the smartest—and its strongest candidate by far going into the 1988 presidential campaign. Hart’s downfall, as Bai wrote in the NYT Magazine, forever changed American politics. And not for the better.

Bai is not the first author to take on the media for its role in Hart’s fall. John Judis published an enquête, “The Hart Affair,” in the July-August 1987 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review—unfortunately not online—which begins:

Sooner or later Gary Hart would probably have destroyed his own candidacy. Hart, the Washington Post‘s Meg Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was “living a life he could not justify or reveal.” But the inevitability of Hart’s political demise does not justify the press’s singular role in precipitating it. In reporting about Hart, the mainstream press departed from its past standards in covering a candidate’s private life and displayed unwonted recklessness in reporting what it had discovered.

We’ll obviously never know if Hart would have self-destructed if he had never crossed paths with Donna Rice in Florida. Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Before the 1984 presidential campaign I was aware that Hart was a senator from Colorado but didn’t know much about him until he emerged as a serious candidate, unexpectedly winning the New Hampshire primary and giving Walter Mondale a run for his money. I wished Hart well at the time—though voted for Jesse Jackson in the Illinois primary in March—as I didn’t find Mondale—a good man and decent liberal—too inspiring, and doubted his chances against Reagan. I was an enthusiastic Hart supporter from the summer of 1986, as he prepared his candidacy for ’88, though was pretty much alone in this among my lefty friends in Chicago, where I was living at the time, who thought of him as a neoliberal (which was absolutely not the case). The one time I saw Hart speak was at a Citizen Action convention in September ’86, at a hotel near O’Hare airport. The reception was indifferent. I remember him speaking, getting no questions, and leaving unnoticed. And needless to say, I was stunned and incensed by the media feeding frenzy over the Donna Rice/Monkey Business business and its denouement, as there was no evidence that Hart had done anything wrong or unethical, let alone illegal. Quel gâchis.

I was reminded of the Hart debacle last November, before hearing about ‘The Front Runner’, in reading an article in that month’s issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows, “Was Gary Hart set up? What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987?” Now James Fallows is quite simply one of America’s best journalists—and has been for decades—whose signature is a mark of quality, and whom I will read on any subject. And while I am allergic to conspiracy theories of any sort, if Fallows is speculating that Hart was indeed a victim of a plot in 1987—that the Monkey Business was a Republican dirty tricks operation and with there being no evidence that anything happened with Donna Rice—then I need to take that seriously. And John Judis, who was a Hart supporter when the thing happened, informs me that a number of level-headed observers have indeed suspected all along that it was a set-up.

I would certainly like to believe the theory but in reviewing the affair after seeing the movie, I don’t know. Hart was, after all, a reputed coureur and there was no reason for the comely Ms. Rice, who had no known political convictions at the time (nowadays she’s a conservative evangelical and Trump supporter), to have paid him a visit at his Capitol Hill townhouse except for we know what. But whatever. It was their private business and no one else’s. In point of fact, the biggest mistake Hart made during the media frenzy was to have abandoned his candidacy, particularly as public opinion was with him. If he had stonewalled the reporters and continued campaigning, he would have likely survived intact—as did Bill Clinton five years later after the Gennifer Flowers eruption.

As for the movie, which covers the final three weeks of the ill-fated campaign, it’s not bad. Hugh Jackman is well-cast as Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee (portrayed by the media at the time as a silently suffering martyr). Leaving the theater I wondered what the point was in making the film, particularly today. Perhaps as a reminder to the Fourth Estate that it is not exempted from critique—for its herd mentality, obsession with ratings, etc—while we’re all celebrating it—and rightly so—in this age of Trump? Whatever the reason, one thing we do know—and do not regret—is that it is no longer conceivable that an American presidential candidate could be driven from a race for having had a sexual relationship with someone who was not his (or her) spouse. Good for that.

Another Hollywood movie with a US politics theme I’ve seen of late is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder. This one has had more success at the box office in France than ‘The Front Runner’, perhaps in part because of its title, Une femme d’exception (which is superior to the English one), even though not too many here know who RBG is. The reviews have also been positive, including among Allociné spectateurs, whereas they were mixed in the US. It’s a perfectly serviceable biopic, beginning with RBG—ably played by Felicity Jones—at Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of the tiny handful of female students, and who had a baby to boot; then the sexism she had to confront in the 1960s, being rejected by major law firms despite her brilliant law school record; career as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she pioneered the study of gender discrimination; and which ends with her victory in the SCOTUS’s 1975 landmark ruling in the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case, for which she wrote the brief. It’s a feel-good movie about a remarkable person, and which, entre autres, shows that women can indeed “have it all”—how I hate that expression—of leading an exceptional career and doing great things, and while raising a family (having a loving, supportive husband certainly helped).

Someone on Twitter last month made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how nice it would be if we could all subtract one day from our respective lives and add it to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (which would certainly prolong it into the next millennium). We’re all crossing our fingers that she remains in good health to at least January 2021…

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Best (and worst) movies of 2018

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). The movies here opened in theaters this year in France or the U.S. I see a lot of movies in the theater—two a week on average—but inevitably miss a few worth seeing. As usual, several well-reviewed Hollywood movies that have come out over the past couple of months have yet to open in France, and I have yet to see certain Netflix exclusives, e.g. ‘Roma’, which has been praised to the high heavens by all and sundry. Will do so after the new year.

TOP 10:
A Star Is Born
Amin
In Safe Hands (Pupille)
Leto (Лето)
The Captain (Der Hauptmann)
The Death of Stalin
The Guilty (Den skyldige)
The Looming Storm (暴雪将至 Une pluie sans fin)
The Shape of Water
Wildlife

HONORABLE MENTION:
In the Aisles (In den Gängen)
Leave No Trace
Shoplifters (万引き家族 Une affaire de famille)
The Insult (قضية رقم ٢٣)
The Silent Revolution (Das schweigende Klassenzimmer)

BEST MOVIE FROM KENYA:
Rafiki

BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
Sofia (صوفيا)

SECOND BEST MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
Razzia (رازيا)

BEST MOVIE FROM TUNISIA:
My Dear Son (ولدي)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL:
Foxtrot (פוֹקְסטְרוֹט‎)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
No Date, No Signature (Cas de conscience بدون تاریخ، بدون امضاء)

BEST FEMINIST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
Cold Sweat (La Permission عرق سرد)

BEST MOVIE FROM SPAIN BY A DIRECTOR FROM IRAN:
Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben)

BEST MOVIE FROM DENMARK BY A DIRECTOR FROM IRAN:
The Charmer (Charmøren)

BEST MOVIE FROM ICELAND:
Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

BEST MOVIE FROM POLAND:
Cold War (Zimna wojna)

BEST MOVIE FROM RUSSIA ABOUT A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF A NON-CONFORMIST WRITER DURING THE BREZHNEV ERA:
Dovlatov (Довлатов)

BLEAKEST MOVIE FROM RUSSIA ABOUT A JEWISH FAMILY IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA:
Closeness (Теснота)

BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ABOUT PEASANTS WHOM MODERNITY HAS PASSED BY:
Happy Like Lazzaro (Lazzaro felice)

BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ABOUT DOWN-AND-OUT PEOPLE IN SARDINIA:
Daughter of Mine (Figlia mia)

BEST MOVIE FROM ITALY ABOUT TRANS-MEDITERRANEAN MIGRATION FROM LIBYA:
The Order of Things (L’ordine della cose)

MOST TOUCHING MOVIE FROM CUBA:
Candalaria

BEST MOVIE FROM PERU THAT IS MAINLY IN QUECHUA:
Retablo

BEST MOVIE FROM PARAGUAY WITH AN ALL-FEMALE CAST:
The Heiresses (Las Herederas)

MOST OPAQUE MOVIE FROM ARGENTINA:
Zama

MOST INTERMINABLY TEDIOUS FIVE-PART MOVIE FROM JAPAN:
Happy Hour (Senses ハッピーアワー)

MOST UNPLEASANT MOVIE FROM SOUTH KOREA:
Burning (버닝)

MOST RIVETING GEOPOLITICAL THRILLER FROM SOUTH KOREA THAT IS PARTLY SET IN NORTH KOREA:
The Spy Gone North (공작)

MOST MAWKISH MOVIE FROM SINGAPORE:
Ramen Teh (情牽拉麵茶)

MOST LIGHTWEIGHT HOLLYWOOD ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM SINGAPORE:
Crazy Rich Asians

MOST BRILLIANTLY CAST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT THE WHITE TRASH STRATUM OF THE AMERICAN WORKING CLASS:
I, Tonya

BEST MOVIE FROM TEXAS ABOUT THE PLIGHT OF THE WHITE WORKING CLASS AMERICAN MALE:
Thunder Road

BEST ETHNOGRAPHIC-LIKE MOVIE FROM SOUTH DAKOTA:
The Rider

MOST RIDICULOUSLY OVERINTERPRETED MOVIE BY AMERICAN LEFTISTS:
Black Panther

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION:
One Nation, One King (Un peuple et son roi)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT LUMPEN IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN YOUTHS IN MARSEILLE:
Shéhérazade

MOST SUBTLE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT COLLATERAL VICTIMS OF TERRORISM:
Amanda

MOST HARD-HITTING BUT OVER-THE-TOP MOVIE FROM FRANCE DENOUNCING NEOLIBERALISM:
At War (En guerre)

MOST MILDLY AMUSING HIT COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Rolling to You (Tout le monde debout)

MOST OCCASIONALLY AMUSING HIT COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
The Trouble with You (En liberté!)

MOST FRANKLY OVERRATED HIT COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Sink or Swim (Le Grand Bain)

MOST DOWNRIGHT IRRITATING HIT COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Nothing to Hide (Le Jeu)

MOST UNSATISFYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN EXTREMELY IRRITATING CONTEMPORARY FRENCH WRITER:
An Impossible Love (Un amour impossible)

BEST INACCURATE BIOPIC ABOUT A GREAT ROCK AND ROLL SINGER:
Bohemian Rhapsody

BEST MOVIE WITH DENZEL WASHINGTON IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST MOVIE WITH GARY OLDMAN IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Darkest Hour

BEST MOVIE WITH DANIEL DAY-LEWIS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Phantom Thread

BEST MOVIE WITH RYAN GOSLING IN THE LEAD ROLE:
First Man

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH LÉA DRUCKER AND DENIS MÉNOCHET IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Custody (Jusqu’à la garde)

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH TAHAR RAHIM AND STACY MARTIN IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Treat Me Like Fire (Joueurs)

MOST BLOOD-DRENCHED IMPECCABLY RECONSTITUTED NAPOLEONIC ERA VIGILANTE CRIME MOVIE FROM FRANCE BASED ON A TRUE STORY WITH VINCENT CASSEL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
The Emperor of Paris (L’Empereur de Paris)

MOST FLAWED MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH ROMAIN DURIS IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Our Struggles (Nos batailles)

BEST DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A TRUE FRENCH HERO FOR OUR ERA:
To the Four Winds (Libre)

BEST DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE SYRIAN REFUGEE EXPERIENCE IN GERMANY:
Central Airport THF (Zentralflughafen THF)

BEST DOCUMENTARY EVER ABOUT THE 2008-09 ISRAEL-GAZA WAR:
Samouni Road

BEST DOCUMENTARY BY MERZAK ALLOUACHE:
Enquête au paradis (تحقيق في الجنة)

BEST MOVIE BY NURİ BİLGE CEYLAN:
The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Ağacı)

BEST MOVIE BY JAFAR PANAHI:
3 Faces (سه رخ)

BEST MOVIE BY STEVEN SPIELBERG:
The Post

BEST MOVIE BY GRETA GERWIG:
Lady Bird

BEST MOVIE BY ABDELLATIF KECHICHE THAT’S NOT ABOUT ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR:
Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
Wonder Wheel

BEST NOT PERFECT MOVIE BY SPIKE LEE:
BlacKkKlansman

BEST NOT PERFECT MOVIE BY FATIH AKIN:
In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

MOST ENTERTAINING OFFBEAT MOVIE BY JACQUES AUDIARD:
The Sisters Brothers

MOST LUDICROUS MOVIE BY STEVE MCQUEEN:
Widows

MOST MISERABILIST MOVIE BY NADINE LABAKI:
Capernaum (كفرناحوم)

MOST SUCCESSFUL FIRST MOVIE BY WALID MATTAR:
Northern Wind (Vent du nord)

MOST FAILED FIRST MOVIE BY JÉRÉMIE & YANNICK RENIER:
Carnivores

MOST FAILED FIRST MOVIE IN THE UNITED STATES BY DENİZ GAMZE ERGÜVEN:
Kings

MOST UTTERLY FAILED MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
The 15:17 to Paris

MOST EXCRUCIATINGLY AWFUL MOVIE BY CLAIRE DENIS:
High Life

WORST MOVIE ABOUT THE LEBANESE CIVIL WAR IN AT LEAST THIRTY YEARS:
Beirut

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In English: The Bureau. In my last post, on Icelandic films, I mentioned the French actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who plays a character in this brilliant, excellent, terrific French TV series, the first three seasons of which my wife and I binged-watched (on DVD; yes we still watch stuff on those) over the past couple of months. I had been hearing about the series—which began in 2015—for the past year, notably from dear friend Adam Shatz, who deemed it sufficiently compelling to devote a post to on the LRB blog (the series may be viewed subtitled in the US and most everywhere else).

In short, the series centers on the deep cover section of the DGSE (the French CIA)—dubbed “le bureau des légendes”—its operatives, and their operations, notably in the Middle East (and principally in Syria, with ISIS and all). It’s a French version of ‘Homeland’ but is far superior (I watched three seasons of the latter before abandoning it). There is no comparison between the two when it comes to the sophistication of the screenplays and knowledge of its subject matter (espionage, the Middle East, etc). The geopolitical knowledge is indeed very good and numerous languages are spoken by the French agents—English, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew—which one does not see in ‘Homeland’, needless to say. The Middle East-North Africa scenes—here, Iran, Syria, Algeria—are naturally shot in Morocco, as in ‘Homeland’, but are pulled off much better (e.g. the scenes in Tehran really do look like Tehran—so much as I imagine Tehran, at least—though the ones in Algiers were admittedly rather obviously shot in Casablanca; bon, a minor detail). And the CIA and Mossad naturally figure.

The pacing is not Hollywoodish, that’s for sure. If you like high octane, edge-of-your-seat action thrillers, with car chases and explosions, ‘Le Bureau des Légendes’ is probably not for you. On ne peut pas plaire à tout le monde

As for the casting, it’s stellar, with well-known French actors of the big screen: Matthieu Kassovitz, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Léa Drucker, Sara Giraudeau… And then there’s the Nadia El Mansour character, played by the Franco-Moroccan actress Zineb Triki—her Syrian Arabic accent is impeccable, so I am told—who is quite simply one of the most beautiful women on this planet (there is a developing consensus on this among both men and women I know).

In short, if you loved The Wire, you are certain to feel likewise about ‘The Bureau’, no two ways about it. The fourth season debuts on Canal+ this fall (and which is focused on Russia, so one reads). Will binge-watch when the whole thing is available.

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I’ve been intending for almost the past month to post something on the antics of the mentally deranged dotard who presently resides in the White House, as—along with just about every American person, wherever s/he may happen to live—I obsessively follow his actions and words, wondering—as we all have since late January 2017—how much longer this can possibly go on. Answer: probably for another 2½ years. The problem with doing blog posts on Trump is that he will say or do something bonkers or downright insane, e.g. trash-talking and insulting leaders of Western democracies, threatening trade wars with America’s most important trading partners, sucking up to Vladimir Putin and against the agencies of the American state, etc, etc, and by the time I get around to offering my own commentary, it’s already old news. So last week, as we’ve moved on to the next crazy ass thing he’s said or done.

So in lieu of depressing commentary on US politics, here’s a post on Icelandic cinema, beginning with the good, fun, enjoyable film, ‘Woman at War’ (its international title), directed by auteur Benedikt Erlingsson, which opened in Paris earlier this month to thumbs-up reviews from critics, and has received likewise from Allociné spectateurs. It’s a crowd-pleaser for the type of people who go to Icelandic movies, about a late 40s-something choir teacher in Reykjavik named Halla (actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), beloved by everyone, who moonlights as an eco-terrorist, single-handedly taking down electrical power pylons in the countryside with a bow and arrow, to thwart a mega-investment project of a Chinese conglomerate that threatens to scar Iceland’s pristine landscape, and with the security forces of the Icelandic state hot on her heels (and with technical assistance from the country’s NATO allies). Some of the sequences are very amusing, as are some of the (goofy) characters. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer, who saw the pic at Cannes, characterized it as “offbeat, poignant and visually exquisite;” Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg, for his part, called it “an intelligent feel-good film that knows how to tackle urgent global issues with humor as well as a satisfying sense of justice.” Indeed. Trailer is here.

I saw the film with two cinematically-discerning friends, Rebecca and Sylvia, who loved it (as did my friend Joëlle, who writes screenplays for movies and TV series for a living). At a restaurant afterward, I told my two friends about several Icelandic films I had seen in recent years, which they didn’t know about. So I promised to do an informational blog post on them. Voilà.

One that I loved is ‘Rams’ (in France: Béliers), directed by Grímur Hákonarson, which came out in late 2015. It’s about two bachelor brothers in their 60s (actors Theódór Júlíusson and Sigurður Sigurjónsson), both sheep farmers in a remote northern part of the island, who live practically next door to one another but had a falling out forty years earlier and haven’t spoken since. But then a sheep in the area is diagnosed with scrapie, with the sanitary authorities thus decreeing that the brothers’ entire herds have to be destroyed. They respond to the tragedy in different ways but are inevitably brought together. If you liked ‘Woman at War’, you’ll like ‘Rams’, and vice-versa. US critics all gave the pic the thumbs up, e.g. Kenneth Turan, A.O. Scott, Todd McCarthy, and Alissa Simon. Trailer is here.

After ‘Rams’ there’s Sparrows (the pic’s international title), directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson, which came out in France in July 2016 (but seems not to have in the US). It begins with the protag, a 16-year-old boy (actor Atli Óskar Fjalarsson) who lives with his mother in Reykjavik—parents are divorced—being put on a plane (at the municipal airport, not Keflavík, known to all who have flown Icelandair or WOW Air) to join his alcoholic father, who lives in the middle of nowhere on a fjord in the northwestern part of the island. As a city boy—and with talent as a singer—he’s out of place, to put it mildly, with his age cohorts, who’ve never been anywhere and don’t know anything about anything. In effect, the folks up there are the bas-fonds—Icelandic white trash, if you will—for whom the only work available is gutting cod in local fisheries, and where there is little else to do in one’s free time but get drunk, consume whatever drugs are available, raise hell, and fuck. It’s a good film. Trailer is here.

Also released in 2016 was L’Effet aquatique (in English: The Aquatic Effect), a Franco-Icelandic comedy directed by the Franco-German-Romanian Jewish-American-Icelandic Sólveig Anspach, who sadly died (of cancer) before the film came out (I much liked her 2014 Lulu femme nue), and which begins in France, specifically in the Paris banlieue of Montreuil. At Montreuil’s big public swimming pool, la stade nautique Maurice Thorez (of Communist Party fame), 40-something Samir (actor Samir Guesmi), who’s a simple working class guy, develops a crush on swimming instructor Agathe (actress Florence Loiret-Caille, who, for those in the know, is the Marie-Jeanne character in the series Le Bureau des Légendes). To make Agathe’s acquaintance, Samir pretends that he doesn’t know how to swim, so he can take lessons from her. But, after a few sessions, she sees that it’s all a ruse, is not impressed, and, in effect, tells him to take a hike, after which she flies off to Reykjavik, to an international congress of swimming instructors, where she’s the French representative. Samir, totally smitten, hops a flight to follow her and, once in Reykjavik, finds the congress. Seeing that the Israel seat is vacant, he passes himself off as the Israeli delegate—who happened to be late to the event—and is then called upon to speak, so he improvises a speech in broken English, where he catches Agathe’s attention. No need to describe the scene here except that it’s hilarious. He becomes the star of the congress. And so Samir and Agathe connect in Reykjavik, funny things happen, they have an escapade around the island, and voilà. An enjoyable, heartwarming film. Trailer is here.

Lest I forget, I saw a not bad Icelandic film in 2013, ‘The Deep’, that I wrote about at the time (here, scroll down).

Then there’s Greenland, which is next door to Iceland, though is completely and totally different—there is no comparison between the two—though I should nonetheless mention the crowd pleasing 2016 French comedy Le Voyage au Groenland (in English: Journey to Greenland), directed by Sébastien Betbeder. In this one, two 30ish Parisian buddies both named Thomas (real life actors Thomas Blanchard and Thomas Scimeca), both of whom are unemployed actors registered with Pôle Emploi, decide to take a break and travel to a remote village on Greenland’s western coast—is anywhere in Greenland not remote?—where one of their fathers has been living for twenty or so years. And so they hang out with the local Inuits and get to know them and their culture. It’s a light film, enjoyable, and ethnographically interesting, insofar as one gets an idea as to how Inuits have entered the globalized world of the 21st century. Trailer is here.

As it happens, there’s a Franco-Danish film set in Greenland, Une année polaire (A Polar Year), that opened in Paris two months ago and is still playing, but which I have not seen. Maybe I will.

UPDATE: Here’s an article from The Washington Post, dated 29 April 2017, on the impact of climate change and modernity in a village in northern Greenland.

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