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Friday, 31 March 2017

The Little Thief (1988)

The screenplay for the above film was co-written by Francois Truffaut who hoped to direct it as well, but died before he was able to do so, landing the script with the more pedestrian Claude Miller. One can see why it would have been a pet project for Truffaut since it is the distaff side of his famed "The 400 Blows" (1958). Instead of charting the history of a troubled and anti-social youth, the story here is of 16-year old Janine, brought winningly to life by 17-year old Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Set in the years shortly after the Second World War, Janine is a compulsive thief, cutting a lonely yet somehow sympathetic figure. Abandoned by her mother and unloved by the stern aunt with whom she lives, her only outlet is through the theft of articles that she hoards rather than desires and cash from the local church to fund her cinema obsession. Forced first from her school and then from her village, she lies to secure the position of maid in a grand house in a nearby town, escaping to the ready-made dreams of the local cinema on her days off. There she meets an older married man, Didier Bezace, 42 to her 16 and tries to entice him to deflower her. He is horrified at the suggestion that he should do this, so she quickly contrives to lose her virginity to a workman in the house and subsequently presents herself to Bezace as an experienced 'woman'. He no longer resists the temptation and a clandestine relationship ensues. Mind you, this is no 'Lolita' fantasy; she's far from a simpering innocent and knows exactly what she wants. In his favour he does his best to educate her in the ways of the world and enrols her in a secretarial course as a step up from domestic service. However she soon becomes enamoured of a young thief and casts her older lover adrift. 

Her new paramour is played by Simon de la Brosse a charismatic 23-year old who committed suicide a few years later. He encourages her to steal from the household where she's been working (much to the dismay of her mistress who has tried her best to befriend the girl), and off the pair go on the run until their romantic idyll ends with a police raid. He escapes capture but she ends up in a drab borstal overseen by a pack of stern nuns, dreaming of escape and reuniting with her lover. When she and a new friend manage to break out, there is no welcome for her anywhere, but armed with the camera her friend has given her she hopes for an independent and crime-free future. We in turn wish her well despite any lingering doubts.

The film verges on the plodding, as scene follows scene in unearthing her sorry progression, but Gainsbourg holds one's attention and saves the film from drowning in its own misery. She's a fascinating actress. Here she is an odd-looking but not unattractive teenager. As she grew older her looks became progressively strange, but were tempered by her growing prowess as an actress. There is no law that says lead actresses have to be raving beauties. She made her feature debut as a 13-year old and the above movie was her seventh. She won a Cesar in 1986 as most promising newcomer and went on to win a best actress award in Cannes in 2009. She relishes challenging roles -- one has only to look at the parts she has taken for Lars von Trier --and she has remained an intriguing player throughout her long and successful career.  

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Surprise of "The Surprise" (2015)

It's been a hectic weekend filled with enjoyable celebrations, delaying my regular Friday blog until today. Then there was the problem of deciding which movie to spotlight.

Usually if I go to the cinema to watch a film, whether repertory or modern release, that movie gets pride of place. However I note that an outing to the National Film Theatre at the start of the month got buried when I decided to review "Elle" instead. The movie in question was "Dernier Atout" (1942) from reliable director Jacques Becker. Folks, this Vichy-era potboiler was so forgettable that I needed to remind myself a few minutes ago what in fact it was about. And please don't ask me why we chose to book tickets for it in the first place. It's a contemporary crime melodrama set in a fictitious South American country, since of course there was no crime whatsoever in German-occupied France at the time. Pierre Renoir (son of the artist and older brother of the director) plays a slimy crook out to retrieve the fortune stolen from him by an erstwhile colleague. There's a murder and a lot of business over a string of pearls which may or may not be genuine. And since the senior policemen are all buffoons, the crime is investigated by a pair of new graduates from the police academy, assisted by their jolly mates. The only trouble is that they all looked as if they were pushing forty... Hugely forgettable.

I have written previously that not all foreign films are worth the effort of seeking them out, although fortunately many of them are; and it is a rule of Patty's thumb to watch as many foreign-language movies as possible in search of the occasional gem. Looking back at the other foreign films that I have seen since the beginning of March, it's very much the traditional parsons egg. From my film diary I can report that I have seen the Belgian flick "2 Days, One Night" a worthy effort from the Dardennes, starring Marion Cotillard trying to get her job back and her colleagues wanting to keep their bonus if she is laid off. Yawn! Then there was "The Cow and I", a French movie from 1959 starring the ever droll Fernandel as a prisoner of war in Germany trying to get back to France with a cow in tow as a disguise; quite sweet but sufficiently long that it became a shaggy-cow story. On Netflix I caught up with "The Clouds of Sils Maria" (2014) for which Kristen Stewart won a Cesar award -- why, I can't begin to imagine -- since she didn't even attempt to speak French in this French-made movie starring Juliette Binoche, and the film itself was really nothing special. I also finally saw "Ida" the Polish foreign film winner from a few years ago where a novice nun discovers that she is really Jewish...absorbing, but her flawed and dissolute aunt was the more interesting character, as they strove to discover what had become of her parents during the Holocaust.

I'm not done yet! I also watched "The Tale of Tsar Saltan", a colourful Russian animation from 1984 of the classic fairy tale (and I have the older live-action version languishing in my backlog of movies to view). And while strictly not a foreign film, since America-made and largely in English, the 2016 documentary "The Lovers and the Despot" tells a fascinating saga of the abduction of a famous South Korean actress and her director-husband to North Korea to create more kudos for dictator and film-buff Kim, with plenty of subtitled Korean talking heads.

As I have mentioned before Sky Cinema is currently gifting its subscribers a new foreign film premiere every Wednesday. This month I started watching but gave up on French flick "Summertime" (2015) with Cecille de France establishing her lesbian credentials during a 'summer of love' and "Game On" (2016) a largely sung Polish tale of a street artist forsaking her dreams to look after her family who are about to be evicted. It is meant to be cheery but it struck me as dreary. That's two movies whose ends will never be seen by yours truly.

"The Commune" (2016) is a watchable but ultimately depressing film about a rich, hipster couple who decide to turn their large villa into an experiment in living with other like-minded folk (who largely came across as a bunch of freeloaders). Everything is more or less hunky-dory until the husband decides that his mistress should move in as well.

Finally there was one more than pleasant surprise, a Dutch movie from 2015 actually called "The Surprise". Written and directed by Mike van Dien, it is his first feature film in eighteen years since his Oscar-winning "Character" (1997). It's an Wes Anderson-esque fable of a wealthy youngish man who feels he has nothing to live for when his overbearing but beloved mother dies. His own pathetic attempts at suicide having failed, he contacts a covert organisation that arranges a speedy dispatch for rich clients eager to shuck off the mortal coil. He chooses the option for his death to come when least expected, and returns to his sprawling fairy-tale estate to dismiss the servants and to await the end. However to his dismay and amazement he begins to fall in  love with a young lady he encountered in the coffin-choosing room, despite clients being forbidden to fraternize. He now wants to cancel the contracts on his beloved and himself, but that too is against the rules according to the company's head honcho, English actor Henry Goodman and his goon-like gang of sons. Goodman is the only player known to me in the otherwise Dutch cast, but they all are splendid, especially the rather moving sub-plot of the estate's old-faithful head gardener who yearns to join his recently deceased wife.  Despite the black subject matter, this movie is indeed a rather jolly and ultimately satisfying confection. Recommended.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Elle (2016)

This long and masterful film from provocateur Paul Verhoeven is totally absorbing, always shocking, never boring, thoroughly thought-provoking...but a hard movie to actually like. It's the first feature from the Dutch-born director since 2006's "Black Book", with only a 2012 short "Tricked" surfacing during this ten-year hiatus. Few would argue that Verhoeven is not an accomplished film-maker with a number of amazing movies dating back to the late 70s/early 80s, but I would guess that his controversial approach to his subject matter and the many (largely unfounded) accusations of misogyny make finding finance for his projects an uphill battle.

I understand that this movie was originally intended as a U.S. production, but a series of A-list actresses including Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, and Diane Lane took one look at the script and rapidly turned away. So eventually the project moved to Europe where a further selection of mature actresses didn't want to know. Enter Isabelle Huppert, long noted for her challenging and often sex-obsessed roles, working with directors such as Haneke and Chabrol, who had read the book on which the film is based and who actually sought out Verhoeven as the most suitable director. It is a match made in Heaven -- or possibly Hell.

She plays a middle-aged divorcee with a highly successful video games company, run jointly with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny) and a bottomless sexual appetite. We are introduced to her character in the movie's opening seconds when she is attacked at home by a masked intruder and brutally beaten and raped. The only witness is her smug cat, who silently watches as she tidies the mess of broken crockery, bathes, and calmly orders in some sushi. Reporting the atrocity to the police is not even a consideration and one begins to wonder whether she somehow perversely enjoyed this home invasion.

We soon learn that she is not a very pleasant person, disliked by most of her young techy staff, casually fornicating with Anna's husband, masturbating as she watches a dishy neighbour through spyglasses, losing patience with her dim-bulb son whose bossy girlfriend has just given birth to a baby that can't possibly be his (it's more than several shades too dark), and berating her botox-obsessed mother (veteran actress Judith Magre born 1926) who is planning to marry her sexy toyboy. Huppert's is a brave and bravura performance sprinkled with occasional nudity, hard to believe that the actress is 63. She's a very flawed heroine, but you can't take your eyes off of her nor stop wondering how the story will develop.

Halfway through we discover the gruesome facts of her family background, which might partially explain her own tightly-controlled behaviour. We also learn the identity of the masked intruder, but revenge is not what this film is about. She continues to plough her own path, albeit with the implication that a more rational and thoughtful persona is fighting to emerge, after a series of traumatic developments.

Some critics are saying that this movie is Verhoeven's masterpiece, his best-ever film, but I would not agree. I have a lot of time for "Black Book" which was actually in 2008 voted the best Dutch movie of all time by his countrymen and I am also fond of some of his very accomplished early films like "Soldier of Orange" and "The Fourth Man". No longer much of a Hollywood player despite a successful run of 90s movies, this is his first French production (a language in which he was not even previously fluent). The movie premiered at Cannes, not let it be said to universal acclaim, but it is brilliantly conceived, constructed, and acted. 

When I wrote about this year's Oscars I said that it was a shame that the nominated Huppert didn't win over the predictably likeable performance of Emma Stone in "La La Land". Having now seen "Elle", I can't say that I'm really surprised. With her no-holds barred performance Huppert does indeed out-act virtually any other actress, it's just that the character she plays is so very difficult to like and by association to honour.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

A long time ago we kept asking ourselves "What was the name of that 'nice' film we saw?" And we never did quite work out what movie we were thinking of. Well, here's another picture that falls into that category of niceness -- and I hope I will continue to remember it. Which is pretty good since I wasn't really aware of the film's existence before its recent showing on FilmFour . Since it is now some six years old, it's yet another flick that fell through the cracks without my realising it.

It's a delightful, good-natured flick which gives lightweight comic actor Paul Rudd a rare leading role -- long before he got his Ant-Man gig. He is not so much the 'idiot' of the title, but rather a simple soul, quite immune to the bullshit of the world -- na├»ve and trusting. On his release from jail, having been stitched up for selling weed to a uniformed cop (he was such a nice guy that he couldn't resist the cop's doleful pleading), he is at a loose end. He can't go back to his former girlfriend and her organic farm since she has replaced him in her affections with another gormless helper. Worse still she will not return his beloved pooch, Willie Nelson, despite never having liked the mutt in the first place.

He doesn't want to live with his mother, so it's up to his three sisters to find him a bunk and some work. The three are played by high-flying magazine writer Elizabeth Banks (looking remarkably like Parker Posey here), bisexual free spirit Zooey Deschanel, and yuppie Emily Mortimer who is in thrall to her horribly pretentious hubby played by the ever unlikeable Steve Coogan. While all three want to help poor Ned, they are not prepared for the disruption he will bring to their safe little lives. He won't lie for Banks to authorise a story she hopes to flog, where the info was given to him in confidence. He blurts out to Deschanel's girlfriend (Rashida Jones) that they are soon to be parents after his sister's quickie shag with a pompous artist. He 'corrupts' Mortimer and Coogan's cocooned son by introducing him to boyish pastimes and dooms their tenuous marriage by mentioning that Coogan conducts his interviews in the nude with the ballerina that he is documenting. All of this is revealed without malice, simple facts that he has observed.

When he tells his sympathetic parole office that he has inadvertently smoked a reefer, the helpful officer replies "I didn't hear you say that". So innocent little Neddy repeats it, landing himself back in jail for breaking parole. The family finally gather round their 'idiot brother' but he doesn't want to leave his simple comfy life in jail -- at least not until the three sisters liberate Willie Nelson giving Ned a new lease on life. We last see him living a happy, hippy existence out in the countryside, making candles with his ex's now-ex boyfriend, with good old Willie in earshot. In truth it is the three sisters who are idiots, who have not realised what a breath of fresh air and a treasure their brother really is -- he's just too good for our modern selfish world. This definitely is a 'nice' movie to remember.    

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Oscars 2017

Before I get on to the finale of this year's ceremony which made headlines around the world -- far more than the usual puff pieces and to the Academy's great dismay and embarrassment -- let me make a few comments on the ever-so-long self-congratulatory parade leading up to that classic fiasco.

For a start let's consider the new host, Jimmy Kimmel, who is more or less an unknown quantity in Britain. I reckon he did a reasonable job, far better than some of the hosting disasters of recent years. I'm thinking of the likes of Seth McFarland, James Franco/Anne Hathaway, and little Dougie Hauser. There weren't many foot-in-the-mouth moments in between some sharp jabs at the presidency and Hollywood itself. He came across as a 'please-please-like-me' kind of chap and kept the evening moving, despite some unnecessary bits of business like parachuting snacks from the ceiling (once would have been enough), his phony feud with Matt Damon, and waylaying some civilians off a tour-bus to ogle at the gathered celebs. Michael, being the cynic that I love, suggested that these sightseers were straight out of central casting.

As for the awards themselves, up to the final hoo-hah, there was little in the way of surprises. All of the acting Oscars went exactly where the pundits predicted, although some upsets might have been fun. Not that she stood a dewdrop's chance in hell of winning, but it would have been great if Isabelle Huppert had managed to dethrone Emma Stone as best actress. I have absolutely nothing whatsoever against Stone and have generally enjoyed her various performances, but as I have made clear ever since I saw "La La Land" last October, the film is undeserving of its hysterical hype. As is, it was the evening's biggest winner with six Oscars out of its record 14 nominations. Fortunately other films got a deserved 'look-in' in the writing, editing, sound editing and sound mixing, costume, and best actor categories. It's healthy to spread the love!

A highpoint of the evening was Viola Davis' acceptance speech (fortunately not drowned out by the Academy Orchestra) saying with regret that the place where the greatest potential is gathered is the graveyard -- a fine metaphor for her race's long struggle. Mind you the Academy did seem to bend over backwards this year to resolve last year's Oscars-so-white controversy -- and please don't yell at me if I suggest that not all of the nominations were really among the five best in their category. I'll say no more.

Finally to the evening's denouement which couldn't have been scripted in anyone's wildest dream. Septuagenarians Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were wheeled on to present the award for best picture; I am not suggesting for a moment that one or other of the pair is going gaga, but the debacle could have been better handled. Beatty was obviously aware that the card he'd been handed was incorrect and should probably have spoken up then. Instead he thrust it at Dunaway who in what must have been a 'senior moment' blurted out "La La Land". It took an unbelievable amount of time, during which three of that's film's producers managed to make thank-you speeches, for the mistake to be put right and for the "Moonlight" producers to take their rightful place on the stage. By then the shine had been taken off their victory. Beatty kept making excuses and Dunaway made herself very scarce. Hilarious in a way.

Anyhow I had my wish that "La La" not win best picture. I've not seen "Moonlight" yet but it sounds a deserving winner. Rather than honouring a film that looked back to glorify America's technicolour musical past, the Oscars have been dragged into the present with a gritty and timely movie -- and that can't be a bad thing. As for Kimmel promising not to return -- as if the evening's fiasco was somehow his fault and not a distracted accountant's busy posing for a selfie with Stone -- I for one would be happy to see him again. He just needs to improve his timekeeping.