Saturday, March 24, 2018

At NYC's FIAF this week, a lesser-known (and rightly so) Jean Renoir film, FRENCH CANCAN

Even great filmmakers can have off-days, one example being Jean Renoir, he of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, who made a movie entitled FRENCH CANCAN back in 1955 that begins with the disclaimer that nothing we will see should be taken as having anything to do with real life, events or people.

Smart move, as much that we see and hear smacks of enormous, often overdrawn artifice.

Directed and written/adapted (from an idea by André-Paul Antoine) by Renoir (shown at left), the movie takes place in the 1890's as Henri Danglard, a producer of something you might, if you were particularly gracious, call "theater," attempts to open a new night club to be named, yes, the Moulin Rouge, which will make its mark by reintroducing a by-then-retro dance called the Cancan, now to be rechristened as the French Cancan.

Because Henri is played by that fabulous French star Jean Gabin, one of whose many gifts included the inability to overact or deliver a performance that was anything less than real, he is one of a very few of the cast members who manage this seemingly (here, at least) difficult feat.

Among M. Gabin's other gifts (the actor is shown above) was his unassuming grace and believability as a ladies' man, and here he plays it big-time, with a long-term mistress (the haughtily glamorous Maria Felix, below), plenty of past conquests, and a possible new one on the horizon -- an adorable little laundress whom he meets one evening at a local dance hall and who has quite a knack for movement and dancing.

That laundress is played by Françoise Arnoul (below) with charm and wit enough to match M. Gabin, and her character soon has suitors enough to vie with Gabin: She's engaged to the local baker, is chased after by a super-wealthy foreign aristocrat, and eventually falls for her hero and mentor, who now has her training to perform in his new club.

This rondelay of love matches and mis-matches comes to a proper and quite fittingly adult, philosophical and emotional conclusion that features a terrific speech by Gabin about theater, performing, producing, love, marriage, responsibility and all the rest. This alone makes the movie worth watching, but the final 20 minutes or so, devoted to the grand opening of the Moulin Rouge, the various musical numbers performed (one of these by Edith Piaf!), and of course the final one involving the cancan are the absolute knock-out we've been waiting for -- and to which the entire movie has been building. (It's rather like seeing those famous Radio City Music Hall Rockettes -- but with a lot more heart and soul.)

If this sounds some kind of "rave" notice, indeed it is, but it must also be accompanied by a major caveat. The first 40 minutes or so of this film is quite a slough to get through. While the candy-colored sets are often lovely, there is also an over-abundance of short scenes that exist simply to make a point and further the plot. This is clunky filmmaking. Many of the subsidiary roles are overacted and too obviously written, as well -- making use of a number of performers who were popular at the time but whose shtick, for that is what it is, does not hold up at all well today.

There is literally so much of this going on so often (as with the three "shticklers" above) that the movie soon seems unduly noisy and tiresome. My spouse gave up on it around that 40-minute point. TrustMovies persisted and is very glad he did because that shtick soon lessens even as the love relationships strengthen, character comes to the fore, and genuine performing takes over -- both in the acting and in the musical performances themselves.

That lengthy and super-engaging finale features Ms Felix (above) as Catherine the Great -- doing a strip-tease and a shimmy! -- and includes a simply lovely song (that I believe was also featured briefly in Baz Luhrman's crappy Moulin Rouge), and lots more. So do stick with French Cancan, and it'll probably win you over, too.

One other note: If you place yourself back in time of 1955, the film's release here in the USA must have knocked the uptight American audience for a loop in terms of its attitude toward love and sex, as when the heroine, expecting to have to turn herself over sexually to her new producer/mentor, instead willingly loses her virginity to her baker fiancé (above) so that she can have her first sexual experience with a man she actually cares for. The film's mature and thoughtful take on sexuality and its place in society is something that I'm afraid a rather too-large percentage of American audiences may still have to grow up and into. The attitudes belonging to fundamentalist religions continue to apply here in the USA -- and in far too much of our world.

French Cancan screens in French with English subtitles at FIAF in New York City this coming Tuesday, March 27, at 4 and 7:30pm, as part of FIAF's continuing CinéSalon series of classic of French cinema with Olivier Barrot. M. Barrot, noted journalist and TV personality, has curated the current series and will appear for a 30-minute talk at 6:45 that evening to share his insights into the social and cultural contexts of the film. His talk will be open to audiences of either the 4:30 or 7pm screening. For more information and/or tickets, simply click here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Rape and its aftermath in the Arab world's said-to-be most democratic country: Kaouther Ben Hania's BEAUTY AND THE DOGS

The first thing TrustMovies did after viewing BEAUTY AND THE DOGS -- the Tunisian-set narrative film (based on a real incident) from filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania -- was to find out more about the tiny North African country of Tunisia, which is said by Wikipedia to be considered the only full democracy in the Arab world. How that "democracy" is seen by Ms Ben Hania (shown below), however, indicates that her country has a long way to go regarding the rights of women and the persistence of abuse by the police.

Beauty and the Dogs is also said to have been filmed in discrete sections, each of which was done in a single "take." While this is unusual, still, entire movies have actually been filmed in one take: Russian Ark and Valzer, to name two. This  decision and its execution does lend the film both immediacy and a kind of improvisational quality that adds to its veracity.

Regarding that veracity, however, some understanding of the history, culture and character of Tunisia might also help matters.

My spouse opined, during the course of the film, that this young woman, as well as the male friend who helps her, would have been long dead by now at the hands of the police (some of whom are shown above). That thought did crop up in my mind, too, but Tunisia is not Egypt nor Saudi Arabia. Democratic standards are at least higher there, and while the police can get away with a lot -- quite a lot, as you will come to observe --  there apparently is a limit.

The tale told here is one of a quite beautiful and bountiful 21-year-old student, Mariam (played by the impressive and talented newcomer, Mariam Al Ferjani (above and below), who has organized a dance party with the help of her friends, and hopes to have a good time and maybe meet a young man she sees hanging out around the dance floor (Ghanem Zrelli, below). She does meet this fellow, Youssef, but suddenly we're in scene number two, and the pair appear to be running for their lives. What has happened?

The answer to that sets the tone and provides remainder of this very dark and pretty ugly story, the various pieces of which fall into place, as we watch Mariam and Youssef try to negotiate the ordeal of post-rape procedure in Tunisia. This involves private vs public hospitals, the willingness (or not) of medical professionals to do their job, and most of all -- of course -- it involves the police who are, in this case, more than a little involved by being both the assailants and the supposed instruments for justice.

These guardians of society threaten, cajole, blackmail, lie, play the good-cop/bad-cop game, and oh, so much more  (my favorite is their don't-you-love-your-country scam), as they attempt to get our girl to drop the charges. Mariam's perseverance proves at times almost too much, and yet Ms All Ferjani's performance is so good -- so full of fear, anger, shock, energy and strength that she sometimes single-handedly carries you along. Tunisia is clearly still bound by its traditional Muslim past (Mariam's connection to her father runs strongly and consistently through the film), and the writer/director makes clear how much tradition matters and how her country is in a transitional phase.

I rather wish, however, that the filmmaker has not left out some really key scenes (the rape is one of these; another concerns what happened at a pivotal moment when Mariam needs to escape. Instead of learning how she managed to do this, we simply movie to the next discrete chapter, in which the threat has evidently evaporated.

Overall, though, Beatuy and the Dogs is a pretty riveting, stimulating movie. It should have you wishing Tunisia well in its continuing climb toward democracy -- even as so many western nations, including our own, seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

From Oscilloscope Films, in Arabic with English subtitles and running 100 minutes, the movie opens today, Friday, March 23, in Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and New York City (the Landmark 57th), and will then hit cities across the country over the weeks to come. Here in South Florida it will play the Bill Cosford Cinema in Miami, beginning April 13. To view all upcoming playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Armando Iannucci's THE DEATH OF STALIN: Russian history as both tragedy AND farce

They say that history plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. British filmmaker Armando Ianucci has come up with the brilliant idea of playing both simultaneously and then executed that idea in exactly the manner it needs to work best. THE DEATH OF STALIN is at once horrifying and hilarious, ridiculous and rueful and best of all somehow true to the history that we (we older folk, at least) remember hearing -- if not, thankfully, experiencing.

Americans may have to wait for the full-out Donald Trump dictatorship to get a taste of that -- the difference being that Trump and his flunkies don't possess one whit of the intelligence of those Russians, back then or, for that matter, now, particularly that of the putrid Putin. Trump and crew have got the entitlement, vanity and avarice down pat, but more will be needed.

Mr. Iannucci, pictured at right, has shown us what he's capable of many times before -- from Alan Partridge to In the Loop to Veep (the last of which I still have not seen). The Death of Stalin may be his masterwork, something unlike anything I've previously witnessed at the movies.

After giving us just a smidgen of historical facts about the time and place we're about to enter, he tosses us into it -- at a radio concert overseen by Paddy Considine (below) to which Comrade Stalin now wants the recording. Problem is, there has been no recording made.

The uproar, the all-out fear this causes, together with how the situation is handled, proves a master-stroke in bringing out the humor and horror, and the movie simply continue in this vein -- growing more so as events pile up.

One of the more unusual choices Iannucci has made is to have each of his actors use his or her own accent through the film. Consequently, rather than having all the actors ape faux Russian accents (as in the recent Red Sparrow), each simply uses his native one. Since most of the cast is British, most of the accents are, too -- from Stalin's (mouthed by Adrian McLoughlin) to his sexy son's (Rupert Friend) to Lavrentiy Beria, the miscreant who hopes to assume power once Stalin is gone (played by the great Simon Russell Beale, below, left).

But wait, Olga Kurylenko, who plays the concert pianist who helps sets this all in motion, is Ukranian by birth and so uses her own very eastern European accent. And then we have the likes of Steve Buscemi who plays Khrushchev (shown at far right, below)...

...and Jeffrey Tambor (below, as Malenkov), both of whom speak with their own very American accents. While this is initially shocking, given how movies so often handle "foreign-sounding speech," even more shocking is how damned well this works. Our ear gets used to it all in a flash, and the actors can then simply continue with their spot-on performances, which mix smiles and shocks that blend beautifully with the humor and horror on hand. In its entirety, the movie works its magic like little else you will have seen.

The Death of Stalin also brings us a look at the lives of those Russian apparatchiks in ways that other films have not. How they can spin on a dime from yes to no, right to wrong, good to bad -- all the while exhibiting the kind of craven fear, occasionally bolstered by cold fury, that working under the thumb of insane dictator like Stalin could produce. The result looks something like what Mel Brooks might have come up with, had he lived his entire life in abject terror.

While most of the cast is male, and first-rate, we also get a couple of nice turns from the distaff side: Ms Kurylenko and the so-versatile-that-she-is-often-unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough (below) as Stalin's daughter Svetlana. Still, as in Stalin's time, this was a man's game and the various ways he could play it seem as numerous as the characters on view. And while one might win for a time, there was always another schemer waiting in the wings with claws held back but at the ready -- as Iannucci's final pre-end-credits note/visual makes cleverly clear.

In the crack cast, literally everyone manages to stand out at one time or another -- Michael Palin giving the subtlest performance and Jason Isaacs (below), along with Rupert Friend, offering the most over-the-top (all three work perfectly, by the way). I have to acknowledge Misters Buscemi, Tambor and Beale as the standouts here. For sheer versatility and delight, consider Beale's performances in this film, together with those in The Deep Blue Sea and the cable television' series Penny Dreadful to recall how no-limits incredible this actor can be.

Final credit, however, must go to Iannucci and his co-writers. What a brilliant job this humorist/filmmaker and crew have done in not simply combining but also perfectly balancing history, humor, horror and character into something vastly entertaining, thought-provoking and just a little fear-inducing, too. It's happening in today's Russia all over again. Could that kind of terror happen here? If our country grows any dumber and less alert, yes, absolutely.

From IFC Films and running 107 minutes, The Death of Stalin, after opening in some major cities a week or so back, hits South Florida (and elsewhere) tomorrow, Friday. March 23 in Miami at the Landmark at Merrick Park, Regal South Beach 18 and AMC Sunset Place. Beginning the following Friday, March 30, the film will open in Miami at the O Cinema Miami Beach and the AMC Aventura; in Fort Lauderdale at The Classic Gateway Theatre, in Coral Springs at the Regal Magnolia Place 16, in Hollywood at the Regal Oakwood 18, in Pembroke Pines at the Regal Westfork 13, in Boca Raton at the Regal Shadowood, and in Palm Beach Gardens at Cobb's Downtown at the Mall Gardens Palm 16.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

In Cédric Klapisch's BACK TO BURGUNDY, vintner siblings harvest, fight and reunite

Oenophiles (both real and would-be: who can afford good wines these days?) will probably be drawn to (and with good reason) BACK TO BURGUNDY, the new French film by Cédric Klapisch, one of our favorite, consistently-on-target filmmakers. Whether he is dealing with family (Un air de famille), a group of young, free-spirited students (L'Auberge Espanole and its couple of continuations, as these kids grow up), his lovely/funny/moving ode to the city of Paris, or his look at the French "haves" and "have-nots" (My Piece of the Pie), his films are alert, stylish and eminently watchable. With this new endeavor, M. Klapisch (shown below) returns to the theme of family, this time with a slightly narrower canvas than that of his early work, and the result is a film that resonates ever more strongly as it moves along, uncovering character, growth, humor and immense beauty -- in both its good-looking cast and its gorgeous vineyard locale.

Back to Burgundy (its French title, Ce qui nous lie translates as "That Which Binds Us") begins with a little boy looking out on the vineyard his family owns and describing his feelings about it. It's a lovely scene that immediately engulfs us in the environment of a vintner. This kid will appear now and again throughout the film, especially toward its finale when, in a couple of scenes handled with simplicity and great feeling, the past and present are beautifully united.

Our kid will grow up into a character played by Pio Marmaï (shown below), an actor TrustMovies has enjoyed since seeing him in Living on Love Alone, back in 2010. Marmaï, as Jean, had left his home in France after a falling out with his father, leaving his two siblings to run the family vineyard. He has traveled the world until settling down and starting a vineyard in Australia, where he has formed a strong relationship with a woman and fathered his own son. Now, news of his father's approaching death has brought him back home.

The strong bond between brothers and sister remains, even if it has been frayed a bit, and the movie's major concern has to do with how the three will handle their estate, which, thanks to government taxes, presents some major problems. His sister, played by Ana Girardot (below) is the only one of the three to be presently unattached to some romantic relationship.

Brother Jérémie (François Civil, below) is married to the daughter of a local and competing vintner who is both powerful and controlling. How the three will solve their problem--  which seems to have a number possible solutions -- by joining forces or perhaps with more certainty by remaining apart becomes the thrust of the story. Along the way, we meet various employees, see a harvest or two underway, and get to know subsidiary characters with surprising finesse by Klapisch, who seems to have tamped down somewhat his usual improvisational style to meet the needs of this particular and more formally-told tale.

The film is filled with mostly decent people, doing the best they can while trying to stay out of their own way. Smartly co-written by Kalpisch and Santiago Amigorena with collaboration from supporting actor Jean-Marc Roulot, Back to Burgundy is especially clever in the manner it acknowledges how so many of us prove to be our own worst enemies. On the other hand, these folk's specific problems can also be offset by their specific gifts.

The screenplay also allows us to see those differences in male and female characteristics and how these can be made to work to the advantage of both, to be amused once again by generational differences, and eventually to meet Jean's partner (Maria Valverde, below, right) and the couple's son and begin to understand the vagaries of this relationship, as well. Finally, and despite maybe one coincidence too many, the question of who -- and what -- constitutes family is addressed with emotion and skill enough to make this movie even more moving and encouraging than you may expect.

A film for anyone who loves family, France and wine -- from Music Box Films and running 113 minutes -- Back to Burgundy (in French with English subtitles) opens this Friday, March 23, in New York City (Angelika Film Center), San Francisco (Vogue Theater) and Seattle (SIFF Cinema Uptown) and then on March 30 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7 theaters -- as well as elsewhere across the country, where it will play some 50 locations. Here in South Florida it will open on April 13 at the Savor Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, and the Movies of Delray and Lake Worth. Click here (then scroll down to click on THEATERS) to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

In Steven Soderbergh's UNSANE, nitwittery hits a ripe new height

You've got to hand it to Steven Soderbergh. When he's good (as in last year's Logan Lucky), he's very good, and when he fails, he does it big-time: no halfway-there for this guy! His new movie, UNSANE, is as ripe a piece of unintentional camp silliness that we've seen in, well, let's just say it makes that recent Halle Berry thriller Kidnap look like a classic of the genre. Word has it that Unsane was filmed entirely via cell phone (see shot of the director, below).

If so, congratulations --  though the film is nowhere as good as either King Kelly or Tangerine, both of which were "cell-phone" precursors of this overlong, let's-toss-believability-out-the-window mess.

The mess is less due to Mr. Soderbergh, who at least knows how to move things along, than to its writers -- Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer -- who take a smart, timely idea (a rehab center that entraps its clients and then won't let them go until their insurance payments have expired) and then fills it with such stupid and nitwit details (male and female patients sleep in the same room?) and ridiculous coincidence that all credibility is soon left for dead.

The film stars Claire Foy (above), who is onscreen for practically the entire movie and does a yeoman job of "trying." But her character is so thoroughly manufacturer-to-fit-the-bill that, again, any credence or caring is lost to behavior that is rather unlike any seen either on screen or in the world as we know it. (The character is repeatedly warned what her violent behavior will bring her, and so she engages in it like there's no tomorrow.)

This makes her rather the equal of the film's villain, played with enough relish to fill three movies (and a whole lot of hot dogs) by Joshua Leonard, above, who has been quite good elsewhere (Humpday), and I'm sure will rise again.

For a short while (this is the most believable section of the film), we are meant to wonder if our girl is sane or not so, but it soon becomes clear that she's the victim. Subsidiary characters are the equal, in terms of believability, of the leads: There's the unhelpful matron, played by Polly McKie (above, left) and another patient, limned by the always-fun Juno Temple (below), who exists simply and only to annoy our heroine.

The most interesting character, a patient who is really an investigative reporter planning to "out" this rehab center, is played by Jay Pharoah (below, right), but what this fellow can so easily accomplish (rather obviously yet without anyone noticing) just adds to the film's foolishness.

Yes, we also get that scene of running down totally unpopulated hallways (this is yet another "thriller" in which a medical facility seems to have lost its entire staff), and a heroine who can stab the bad guy but then forgets to do it again so he is incapacitated. And on and on it goes.

In retrospect, I think this may be the perfect movie for our Trump era -- in which everybody (on both sides of the screen) is either sleazy or stupid. Good luck to us all.

From Bleecker Street and running a too-long 97 minutes the movie opens (pretty much nationwide, I believe) this Friday, March 23. Click here then scroll down to find the theater(s) nearest you.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cantet/Campillo's THE WORKSHOP is rich, encompassing cinema -- both broad and deep

TrustMovies often speaks of French cinema (and the French themselves) as perverse. I mean this as a kind of complement because they and their films so often go in a different direction than expected. Whether this is done for humorous, ironic or sometimes, yes, simply transgressive reasons, the result can be bracing, abrasive and thought-provoking. So it is with THE WORKSHOP, a new film directed by Laurent Cantet (Human Resources, Time Out, Heading South and The Class) and his co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys, They Came Back, and the recent BPM).

Messieurs Cantet (shown at left) and Campillo (below) have worked together often enough now that I suspect their wavelengths must be close enough to nearly run as one. Either that or their strengths and weaknesses so balance each other out that the result is, at this point, just about seamless. 

With The Workshop, the pair addresses a host of themes and ideas, both super-timely and, well, ageless. These would include everything from immigration and terrorism (the home-
grown variety) to the impact and importance of art on the general public. Oh, yes -- and, as my spouse pointed out after viewing the film, it is also, maybe most of all, an unusual coming-of-age tale.

In the film, a young man named Antoine (played by the excellent newcomer Matthieu Lucci, shown below, left) from a local port city in France joins a summer school workshop led by a smart and attractive teacher from the "big city" (the always interesting Marina Fois, below, center).

As the class progresses, it becomes clear that Antoine is both very talented and very problemed. How this is revealed to us demonstrates anew Cantet/Campillo's excellent grasp of storytelling techniques, dialog, and the mysteries of human character and motive.

The filmmakers excel at something I'd call not mis-direction (intentionally bringing you to think or expect the wrong thing) but rather a refusal to satisfy your expectations too easily or simple-mindedly. Cantet and Campillo actually demonstrate Chekov's famous "gun" concept and then stand it on its head by making that second-act usage less (and at the same time more) than a mainstream audience may want or care to wrestle with.

The entire class (above) is peopled by a fine assortment of young characters, each of whom is drawn and acted quite well, and who together represent a smart but not-too-tidy look at today's France. Their reactions to each other, and especially to Antoine, are spot-on and help push the plot, such as it is, onwards. I say "such as it is" because Cantet and Campillo have always been more interested in character and theme than in heavily dramatic plotting.

Things happen and build to a kind of crescendo of dramatic possibilities, and then they simply ebb as naturally as the tide that rises and falls around the port town. This may disappoint those who demand melodrama and major confrontation, but it will surely satisfy others who prefer a more realistic slice-of-life that refuses to solve all problems within the framework of a less-than-two-hour movie. Some change does occur here -- and to all the characters -- though we cannot be sure, I think, in which direction that change is headed or how it will turn out.

It has been enough to confront politics, economics, unemployment, immigration, the making of art and the confusion of youth so very well as do Cantet and Campillo. I can't wait to see what this duo comes up with next. From Strand Releasing, in French with English subtitles and running 108 minutes, The Workshop opens this Friday, March 23, in New York City at the IFC Center and then on April 6 in Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt, and here in South Florida at the Tower Theater, in Miami, and the Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale, as well as elsewhere across the country. Click here (then scroll down to click on Screenings on the task bar) to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.