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Bonjour Anne (2016)
Because Diane Lane did middle aged real estate porn so well in Under The Tuscan Sun, she was the obvious person to cast for middle aged food and tourism porn in this movie. It doesn't work. In Under the Tuscan Sun she has a little fling with a younger Italian man, but the sexual relationship is tangential to the story. In Paris Can Wait it's front and center. From the moment we set eyes on Arnaud Viard's character, we know that the central question in the story is whether he will or won't con Lane into bed during their drive from Cannes to Paris, and that pushes all the food and scenery out of the frame. Viard is using the sensual Latin Lover routine that was probably old when Charles Boyer used it 75 years ago, and which might possibly work on a 22 year old American girl new to France and looking for a little adventure. But Lane's character is 20 years older. She's too worldly wise to be a plausible American naif and not quite jaded or alienated enough from her movie producer husband to be looking for something on the side. Unlike Katharine Hepburn's American spinster tourist who falls for Rossano Brazzi in Summertime, nothing in Lane's character makes it plausible that she would take Viard's oily, transparent come on seriously.
The relationship between the two might have been more interesting if Lane's character were a little more sophisticated, a little more active, and called bs on Viard from time to time. But the conversations between them are uninvolving and clichéd. You can make an enjoyable vicarious fantasy movie about two characters in a car noshing their way around France, but only if the two have something interesting to say to each other. Lane and Viard do not.
The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)
Mediocre Star Vehicle
A competent but paint by numbers example of the Righteous Gentile Holocaust Movie. Definitely a vanity project for Jessica Chastain, who has the executive producer credit. The fugitive Jews she protects aren't really distinguished from the baby animals she cuddles maternally. Not worth the time or the money.
A Foreign Affair (1948)
Mordant Cynical Misogynistic
Billy Wilder was a German-Jewish exile who cast a cold eye on both his adopted countrymen and the country he fled. This movie's premise is that the American victors of all ranks are contentedly plundering defeated Germany. While the Red Army had simply raped and looted, the Yanks are more effectively using the free market system to buy sex and black market valuables with PX cigarettes, candy bars, and other goodies, all the while telling themselves that they're teaching the Germans democracy. The Germans, meanwhile, are servile but silently unrepentant, doing the best they can to get along while telling the conquerors what they want to hear. Wilder agrees with Churchill's dictum that the Germans are always either at your throat or at your feet. He would return to this cynical take on Germany with more humor and greater emotional distance in 1960's One Two Three, but in 1947 he's still nakedly angry at the people who would have sent him to the gas chamber if they could and contemptuous of the Americans who brag about the destruction they've wrought but don't seem to get the point of it at all.
Against this background we have Jean Arthur's Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, on a junket to investigate the "morale," i.e. morals, of the occupiers. Tightly repressed, she seems to view Nazism, promiscuity and the black market as part of an undifferentiated mass of European evil from which innocent American GIs must be protected. Her target and (unknowingly) rival for the affections of the same American officer, Captain Pringle, is Dietrich's Erika von Schluetter, former aristocrat, now cabaret chanteuse, whose worldly wisdom is that regimes change but men don't. Men have all the power, and a smart woman gets along by leading powerful men around by the genitals and the ego. So we get the schoolmarm and the courtesan.
Captain Pringle, a formerly nice Iowa boy who has adapted enthusiastically to postwar realities, is the aide to a senior officer, Colonel Plummer. He is using his position to protect Schluetter from the authorities, who are interested in her background as the one time mistress of a senior SS officer. Plummer has his own worldly wisdom about what his men are doing but presses on with the mission.
Of course Schluetter gives Frost a few European lessons in feminine wiles, a cliché as old as Wings, Frost thaws out sexually, literally letting her hair down, and Plummer eventually uses Pringle as bait to catch Schluetter's Nazi lover, but the Frost-Pringle-Schluetter love triangle doesn't really matter because John Lund plays Pringle as a straight cad instead of a lovable rogue, and you don't see what Frost would see in him except sex.
The plot is nothing, the atmosphere is everything, and the atmosphere managed to offend a good many American critics, politicians and the U.S. Army at the time. Worth a look as an interesting and enjoyable period piece by a man outside the American mainstream.
You get starved for movies where adults have adult conversations and do adult things, so you look forward to something like Genius and excuse its faults. This was a pleasant, literate two hours entertainment, suitable for streaming on a quiet Sunday evening when PBS is fund raising.
The movie is Homeric, in the sense that it presents a world where Men do Important Work, and the emotional demands of women are distracting at best and dangerous at worst. Wolfe's patron and lover Aileen Bernstein, a successful theater designer in her own right, is played by Nicole Kidman (in an unconvincing hair design) as an emotionally needy, suicidal/homicidal harpy who can't see why the great writer has better things to do than show up on her arm at her work-related social events. Perkins's wife, the Laura Linney role played by Laura Linney, quietly wishes that he would spend more time with her and their five daughters and less with Wolfe, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, but she's always there when he needs her emotional support. (The five daughters are just props -- in a story covering nine years, they don't age at all.) At the crisis of editing Of Time and the River, Wolfe and Perkins have parallel arguments with their women, using identical phrasing, about the importance of what they are doing and the unimportance of what the women want from them.
Jude Law gets to chew the scenery with a Foghorn Leghorn Southern accent; Colin Firth does a fine job with a minimalist performance, but the character's mannerism of never taking of his fedora indoors, even at the family dinner table, becomes distracting; it eventually reminded me of B.D.'s helmet in Doonesbury.
The best passage in the movie is when we watch Perkins actually edit Wolfe's florid prose by getting Wolfe to focus on the point of the scene. That's the only time we actually see what gave Perkins his reputation as a great editor; I would like to have seen more.
Love & Friendship (2016)
This isn't as good as the unanimously approving critics would have it -- I think they are so fed up with movies where the characters wear spandex that they embrace anything made with adult intelligence -- but it is smart, fast, and funny. Kate Beckinsale is wonderful, and Tom Bennett makes an indelible contribution to the ranks of British upper class twits.
I haven't read Austen's Lady Susan, so I don't know how much of the plot and the dialogue are Austen and how much is Whit Stillman, but they are perfect collaborators. The sense is pure Austen -- a woman alone navigating the always dangerous intersection of sex and money. Stillman's sensibility is a combination of P.G. Wodehouse and Absolutely Fabulous, complete to the conspiratorial confidante and the disapproving daughter.
In his essay on Wodehouse, Orwell wrote that the English seem to believe that intelligence and unscrupulousness are the same thing. Wodehouse, of course, created a whole army of comic aristocratic boneheads. He also created in Frederick, Earl of Ickenham, alias Uncle Fred, a comic sociopath -- a man of great, underemployed intelligence and negligible conscience, whose delight was to make mischief by manipulating the idiots with whom he was surrounded. In intelligence, ready improvisation, utter lack of scruple and self- conscious delight in her own virtuosity, Lady Susan is right up there with Uncle Fred as a comic sociopath, although her impecunious widowhood gives her much greater motivation than Uncle Fred ever had.
Stillman's great achievement, besides keeping up a cracking pace, is that he perfectly controls the tone. We are never in doubt that this brilliantly manipulative, completely unscrupulous, shamelessly devious and flagrantly (by the standards of her time) carnal woman is completely justified in her schemes to find rich husbands for herself and daughter, just as we are never in doubt that the foolish men and perceptive but helplessly indignant women who surround her will get no more than bumps and bruises, and that all will be well, after a fashion, in the end. The one character who is actually wronged suffers with such exaggerated theatricality that she seems ludicrous rather than pitiable. This is a real accomplishment -- in lesser hands, Lady Susan could have turned into either a monster or a sermon.
One trick Stillman uses to keep the emotional distance essential to farce is to show the key courtship conversations either in silent long shot or, in one case, not at all, leaving the audience to imagine what is being said without becoming exposed to the feelings expressed by the characters. The other thing he has going for him is an audience ready to sympathize with Susan's situation as an economically helpless woman at the mercy of men who own everything.
One can see why Austen put this story in the desk drawer and left it there. In Austen's time and for long afterwards, the only way for an author to get away with a character like Susan Vernon was the moral disapproval with which Thackeray portrayed Becky Sharpe and her surroundings. There is none of that here. On the contrary, Austen/Stillman stand astonished and admiring at the verve with which Susan imposes herself on others and the sheer grit with which she tackles her very real difficulties. In the end, her best laid plans are undone by her own appetites and her daughter's unexpected talents, but she makes a remarkable recovery. Along the way she gets to deliver one aphoristic gem after another, at a pace that Oscar Wilde might envy. Great fun, and I recommend it highly.
45 Years (2015)
Fine Performances Disappointing Script
As we Boomers age, the geezer movie has become a recognized genre, as the generation that thought it invented youth deals with upcoming mortality. This one has Geoff and Kate, an old shoe childless married couple. She's a retired primary school teacher of 65+; he's a retired cement company executive about 5 years or more older, who's been through a heart bypass and never quite recovered. They met and married when he was 25 and she 20. Bacon wrote that wives are young men's playthings, middle aged men's companions, and old men's nurses, and Geoff and Kate have been through all three stages. They live somewhere in Norfolk, and their 45th anniversary party is next Saturday.
A letter arrives from Switzerland on Monday morning. Geoff spent the summer of 1962 there, trekking around the mountains with Katya, his German then girlfriend, passing as a married couple so they could room together. Katya was killed in a freak accident -- a landslide -- and her preserved-in-ice body has just been found as global warming melts the snow cover off a glacier. The news takes Geoff right back 50+ years, as he contrasts his vigorous youth with the infirmities of old age and the romantic Alpine landscape with dull, flat, foggy Norfolk. Kate has always known that Geoff had this girlfriend before he met and married her, but his reaction puts her off. She grows increasingly jealous and starts poking around Geoff's old diaries and photos in the attic. The more she learns about the old relationship and Geoff's alternative future that never happened, the more angry and jealous she gets. One fact, which I won't reveal, she finds particularly devastating. By Thursday, Kate has convinced herself that Katya's ghost was Geoff's invisible mistress all through their marriage, and she precipitates a full blown marital crisis.
Charlotte Rampling underplays this beautifully, and Tom Courtenay does a solid job as the aged bourgeois remnant of a once virile and radical young man. But he's just having a brief fit of nostalgia for his Bohemian youth, and her reaction is completely out of proportion. This isn't Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff, and we never learn what hidden disappointments make Kate as insecure and angry as she becomes. On top of that, the resolution of the conflict is much too quick and facile for the tension that has been built up. It turns out to be only a storm in a teacup, and we never really know why it blew up in the first place.
Wish It Had Been Better
A well-made, workmanlike disappointment, much inferior to Haynes's Far From Heaven. You knew where it was going and it went there. Along the way there are no surprises from the two lead characters. The most surprising thing, which lifts it above Lifetime territory, is that it does not villainize the male characters. They have the values of their time, to be sure, but the husband and the boyfriend mean well, while the detective and Carol's lawyer are both matter of factly professional. Her lawyer, in particular, does an excellent, nonjudgmental job with what looks like a hopeless case.
The most erotic scene in the movie is not the consummation but rather the first lunch date, where Carol looks ready to swallow Therese alive and Therese seems ready to jump right down her throat. The imbalance of power in that scene is distasteful. As I grow older, I find that love stories of any gender between an older sophisticate and a young naif have either a predatory or a transactional vibe to them that puts me off. Throughout, Carol knows exactly what she wants and is cool and composed enough to wait for Therese to figure herself out, catch up and provide it. At its least exploitative, this kind of relationship is a bargain, where the elder provides education in return for rejuvenation. And since this is a Patricia Highsmith story, material concerns are part of the bargain. Carol's standard of living makes a powerful impression on Therese from the outset, and she quickly grows used to what it can provide By the end, Therese understands perfectly well who she is, and some other women can perceive it. But the ending, when Therese moves from a Greenwich Village party of impecunious young bohemians to join Carol for dinner at the Oak Room, is set up in such a way that we don't know whether Therese is opting for true love or for the bigger and better deal. I'm not sure Therese knows either.
For what is supposed to be a story of amour fou, it isn't fou enough. The basic setup is Anna Karenina, but Harge isn't Karenin and nobody throws themselves under a locomotive. The ending is not quite a happy ending, more like happy enough given the circumstances. That may be real life, especially in the social circles of Carol and her husband, but, unlike Far From Heaven, there's no pathos here and no tragedy. I give it a B.
The Big Short (2015)
Harry Knowles once wrote a review of Das Boot that said the movie was so well made that you'd find yourself rooting for Nazi sailors trying to sink American ships. So here. You find yourself rooting for clever "outsiders and weirdos," as one of them puts it, who saw what nobody else wanted to see -- that an immense structure of mortgage based securities was doomed to collapse because it rested on the backs of subprime borrowers who couldn't support the weight and should never have been loaned the money. We have been taught by generations of fiction to identify with characters who are outsiders and rebels. Because these guys are smart, because they are antisocial and because they were laughed at by smug fools who believed the conventional wisdom, you identify with them, and you wait anxiously for their vindication. Then you realize that their vindication means the collapse of the American economy. They were the guys on the Titanic who knew what the iceberg meant.
Michael Lewis, from whose book the movie was adapted, got his training at Salomon Brothers in the mid-80s, as mortgage based securities were being invented. (There's an early shout-out to Lew Ranieri, the Salomon trader who invented them.) As anyone knows who's read Lewis's memoir of those days, Liar's Poker, the culture at Salomon was that your job was to be smarter than everybody else in the bond market, understand values better, and know what other traders were going to do before they knew it themselves. If you were smart enough, you deserved whatever you took away from somebody less smart on the other side of the trade. That's why Lewis admires his protagonists and that, despite a thick coating of moral outrage, is the heart of the movie. The guys who shorted the housing market weren't any more virtuous or less greedy than the great majority of complacent, conventionally minded bankers who believed that the trees would keep growing all the way up to the sky. They just saw more clearly and had plenty of nerve and faith in their own judgment. If they had been wrong, as shorts often are, they and their clients would have been wiped out. When they turned out right, they took the money and kept it, even if some of them felt guilty about it.
I know somewhat about this area, having litigated some of the aftermath. The celebrity cameo explanations of subprime debt, collateralized debt obligations, and synthetic CDOs are not only simple but accurate -- the two involving Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are downright elegant. The key concept of the credit default swap comes out nicely through the dialogue -- a chance to buy fire insurance on the house down the street just before it catches fire. There are a couple of more points that could have used the same thing, especially when people start talking about "FICO scores." It could also have been a little more clear that the eventual collapse was delayed because the smarter investment banks like Goldman finally woke up, saw it coming, unloaded their CDO inventory on investors who were still asleep, and cut their losses by buying swaps themselves. But this is a smart, entertaining telling of an outrageous true story. It deserves all the praise it has gotten, and maybe an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. If it teaches people without a financial background a little of what went on, it will be more than a momentary entertainment. But it will certainly entertain.
Mystic Pizza (1988)
Three Girls In A Pizzeria
There is a genre known as the Three Girls Movie, in which, you guessed it, three girls learn about Life, which really means Men, and about themselves along the way. There is always a heroine, a naive, vulnerable one who gets hurt, and an eccentric one, who might be either wild or salty. Three Coins In a Fountain is a Three Girls Movie; so is The Best of Everything, and Where The Boys Are (although they threw in Connie Francis as a fourth so that she could sing). How to Marry a Millionaire is also a Three Girls Movie, with the twist that the three girls are grown women -- fashion models -- who already consider themselves fully wised up about Life and Men and find out they are wrong.
Mystic Pizza is a very good Three Girls Movie, notable for launching the careers of the Three Actresses: Julia Roberts, of course, and to a lesser extent Lily Taylor and Annabeth Gish. They play three working class waitresses in a New England fishing town. Gish, the smart but naive one, gets hurt but will go off to college better armored against the snares of the world. Taylor, the eccentric one, finally accepts marriage and domesticity with the guy who has loved her all along. Roberts, the gorgeous, hot tempered but deeply sensible heroine, finds a rich guy who turns out to be flawed, but curably flawed; at the end she is making him over into the man who will deserve her. There are no real surprises here (except for one involving a misunderstanding and a parked convertible with the top down), and it's not great art by any means, but it is a well-executed variation of a reliable formula that should entertain anyone, or at least any female, from 13 on up.
Worthy But Disappointing
Solid performances, great period design, and a historical event worth telling. Unfortunately, the script is clichéd, giving us two stock characters -- the Radicalized Innocent and the Worldly Wise Secret Policeman -- who go through their expected paces. You could probably tell the same story today with a European Muslim in the Carey Mulligan role.
Getting involved in Suffragette activism upends the life of Mulligan's character, Maud. It cuts her off from her work, her husband, her child and her community, but it introduces her to a wider world of ideas and of people of a higher social class who she would never otherwise have known. It would have been fascinating to learn what became of Maud in her new milieu, what kind of job she found, and what kind of new life she built with her old one in ruins. In particular, it would have been interesting to see how she dealt with the new opportunities for English women created by World War I. That would have been an empowerment story to get involved in. But the movie just drops Maud with a historical footnote about when women got the vote in the UK and various other countries.