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Nuts? Really? Streisand and Dreyfuss as nutcrackers!
Powerful, punchy, full of frills and spills, why on earth does this exciting court drama remain so little known? 'Nuts', Martin Ritt's next to last opus, is an excellent work though. The direction is solid and its fast-paced editing combined with first-rate performances from such established talents as Richard Dreyfuss, Maureen Stapleton, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach... are a decided guarantee of excitement. At the same time, Martin Ritt, has never been as the king of hollow entertainment, so you can be assured that, as a bonus, he will give you food for thought. Tom Topor's finely crafted play indeed gives him a new opportunity (remember 'The Great White Hope, 'Conrack', 'Norma Rae'...) to advocate human dignity (the basic theme of all his body of work). Ritt does it this time through questioning the limits of American justice and, by extension, of American democracy. In 'Nuts', he rises one more time against the vices undermining the virtues of the system, namely self- righteousness, hypocrisy, selfishness and intolerance. Fortunately for the viewer, the director never preaches. On the contrary, he has the intelligence of putting emotions and entertainment first, making meaning derive from the action instead of inducing it the way they do in heavily demonstrative 'thesis films'.
A lot of reviewers keep complaining about Barbra Streisand being hammy as Claudia Draper, a woman accountable to no-one whose parents want to pass off as insane. I agree with them that Streisand does not go in for subtleties but supposing she did wouldn't be out of step with her character? Claudia's behavior is determined by her adamant resolution to be her own and only mistress, whatever the circumstances are. Now, refusing to be subject to or controlled at any time by - parents, husband, superiors, judges,... requires no small strength of mind, especially when you are a woman. Taking this factor into account, a peremptory tone, strong words, abrupt attitudes or poses make perfect sense then. Playing such a character as Mrs. Soft Touch would even be sheer misinterpretation. Anyway, what just cannot be denied is Barbara's deep personal involvement in the achievement of 'Nuts'. Not only does she give a sincere and passionate performance (even if considering she overplays) but she also produced the film and wrote its score. Not really surprising when you realize both the fictional Claudia and the real-life Barbara are equally determined, and straightforward not to say pushy. Such a miraculous adequation just could not not be. To put it in a nutshell if you do not mind intelligent entertainment feel free to enjoy 'Nuts'... without restraint
The legacy of a war
It is a well-known fact that the ravages of war do not end on the battlefield and that, accordingly, the return home of war veterans does not come easily. Logically a recurring theme in American cinema ('The Best Years of Our Lives' 'The Deer Hunter', 'Coming Home', 'Rambo', and dozens of others), it is oddly enough much less present in French films. The works examining the pangs of ex-soldiers having to deal with their trauma among those - more or less unsympathetic - who stayed at the rear can indeed be counted on the fingers of one hand ('Retour à la vie', 'Les parapluies de Cherbourg', 'La vie et rien d'autre', 'La chambre des officiers', 'Frantz'). Yet this is the theme that Emmanuel Courcol (also known as an actor and the co-writer of four films by Philippe Lioret) has chosen to explore in 'Ceasefire', his first feature length movie and he must be credited for such a move insofar as it was far from the easy option (a contemporary love story, crime movie or comedy would, for instance, have been a less risky business).
The story, set in 1923 (and two years later in the coda) concerns Georges Laffont, a man who, traumatized by the horrors of the First World War, finds it hard to reintegrate into a society among people who only think of forgetting and having fun. For a time, he finds refuge in Africa where he lives an adventurous life before circumstances drive him to return to his family home. There, he must struggle to take a fresh start while dealing with his afflicted mother (endlessly mourning Jean, one of her three sons, killed in action) and with his brother Marcel (whose reason has been faltering also as a result of his experiences in the war). Quite tense a situation indeed, only slightly alleviated by the relationship Georges develops with Hélène, a sensitive sign language teacher.
As can be guessed, with such troubled characters placed in such a difficult situation, drama is guaranteed. And Emmanuel Courcol being a proved screenwriter, his thorough, psychologically detailed script is enhanced into the bargain by relevant sociological and historical notations. Of course a good script does not necessarily make a good film. Does it in the present case ? In this writer's eyes, the answer is definitely yes given the fact that the director Courcol not only illustrates the script of the writer Courcol but also does his best to translate its potentialities into visual realities. The way he recreates the atmosphere of the early 1920's, to begin with, is very convincing despite the limited budget at his disposal. The settings, costumes and props all have an authentic look, nothing to do with the cardboard or too glossy imitations which, in certain movies, block total immersion in the film. The direction is fine, particularly concerning working with actors, Romain Duris first and foremost. Far from the juvenile cheekiness he showed in Cedric Klapisch's trilogy, Duris once again displays his new capacities to step into the shoes of complex adult characters (he who recently was: a man who has everything but disappears, a husband who indulges in cross-dressing, a priest...) As Georges, an embittered man in turmoil, the actor has become a name French cinema cannot do without any more. On a par with him is the always superior Gregory Gadebois who meets the challenge of expressing himself silently (Marcel has become mute) whereas he is a member of the famous Comédie-Française company : his facial expressions and body language are really remarkable. Both actors are well supported by their two female partners, Céline Sallette, feminine but in a fresh unvarnished way, and Maryvonne Schiltz, who gives dignity to the "Mater Dolorosa" she embodies by never overacting.
Some will blame 'Ceasefire' for the dead-time occasionally slowing down the action. It is true that such slow moments exist but after all, this is rather a meditative work than a frenzied action movie. And even supposing they are a shortcoming the other qualities of the film largely outweigh it. A competent director quite rightly privileging characters over showy artistry (sorry, no complicated camera angles or other displays of virtuosity) along with top of the range actors interpreting a thought-provoking story amid the modest but excellent recreation of the early 1920's period... well, there are worse things in life, aren't they?
Cama de Gato (2012)
Meet Joana, a single mother from Setubal, Portugal
What is it like to be an eighteen-year-old single mother in Bela Vista, a popular district of Setúbal, (a medium-sized town by the Atlantic South of Lisbon)? You can find part of the answer in « Cama de Gato» relevant in terms of sociology but only half-satisfying as a documentary. Co-directed by João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis, the film works well as pure social commentary: throughout its 57 minutes running time you will be provided valuable information about Joana Santos, the young single mother in question: the public housing apartment she lives in with her baby girl, the school she still attends (if only very occasionally), the people she mixes with, the cafés she stops at, her relationships with her friends, parents, cousin...
If I say half satisfying, blame it on the choice of the main protagonist, Joana Santos. Well, the girl IS pretty and cheerful, in other words pleasant to look at, but I personally disliked her personality: superficial, self-centered, not to say downright irresponsible. Which is why having to spend so much time with a person whose attitude I globally disapprove of upset me a little. I'd rather have lived an hour of my life with a person more engaging than Joana. To this rule, I have come across only one exception, the long sequence in which the girl talks with tears in her eyes about her botched love story with the father of her child. In this case, Joana appears as a three-dimensional human being, not as a puppet of consumer society always trying to get immediate pleasure. Then, and only then, did I manage to relate to her. The rest of the time, she got on my nerves.
Well you could object to me that films are not necessarily about likable persons or characters and you would be right. In this case you will not be disturbed the way I was by the lightness of the person "Cama de Gato" focuses on and you will be able to fullyenjoy this documentary which, beyond that "shortcoming", has an undeniable sociologic value.
Yagodka lyubvi (1926)
Dovzhenko funny? Are you joking or what?
The name of Dovzhenko immediately conjures up grand images of conquering tractors, heroic people fighting brutish reactionaries, revolutionaries in ecstasy, solemn faces turned towards a better future, vast skies, rolling fields, boundless sunflower fields... but you will never associate the master with farce, antics or slapstick. At least until you discover the existence of "Love's Berries", an amazingly funny twenty- six minute burlesque comedy he made for the VUFU studios in 1926.
As long as you have never seen this romp, you will be excused if you think that the Soviet director and humour do not see eye to eye. But after viewing 'Love's Berries', you will have no alternative but to review your opinion.
Storywise, the plot, as is often the case in the best slapsticks, is minimal. Dovzhenko, as it happens, quite rightly follows Mack Sennett's lesson, who once told Chaplin, "We have no scenario - we get an idea, then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy." And the Soviet director does it to excellent results. Sight gag after sight gag, the viewer indeed laughs out loud - until the final twist at the misadventures of a man who, reluctant (and that is putting it mildly) to be a father, bends over backwards to get rid of a baby his girlfriend has put in his arms. Constantly thwarted by the circumstances, he tries and tries again and one cannot but be delighted at the blind stubbornness of this new Sisyphus. That is all there is to it but who needs more sophistication in a slapstick?
A far cry from 'Arsenal', 'Earth' or 'Chtchors' to be sure, 'Love's Berries', not content not to follow the official line, has even the luxury to constantly sin against it (isn't the antihero a shamelessly bad life companion, a bad father and a bad citizen?), which naturally did not escape Pavlo Netches, the manager of the VUFU studios where Dovzhenko was learning his trade. After viewing the film, the irate superior simply told the film student: "Sachko, you should be fired from here. You have no talent for writing scripts so stop trying. I'll have a last try with you here's a screenplay. If you manage to make a film of it it is your chance. If you don't I'll give you the sack!"
Dovzhenko complied, hence the conquering tractors, ecstatic revolutionaries, etc. The fact remains that this delightful little film still exists for our biggest pleasure. Try and find that special something (which is not so hard to do as it is often combined on DVDs with the extremely well-known 'Arsenal'). You will not regret it.
Paris pieds nus (2016)
Paris, the vagrant and the Canadian spinster.
Comedy has many faces (verbal, farcical, deadpan, regressive, good- natured, satiric, nonsensical and more..., certain forms of humor overlapping each other in the same work) and I love them all. But I need to recognize I have a soft spot for a very special kind of "make'em laugh" movies, those engineered by Tati, Etaix, Suleiman, Iosseliani and their likes, among whom Abel & Gordon, the co-directors, co-writers, co- producers and co-stars of "Lost in Paris".
Like the former mentioned, the Belgian clown and his Canadian-born partner (Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon have been partners since the 1980s) are not content to tread the usual paths of "funny movies", they manage on the contrary to create an offbeat universe of their own which they inhabit in a highly unusual way. Whether in "L'Iceberg", "Rumba", "The Fairy" or the present "Lost in Paris", they form an improbable couple, each - and in their own way - out of synch with their physical and social environment. In their last opus, Dominique Abel is Dom, a happy-go-lucky homeless guy who has pitched his tent on an artificial island in the middle of the River Seine. A distant cousin of Chaplin's eternal tramp, Dom equates poverty with liberty: he eats exclusively the food of the nearby luxury restaurant (yes, picked up from its garbage cans, but still!), he smokes the best cigarette brands (okay, just butts gathered from the sidewalk, but still!), the lot. And as is the case for Charlie, poverty does not make him an angel : although never rotten to the core, Dom can be selfish, disrespectful or unpleasant. As for Fiona Gordon, she plays an ageless Canadian librarian from the Far North (where it is not recommended to open doors to the outside, the object of two hilarious gags). After landing in Paris pack on back, events beyond her control soon cause her to be stranded alone in the big city. The helpless uptight spinster will of course be taken care of by Dom, but, as can be guessed, in a very singular manner. Such an odd pairing cannot but generate lots of funny unexpected situations of which the characters get out through gags of all kinds, mainly sight or poetical comic effects.
An excellent additional idea makes "Lost in Paris" even better than Abel & Gordon's first three efforts, namely the choice of Emmanuelle Riva, the famous actress ("Hiroshima mon amour", "Thérèse Desqueyroux", "Amour"), as Fiona's aunt. Known for her grave, intellectual, dramatic roles, Riva was also, unnoticed by those who did not mix with her in real life, a very cheerful person who hated taking herself too seriously. Who could then play eccentric old Martha better than her? The answer is obvious : nobody else..., but someone had to think of it! Also noteworthy is the participation of Pierre Richard, as Riva's old flame and dance partner. They have a delicious scene together where, sitting on a bench in a cemetery, they merrily allow their legs and feet to follow in step with a happy music of their golden years.
If you have nothing against imagination, fantasy and unusual gags (which I made a point of not describing not to spoil your pleasure of discovering them), this charming extravaganza should normally delight you as much as it did me. It is at least the worst thing I wish for you.
Successful portrait of a female ahead of her time
Being a woman has never been a matter of course, being a woman and an artist even less so, particularly when like Paula Becker, you try to impose a personal, unconventional, "un-womanly" style in a narrow-minded environment.
It therefore comes therefore as no surprise that Christian Schwochow, a director who loves women, grasped the subject and dealt with it with gusto. Remember the insecure actress of 'Die Unsichtbare' (2007) as well as the two female defectors from the GDR of 'Novemberkind' ('08) and 'Westen" ('13). To these sensitive portraits of sensitive women is now added that of Paula Mendersohn-Becker (1876-1907), a German painter and one of the most important representatives of early expressionism.
Simply entitled 'Paula', the film is quite worth seeing for several reasons, the first being its documenting the life of a major artist little known outside Germany, at least until 2016, when a significant part of her 750 paintings and 1,000 drawings was displayed at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and a biography by Marie Darrieusecq published. Let us say that with this well-made and well-written movie, a new stone is added to the edifice of her memory. Plotwise, we are invited to follow the final seven years (1900-1907) of Mendersohn-Becker's life, from the time of her reluctant studies of neo-academic art at the Worpswede colony of artists to her untimely death at age 31 nineteen days after giving birth to her daughter.
'Paula' is a biopic indeed and as such reports the events in the painter's life faithfully (or nearly so as a few facts have been changed for the sake of narration): her friendship with sculptress Clara Westhoff and poet Rilke, her long unconsummated marriage with painter Otto Mendersohn and playing stepmother to his daughter Elsbeth, her running away to Paris, having an affair there with a French drawing master, her returning to Worpswede, her painful delivery and unbearable death. But what really lifts the movie above the standard life story is Swochow's constant effort to understand and make us understand Paula's artistic approach while at the same time making an artistic object of his tribute film. The director indeed manages as well to show Paula creating her work under our eyes (she strikes the canvas, spreads the painting with her thumb, scratches it with a knife, sometimes even splits and cuts it) as to capture the beauty of the Worpswede region of flat plains, swamps and forests of birches. Kudos, in passing, to cinematographer Frank Lamm who finds cinematic equivalents to famous paintings of the time (Otto Modersohn's : 'Birches in the Moor' , Hans am Ende's 'Autumn in the Moor', etc.).
Psycholologically speaking, 'Paula' proves equally satisfying. This 'Portrait of a Lady' met with narrow-mindedness, prejudices, machismo... actually does not lack edge. All the less as Schwochow has found the actress ideal for the role, the Italian-Swiss Carla Juri. Not only is her physical appearance close enough to her model but she immerses herself in her role so intensely that she manages to replicate with stunning accuracy Paula's personality and feelings (known from the letters and journals she left behind): she can be in turns youthfully spontaneous, impish, coquettish, abandoned to love, idealistic, sweet, tough, brooding, furious, unjust...
She is well supported by a competent cast, especially by Albrecht Schuch in par with her in another complex role, that of her husband Otto, evolving throughout the story: he too is convincing in the various stages of his life with Paula; as a lover, a husband with a problem, a victim and finally an admirer of his wife's work. Also notable is the performance of Roxane Duran ('The White Ribbon') as Clara, Paula's best friend.
To make a long story short, if you have nothing against a beautiful, documented, intelligent, moving work about an engaging woman ahead of her time, do not hesitate, 'Paula' is for you.
Le chômeur de Clochemerle (1957)
Fernandel a little more caustic than usual
« Clochemerle », a novel by Gabriel Chevallier, has been a bestseller since 1934 when it was first published in France. A biting and hilarious satire of parochialism, « Clochemerle » has been translated into 26 languages and sold million copies, soon entering the French language as a term characterizing heated disputes or quarrels over trifles. Chevallier wrote two sequels, « Clochemerle-Babylone » (1954) and Clochemerle-Les-Bains (1963), the quibble in the latter case being over the metamorphosis of Clochemerle into a spa. Pierre Chenal adapted the first episode for the big screen in 1947 and the BBC remade it in 1972. In 1957, it was Jean Boyer's turn to deal with another volume of the series. Helped by Jean Manse (Fernandel's brother-in-law), the very uneven writer-director indeed set about adapting « Clochemerle-Babylone ». Both men intended it as a vehicle for the French comedy star, which meant squeezing Fernandel's universe into the world of Gabriel Chevallier, a less than obvious move...: Provence vs. the Rhone region ; harmless comedy vs. caustic satire, it was doubtful that the graft would take. And yet the result, now entitled « Le Chômeur de Clochemerle », is not so bad as could be expected. First of all because the film (rather) faithfully respects the plot of the novel, the most conspicuous evidence of it being that Chevallier himself wrote the dialogue, which can appear as a tacit approval of the whole operation. Of course, as part of a Fernandel movie, the action had to be moved to the actor's native Provence. The purists in office could not but grind their teeth. But why not after all? Aren't there actually as many jealous, foxy, moronic, tart-tongued people in the Bouches-du-Rhône department as there are in the Rhône (and anywhere else for that matter!) where Clochemerle was originally situated. Second, because although diluted in a « Fernandellerie » that tends to cosy up to family audiences, part of Chevallier's insolence does survive. One example among others : when the mayor (Henri Vilbert) tries to flatter the washerwoman (Béatrice Betty) into making her believe she could easily go into politics, the good woman's reply is final: « I am busy enough with my own dirty linen! ». You will also be surprised to see Fernandel, the consensual comedian, kiss Maria Mauban on the mouth as well as gulp at Ginette Leclerc showing her bare breast or the village priest (Georges Chamarat) lie shamelessly. But, to rise above details, the film's must mostly be credited for not betraying Chevallier's look on human nature. For through Tistin, the happy-go-lucky villager who refuses to abide by the ways of the others' « right-thinking »( a type best described in Georges Brassens' song « La Mauvaise réputation »), Chevallier lauds the libertarian anarchist over the hypocritical Pharisee. Tistin dares poach, not look for a job, defy the churchy old maids for instance, but he does no one any harm. All he wants is to live life as he pleases and be happy. And, though in a slightly softer way, Boyer and Manse tell just that Not a masterpiece, but a pleasant surprise in the final analysis : an interesting theme, a good cast and a couple of witty lines make this comedy quite watchable. One of Fernandel's honorable efforts and one of Jean Boyer's superior achievements, with "La chaleur du sein", "Circonstances atténuantes", "Le passe-muraille" and "Sénéchal le magnifique" .
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
The only good Indian is a living Indian
« Songs My Brothers Taught Me » invites you to discover life in a Native American reservation, namely Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. But definitely not in a superficial way: you will not find yourself on the side of a dusty road buying Indian trinkets and other souvenirs before having a couple of pancakes at the local restaurant and inserting a few coins into a slot machine at the local gambling house. No, this is real life indeed; and by real I mean drab, monotonous, without scope. Not that such a life is not worth living at all : the hero, Johnny Winters, a young Oglala Indian, does experience a few good times: in his final year of high school, in company with his thirteen-year-old sister Joshaun who is very fond of him and naturally with his beautiful girlfriend Aurelia.
But apart from social or personal intercourse, there is not much to do or to hope for in Pine Ridge. As far as employment is concerned, now that he is graduated, our young Native American struggles to get by while accommodating his mother and sister. A weak income earned from selling alcohol, not only a menial job but an illegal one into the bargain since drink is banned on the reservation's grounds. A better position is out of the question, the opportunities within a reservation being close to zero.The only hope for him to make a decent living is to get away from his place of birth. To this purpose he plans to accompany Aurelia to Los Angeles, where she is to further her studies. But that will mean leaving Joshaun behind. And the question is: will the sensitive little girl cope with the ordeal? And how will Johnny manage to square the circle?
As can be seen, a psychological side adds up to the sociological interest. Also the writer of the script, Chloé Zhao masters this dimension brilliantly. The characters (Johnny, his sister, his mother, the tattooist...) are as well drawn as is the aspect of life in the reservation. And the young Oglala's questions and expectations as well as his moral dilemma are examined in depth. Which makes this film a full immersion not only in the everyday life of a seldom shown environment but also a plunge into the psyche of several of its inhabitants. Very well interpreted by John Reddy as Johnny and the touching Joshaun St. John as his loving little sister, Chloé Zhao's movie could qualify as a masterpiece were it not a few defects: a rather disorganized, improvised approach and one or two tedious passages. But it is a first film after all and that should not be enough to deter you from watching this rare foray into a territory little seen on the big screen, thus getting to know worthwhile people you would be unlikely to meet in the flesh in real life.
La ville Louvre (1990)
The Louvre unknown
Everybody knows the Louvre, one of the most important museums in the world, as well as its fabulous collections, among which its must-sees, "Mona Lisa", "Liberty Leading the People", "The Venus de Milo", "The Winged Victory of Samothrace", ... But what everybody knows about the Louvre is only (if I may put it that way)... what is open to the public or what is shown them during opening hours. This was naturally not enough for a master documentary filmmaker like Nicolas Philibert ("In the Land of the Deaf", "To Be and to Have", ...) For if he was to film the Louvre, it would mean exploring the place the way Livingstone did when in search of the Sources of the Nile River. "Louvre City" would exist only if the movie unveiled the hidden side of the museum, only if it managed to capture the life swarming in the giant beehive it houses unseen, away from the public eye whether while the visitors are present or after they have gone. And this is precisely what he did. What Philibert therefore shows us is what the lenses of his camera have surprised where and when we visitors are normally not wanted: the curator and the museum workers during picture hanging, the latter manipulating and/or moving huge pieces; employees walking miles of underground corridors bringing one piece from an office to a restoration workshop... Nothing didactic, no art history lessons given, no paintings explained. Nothing but men and women at work. Such a basic principle is quite commendable but it in no way guarantees a good movie. What it takes in fact to make such material enjoyable is a point of view. Fortunately, the director has one. Pinpointing details that are colorful, unusual or quirky, a bit like Tati did in his comedies, is the angle he has chosen: statues being transported and seeming to be moving on their own; the curator repeatedly shilly-shallying on how to arrange paintings on the walls before an exhibition; a museum attendant wearing too big a pullover to get into the jacket of his new uniform, and so on. Nicolas Philibert does possess acute observation skills and adequate editing enhances the effect. As a result boredom is not on the agenda. On the contrary: all the funny details pinpointed, an attention-holding score by Philippe Hersant and the pleasure to be shown what normally remains concealed do make "Louvre City" a pleasant (and informative) entertainment.
Great artist. Great documentary
If you enjoy watching documentaries about art, this one is definitely for you. It really ranks in the A-list in every department it examines, in the present case biography (the larger-than-life artist, as evidenced by the several members of the Lalique family interviewed here, was also a man of flesh and blood with his strong and weak points), general history (René Lalique's long life spanned three wars across eight decades and a half), and naturally history of art (Lalique went through three major artistic trends of art and decorative art, namely academic art, art nouveau and art déco and established himself as an influential figure from 1900 to his death in 1945). Through archive photographs and filmed sequences, the interviews mentioned above, the display of numerous pieces filmed in various museums, you will know everything (or at least everything essential) about the great man, his wonderful art, his amazing evolution from jeweler to interior decorator (fittings of carriages of the Orient Express; of the dining room and "grand salon" of the SS Normandie) to glass designer (creating objets d'art in glass as varied as perfume bottles, vases, jewels, chandeliers, clocks and automobile hood ornaments, to say nothing about the reredos, columns, stained glass windows, church windows he designed for churches and chapels, both in France and in Jersey).
Alexie Lorca and Claude Théret manage to maintain interest throughout, skilfully balancing views featuring the fabulous production of the artist, sequences about his private life, the whole thing being interspersed with segments of the auction sale of a vase by Lalique for which bidding is particularly intense.
Supposing you knew nothing about René Lalique before viewing this excellent documentary, your single desire will then be to discover his works with your own eyes, why not at the superb museum of Wingen-sur-Moder, in Alsace, entirely devoted to the artist. Otherwise, your admiration for "the man of glass" will simply be reinforced.