Sunday, August 30, 2015

La Cérémonie Turns 20

Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995) is a twisted tale of class warfare, mental illness and the thin, fragile wall that separates polite society from barbarism. The well heeled Lelievres (Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Cassel) have hired a new maid named Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) to housekeep their sprawling estate in Brittany. In the early going, the family is delighted with their hard working new hire, but Sophie’s reclusive nature and lack of social skills soon set the household on edge. Meanwhile, Sophie strikes up a reluctant friendship with the town’s postal clerk (Isabelle Huppert), an unbalanced woman with a violent past , who is engaged in a long simmering feud with the Lelievres. Under Huppert’s influence, the isolated Bonnaire grows to resent her employer’s wealth and lavish lifestyle, sparking a final, and shockingly violent, confrontation.

The prolific Chabrol is generally considered France’s version of Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s a well deserved accolade. His career spanned six decades and over 70 feature films, shorts and documentaries, with the bulk of his output dealing with the dark secrets and free-wheeling criminality of France’s upper-class. Even his crime drama procedurals tend to show the limits of conventional police work, often focusing on the frustrated victims who are forced to take the quest for justice into their own hands. In my opinion, the early work of Chabrol can be hit-or-miss, but the success of La Cérémonie launched a resurgence for the director. He would live another 15 years and during that time create some of his best films, including Merci pour la Chocolat (2000), Flower of Evil (2003) and Girl Cut in Two (2007). Those looking to explore the cinema of Claude Chabrol will find the excellent performances and disturbing gothic creepiness of La Cérémonie a good place to start.

Friday, August 28, 2015

My Father's Glory Turns 25

My Father’s Glory (1990) is a sun drenched, blatantly sentimental memoir of life in the south of France during the early years of the 20th century. Based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol, the film presents an idealized vision of childhood, as 11 year old Marcel (Julien Ciamaca) embarks with his family to a remote stone cottage near the ancient hilltop village of La Trielle, for one of those seemingly endless summer vacations the French so enjoy. Amid fields of sunflowers and a symphony of buzzing cicadas, city boy Marcel develops a deep appreciation for the beauty and poetry of the natural world, and the magic of these lazy days leads to stronger bonds with his parents (Nathalie Roussel and Philippe Caubère). Marcel also strikes up an abiding friendship with local boy Lili (Joris Molinas) who seems to know every square meter of Provence’s rocky cliffs and the habits of all its exotic flora and fauna.

My Father’s Glory is a near perfect example of cinema as escape, escorting its viewers to a distant time and place through a rich feast of sensory delight. Its free flowing charm and graceful good humor will seduce even the harshest cynic, and soon have you believing in this old fashioned story of the world's wonders seen through a child’s innocent eyes. And we should believe it, for Pagnol’s real life closely mirrors the events in this film. His family did indeed spend their summers at a cottage in this area, and the prolific Pagnol set many of his works within a few miles of La Trielle. While he lived most of his adult life in Paris, Pagnol was buried in La Treille’s village cemetery in 1974, not far from the remains of his childhood friend David Magnan, the inspiration for the character of Lili, who was killed in battle during World War One.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

News and Notes for August 2015

It's almost time for TIFF! The program, er, programme can be found HERE, along with lots of other useful info. And here's a sneak preview courtesy of Rolling Stone.

Ballet fans! Lincoln Center at the Movies has announced a series of live dance performances coming this autumn to a movie theater near you. Shows include Romeo and Juliette, Carmen and more. Full details HERE.

Thinking about your Fantasy Football draft? You'll want to check out Fandom, a new direct-to-consumer film narrated by Christian Slater. Fandom explores the tremendous growth and power of the fantasy football phenomenon through the lives of players, fans, celebrities, pro athletes, and fantasy experts. Check it out HERE

Monday, August 17, 2015

Today in Bunched History: Pauline at the Beach (1983) ✬✬✬✬½

Originally posted August 17, 2009

Eric Rohmer's commentary on the perils of summer romances starts with the opening of a gate, as recent divorcee Marion (Airelle Dombasle) and her 14 year old cousin Pauline (Amanda Langlet) escape Paris for a brief holiday - brief by French standards anyway - at the shore near Mont Saint-Michelle.

Marion, who cuts a stunning figure in a swimsuit, soon finds herself pursued by a sensitive and earnest graduate student (Pascal Gregory) and by Henri (Feodor Atkine), a charming, globe-trotting sophisticate, who also happens to be a total dick. Budding Pauline, on the other hand, refuses to rush into womanhood, as she makes it clear that she will lose her innocence at a place and time of her choosing, despite her cousin's urging and questionable advice.

Pauline takes a refreshing responsibility for her own life and actions, and often emerges as the wisest and most mature of this motley band of vacationers. Fittingly, her harmless fling with a hormonal teenage blockhead (Simon de la Brosse) serves as a catalyst for a bit of deception that ultimately reveals the true natures of Marion and her suitors.

While there are a couple of talky scenes, the film is much less dialogue-driven than is typical for this director, and he keeps the pace lively and engaging without sacrificing the relaxing Rohmer ambiance with which we've grown accustomed. The film ends with the closing of that gate from scene one and the characters amusingly disperse; each of them having gotten exactly what they deserve.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

New on TV: August 2015

Vicious (2013) ✬✬✬✬½

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacoby star in this hilarious Brit-com about an aging, and quite bitchy, gay couple. The show feels wonderfully old-fashioned - shot with 3 cameras in front of a live audience - and is reminiscent of the great classic BBC comedies of the 60s and 70s.

Orange is the New Black (2013-) ✬✬✬✬½

I swore I would never watch this show. The idea just didn't appeal to me. Women in prison, yuk. Well what do I know because it's simply terrific. Netflix has done it again.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Alamar (2009) ✬✬✬✬½

Alamar is a wondrous slice of life documenting a visit by Jorge Mancado and his five year old son Natan to a remote fishing village on the Banco Chinchorro reef in southeastern Mexico. There for a few weeks they live a simple and primitive life in a squatter’s shack built on piers off shore. For city boy Natan, who has been raised by his mother in Rome, the area’s bright sun and crystal azure waters have a spellbinding effect, as he and his dad spend their idyllic days fishing and exploring the nearby wilderness while forming ever deeper bonds.

Director/cameraman Pedro González-Rubio keeps his camera down low, simulating a child’s perspective and offering us an invitation to experience this beautiful world with fresh, uncynical eyes. Through a superbly paced succession of virtually wordless scenes, Alamar builds a pastoral zen in the viewer, leading to a blissful meditation of nature’s splendors. Eventually, even the crocodiles and egrets that circle Jorge and Natan’s shanty seem spiritually connected to their human visitors, and emit their own mellow notes in cosmic harmony.

In many ways. Alamar represents cinema in its purest form, telling a simple visual story that requires no explanation or augmentation. It delivers its exposition in a clear, spartan and direct manner, with nary an extraneous shot or superfluous moment. It also does what cinema does best: transporting viewers to another time and place, far beyond the boundaries of typical experience. With a concise running time of 73 minutes, González-Rubio has created not so much a poem as a beautifully filmed haiku, rife with pertinence and meaning while refusing to fill in every blank. And it is what Alamar leaves unsaid that gives the film its deep satisfaction and haunting presence in the soul. This film not only makes you think, it makes you better person.

Friday, August 7, 2015

A Thousand Times Good Night (2013) ✬✬✬✬

A Thousand Times Good Night is a moving, thoughtful and quite entertaining film that addresses notions of duty and responsibility on both intimate and global scales. Directed with pitch perfect tone by Norway’s Erik Poppe, the film asks important questions about the gnarled relationship between modern politics and family life, and offers no easy answers in the process. Here, the ripples of barbaric strife in foreign lands reach the placid shores of the Irish Sea, where the ivy covered walls of a quaint family cottage offer no respite from the world’s distant brutality.

The film’s central character is a globe-trotting photojournalist named Rebecca (Juliiette Binoche) who has made quite a name for herself with award winning images from some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. As the film opens, she has been given extraordinary access to the ritual preparations of a Palestinian suicide bomber. As she dutifully records the eerie spiritual ceremony, viewers share her fascination and disgust, which ultimately places Binoche in a deadly moral dilemma. Back home in Ireland await husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and daughters Lisa (Adrianna Cramer Curtis) and Steph (Lauryn Canny) who have spent many a sleepless night wondering if Rebecca will return from various war zones safe and sound. When her latest assignment nearly costs her life, Rebecca’s family begins to crack from the years of anxiety and stress, and Marcus delivers an ultimatum. Rebecca must give up her dangerous profession or lose her family.

It’s easy to regard Binoche’s character as selfish while she wrestles with her decision, but the film slowly convinces us of her passion, and the desperate need for bringing remote horrors to worldwide attention. Poppe builds a clear and compelling atmospheric contrast between dusty third world chaos and the tidy comfort of the west, while offering reminders of the economics of the news reporting business; economics that have their own elements of cruelty. Binoche is terrific as the damaged soul torn in all directions, mulling her new life while forcing back her impulses like a brooding distaff Hamlet. Her performance here is one of her best since Keslowski’s Blue (1993), when she played a similar tortured character buffeted by deep shocks and misunderstood passions. No one has better technique for complex characters than Juliette Binoche, evoking more emotion from her dark, lonely eyes than most actors can summon with pages of dialogue.

Although it appears Rebecca is adjusting to her new domesticity, she is soon offered an opportunity to cover a story in Africa that reignites her journalist’s fire. But just as it seems the story is done and dusted, Poppe introduces a new theory, a new perception, into the relationship between photographer and subject that causes Binoche to question her mantra and methods. And just as he did in his excellent Troubled Water (2006), Erik Poppe raises just enough questions to leave us thinking and postulating. A Thousand Times Good Night doesn’t just resolve; more accurately it transcends, and leads us ever closer to the truth.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Quickies for August 2015

Stop the Pounding Heart (2013) ✬✬✬

European filmmaker Roberto Minervini looks at red state America and finds the lifestyles of his subject Texans as strange as a lost aboriginal tribe. Scenes of home schooling, bull riding, pistols, religious cults and cross burning are all served up with a perplexing lack of context. It's interesting to see common good ol' boy rituals through fresh eyes, but the story interjects its own melancholic twists and that weakens the film's integrity.

Departures (2008) ✭✭✭✭½
Netflix WI

Yôjirô Takita's film is beautiful, poetic and, yes, a little emotionally manipulative, but with the very best of intentions. Highly recommended.

Paper Souls (2013) ✬✬✬½
TV5 Monde
Dir: Vincent Lannoo

Transgendered reworking of My Favorite Wife has some terrific moments and a charming fanciful edge. The film stars Julie Gayet, who has attained additional notoriety in real life as President Hollande's mistress. We don't blame him a bit.