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Friday, February 27, 2015

IN THE COURTYARD (DANS LA COUR)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

French national treasure Catherine Deneuve stars as Mathilde, a retired woman who lives at the top of a rundown Parisian building.  Against all odds she interviews, likes and hires a solitary and rather isolated drunkard, Antoine (Gustave Kervern), as concierge of the building.  Antoine needs the job to survive, but he's not especially interested in it or even a good concierge.

Mathilde's husband Serge (Feodor Atkine) thinks she may be slightly crazy and Kervern's character is definitely antisocial.  Antoine has been sent on the interview by a job center and Serge he's hopeless, very strange and a bad liar but Mathilde thinks he's perfect for the job.  Mathilde feels if Antoine is a bad liar it's because he doesn't lie very often.

Given the job, Antoine moves into a tiny studio at the entrance of the building.  As he meets the eclectic group of tenants he changes, becoming more social, more accommodating and even a decent janitor.  Of course, Antoine has his own way of doing things.  Deciding to plant trees and flowers in the courtyard, he steals them from a public park.But, it seems that every day he is placed in situations that are rather absurd and comical.

The most unlikely occurrence is the bonding between Mathilde and Antoine, who become friends and conspirators in building improvements.  It's an unlikely friendship and yet totally believable due to the actors.

When Mathilde discovers a large crack in the wall of her apartment, she becomes convinced that the entire building is going to collapse.  Becoming an activist to save the building and the neighborhood actually increases her eccentricities and "craziness".

Actually, all the characters are eccentric and humorous but they're definitely not cookie cutter roles. Although in many cases the story is similar to other French indie films the story twists and acting by established stars carry this film to a level above most.






Wednesday, February 25, 2015

FIDELIO, ALICE'S ODYSSEY (FIDELIO, L'ODYSSEE D'ALICE)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

Definitely one of the most interesting films at this year's festival, Ariane Labed is also one of the most engaging actors.

Alice (Labed), a sailor in the merchant marine, joins a ship as a mechanic.  She is happily engaged to Felix (Anders Danielsen), a non-nautical Norweigian, and although her profession takes her away for weeks or months at a time, they communicate via Skye.  It seems like a calm, happy relationship.

Alice gets the job as a replacement for Patrick, a crew member who died at sea.  She's genuinely surprised to find that the Captain is her old flame Gael (Melvil Poupaud).  With torn emotions but adopting the attitude that no one need ever know what goes on at sea, Alice becomes involved with Gael again.

In the cabin she's given, one that belonged to Patrick, Alice finds Patrick's diary which she proceeds to retain, read and contemplate.

Accepted by the male crew and comfortable in the restricted environment of the ship, Alice does her job and carries on discreetly with the Captain.  Needless to say, there are romantic and professional complications with which Alice must deal, not the least of which is the possible damage to her relationship with Felix..

The backdrop for the film is basically the ship, with some bedroom scenes and some vistas of the open sea as seen from the ship.  Although she's then only female, the emphasis is not on surviving in a man's world but rather on the complexity of the  relationships between Alice and Felix, and Alice and Gael, and how those relationships are handled.

The Greek-born Labed shines in the role of Alice and seems born to play the part.  Much of the success of this film is due to her performance., which should not be missed.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

40-LOVE (TERRE BATTUE)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

A middle-aged chain store sales manager, Jerome Sauvage (Olivier Gourmet) loses his job and refuses to accept defeat.  Totally ego-centric, Sauvage throws himself into researching the products and locations necessary for opening his own shoe store.  He's intent and not above bending the laws a bit to get the information he needs.

Perhaps it's true that the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, because we see the relentless way that Sauvage's 11-year old son Ugo (Charles Merienne) approaches his goal to earn a place at the prestigious Roland Garros tennis center.  Viewers see that Ugo's goals frequently interfere with those of his father, who sometimes misses or is late for Ugo's appointments and matches because he's pursuing his own goals.  In short, Jerome is a pretty selfish guy.

However, when Jerome takes Ugo in for a physical and the doctors diagnose him with a rare condition, we see a father forced to re-evaluate and adjust his priorities.  In short, although parenthood, up until this time, has not forced Jerome to sacrifice and he has remained selfish, the turn of events due to Ugo's health problems, forces Jerome to place Ugo ahead of himself.

There are many twists and turns in this story and while the focus appears to be on the Sauvage family, the story actually revolves around all the various pressures that Western society places on all families and how they relate to those pressures.




Monday, February 23, 2015

THE CONNECTION (LA FRENCH)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

This tale of the European side of the French Connection saga that William Friedkin fictionalized and turned into a classic in 1976 is fascinating but not as exciting.

Headed by Jean Dujardin who plays magistrate Pierre Michel, a dedicated police officer reassigned from Metz to Marseilles where a mafia type gangster Gaetan Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), has the police and the court officials cowering in terror.

Michel cracked the case and to this day not all the details regarding how he did it are known.  Directed by Cedric Jimenez, who grew up in Marseilles when all of this was taking place, the film is interesting and entertaining but misses the excitement that was found in the American film The French Connection.

Dujardin is convincing as the dedicated police officer with a dark history of gambling addiction who switches his obsession to capturing the bad guys.  Michel (Dujardin) and Zampa (Lellouche) look amazingly alike, which is not by accident.  Whether Jimenez wanted to convey a similarity or inability to distinguish between how the good and the bad guy looks, he's accomplished this feat.

Unfortunately, while showing that the French were actively involved in fighting the international heroin problem, the film doesn't have a happy ending.  The melancholy turn the story takes is at once unexpected and unrepairable.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

NEXT TIME I'LL AIM FOR THE HEART (LA PROCHAINE FOIS JE VISERAI LA COEUR)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

Based on the true story of Alain Lamare, "the Oise killer" who terrorized a region north of Paris during the winter of 1978-1979 when he gunned down several young women while working as a gendarme responsible for tracking and catching the serial killer.

This film is a slick, taut thriller shown from the perspective of the police officer from the time he guns down his first victim, a young girl riding her motor scooter home late at night, through several other assaults and on through his downfall as his co-worker lawmen realize that then perpetrator may be someone within their ranks.

Played by Guillaume Canet, Officer Franck is a maniac.  Good at killing without getting caught, Franck practices self-flagellation and other torturous behaviors that indicate there's something terribly creepy about this individual.  Basically, throughout the film the viewer has trouble emotionally connecting with Franck. He seems to be very good at getting away with murder.

Written by Cedric Auger, a former Cahiers du cinema critic, the film is stylish and suspenseful.  Filmed in fog-shrouded environments and barren sunless countrysides by Thoma Hardmeter, with a strong musical score by Gregoire Hetzel, the film conveys a feeling of darkness and misery.

Canet is especially effective at conveying an insane madman killer who successfully covers up his madness and goes into work every day to investigate the very crimes he committed.  It's even humorous at one point when he goes door to door with a drawing of the protagonist done by a police sketch artist, which looks exactly like him, and yet no one recognizes the resemblance when he holds the drawing up next to his face.

With  love interest played by Ana Girardot, who leaves her invalid husband for her new lover without realizing just how crazy and malevolent he is, this film certainly proves that life is stranger than fiction.  If not ripped from the headlines would it have been possible to make this story up?

Friday, February 20, 2015

BREATHE (RESPIRE)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection

In the beginning of this film a high school teach tells her class that "Passion is harmful when it becomes obsessive, which is most of the time".  In class is Charlene "Charlie" (Josephine Japy) who goes to school to escape the tension and fighting between her parents, who are headed for divorce.

A new student arrives in the form of Sarah (Lou De Laage), who brings some mystery and excitement as she tells how the climate in Nigeria has become politically difficult and her mother has dispatched her to live with an aunt.  Her mother meanwhile, remains in Nigeria, working for an NGO.

Quickly forming an inseparable friendship, the two go everywhere together and tell each other their most intimate secrets to which the audience is privy.  However, when Sarah is invited to join Charlie and her family at a seaside resort for a holiday, her behavior and overt man-chasing creates fissures in the relationship.

It isn't possible to simply dismiss Sarah, who has a mixture of sadness, cruelty and hardness about her and when her real background and breeding are revealed the disclosure is shocking and brilliant simultaneously.

Perhaps because of their youth, Japy and De Laage capture the personalities and co-dependencies of Charlie and Sarah so that they are totally believable.  Directed by Melanie Laurent and photographed by Arnaud Potier, the film is a gem looking into the intimate and complex relationship of teenage girls.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 Selection.

Winner of three awards at Cannes 2014, this first time directing effort of Thomas Cailley is a romantic comedy that pairs Arnaud, a young man just starting in his father's woodcutting business (Kevin Asais) with Madeleine (Adele Haenel).

They meet for the first time when they wrestle each other and meet for a second time when Arnaud is building a wooden hut in Madeleine's backyard.  Madeleine is tough on herself and everyone else.  Her aspirations include joining the army and she trains hard and relentlessly to achieve her goal.

Her impact on the mild-mannered Arnaud is so intense that this mild mannered non-combatant actually joins her on a two-week training session.

Both young people are rebelling against the stereotypes that society deems appropriate for them.  And,because of their verbal sparring with each other and the unit leader of the paratroop unit they join as temporary enlistees, there a great deal of humor.  The unit leader, Lieutenant  Schliefer (Nicholas Wanczychi) is funny, sometimes without saying anything.

Before sending the two trainees into the woods for mock war games. the lieutenant tells Arnaud to "get the upper hand",  True, as Arnaud becomes stronger and more in control, Madeleine loses some of her strength.

This is definitely a different type of film and perhaps that's why it attracted so much notoriety when it premiered at Cannes.  Co-written by Thomas Cailley and Claude Le Pape, the script not only places these two teenagers in a verbal war against each other but also pits them in a fight for survival against nature.

Not the usual fare from French cinema, this film is definitely worth seeing.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

3 HEARTS (3 COEURS)


By D.E.Levine

A Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015 selection

Two sisters Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) and Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) both fall in love with Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde), a Paris-based tax collector.

Sylvie meets Marc first when he misses the last train home to his home in the town of Valence and goes to a bar where she comes in to buy cigarettes.  Immediately attracted to each other they spend the entire night walking Paris.

Arranging to meet on  Friday to see where their attraction takes them, Marc suffers a heart attack and arrives late, missing Sylvie.

One day in his Paris office Marc meets Sophie, an antiques dealer whose sister has left their joint business and needs help with a tax audit.  Marc offers his help and returns to Valence where he and Sophie fall in love.  With that Sophie breaks up with her boy friend and moves out, introducing Marc to her mother (Catherine Deneuve).

Sylvie is absent from the picture since she moved with her husband to the United States when he was moved there for work.  During Skype calls Marc is always just out of the line of sight so Sylvie never sees him.

The plot has many twists and the drama heightens until Marc finally realizes that Sylvie and Sophie are sisters,  By now engaged and ready to marry Sophie, Marc's feelings are never the same passion that he felt for Sylvie.

The sisters, always devoted to each other, face some interesting scenes with delays that prevent Sylvie from meeting Marc formally and attending the wedding ceremony.  Marc, committed to and married to Sophie, is obsessed with Sylvie after the marriage.

The story is interesting, the acting of the highest caliber, making for an interesting time at the cinema.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

KUMIKO THE TREASURE HUNTER


By D.E.Levine

Kumiko (Rinco Kikuchi) has a dead-end job working for a terrible boss in Tokyo,  A young woman in her 20s she feels isolated and despondent about her life and her job.  Her mother nags her and there are few bright spots in her life except for an old VHS tape of the Coen Brother's film Fargo, which she watches repeatedly.

The more she watches the tape, the more Kumicho becomes convinced that the story on the tape is real and that there is a vast fortune buried in a suitcase in the snow in North Dakota.  Creating a hand sewn map, tearing a page from the library atlas, and pocketing her boss's credit card, Kumiko travels to America in search of the treasure.

Kumiko gets as far as Minneapolis by plane and then continues her journey on the ground.  Along the way she meets a variety of Midwesterners who befriend her and offer help in one form or another, although they are frequently way off base.

David and Nathan Zellner have made a unique fantasy film with stunning cinematograpy in Tokyo and the midwest.  These veteran indie filmmakers also appear in the film which mixes humor with melancholy and comes across as a story that might have happened (it didn't).

Definitely not among the norm, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is pure entertainment and should not be missed.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

IDA


By D.E.Levine

Writer/director Powel Pawlikowski has given us a very disturbing film.  Instead of concentrating on surviving the Holocaust like so many other films, Pawlikowski has returned to his native Poland and looked at the void left behind after the annihilation of Poland's Jews during the war.

The film is set in 1962 and photographed in black and white which enhances the starkness of the countryside, the cities and the people.

Anna is a young Catholic novitiate about to take her vows at a rural monastery,  When the Mother Superior informs her that she must visit her ever absent aunt before being allowed to take her vows, Ida, very much against her will, travels to Warsaw to meet with her aunt.

Wanda Gruz, the aunt, is a judge in the court system and a disillusioned Stalinist who leads a life of liquor, cigarettes, music and a parade of anonymous men.  Her life is filled with unremitting pain. Wanda admits to Anna that she is Jewish by birth and that Ida, born Ida Lebenstein, is also Jewish.

Although Wanda mocks Ida innocence and piety, the two women find that they are mutually affectionate and Wanda agrees to take Ida to search for the remains of their family.
 
They prove to be a strange traveling duo but both are responsible for forcing the other to confront things they've been avoiding ---- for Ida, a world that offers more than what she has been exposed to, and for Wanda, the memories and anguish of the past that she has buried in the recesses of her mind.

Wherever they go they find animosity at the very mention of the family name,  The current resident of the old homestead is openly hostile while the townspeople deny any knowledge of the Lebenstein family.

What is apparent is that neither woman wants to reconnect to the Jewish faith, a faith that appears to be completely missing as they travel through Poland.  Ida has been raised a devout Catholic and doesn't desire to know anything about Judaism.  Wanda is a modern communist who doesn't believe in any religion or have faith in any system.

Somewhat autobiographical since the director didn't learn of his own Jewish roots and the murder of his fraternal grandmother in Auschwitz, the director has developed and shown a story devoid of Judaism and a Jewish community.  Ida and Wanda are the entire Jewish population in the film and neither one acknowledges their religion.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

OBVIOUS CHILD


By D.E.Levine

An indie film funded partially by Kickstarter, this film has drawn raves in various competitions.

Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring stand up comic who antagonizes evening audiences with her views on sex and religion, but spends her days working at the Oppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books.

Donna, being extremely blunt and forthcoming, discusses everything, no matter how private or sacred.  One of her topics is her unplanned pregnancy with a nice boy named Max (Jake Lacy).

Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre adapted the screenplay from her own 2009 short.  The film makes the case for women to have the choice to choose what to do with their own bodies and raise angry voices in the Catholic Church by the characters' frank discussion of sex, pregnancy and abortion.

This is an impressive debut film for Robespierre.  It also provides the characters with substance.  Donna is certain about her decision to have an abortion and Max never argues with her or doubts her right to make that decision regarding her body and her future.

Monday, February 2, 2015

IT FOLLOWS


By D.E.Levine

It's very common to fear the unknown.  In David Robert Mitchell's It Follows we see what it's like to know what you're afraid of and still be terrified.

The premise is simple.  A young girl, Jay (Maika Monroe) has a sexual experience and then feels that a presence is lurking about her and following her.  This is a real horror film that utilizes a common youthful activity as the catalyst. Quite literally, if you have sex in It Follow, you must die.

This is Mitchell's second full length feature and he manages to create terror just about everywhere, regardless of whether it's night or day, sunlit or overcast, areas populated with people or empty houses, streets and playgrounds.

What's even more terrifying is the presence can change forms and adopt those of people who are known and trusted.  The dilemma is how to tell the "real" person from the murdering "presence".

The original score by Disasterpiece adds to the tension and terror.  There are scenes and images that evoke early John Carpenter from 30-40 years ago.

It would be simple to give a spoiler alert in this review but that would ruin the effect of the film.  It's better to watch It Follows with little or no prior knowledge so that you can reap the full effect of the film.