SHORT TERM 12, ADORE and POPULAIRE



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Short Term 12 is about a young female supervisor at a foster care facility.  It is a story that is sincere and heartfelt, but in the end, about the only thing it has going for it is its sincerity and heartfeltness.  It’s written and directed by Desin Cretton and I’m not sure that he has anything to offer yet, though it’s only his second feature film, so it’s too early a call yet.   But like so many recent films both written and directed by someone new or relatively new to the job, it’s unambitious, unoriginal and unimaginative, and technically bland and uninspired.  It’s more of the sort of social problem play that use to be de rigueur as movies of the week on network TV thirty years ago.  The acting is of the obvious sort with no real subtlety and everything’s telegraphed before it’s shared.  But when the characterizations are this flat (as flat as the direction), what else is to be expected?  It ends with an action by the lead that I think is supposed to make one respect her.  But for me, it was so irresponsible, over the top and troubling, I was praying she’d get fired before she did something really stupid the next time.
I can just hear director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton give their elevator pitch for Adore, their new Australian film about two mothers who have affairs with each other’s sons: MILFS who become GILFS.   That’s kind of basically it in a nutshell. 
It’s certainly a well done movie.  One can’t complain about the technical aspects of any of it. There’s a lot of beautiful scenery to salivate over, and the backgrounds aren’t too bad either.  The acting is first rate, especially Naomi Watts, Robin Wright and Ben Mendelson as the adults; the young himbos, played by Xavier Samuel and James (Animal Kingdom) Frecheville, were more cast for their bodies than their abilities.  
But when all is said and done the whole thing never really comes together in a satisfying whole.
It’s the sort of movie you can form fit into your favorite Rorschach test psychological theory.  Are they all going to bed together because the women really want to bed each other, the same for the boys, and this is the only way they can do it?  Or is it incest by proxy?     The whole thing is suppose to be tres, tres daring, I suppose.  But the movie takes itself so seriously, I certainly can’t.  And it’s been so long since I cared about who went to bed with whom, I just can’t get much indignation worked up.  
If the film had been made in the 1940’s it would have starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins and had at least one big cat fight.  Now, everybody does their best to keep a stiff upper lip and be Masterpiece Theater civilized about it all.  I’m not sure it’s an improvement.  After all, if you remove the camp element, all you’re really left with is soap opera. 
And to add insult to injury, it just takes forever to resolve itself.  It’s structurally clunky and just when you think it’s about to come to a close, it keeps on going for thirty minutes or more. 
In the end, it’s a handsome film, as handsome as its two leading ladies.  But if all you’ve got going for you is shock element (and the element isn’t that shocking), then you really haven’t got a lot going for you.
There’s a scene in Francois Truffaut’s last film Confidentially Yours in which a secretary (Fanny Ardant) has to hire her replacement because her boss (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has rather unceremoniously fired her.  The first applicant can only type with one finger.  Ms. Ardant is ready to dismiss her outright until the applicant actually types—and types like a machine gun on St. Valentine’s Day. 
I don’t know if the filmmakers of the new French rom com Populaire (director Regis Roinsard, writers Roinsard, Daniel Presley, Romain Compingt) took that movie as its inspiration, but since the story is about a woman dreaming of becoming that new symbol of female independence, a secretary, and one who can type with two fingers like a said machine gun on said holiday, it would be hard to convince me otherwise.
Populaire is a pastiche of 1950’s American sophisticated comedies (if it had been done in the U.S. way back then, it would have starred Cary Grant or Rock Hudson and Doris Day or Audrey Hpeburn).  It’s as light as a French soufflé and looks as sweet as puff pastry.  It has all the bright pop colors made popular by that rock and roll decade and more recently by the television show Mad Men and the film’s a delight to look at.   And it has its inside droll jokes as when the hero is asked not to smoke in his office by the heroine and he says only a law will stop him (like the U.S., it is now illegal to smoke in places of employment—unfortunately, I was the only one in the theater who laughed).
It also starts off rather well with young, perky Sandra Dee-like Deborah Francois as Rose Pamphyle (in what seems a change of pace roll from such serious ones as L’enfant and The Monk) coming to town to become a liberated woman.  But things go off the rail very quickly with the introduction of Romain Duras  (that incredibly handsome, perpetually sneering, hirsute leading man) as her new boss, Louis Echard.  He hires her not because she’s good at her job (in fact, the implication is that she is suppose to be a terrible secretary, though she never seems all that bad), but so he can enter her in a typing competition.
What is odd here is that though this is Rose’s story, it’s Louis who is driving it.  But Duras is not given a character to play.  It’s unclear why Echard is so desperate to have Rose become the world’s next speed typist champion.  We have no clue as to what his feelings toward relationships are generally.  Duras is left to create a character out of nothing; but unfortunately, he can’t come close, so the movie just meanders along without any real focus or forward momentum.  Without Echard having motivations for his actions or inner or outer conflicts that need to be resolved, there’s really nothing for the audience to grab onto.   It also doesn’t help that there’s little chemistry between the two leads (also the same problem as Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours).   And like Adore, just as you think the movie is over, it just keeps going and going and going. 
There’s no reason something couldn’t have been made out of all the ingredients here.  But in the end, it has to be said that the soufflé fell and the pasty just wasn’t as sweet as it looked in the confectionaries’ window.

DESIGNING WOMEN: Reviews of Coco Before Chanel, My One and Only and Bright Star


It’s a little difficult to determine why, and therefore somewhat annoying that, Coco Before Chanel is as enjoyable as it is. After all, it’s a fairly standard biopic, as sturdy and strong as anything put out by Warner Brothers in the 1930’s. At the same time, it does have one thing many biopics don’t; it doesn’t try to tell us how important, how great, how significant the subject is. Coco Before Chanel imparts its story somewhat simply and to the point; not as if this is a biography of the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, but as if it was nothing more than a study of what it was like to be a woman who wanted a career when fin de siècle was in the air. It also doesn’t try to bite off more than it should chew. The story line covers only a relatively short period of Chanel’s life, from the time she left an orphanage to the time she opened her first dressmaking shop, what appears to be but a few years.

Coco is played by Audrey Tatou with a dour face and an uningénue type temperament (which means she’s getting beyond what she began as, the French Audrey Hepburn). Her performance is impressive; perhaps not as impressive as Marion Cotillard’s turn as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, but then Tatou hasn’t been given all the heavy breathing and melodramatic acrobatics Cotillard was (though it is odd the same thing happened to both characters; their married lovers died tragically—is this a French thing?). She also does what George C. Scott as Patton and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk did—in the future when you think of Chanel, whose face will you see? The original or Tatou’s?

When all is said and done, it should be noted that Coco Before Chanel falls into the standard women’s biopic in which what the character does with her life is not as important as is her relationship to the men in said life. Her life is defined not just by her achievements, but in how she relates to the opposite sex. To understand what I mean, consider that if Patton was a woman, the central dilemma would be not how he defeated the Germans, but in her having to chose between a husband and children and fighting the Battle of the Bulge (and no, I don’t mean weight loss). What may be doubly disturbing is that though this may be a chauvinistic approach, it is also what makes Coco Before Chanel the success it is. What may be even more curious is it was written by two women, Camille Fontaine and Anne Fontaine (who also directed).

My One is Only is an ice cream sundae that comes equipped with whip cream and a cherry on top. The whip cream is provided by Mark Rendall’s performance as Robbie, the somewhat swishy younger brother who gets the running gag of always landing the lead in a school play (including Oedipus of all things—what high school does Oedipus Rex) but never actually making it on stage. The cherry is the revelation that the central character in all this, Robbie’s older brother George, is actually a famous movie star—George Hamilton. The ice cream is provided by Renee Zellwegger as Anne Deveraux, a mother who divorces her cheating husband, takes her two kids, and goes gunning for old boyfriends to see if she can marry into money.

She sets her designs on, as has already been pointed out by other critics, a series of actors better known for their TV roles (shades of Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in Star!). Steven Weber is a hoot as an alcoholic gold digger who sticks Anne with a dinner bill. Eric McCormack has absolutely nothing to do as a rich playboy and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. Chris Noth doesn’t quite convince as an abusive army officer. That leaves David Koechner to rule the day in his role as the least sexiest, a charming and sweet natured scion of a wealthy family with a surprise mental problem.

There is nothing that wrong with the movie and the audience seemed to like it the more it went along. But it never quite rises above what it is. Some blame this on Zellweger who many didn’t buy as a fading southern belle. But the problem may lie with the director Richard Loncraine who played every scene of the clever screenplay by Charlie Peters for pathos whereas it might have worked better as a broader comedy, more Christopher Durang’s version of Tennessee Williams rather than Tennessee himself. It might have worked better if Zellweger had based Anne more on Bridget Jones than Blanche Dubois. But there is much to like here and the art direction and period detail help make it all a pleasant enough road trip.

Fanny Brawne is also a designer of clothes and from what I understand, she was suppose to have been known, at least among friends, for her taste. Personally, I found her fashions, as seen in the movie Bright Star, a bio film of her relationship with the poet John Keats, to be rather gaudy and all over the place. The same could not be said of the movie written and directed by Jane Campion. It’s a down to earth, anti-romantic depiction of a very romantic love story set during the romantic period. I greatly admired what Campion did with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, but I’m afraid I found this to be as dull as any Ivory/Merchant concoction. Even more dishwatery perhaps. I’m not sure why. It could be that the two leads, Abbie Cornish as Fannie and Ben Whishaw as Keats, who seem to be perfectly fine actors, just didn’t have enough fire in their roles. Perhaps this was Champion’s choice as well. Perhaps the last thing she wanted was the grand passion of Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. But for me, it didn’t even have the restrained sexual tension of a Jane Austen novel. The most interesting performance is given by Paul Schneider as the misogynistic cad Charles Armitage Brown who has the most fascinating line readings of any actor in some time. One almost hates him not just for his lines, but for the way he says them.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE STRONG WOMEN GONE, PART DEUX (TO EUROPE APPARENTLY)


Everyone complains about the roles written for women, but no one’s doing anything about it. Well, that’s not totally true since three movies with strong female characters have opened in the last couple of months, but you might not know it based on the attention and box office given to such movies as The Ugly Truth and The Proposal.

Seraphine is the lovely, lyrical and based on a true story film about an obscure painter in the early 1900’s (at least obscure to American audiences), a lower class working woman who does cleaning and laundry but paints in her free time because she received a message from her guardian angel to do so. She does the usual artist stuff: she talks to trees (though fortunately, not like Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon); makes much of her own paint from various liquids, like chicken blood, that she steals because she doesn’t have enough money to buy them; goes without food to purchase her supplies; and stays up all night singing and making awful noises while painting, driving her landlord to distraction. She’s also out of step. The art world is changing, but new forms like impressionism are still finding it difficult to gain a foothold, so Seraphine is ridiculed by her bourgeois employee for her somewhat fanciful interpretation of the natural world she sees around her. But Seraphine doesn’t care; like the Blues Brothers she’s on a mission from God. Then into her life stumbles a gay German art critic in town for his health (this is where the plot diverges from the one with Jake and Elwood). The critic accidentally discovers one of her paintings and starts representing her, but first WWI gets in the way (don’t you hate it when that happens) and then the stock market crashes in 1929 (damn you, Herbert Hoover). She then slowly loses her mind and spends the end of her life in a mental institution. Seraphine is played by the magnificent Yalonde Moreau who has already received a slew of acting awards, including the Cesar, in one of those performances in which the actress totally disappears into her role. The screenplay, perhaps as beautiful as Seraphine’s paintings, is by Marc Abdelnour and the director Martin Provost.

If one saw the previews to The Girl From Monaco, one would think it one of those delightfully quirky French comedies that often graces our shores. One couldn’t be more wrong. Though there is humor in it, it’s actually a rather serious story about a lawyer who becomes so obsessed by an ambitious weather girl who likes to manipulate and use men that the lawyer is in danger of losing a very important murder case (I don’t remember Perry Mason ever having this problem, but this is France after all). It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie, nothing great, but not boring. Its main strength is the femme fatale character played by Louise Bourgoin. There is just something about her that makes one believe that she could get a man to do anything she wanted, even if he fully well knows it means his own destruction. She’s one of those people who will sleep with you, then have sex with someone in the next room knowing that the next time she asks you to do something, you will. What can one do but kill her, which is what the lawyer does (or manipulates someone into doing, much like he himself was manipulated). The script, by Benoit Graffin (who also worked on the fun Priceless and the wonderful Apres vous) and director Anne Fontaine, is enjoyable enough, but it stumbles when it comes to the court case itself. The strategy of the lawyer played by Fabrice Luchini is never very clear and he makes speeches and cross examines witnesses in ways that would drive Jack McCoy to distraction). In the end, his defense seems to be that someone’s mother has the right to kill a man if the man is her son’s lover and threatens to expose the son’s homosexuality to the world. It’s hard to say what to make of such a homophobic attitude; what’s even more horrifying is the writer has the jury find the mother not guilty on this basis. Though I enjoyed the movie well enough, I left feeling that I and the director and writer lived in a very different moral world.

Lorna’s Silence is the latest film from the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), two of my favorite filmmakers in the world. They’ve already graced us with such possible masterpieces as Rosetta, La promesse, The Son, L’enfant. Lorna, played with quiet intensity by Arta Dobroshi, is an Albanian immigrant who, for money, agrees to a sham marriage to Claudy, a drug addict, arranged by mobster Fabio so that she can become a Belgian citizen. To fulfill her Faustian bargain, she would then help or allow Fabio to kill Claudy, so she could then, for more money, marry a Russian immigrant so he can become a citizen. Her goal is to open a snack shop with her immigrant boyfriend. It’s a pretty neat little scam, until Lorna develops a conscious, helps Claudy get off the drugs and tries to just divorce him rather than kill him. It doesn’t work; Claudy is killed without her knowledge. But by then, she has had sex with Claudy and thinks she is pregnant by him and has to find a way to survive since she’s put a kibosh on the new marriage and Fabio now wants his pound of flesh in the death of Lorna. As in all of the Dardenne films, this is about someone who has to make a momentous moral choice and the suspense is often as great or greater than whether James Bond will stop Dr. No. I do think this film does make a slight misstep by making Lorna’s pregnancy an hysterical one; there doesn’t seem to be a satisfying point to this. But just because it may not be as good as their other ones doesn’t mean the film isn’t better than most others.

But the question does become, why can Europe make films with exciting and strong female characters like this, but the U.S. can’t? Is it the way European films are financed, so that directors and writers there can make films that don’t have to make the massive profits they do here? Is it because the audiences in Europe are more open to movies about women? Is it because there are more writers and directors there who are simply interested in making films with women as central characters and they don’t feel the need to degrade them all the time? I wish I knew.