Amour, the movie from Austrian filmmaker Michael Hanake who also gave us Funny Games and Cache, has more tension in a short scene of an elderly couple having dinner than Zero Dark Thirty has in the vast majority of its playing time.  That might be because the central characters in Amour are facing death every moment of their existence while the central character in ZDT is only facing the annoying reaction of her superiors who just won’t recognize her innate genius.  And Amour climaxes with two scenes of violence that are more emotionally gut wrenching than any of the torture scenes in Boal and Bigelow’s film.
George and Anne, husband and wife, are in their eighties.   They are introduced first in the audience of a piano recital as just another set of spectators.  In fact, if you didn’t know who they were from the posters and previews, you might not even realize the movie is about them.  You don’t hear anything they say, yet you can tell from their faces, the way they act toward each other, the way they say something to the other and occasionally smile, that they still have great affection for one another.  They are still in love and with little of the bitterness that a long life together can result in.  And then it happens.  Anne has a stroke and slowly but surely finds she can do less and less for herself. 
Amour is a beautiful and powerful story, but it is also a devastating one.  It is not easy to sit through or experience.  It is not a nice movie.    Haneke, as writer and director, gives neither George nor Anne much dignity as he details the mounting, daily degradations that Anne must suffer on her not so gentle going into that good night.
But that’s not exactly right, because in a way Hanake gives the both of them a great deal of dignity.  He does it by not lying about what the situation is, by not pretending that something is happening that isn’t.  Death is a fact.  It’s not always pleasant. It’s sometimes scary and horrifying and in the end, it happens to us all and there is little you can do about it.  It has no inherent meaning.  It just is.  And by refusing to lie about that, but to give the audience the reality of Georges and Anne’s life, Hanake honors them both and perhaps in a way, honors us all.
Georges and Anne are played by legends of the French film industry.  Georges is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant who has been making movies since 1955, including Z, Three Colors: Red, …And God Created Woman, The Conformist, My Night at Maud’s.  Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva who began in 1957 and has been in Leon Morin, Priest, Three Colors: Blue, Therese.   But perhaps most appropriately given the title of this film, both starred in two of the most important love stories in French film history; Trintignant in A Man and a Woman (cue that Michelle Legrand score) and Riva in Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  And now, in this drama that is essentially a love story no matter the subject matter, both give emotionally rich performances that will not easily be forgotten. 
Isabelle Huppert, a constant participant in Hanake’s films when she wasn’t busy doing films by Claude Chabrol (The Piano Teacher to name one), plays the couple’s daughter, Eva.  This leads to one of the more powerful scenes when, as an emotional wreck, she confronts her father about his not talking to her about what is going on, refusing to return her calls and basically ignoring her.  His response: I don’t have time to take care of both my wife and your emotional needs.  It’s heartbreaking.  You feel for Eva, but you know he’s right. 
The film ends on what many might consider a slight note of sentimentality.  But it is an act that demonstrates just how much these two people loved each other.  And when the movie ends, all we are left with is that death has come and now it has gone and life goes on.


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Continuing my Oscar predictions, the next category is Director.  In certain ways, picking the director nominees used to be fairly easy.  You selected which five films you thought would be nominated for best picture and then try and decide which one wouldn’t correspond with a director (there often was one difference).  But now that it is possible for there to be up to ten picture nominees, this sort of throws a monkey wrench into the system.
In many ways, you still make your guesses using the same principle.  You decide which five movies you suspect would have been the nominees if the rules of up to ten weren’t in existence and you take that as your cue for your basic list of for the director’s category.
Like all the other categories, the top five seem to be slowly rising to the top.  So to the list:
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty to win.  It’s not just the double whammy so far of winning the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards.  There’s no guarantee that that translates into an Oscar win, though at the same time, it don’t hurt.  Part of what is helping here is that Argo, which had the lead, peaked and was being overshadowed by Spielberg and Lincoln (which was more successful than was originally thought) and is now being overshadowed by Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty as well.  Will she win?  Right now it’s all buzz, but the buzz is deaf impairing, so unless the movie opens and then crashes and burns, it seems she’s got it (the first female director to win twice; the first to be even nominated twice).
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  This seems like a done deal, not just because it’s Lincoln directed by Spielberg, but also because it did much better than anyone expected (which is important since people expected it to do well as it was).
Ben Affleck for Argo.  Once the front runner for winning, but has now been eclipsed.  But his nomination still seems like it’s in with the in crowd.
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables.  My only hesitation here is that the movie hasn’t opened and I’m a little loathe to make a prediction for a musical (I still remember Nine), but it looks like a sure thing.
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s a serious comedy and that doesn’t hurt and people just seem to love it to death. 
Now there are definitely other possibilities, but here is where things get tricky.  If you think that another director is going to get in there, you’re going to have to decide who won’t make it.   Right now, I think only Tom Hooper and David O. Russell have a chance of being unseated and replaced by: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (the issue here is that the critics loved it, but the public, which includes the voters, didn’t); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (deserving, and the strongest possibility for an upset as far as I’m concerned); Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (the movie is too unknown a quantity and it may open too late to really excite people); Peter Jackson for The Hobbit (he’s already got it for The Lord of the Rings, I can’t see them doing it again and some people haven’t been happy with some of his directorial choices; it may also be opening too late for people to care); Michael Haneke for Amour (probably deserving, but he’s probably going to get shut out; and since it’s going to win Best Foreign Language Film, they’ll probably nominate it for screenplay and forget the direction); Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom (forget about it, it will be Zeitlin before Anderson). 

THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of The White Ribbon and A Prophet

Near the end of The White Ribbon, the great Austrian director Michael (Code: Unknown, Cache) Haneke’s most recent film, a schoolteacher tells a group of children, “There’s something you’re not telling me”. As much as I admire Haneke, in the end I wanted to say the same thing to him. The film, I’m afraid, went over my head, and I felt as if there was something that Haneke just wasn’t letting me in on. It takes place just before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI. Over the course of a year, some odd things happen in a small German town. It begins when someone strings a wire across two trees so that it will trip a doctor returning home on his horse; serious injuries occur. Over the course of a year, a woman dies accidentally; the very young son of the local Baron is abducted and beaten; a baby almost dies because a window is left open; someone commits suicide; a retarded little boy is then abducted and tortured; etc., etc. You know there’s something wrong from the first moment when you see the children of the local pastor and they all look like the cold, blond children from Village of the Damned. The origin of the evil is unclear. On one side is the pastor who is severely strict with his children and sexually repressive; on the other is the Doctor, who though not portrayed as an atheist, does not seem to attend church—he sexually abuses his daughter and sexually humiliates his mistress. In spite of what seems like a lot of awful things happening, they happen over such a long course of time and sometimes seem to have no relation to each other, that I found little tension to the story. A narrator suggests that things are festering in the village and have been for some time; I’m glad he told me, because I don’t think I would have known otherwise. The plot ends without an explanation as to who did some of what happened; this would have been fine if that had been the intent of Haneke, to say that the origin of evil is something we don’t understand. But I’m not convinced that that’s what he was trying to say. It seems to come closer to an idea that sexual repression and sexual hypocrisy is what causes evil, but I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that just because someone is forbidden to masturbate, Europe goes to war. It does look great, though. The bleak and striking black and white photography, greatly celebrated, is by Christian Berger.

A Prophet, the thrilling new film from Jacques Audiard (who also gave us The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has been compared by some to the Godfather. I think a more apt comparison is to Scarface since A Prophet is the story of a teenager sent to an adult jail, a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern background, and then climbs the ranks of the Corsican Mob and becomes head honcho. It’s not a particularly happy movie. The lead character of Malik, in a magnificent performance by Tahar Rahim, has little control over his life once he enters this prison for six years. The Corsican mob, headed by Cesar (an equally compelling performance by Niels Arestrup), needs a Middle Eastern prisoner, a witness in a trial, killed, so he forces Malik to do it or die himself. After that, Malik becomes Cesar’s lapdog, but he slowly gets an education and because he can stride both sides of the narrow world due to his Muslim background and his connections to the Corsicans, he learns how to play one against the other until he betrays Cesar and takes over Rome (the scene of Malik’s final triumph over Cesar in the prison yard is a powerful moment). Malik’s journey is an exciting one. The screenplay, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain form an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, has a Shakespearian structure out of something like Richard III or King John and could almost be a how to manual for climbing the French Mafia ladder. One could question whether someone who can’t even read could suddenly have an epiphany and educate himself enough to do what Malik does here, but the story is too fascinating to make one care. The world the authors paint is bleak and the indictment of the French penal system is just as dark as Kafka’s. The prison is not run by the guards and warden, it’s run by the mob, and all programs set up to help reform the prisoners (like giving them a basic education or work leave) are just ways to help criminals become better at what they do (I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Dorothy). It’s a very nihilistic view of the world; evil runs everything, and if we are untouched by it, we are merely lucky. At the same time, there’s something a little contradictory here. If evil is so controlling, then it may be unclear how the head of the Corsican mob ended up in jail probably to die there.

May 26, 2009, Cannes, Regent, Coverage, Peckinpah and Scrabble

I haven’t updated things in a while, so thought I just let my mind and fingers wander and try to come up with something to say.

I was excited to hear that Michael Haneke, who along with Pedro Almodovar, are my favorite filmmakers working today, won the Palme d’Or for his film The White Handkerchief.

For a complete list of Cannes winners

I had a meeting with a director this week who is excited about my script Rough Trade and wants to start promoting it as his next project. The meeting was great and very ego building. Of course, all of us in the industry know that this is a who knows situation, but keep your fingers crossed for me. The main thing we’re looking for is a producer who loves the script and knows how to raise money. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

I’m been inundated with scripts to read from Here! Networks/Regent, Final Draft and it looks like Slamdance is about to start up with coverage work. It’s great, though daunting at the same time. Regent had a great article in the LA Times last week about how they are increasing their distribution of foreign, independent and art house movies even in this day of difficult economics.

I was involved in a wicket Scrabble Game on Monday. I started out with the word Swollen, using all my letters and on a triple word score (76 points). I only mention this to show you have desparate I am to come up with something to put in my blog.

I’m almost through with the biography of Sam Peckinpah. He’s about to direct the Osterman Weekend. As I’ve been saying, I also just read a book on the making of Rebel Without a Cause and on Orson Welles and I no longer feel as sorry for these directors as I do for the studios, producers, writers and actors who had to put up with them. One interesting bit of trivia: the actor who played Mapache, Emilio Fernandez, is one of Mexico’s most important filmmakers and was the model for the Oscar statuette.