My Afternoons with Margueritte (La tête en friche)


A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c'est magnifique!

A sunny afternoon in a park in a small French village is c’est magnifique!

(2010) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Gerard Depardieu, Gisele Casadesus, Maurane, Patrick Bouchitey, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Francois-Xavier Demaison, Claire Maurier, Sophie Guillermin, Melanie Bernier, Matthieu Dahan, Jerome Deschamps, Gilles Detroit, Regis Laspales, Anne Le Guernec, Jean-Luc Porraz, Bruno Ricci, Lyes Salem, Sylvia Allegre. Directed by Jean Becker

Offshoring

You can never tell who will come into your life and change it forever. Sometimes it’s someone you’d expect – a teacher, a preacher, a parent, a lover – but sometimes it is quite someone else entirely.

Germain (Depardieu) is a middle-aged mostly illiterate handyman living in a small, bucolic French village. He lives in a trailer next to his mother (Maurier) who is showing signs of Alzheimer’s and isn’t well. When she was a young woman (Le Guernec) she was an absolute terror. Germain had been the result of an accidental pregnancy and Mommy dearest made sure that Germain knew at every possible turn that she never wanted him. In fact, she never refers to Germain by name or even as a he – to his mom, Germain is an “it.”

You would think that would make Germain a bitter, mean man but he has proven to be stronger. His is a gentle soul, and most people like him personally – although plenty make fun of him behind his back. He has a beautiful young girlfriend, Annette (Guillermin) who drives the local bus and he sells vegetables from his garden. Between that and his handyman work he squeaks by but in a village like this, life – even just squeaking by – is good.

One afternoon as he sits on a park bench to eat his lunch, he meets by chance Margueritte (Casadesus). She is everything he is not; worldly, well-read, intelligent and tiny. At 95 years old, she is still full of life and joy. They pass a pleasant conversation and Margueritte begins reading The Plague by the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Germain finds himself falling for the power of the words and Margueritte lends him a dictionary to help him learn to read.

That goes very poorly as Germain quickly realizes that he is slogging through mud and feeling humiliated, gives up quickly. However, as it turns out, Margueritte has macular degeneration and won’t be able to read much longer. To be separated from books – now that is a living hell as far as Margueritte is concerned. Germain determines to finally learn how to read once and for all – not for himself but for his new friend.

Becker, a second-generation filmmaker, is extraordinary in his brevity. There are no wasted scenes, no unnecessary shots. Vis a vis the story, he simply gets on with it, displaying the salient points and when the story is over, so is the film. There are plenty of filmmakers who can learn from his technique including some who have won Oscars.

Much has been made of Depardieu’s weight in the movie and the “unlikelihood” of a beautiful young woman like Annette falling in love with him and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics who have written such things need to be given a year off from their jobs so they can actually live in the real world – people fall for people regardless of how they look or weigh. It is only shallow people to whom looks are important and those are generally the people who complain they can’t find anyone to stick around.

This isn’t a movie that bowls you over. Rather, it is one you fall in love with slowly, gradually, until by the end credits you realize that you feel genuine affection for the film. Depardieu has a lot to do with that. One of the world’s best actors in his heyday and still as engaging as he ever was, he imbues the soul of Germain with a kind of sweetness so genuine it is hard not to like the oaf. His chemistry with Casadesus is also genuine which is a relief because the movie revolves around it; in fact, must have that chemistry in order to succeed. Not to worry; you don’t for a second doubt that they have become deep, close friends.

Some people may find the comedy too subtle and low-key and I can understand that. This is going to appeal more to people who have more of a European sensibility and perspective than American; you will either like this or not depending on your tolerance for subtlety. It may not be loud enough for you, but those who prefer movies that don’t have to shout will be drawn to this like moths to a warm, comforting flame.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Depardieu and Casadesus is delightful. Very charming and sweet.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too low-key for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Occasional foul language, a few sexual references and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although uncredited as such on the final print, Depardieu served as executive producer for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.3M on an unreported production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Offshoring 2014 concludes!

Oranges and Sunshine


Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Emily Watson finds the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

(2010) True Life Drama (Cohen Media Group) Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, Aisling Loftus, David Wenham, Stuart Wolfenden, Lorraine Ashbourne, Federay Holmes, Richard Dillane, Molly Windsor, Harvey Scrimshaw, Alastair Cummings, Tammy Wakefield, Kate Rutter, Marg Downey, Geoff Revell, Greg Stone, Neil Melville, Tara Morice, Mandahla Rose. Directed by Jim Loach

Offshoring

Sometimes things are done with the best of intentions but upon further reflection are nothing short of evil. This propensity for doing horrible things for the best of reasons is true of governments as well as individual people.

Social worker Margaret Humphreys (Watson) ran a support group for orphans in Nottingham, England – home of the Sheriff.  While in the course of her duties, she discovers something monstrous, so much so that at first she is in disbelief.

Children of poor mothers – single moms, drug addicts, prostitutes – were routinely taken from their mothers, told their parents were dead and shipped out of England to points elsewhere in the Empire but mainly Australia. They were told that they would have oranges for the picking from trees and non-stop sunshine. The reality was that these children would be used as forced labor, many of them at Catholic-run facilities.

Humphreys would dig further and find out that there were literally tens of thousands of children who were affected since World War 2 (and in fact the practice had been going on since the mid-19th century). Approached by Charlotte (Holmes) begging her to help her find her mother, she ends up discovering that Charlotte has a brother, the suicidal and messed-up Jack (Weaving). She also helps the angry Len (Wenham) whom she eventually becomes friends with although at first he’s quite rotten to her.

She would start a foundation to help these kids which at times was funded but at others not. Because so many of the abuses took place in Catholic facilities, Roman Catholics particularly in Australia were downright hostile to her. The long hours and trips across the planet from Nottingham to Australia took a toll on her family life, with a husband (Dillane) who should have been nominated for sainthood holding down the fort at home. But in the face of governments who would be more than happy to forget about this practice (which continued until 1967) and the hostility of those who felt she was persecuting Catholics as well as her own yearning to be with her own family, could she possibly help all those who are in need of it?

This is a very powerful subject that should well provoke a deep emotional response in the viewer, but director Loach (son of veteran filmmaker Ken Loach) opts not to be too manipulative here. He could easily have demonized the government officials who mandated these decisions and the Catholic societies who behaved badly towards the children but he chooses not to make any villains here other than the policy itself.

Without a villain, there really isn’t the kind of conflict that would bring out that emotional response so instead the pressure goes on the shoulders of Watson as Humphreys to give a human face to the struggle and Watson delivers. One of the world’s most underrated actresses, she gives Humphreys a presentation as a flawed but compassionate woman, dogged in her determination to see justice done and these kids – now adults – be restored somewhat through reunions with their parents, or a vehicle for reparations for the wrongs done them. Weaving and Wenham both deliver memorable performances as well, as two men victimized in the same way but coping with it in very different ways.

The pacing is deliberately slow, maybe too much so. For the most part, Humphreys’ conflict is with apathy and that never makes for cinematic gold. Watson manages to overcome the film’s lack of inertia with a role that not only does justice to the real life Humphreys (who continues to work for these kids to this day) but also makes an unforgettable cinematic portrait of a real life unsung hero whose name is little known outside of England but really should be.

WHY RENT THIS: A tour de force for Watson. Weaving and Wenham are strong as well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a ponderous pace.

FAMILY VALUES: Some strong language and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scandal was portrayed in the documentary film The Lost Children of the Empire in which the real Humphreys appears.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are interviews with the cast and production team.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on a $4.5M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

Le Chef (Comme un chef)


In France, chef = cool.

In France, chef = cool.

(2012) Comedy (Cohen Media Group) Jean Reno, Michael Youn, Raphaelle Agogue, Julien Boisselier, Salome Stevenin, Serge Lariviere, Issa Doumbia, Bun-hay Mean, Pierre Vernier, Santiago Segura, Genevieve Casile, Andre Penvern, Rebecca Miquel, James Gerard, Henri Payet, Franck de la Personne, Celine Caussimon, Jeanne Ferron. Directed by Daniel Cohen

Florida Film Festival 2014

Sacre Cordon Bleu!! If there is one thing the French love more than….well, love, it’s cuisine. Those Michelin stars are a really big deal in France.

Just ask Alexandre Lagarde (Reno). He has parlayed his three star status into a lucrative career with several restaurants, a television show and a frozen food line to his name. However, life isn’t rosy for him; he’s lost his fire and inspiration. His restaurants are owned by a corporate mogul whose snarky son Stanislas (Boisselier) would like nothing more than to see Alexandre, whom he considers old-fashioned and out-dated, retired to the Gulag of the French countryside and his golden boy Cyril Boss (Gerard), a devotee of molecular gastronomy, installed in the flagship restaurant Cargo Lagarde. Alexandre of course is livid about this; how humiliating it would be to be forced out of the restaurant that he built and bears his name.

The guidebook reviewers will soon be checking out Alexandre’s spring menu and both Stanislas and Cyril are confident that the more modern-thinking guidebook critics will strip Alexandre of at least one of his stars which would contractually allow Stanislas to fire Alexandre from his own restaurant. The great chef’s troubles are also extending to his home life; his daughter Amandine (Stevenin) is getting ready to deliver her thesis on Russian literature, a subject Alexandre cares about as much about as he cares about the spring menu at McDonald’s. Things are tense with Amandine who resents her father for caring more about his restaurant than he does about her.

Jacky Bonnot (Youn) doesn’t have any Michelin stars yet but he is sure he deserves at least a few. He’s got tremendous talent and a flair for vegetables; they whisper to him. Unfortunately, he’s insufferably mule-headed and arrogant, never a good combination in the kitchen, and is fired from job after job. This exasperates his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Agogue) who moves back in with her parents who encourage her to get back together with Jacky because he’s such a good chef. Realizing that she’s serious, he gets whatever job he can, in this case painting the exterior of an old folks home.

Through a fairly serendipitous set of circumstances, Jacky catches the eye of Alexandre who gives him an unpaid internship at Cargo Lagarde. Jacky’s talents get him the position Alexandre’s right hand in the kitchen and his prickly personality and stubborn refusal to compromise earn him the enmity of the other chefs. Jacky at last has his shot but is it on a sinking ship? And will Jacky torpedo his own chances at achieving his dreams?

It’s hard to find comedies like this these days as it seems that most Hollywood comedies rely on star comedians (i.e. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Melissa McCarthy), all-out raunch, going big on outrage or just throwing as many jokes at the screen as possible and seeing what sticks. Le Chef tells its story honestly and while the plot may not be anything extraordinary it is told well and manages to make us laugh along the way at fairly regular intervals.

Reno is intensely likable even when his character is being a bit of a jerk. Reno is one of the most versatile actors in the world, being equally comfortable in action films, dramas and comedies and adept in all three. His presence is welcome in any film whether it’s made in Hollywood or France and he’s one of those actors that will motivate me to go see whatever movie he’s in even if it is in a supporting role.

Youn is a well-known comedian in France and while I’m not personally familiar with his work, I’m told that his performance here is fairly typical for him. His Jacky has a fine dining soul in a fast food world and therein much of the comedy of the movie’s first third arises. Jacky is a prickly bastard but you still end up rooting for him despite his arrogance and stubbornness. Hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

The film utilizes some really clever moments nicely and while it occasionally descends into low comedy unnecessarily by the film’s end I was more than satisfied. Comedies are difficult to pull off properly and rarely make the kind of splash at festivals that dramas do but this was one of the better narrative features at this year’s festival and a welcome relief from the angst of the dramatic features.

REASONS TO GO: Reno is incredibly likable. Funny where it needs to be. Will give you a hankering for French food.

REASONS TO STAY: Descends into silliness occasionally.  

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Last I Heard

The Attack


Sometimes what you don't know CAN hurt you.

Sometimes what you don’t know CAN hurt you.

(2012) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Ali Suliman, Uri Gavriel, Reymond Amsalem, Karim Saleh, Evgenia Dodena, Dvir Benedek, Abdallah El Akal, Ezra Dagan, Nathalie Rozanes, Ofri Fuchs, Michael Warshaviak, Eli Gorenstein, Vladimir Friedman, Esther Zewko, Ruba Salameh, Ramzi Makdessi, Ihab Salameh, Hassan Yassine, Nisrine Seksek. Directed by Ziad Doueiri

The person that we should know best is our spouse. In an ideal relationship, there are no secrets (at least no serious ones) and we can safely say that we know the person we are married to better than anyone else does – perhaps better than we know ourselves.

Dr. Amin Jaafari is a surgeon of Palestinian descent who has made a place for himself in Israeli society. He and his beautiful wife Siham (Amsalem) live in a lovely home and are accepted by their Jewish neighbors and colleagues. When he becomes the first Palestinian to win a major award for medicine in Israel, he figures he’s made it, although he’s a bit miffed that Siham isn’t there to share in his moment of glory after she goes to Nazareth to visit her family.

The next day, a bomb explodes in a nearby restaurant. 17 people die and dozens are injured. Dr. Jaafari is busy trying to save the dying and help the wounded. He sees firsthand the results of terrorism and doesn’t like what he sees. He goes home and falls into an exhausted sleep but is awakened early in the morning by a call from his friend Raveed (Benedek), an Israeli police officer, summoning him to the hospital. He figures there are more casualties but that is not why he is there. He is brought down to the morgue and is shocked to discover that one of the bodies from the bombing is that of his wife Siham. Half of her body has been blown away. The good doctor faints dead away.

His nightmare is just beginning however. It turns out that the authorities suspect that Siham was a suicide bomber. At first Dr. Jaafari is incredulous. Siham a terrorist? No….HELL No! Nobody knows his wife like he does after all. Dr. Jaafari is certain that when the terrorists release their video as they inevitably do that she will be exonerated. However Captain Moshe (Gavriel) is certain and puts the doctor through an intense interrogation until at last they are satisfied that he knew nothing of the attack. However his neighbors and friends aren’t so sure and distance themselves from him or worse, vandalize his home. His colleague Kim (Dodena) and Raveed stick up for him but Dr. Jaafari is being backed into a corner. Finally when he is given tangible evidence of his wife’s guilt, he journeys to Nablus to find out how she could do such a thing – and who was responsible for turning her into a monster.

As you can tell from the synopsis this is a very intense subject matter. Suliman, an Israeli actor of Arabic descent, has appeared in a couple of high-profile Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Lies, Body of Lies and the upcoming Lone Survivor) and has also appeared in some very good local productions (primarily Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and Zaytoun). This is his best performance to date. It is wrenching to watch his anguish but also his rage. How could he have missed it? Why did she do this awful thing?

To answer those questions he has to go to Nablus and he finds himself in the awkward position of being the husband to a martyr whose death has been glorified. The more he talks to those who may or may not have had anything to do with her choice to do this monstrous thing, the more it becomes obvious that these people are intractable; reason doesn’t enter into it. Dr. Jaafari isn’t trusted and while his wife’s sacrifice keeps him from getting a bullet through his brain, neither does it give him any clout whatsoever when exploring the chain of events that led to her fateful decision.

In the end it was her visit to a site of an Israeli aerial attack that led her on that terrible path. While the movie does get a little slow getting to Nablus, once it’s there we realize that part of the problem in the Middle East is that they are in this awful spiral which neither side will put a halt to by simply saying “We will not retaliate. We won’t escalate. We will just stop.” It is a kind of insanity, one born out of hatred and fear. One idiot reviewer chastised the film for not providing answers. Seriously dude? Some questions have no answers. Sometimes the truth is unpleasant and horrible. One sees a movie like this and understands that the hope for peace in the Middle East is like picking out the right grain of sand on a beach. It requires patience and  perhaps more time than a single life can survive. There are no answers here and maybe Dr. Jaafari isn’t asking the right questions. Either way this is the kind of movie that will generate a great deal of dialogue on its own – a movie that works equally well in the heart and in the head. Talk about a precious grain of sand on the beach…

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Suliman. Raises some intriguing questions.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images are pretty disturbing, there’s some violence and a bit of sexuality and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only Arabic or Muslim country to show the film has been Morocco. Many cited the reason for that was that it was filmed in Israel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Day Night Day Night

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Heartbeats

The Lady (2011)


The Lady

Michelle Yeoh is living in the golden age.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Michelle Yeoh, David Thewlis, Jonathan Raggett, Jonathan Woodhouse, Susan Wooldridge, Benedict Wong, Flint Bangkok, William Hope, Victoria Sanvalli, Danny Toeng, Nay Myo Thant. Directed by Luc Besson

 

One of the most compelling political figures in the world today is largely unknown in the United States, yet she has won the Nobel Peace Prize and is iconic in Asia and Europe for her courageous stand against the repressive military junta which rules Burma (or Myanmar as they like to call it) with an iron fist. Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi and her story has been one waiting to be told.

Her father, Aung San had been a leader in the fight for Burmese independence from the English and had been moving to take the country into democracy when he was assassinated in 1947. He was and still is revered in Burma and his daughter Suu Kyi (Yeoh) lived in exile, in England where she had since married a bookish professor at Oxford, Michael Aris (Thewlis). They had two children together; Kim (Raggett) and Alexander (Woodhouse).

In 1988, Suu Kyi’s mother got seriously ill following a stroke so she journeyed back to Burma to be with her mom. At the time, the country was smack dab in the middle of the 8888 Uprising which was being brutally repressed by the government. Suu Kyi saw soldiers shooting unarmed students and doctors and was horrified by the carnage. In the meantime, students and professors at the local university, heavily involved in the uprising, saw Suu Kyi as a symbol of her father and for democracy and were eager to get her involved. Reluctantly at first, she began to take part in the protests.

Her one or two week trip would stretch out as the Uprising went on. Suu Kyi became the symbol the students hoped she would be and the people began to rally around her. Finally, when the government allowed the elections Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy demanded, they were shocked to discover that the NLD had won 392 seats in Parliament against only 5 for the reigning government, with Suu Kyi the new Prime Minister of Burma. That could not be allowed and the government voided the election.

The detestable Sein Lwin, the head of the military dictatorship, knew he couldn’t kill her outright; her father was a martyr and he was trouble enough. Killing Suu Kyi and making a martyr out of her as well might be too much for even his well-armed soldiers to control. He needed to break her spirit and make her a non-factor.

That job is charged to Win Thein (Thant), an ambitious and fiendishly clever Colonel. He placed the erstwhile Prime Minister under house arrest, confining her to the lovely lakeside home where she’d grown up, where she had last seen her father alive and where her mother eventually passed away. Most of her colleagues in the NLD were imprisoned or disappeared entirely.

She endured the loneliness of her imprisonment, surrounded by trigger-happy guards who’d like nothing better than to see her dead. Michael, knowing how precarious her safety was, initiated a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize for his wife, which she won in 1991. Unable to attend, her son Alexander gave a moving speech in her absence which she heard over a battery-operated radio despite attempts of her guards to prevent her from hearing it.

However, in 1998 her husband Michael discovered that he had terminal prostate cancer. Suu Kyi was now presented with a horrible choice; return to Oxford to be at her husband’s side and never be allowed to return to Burma (effectively negating the work and suffering they’d done for democracy in Burma over all those years) or remain under house arrest, knowing she would never see her husband again.

Suu Kyi is one of the most courageous people of our time and her story is one that has needed to be told. It has, in fact appeared onscreen in John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon as well as the recent documentary They Call It Myanmar. However, this might be the most ambitious film about her yet. French filmmaker Besson, mostly known for the action movies he’s produced (including The Fifth Element, Taken and the recent Lockout) goes out of his comfort zone here.

The result is spectacular. Using his long-time cinematographer Thierry Arbogast he captures some beautiful images of the countryside (some of which was filmed illicitly by Besson himself during a visit to Myanmar) as well as of the people. Many of the extras were Burmese and during segments in which Suu Kyi was giving speeches, filming had to be stopped because the extras were crying.

Much of that is due to the performance of Yeoh. This was a role she was born to play and she gives Oscar-caliber work here. It is in my opinion the best performance of her career and that’s saying something about an actress who is one of the finest ever produced in Asia. She captures Suu Kyi’s inner strength and grace, as well as her fierce resolve. It doesn’t hurt that Yeoh has a very strong resemblance to the real Suu Kyi.

Thewlis who has done some fine work of his own, is never better than he is here. His Michael Aris is an academic with a heart of gold; well-read and as committed to the cause of democracy in Burma as his wife is. His sacrifice is as almost as great as hers, although he at least had the succor of family around him. Thewlis gives him a bit of a stiff upper lip but never fails to keep the man’s inner warmth close to the surface.

This is a powerful movie and the testament to it was the expressions of the people who had seen it on the way out of the theater – these were the expressions of people who had been deeply moved and many faces were streaked by tears. While there were times I felt the focus was too much on Michael and the boys, the end result is that this movie is about a portrait in courage Kennedy would have approved.

For some reason, critics have been giving this film a shellacking, including some that I have respected over the years. One went so far as to call the film “fawning” and compared it unfavorably to They Call It Myanmar which I haven’t seen yet and I’m sure is a fine film on its own, but they are different fruit entirely. This is one in which I say don’t listen to the critics and go and experience it for yourself. It’s a powerful, moving cinematic experience that shouldn’t be missed.

REASONS TO GO: Yeoh gives a bravura performance, quite possibly the best of her stellar career. Authentic and powerful.

REASONS TO STAY: Could have focused less attention on Michael and more on Suu Kyi.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a few disturbingly bloody images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Besson constructed the set of Suu Kyi’s home to near-perfection, using photographs and satellite images for accuracy. He even set the home so that the sun rises through the same windows as they do in Suu Kyi’s actual home.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The movie inexplicably has received poor reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Burma VJ

BURMA LOVERS: While much of the movie was filmed in Thailand (particularly the scenes set in Rangoon), some of the footage was taken in Burma as well.  

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Lockout