Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

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Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli Davis Conspiracy


Michael Borelli meets the press.

Michael Borelli meets the press.

(2014) Documentary (Benaroya) Michael Borelli, Bob Davis, Robert Fullerton, Cindy Parmenter, Robin Levine, Liz Borelli, Kim Peterson, Melody Davis, Alan Dill, Frank Moya, Sam Raskin, Ron Kavanagh, Marge Gindro, Terry D’Prero, Larry Addeo, Chuck Brega, Rhoda Goldstein, Anna Venditti, Stanley Perlmutter. Directed by Sheldon Wilson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but then again, truth can sometimes resemble fiction. Take the cases of Michael Borelli and Bob Davis, for example. It feels like a movie about corrupt cops, the unjustly accused and a heinous murder but every word of it is true.

Borelli was a retired New York City police officer who wanted to utilize his skills as a baker. He moved west to Denver in the mid-70s to order to open up a New York City-style bakery which he felt would be a great success. He was persuaded instead to open up a restaurant; one of his partners was Hal Levine, a furniture store owner.

Levine was a gambler, and not just in a business sense. He had an addiction that he kept hidden from his partners and used the funds from Borelli’s successful restaurant to pay down his own debt which had become out of control. A life insurance policy was taken out on him with the partnership the beneficiary. Five months later, Levine was dead, gruesomely murdered with his wife also nearly killed during the assault.

The Denver police at the time had an organized crime unit which was on the verge of being broken up because, let’s face it, there wasn’t any organized crime in Denver. Sgt. Cantwell, one of the members of the unit, knew that if the unit went away so would his fairly cushy job that had little accountability. So he looked for Godfathers where there weren’t any. And he decided that the Levine murder fit all the earmarks of the crime.

He saw Borelli as guilty by reason of being Italian; the quick-tempered ex-cop was certain to be a foot soldier in one of the big crime families. He was Italian, wasn’t he? So Cantwell looked into the crime. Now with a suspect, he had to get through the inconvenient fact that Borelli had an alibi – he was in New York when the murder happened. No problem. He just through in Bob Davis, a former colleague of Borelli’s and a close friend. Even though Davis had only been to Denver once and there was no proof that he was there at all. Except…

…for the testimony of one Terry Lee D’Prero, who claimed to have been in the house (for which there was evidence) but wasn’t there to kill anybody but to put the fear of God into Levine. It was Davis who pulled the trigger. On D’Prero’s testimony alone were both Borelli and Davis convicted since the evidence against them was sketchy at best.

Too sketchy, in fact, as defense attorney Alan Dill started looking into the case deeper. He discovered that D’Prero’s testimony was full of holes, but because D’Prero had allegedly testified against high-ranking Mafiosi, he had been put into witness protection and had disappeared from view.

In prison, Borelli was actually treated as if he were Mafiosi and he didn’t dissuade the general prison population of the notion. He knew that if they learned that he wasn’t, he’d just be an ex-cop and that might very well be a death sentence for him so he played the part. Even prison officials bought into it.

At least Borelli had that to fall back on. Davis suffered brutally and throughout the affair was treated far worse than Borelli was. Amazingly, both men remained close friends – and are so to this day. Such a thing even had the somewhat creepy judge who presided at their trials shaking his head.

This is one of the more compelling stories you’ll find in a documentary this year. It has everything – corrupt police officers, a brutal murder, a judge possibly more interested in notoriety than justice, two former cops and best friends – everything but a book by Mario Puzo to base it on. The story is what keeps you going and there are quite a few twists and turns. Some of the things are astonishing; I won’t ruin them by stating them here, only that you’ll end up wondering why they don’t make ’em like Michael Borelli and Bob Davis anymore.

Initially, the filmmakers used an old radio interview with Borelli as narration which I thought was a nifty move. I wish they had kept it up throughout, just for continuity’s sake. Otherwise this is pretty standard stuff – talking head interviews, archival footage and photographs from the time. There also really isn’t any testimony from the opposing side; although the judge who decided the case was interviewed, none of the police were for obvious reasons.

They also have crime scene photos of Levine and his wife and be warned, they are graphic and disturbing. Those who decide to venture to see this should be aware that those images are in there; some may be upset by them. Personally, I question the need to have them in the film; we understand from the interviews that the murders were brutal. We didn’t need to see the visual evidence to confirm it.

So ultimately this is a terrific tale told in a somewhat pedestrian manner. Wilson should be commended, however, for perseverance in ferreting out the truth over the course of years investigating the case. I found the story so intriguing that it overcame the documentary 101 style that it is told in. Others may not be so charitable. In any case, it’s a story that deserves the telling and reminds us that justice ideally is blind but in reality, the justice system rarely is.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story. Borelli is an interesting interview. Ties things up nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessary use of crime scene photos. A bit too rote in terms of how the story is told.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic crime scene photos. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Sheldon Wilson once served as an instructor for film direction at the University of Southern California’s graduate film program.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Aspie Seeking Love

Nanny McPhee Returns (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang)


Nanny McPhee Returns

Quoth the raven, nevermore.

(Universal) Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Daniel Mays, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Ewan McGregor, Sam Kelly.  Directed by Susanna White

It’s been five years since movie audiences in the States met Nanny McPhee, the wonderfully magical nanny from the Nurse Matilda series of books by Christianna Brand. Has she been missed?

We’ll get to that question in a moment. First, to the plot; fans of the first film will certainly recognize some of the particulars. While the first film was set in the Victorian era, this is set during World War II as the Green household is struggling. Isabella Green (Gyllenhaal) is trying to keep her head above water while her husband Rory (McGregor, mostly seen in family photographs and a touching flashback scene when Isabella washes her wedding veil) is off at war. The bucolic family farm is in big trouble; Isabella doesn’t have the money to make the next tractor payment. Without that tractor, they won’t be able to harvest the barley and if the barley isn’t harvested, they’ll lose the farm.

Young Norman (Butterfield), the man of the house while his dad’s away, has come up with the solution of selling the piglets to Farmer McGregor (Bailey) who’s willing to pay them enough money to make the tractor payment. His sister Megsie (Woods) and brother Vincent (Steer) are none to pleased about it, although they are more or less resigned to losing the piglets in order to keep the farm. However, with their dad gone (and no word from him in over three months) and their mom working in the shop of chronically confused and forgetful Mrs. Docherty (Smith), the three are acting out and constantly bickering like, well, cats and dogs.

To add to the misery, their snooty cousins from London, Cyril (Vlahos) and Celia (Taylor-Ritson) are coming to stay with them to escape the bombs of the Blitz. Now everybody is fighting, and snarky Uncle Phil (Ifans) is plotting to get Isabella to sell her half of the farm so he can sell his half to pay off the gambling debts he’s run up, otherwise two hitwomen – Miss Topsey (Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Brand) will take his kidneys instead. Hey, there’s a war on – all the good hitmen are in the Army!

To bring peace to her household, in pops Nanny McPhee (Thompson, reprising her role – as well as her position as writer and producer – from the original) with a flatulent blackbird on her shoulder. As before, when she is needed but not wanted she must stay; when she is wanted but no longer needed she must leave. Also as before, she is decidedly not attractive with several nasty warts, a snaggle tooth and broomstraw hair. Most importantly, as before, she has the crooked walking stick which when banged once on the ground produces magical results.

It’s these magics that made the first Nanny McPhee so visually delightful but as in the first, while necessary to the plot, it is the heart of the movie that makes it compelling. In the first movie, that heart made one of the more wonderful children’s movies of recent years; here the heart is not as evident.

The performances are satisfactory enough, particularly among the child actors. In particular, Vlahos, Butterfield and Taylor-Ritson might easily have been cast as the leads in the Harry Potter series had they just started filming it this year.

There are some moments that do tug at the heartstrings. One of the best is a scene between Cyril, Norman and Cyril’s dad (Fiennes), a high muckety-muck at the War Office. The gulf between Cyril and his father is evident and it is just as plain that neither one of them knows how to bridge it, although they both desperately want to. It’s superbly done, and ranks with moments from recent Pixar movies like Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3 as some of the best kidflick scenes in the past few years.

Gyllenhaal also does well as Isabella. She maintains a pretty decent British accent, and manages to walk the fine line between melancholy and manic cheerfulness without seeming fake in either; it takes skill to make them both work so organically but then again Gyllenhaal has plenty of skill. Thompson is surprisingly muted in her role as Nanny McPhee; she was certainly much more of a presence in the first movie but seems content to remain in the background for most of the movie other than to bang her cane occasionally.

When the cane is banged, some imaginative things happen, mostly involving animals like synchronized swimming pigs (who also fly, which puts rout to that particular cliché) and a kleptomaniac elephant but also saluting statuary.

Where the movie falls short is in the humor, which mostly revolves around pratfalls, poo and farting. I realize that kids don’t have the most sophisticated humor on earth, but I think that the filmmakers underestimate the sophistication of modern kid audiences; it was, in other words, dumbed down a little too much. Kids are far smarter than we tend to give them credit for; the odd thing is that the kids in the movie are pretty savvy and mature. Why wouldn’t the kids watching the movie also be?

I wasn’t as taken by the sequel as I was the original, but there is enough charm here to motivate me to give it a tenuous recommendation. It was released in the UK in March and did solid box office business there as well as in Europe; enough so there is rumblings that a third Nanny McPhee movie may be in the works down the road. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how excited I am about seeing it after this one. Hopefully Thompson will be able to recapture the magic of the first and combine it with the kind of casting that was done for the second; now that would be movie magic indeed.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the review, she was obviously missed in Europe where the movie has done well, but not so much in America where it has not; to be fair, the original Nanny McPhee didn’t do so much business in the States either. Still, I found that I liked the character very much – the love child of Dumbledore and Mary Poppins – and was looking forward to seeing the sequel. While I was disappointed, I am still hopeful that should a third movie be made, it will be better. Does that qualify me for a Leap of Faith medal?

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal and Thompson are two of my favorite actresses and I can’t quite say no to a movie both of them would be in. There are some well-done scenes in the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The humor is dumbed down unnecessarily to a barrage of pratfalls and poo jokes.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of poo humor to keep the kids in lowbrow laughs; however, there are some themes that have to do with wartime and death that might make it a tough viewing for smaller or sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the Courage medal that Nanny McPhee wears, there is clearly an engraving of a lion, a nod to The Wizard of Oz’ Cowardly Lion. Also, as Nanny McPhee and the boys approach London, there are several anti-aircraft balloons seen floating in the air; the one above Battersea Power Station is in the shape of a pig, a nod to the 1977 Pink Floyd album cover for Animals, which depicted the same scene.

HOME OR THEATER: Unless your kids are clamoring to see it, you can get away with waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray to come out.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Fan