Director Spike Jonze crafts a stop-motion Parisian love story, Mourir Aupres de Toi, with handbag designer Olympia LeTan. (Fret not: It’s ever-so-slightly less twee than Where the Wild Things Are.)
Much like Manhattan, this film begins with a love letter, in the form of a languid montage, to its setting. While (naturally) a jazz ditty plays, we spend the first five minutes or so of the film ambling through the streets, parks, and cafes of the City of Lights, soaking up the Parisian ambience. (This is one of the many reasons I could see Midnight In Paris making a great double bill with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, which opened similarly.) As it happens, wandering aimlessly around this city is a favorite hobby of our protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter looking to find inspiration for his first novel in the old corners of gay Paree. Unfortunately, his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) doesn’t share this proclivity: She prefers cabs, shopping, and expensive jewelry. (If that doesn’t tell you what to expect from her character, her tea party parents — Kurt Fuller and In the Loop‘s Mimi Kennedy — should close the deal.)
And so it is that one night, while Inez is out dancing with a know-it-all acquaintance (Michael Sheen), Gil happens to hitch a ride in a vintage automobile and finds himself at what appears to be a costume party. The thing is, the guy on the piano (Yyves Heck) looks exactly like Cole Porter, the couple he falls in with — the Fitzgeralds of New York — just happen to be called Scott (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and Zelda (Allison Pill), and the gruff guy at the coffee shop (Corey Stoll) they take him to is the spitting image, in word and deed, of Ernest Hemingway. Apparently in Paris, the past isn’t even past… or at least once it’s past midnight.
So, yes, somehow the Lost Generation has been found, and soon enough Gil is relishing the movable feast: He’s getting book tips from Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), talking rhinos with Dali (Adrien Brody), running movie ideas by Bunuel (Adrien de Van), and falling in love with one of Picasso’s muses, the lovely Adrianna (Marion Cotillard). All the while, Gil begins to ignore his “real” life in the 21st century as too humdrum and mundane. After all, how you gonna keep Gil on the screenwriting farm after he’s seen Gay Paree? But, if the 21st century isn’t good enough for Gil, why should those madcap 1920′s be good enough for Adrianna? Nostalgia infects us no matter what our time, and so we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past…
As Allen’s fans have already figured out by the second reel, Woody is repeating himself here somewhat. (After a career as long and prolific as his, it’s to be expected!) Replace nostalgia with love of the cinema, and Gil’s time-traveling to the era he idolizes isn’t too far afield from Mia Farrow’s romance with matinee idol Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. (For that matter, everything involving Michael Sheen’s pompous academic is set-up for another variation of the Marshall McLuhan joke from Annie Hall.) And Allen has always been one for high-culture namedropping in his writing and films. It’s just that this time, the likes of T.S. Eliot, Man Ray, Josephine Baker, and Alice B. Toklas are actual cameos rather than just allusions.
So, yes, Allen may have trod this ground before, but Midnight in Paris nonetheless works, for several reasons. For one, Owen Wilson — an actor I’ve never really felt one way or the other about — is one of the best Allen analogues to come down the pike in awhile. He manages to capture Woody’s usual collection of neuroses while coming across as more charming and self-effacing then Allen really can anymore. For another, the movie doesn’t aspire to deep philosophical truths about relationships and/or the meaning of life (like, say, the existentialism pervading Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors). It has some insightful things to say about the nature of nostalgia, and otherwise just aims to show us a good time. As they say in the closest thing we’ve got to Paris stateside, NYC notwithstanding, laissez les bons temps rouler.
Ninety-one years after the terms were first agreed to, Germany makes its last WWI reparations payment this weekend. “Hatred of the settlement agreed at Versailles, France, which crippled Germany as it tried to shape itself into a democracy following defeat in the war, was of significant importance in propelling the Nazis to power.”
For even as our main character Malik (Tahar Rahim) wiles away years in “the corner of his room” in a French prison, he’s always watching, his mind’s always whirring. A Prophet is possessed of that same quiet, impressive, and inexorable intelligence. Audiard’s movie feels a bit on the long side, and, as you might expect from any movie about life in the Big House (even a French Maison Grande where everyone has separate cells and au bon pain is served on the regular) it can be hard to sit through at times. But it’s also a film that keeps making clever choices, lingering on a small detail or adding that little extra flourish that really makes various scenes resonate.
As A Prophet begins, our young prisoner is being processed for a six-year-stint in the joint for crimes unknown, although it sounds like roughing up a cop was involved. With no family or friends to speak of and a lousy public defender (Rabah Loucif) who just wants the paperwork cleared so he can get paid, Malik enters jail with nothing to his name except a desiccated cigarette and one 50-franc note. How could things get worse? Well, for starters, Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup) — the head of the Corsican gang who are the reigning ethnic power in Malik’s prison — may decide he wants an Arab prisoner (Hichem Yacoubi) murdered, and that Malik is just the fresh meat who can get into the Muslim block and get the job done. Hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere.
After wrestling with this dirty deed and its consequences, and picking up an unorthodox roommate, Malik goes from working in the prison’s blue jean factory to being the Corsicans’ new cook, maid, and whipping boy. He starts to make more friends, like Ryad (Adel Bencherif), the testicular cancer survivor who teaches him to read, and Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), the guy to go to for the quality hash. He starts to understand the prison’s racial fissures, like the great divide between the Corsicans (who treat like him an Arab, and who happen to have the guards in their pocket) and the Muslims (who treat him like a Corsican, and whose numbers are growing.) And, particularly after he establishes some friends on the outside, he starts seeing some angles to make some real money…if his Corsican masters will let him and live.
As critics go, I’m not usually a fan of the NYT’s Manohla Dargis, but her blurb in this trailer — “precisely observed” — is a very good way of putting this movie’s main strength. Time and again, A Prophet colors in its margins with small, wordless, and often devastating details. We watch Malik slice up his mouth over and over again as he tries to learn how to squirrel a razor blade in his cheek. After a day-long furlough that brings him to the beach, we see him slowly run the sand from his shoe through his fingers. When Malik one day gets on a flight, he initiates his full-cavity-search rigamarole in the security line, expecting no different from the French TSA than what he gets in prison every night.
Like I said, there are some scenes in A Prophet that can be hard to watch, and a few of the usual arthouse types at my Saturday afternoon viewing walked out. This is prison after all, and no Green Mile Oscar-bait prison either. Still, while I don’t think I’d want to see it again anytime soon, the movie definitely has moments of real grace, beauty, and haunting power. (Along with the aforementioned penchant for great novelistic details, I especially liked some of the deliriously creepy “dream” sequences in Malik’s prison cell, and particularly as they become normalized to him over the years.)
Did I like A Prophet better than Terribly Happy? Hmm, hard to say — they’re very different kinds of films, this one as sprawling and Scorsesean as Happy was lean and Coen-y. But, of the Best Foreign Film nominees in 2010, this was a much more worthwhile flick than The White Ribbon, and if The Secret in Their Eyes is better, it must be really something.
“The heavy clay-laced mud behind the cattle pen on Antoine Renault’s farm looks as treacherous as it must have been nearly 600 years ago, when King Henry V rode from a spot near here to lead a sodden and exhausted English Army against a French force that was said to outnumber his by as much as five to one.“
Five to one? One in five? Nobody here gets out alive? Well, perhaps not. Further research into the Battle of Agincourt suggests the fight was fairer than Shakespeare would have us believe. “The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study.“
“[W]ith Reagan, the prophecy appreciation part of his brain functioned quite independently of the part that started wars (there’s nothing in the Old Testament about Nicaragua or even Grenada). Bush seems to have taken the threat of Gog and Magog to Israel quite literally, and, if this story can be believed, to have launched a war to stop them.“
One rather frightening story from a few days ago: As if the recent “Onward Christian Soldiers” war reports in GQ weren’t Crusadery enough, it appears that Dubya explictly invoked the End of Days to convince Jacques Chirac to get involved in the Iraq War, making his appeal Christian-to-Christian about the unholy dangers of Gog & Magog. Uh, really? (Apparently, Chirac has confirmed it.)
“It’s really a generation that we’ve been looking forward to this moment, and the moments that will come after it in particular. September 10 is a demarcation between finishing the construction and starting to turn it on, but the excitement will only continue to grow.” A Quantum Leap Forward, or the End of Days? (Answer: The former.) Over on the border of France and Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider — the giant, multi-billion-dollar particle accelerator decades in the making — gets ready for its first big test on Wednesday (as does its accompanying “Grid”.) “The collider will recreate the conditions of less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang, when there was a hot ‘soup’ of tiny particles called quarks and gluons, to look at how the universe evolved, said John Harris, U.S. coordinator for ALICE, a detector specialized to analyze that question.“
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins in a blur. Blue-gray blobs fade in and out of vision, ultimately rectifying into institutional decor and men in white coats. We’re in a hospital room, but we, and our narrator Jean-Do Bauby (Mathieu Almaric, of Munich) don’t know why or how we got there. Worse, while we hear our narrator perfectly fine, nobody else can. It seems Bauby can no longer speak. Nor can he do anything else for that matter, except look around the room in abject horror and blink. Eventually, one of the doctors explains that Bauby has had a stroke, is emerging from a coma after several weeks, and now suffers from a rare medical condition known as “locked-in syndrome,” for which there may not be any cure. If this sounds like a fate worse than death, well, it seems so to Bauby at first too. But, when trapped in yourself, body your holding cell, it definitely helps to have a bevy of French beauties around to look after you, including the estranged mother of Bauby’s children (Emanuelle Seigner) and two therapists at the hospital (One, Olatz Lopez Garmendia, is Schnabel’s real-life wife. The other, Marie Josee-Croze (also of Munich), is the spitting image of Naomi Watts and, needless to say, also very easy on the one working eye.)
With the latter’s help, Bauby eventually grows used to a lengthy but workable system of communication whereby he blinks when the letter he wants to employ is named from a list (from most-used to least-used), thus piecing together words, sentences, and paragraphs after long hours of toil. As he becomes accustomed to his condition and this new system, Bauby, formerly an editor at Elle magazine, dwells on his recent past — say, shaving his elderly father (Max Von Sydow) the week before the incident, or taking a trip to Lourdes with his most recent love (Marina Hands), who is now afraid to visit him. In addition, he starts taking imaginative flights of fancy from his bodily prison (Enter Emma de Caunes of The Science of Sleep), and ultimately decides he’s going to write a book about the entire experience, blink by painstaking blink (thus bringing another beautiful woman into the equation, his new assistant (Anne Consigny). I mean, I know being a completely paralyzed invalid in any hospital is a horrible, horrible experience…but really, aren’t there any unattractive orderlies or assistants in France?)
If you’ve taken an art or film theory class in the past thirty years, somewhere amid viewings of Metropolis, 8 1/2, and/or Blade Runner you more than likely came across the concept of the “male gaze.” Diving Bell‘s clever conceit is to make that concept literal: For much of the film, the camera is Bauby’s POV. We are trapped in Jean-Do’s body for at least the first thirty minutes of the movie and experience everything from his perspective, from the grisly horror of having one’s eye sewn shut to the tantalizing triangle of exposed neck revealed by his lovely therapists. (At one point, around twenty minutes in, I turned to look at the audience, and everybody in the theater (also) had their head cocked uncomfortably to the left.) It is testament to Schnabel’s skill here that this effect, while assuredly feeling claustrophobic, never becomes oppressive to the point of being unwatchable. (There are some great, humorous touches to leaven things, such as when Jean-Do’s new winter cap ends up obscuring some of his/our view.) And, when the camera later forsakes the diving bell world of flesh and frailty for the butterfly realm of memory and imagination, we feel the same exhilarating sense of liberation Bauby describes in voiceover. By finally soaring out of the confines of Bauby’s body and roaming the world with abandon, Diving Bell offers a visceral reminder of the power of film, and of imagination.
There are moments I might quibble with in Diving Bell — The recap of his accident comes rather late in the movie, and feels slightly unnecessary there (I assume this is where it might have fallen in the book — I haven’t read it, although I more than likely will now.) And the film is undeniably slow at times. (But that’s by design, of course. Given the sheer amount of effort Bauby must expend to compose a single word, a faster-moving film would have been untrue and unfair to the proceedings.) Nevertheless, particularly for a film about something as nightmarish as locked-in syndrome, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is truly transporting. It reminds us that there’s a certain miraculous magic to the power of sight, and that experiencing even the daily mundanities of the world is something we shouldn’t ever take for granted.
Cache begins with a long, steady image of a Parisian street, held throughout the very slowly typed-out credits and beyond. Well after the normal amount of time our movie-conditioned eye allots for a basic establishing shot (by now, Tony Scott would have had an embolism), the image is suddenly paused, and then rewound. As it turns out, we’ve been viewing a tape, one featuring –and sent to — the home of the Laurents, along with a scrawled picture of a child vomiting blood. (Yes, it starts like Lost Highway, but they’re very different movies.) Georges (Daniel Auteuil), the host of his own popular Charlie Rose-ish television show, is nonplussed by this bizarre tape, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a successful book agent, is driven to distraction, particularly as more cassettes (with more information) arrive, and it becomes increasingly clear that Georges has some sense of why this is happening. Soon, for the sake of his wife and 12-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), Georges is forced to follow the path prescribed by these strange missives, and to confront a dark moment in his past that he, his parents, and arguably his nation have purposefully forgotten.
What that dark moment is is for you to discover, although it’s one that (as political analogy — it doesn’t work quite as well in terms of straight narrative) hearkens to the French-Algerian conflict and, more broadly, the war on terror and the hidden costs and benefits of colonialism. Georges rages and fumes throughout the movie, insisting over and over that he and his family are being terrorized. But by whom, and for what? Is Georges really blameless, and, that question aside, are his responses appropriate? Some very brief flashes of didacticism aside (for example, the scene involving CNN), Cache generally posits troubling questions about national memory, the dividends of empire, and the state of the world today without telling us how to feel about them.
Another layer of unease in the film involves the aforementioned camerawork. Cache returns to that exterior view of the Laurents’ home several times, and we never know if we’re watching “just” an establishing shot or indulging in the stalker’s-eye-view. (The likely answer, a la Rear Window, is that we’re doing both.) This goes for almost every scene in the film, and the cumulative experience of “stalking” the Laurents for two hours adds to the apprehension and foreboding of Cache. We begin to feel complicit in this crime of surveillance, just as, in time, we come to feel complicit in the Laurents’ sins. (Sure, the question of “the gaze” is a hoary staple of any Film 101 class — still, Haneke manages here to move past arthouse histrionics and create something that feels genuinely creepy.)
Finally, as I said above, Cache is disarmingly open-ended, particularly by the “explain-everything-several-times” standard we’re used to. Yes, one character’s arc is made clear, I think, by his/her womb-like retreat from the world, and that maddening last shot, if you caught the action (screenshot spoilers here), does suggest a possible answer to the cassette issue. But, ultimately, the bullet-points of the thriller story aren’t all that important. The plot mechanics of Cache may remain hidden, but the unsettling impressions of guilt and complicity it leaves linger in plain sight.
As our GOP Congress looks to shoot the messenger over secret prisons, England’s House of Commons rejects an anti-terror bill pushed by Prime Minister Blair — his “first defeat” after 8 years in office — which would allow terrorist suspects to be held for 90 days without charge. Meanwhile, France approaches the two-week mark of youth rioting, despite curfews, increased jail time, threats of deportation, and the shutdown of instigating blogs, and the rest of Europe looks on with trepidation…
Nonsensical, self-indulgent, and occasionally even a tad smarmy, Steven Soderbergh’s much-hyped Ocean’s Twelve is also, I’m happy to report, just plain fun. While Eleven was an intricately designed (and quickly forgettable) clockwork caper flick, this sequel turns out to be a rather silly, rambling affair that reeks of inside-baseball, and I mean that in the best way possible. In fact, I’d say Twelve turned out to be what Soderbergh tried and failed to do with Full Frontal…As much a riff on stars and stardom as the heist movie we were all expecting, it’s probably the most sheerly pleasurable film experience you’re going to find this side of The Incredibles.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems here. The film starts slow, reintroducing every character from the first movie as if they were the reuniting Beatles. The plot…well, the plot doesn’t make much sense at all — this isn’t the type of heist movie where you can put the jigsaw pieces together yourself. A lot of the scenes are probably a beat or two too long, and the movie’s got more endings than Return of the King. But, y’know, in the final analysis, none of that really matters. Right about the time Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) goes to check in on imploding (i.e. “going all Frankie Muniz”) TV star Topher Grace (“I just phoned in that Dennis Quaid movie!”), Ocean’s 12 starts to show its true colors: Forget the crime and just have a good time.
And have a good time I did, although admittedly all the Hollywood in-jokes and cameos on display here are my cuppa joe. Sure, the movie could probably have used more Clooney and more Bernie Mac, but there’s a lot of characters to keep in play here, and, besides, it got the cowbell just right. I won’t say Ocean’s Twelve is a great film, but it is a well-made, entertaining film, and it kept a smile on my face for most of its running time. So, if there’s an Ocean’s Thirteen in the works, deal me in.
“People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of the concerted United Nations’ plan for the liberation of Europe, made in conjunction with our great Russian allies …I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us.” – Dwight Eisenhower
Exhibiting yet again the Dubya administration’s flair for hypocrisy, recent documents reveal that Dubya’s top three fundraisers in 2000 were made Ambassadors of Switzerland, the Slovak Republic, and France respectively. Well, as long as they didn’t take tea in the Lincoln bedroom, I’m sure everything checks out.
Utilizing a technique he learned in his fratboy hazing days, Dubya decides to freeze France out for her opposition to the war in Iraq. Along the same lines, Bushies are now trying to deride Kerry by saying he looks French. (Why not tell the American people he’s got cooties, while you’re at it?) Yes, folks, these people run the country.
The party of sacrifice? Get your priorities straight. As Ari Fleischer warns America to expect American casualties in the coming conflict, the Republican Congress promises the Iraq war will have no bearing on tax cuts. As CCR put it, Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Well, they help themselves, yeah. Then as now, the poor may lose their sons and daughters, but the rich will get their rebates.
Regarding another recent facet of GOP hysteria, I know it’s fun to pick on the French, what with the Maginot Line and the Rainbow Warrior and all that. But next time you hear some idiot like Tom DeLay say the French are good-for-nothing, remember Lafayette. The fact of the matter is, we would never have gained our freedom (or our freedom fries) without the aid of the French during our Revolution. Something to consider before our former Gallic friends are written out of the history books in a fit of revisionist patriotism.
What the World Thinks of America, from Gary Kamiya of Salon (premium). A fascinating read.
Senegal upsets France in the opening morning of the World Cup and New Jersey defeated Boston in the NBA…Nevertheless, for all the early underdog wins, the Lakers victory kinda took the edge off the evening (and the Avalanche…what happened to them?) Ah, well – Sacramento still has the floor in Game 7. All I know is getting up at 7am for the Cup opener was rough. And tomorrow’s game is at 5…