“The Connection”

This is the French “French Connection” with subtitles, two intensely handsome foils, Cote Azur scenery and a focus on the human aspects of the circa 1970 international drug wars.The fast cars,trendy motorcycles,guns,and discos are all here,but so are the family scenes and drudge work involved in fighting for justice and in keeping one’s henchmen in line.

Director Cedric Jimenez co-wrote “The Connection” screenplay with Audrey Diwan. A woman’s touch is evident in drawing out the humanity in each of the prime adversaries. Based on real characters and a handful of real events,we are made to care what happens to both judge and gangster. Both are family men, devoted to their wives and both are seen reading and playing with their children. Magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and Gatean Zampa (Gilles Lellouch) will fight it out,the overly zealous enforcer and the untouchable drug king pin. Their staged meeting is thrilling. Two super egos and two opposing world views respecting each other in a way. The women (Marie,Christianne and Dora)are forces that motivate,persuade and add meaning to their men’s lives.

We meet the magistrate before we meet the Marseille Mob. Pierre Michel is counseling and coaxing a teen,Lily, to look hard at her needle tracks and to please name her pusher. He gently tells her mother to be “tough,but strong”. We see the celebration as this self-possessed, side-burned junior judge is promoted to The Organized Crime Division.

The veteran drug squad boss enlightens us with the image of an octopus,its tentacles every place: bars, casinos, slots. “They don’t stop at Bingo”! We learn when Lily returns to give the magistrate the name of her pusher that Pierre was once a gambler,who pulled himself out. Lily later dies,and the grief on Pierre’s face is Oscar-worthy. It is in this sequence that my favorite frames of a hyped and newly charged Pierre are shown. The video speed is ramped up as Dujardin walks to his car and the speed of the car is super paced next. His beginner zeal is racing in case we had any doubts what a “mad dog” he will become.

Zampa is celebrating next. He is hosting his private anniversary party, and he wants to know who a woman is that he does not recognize. He is a man aware that many are after him and that he must keep in control if he is going to maintain his untouchable status.The tailing,watching and logistics of his enterprise are shown. Labs,deliveries and associates are displayed to drum beats. We see Zampa,or Tandy as he is called,starting to wear bullet- proof vests and to drive armored cars. The war is on, and the film’s tension builds. Proud that his drugs are pure,Zampa has has met men like his adversary before. He smiles ,in one harrowing chase scene, Zampa sends Michel bottled water And a frayed glass with the message that this zealot will need it. Michel counters by taking bribe money and giving it to the drug rehab center. It is like chess is being played and your opponent is respected for his vigor.

One of the key scenes is script-orchestrated. It never really occurred. Michel has been surveiling and arresting a score of Zampa’s men. Zampa wants Michel wasted. Zampa and his sidekick tail Michel’s car. Michel stops his vehicle, gets out and walks back to Zampa with cowboy nerve. Zampa looks at him and says,”No woman ever did as much”. Michel banters back, ” I’m not into thugs”. The dialogue is good, and the massacres are score settling. “High Noon” tension is accomplished.

The cynical tenor of this film does not come from the bribes offered,but from those taken.So many higher-ups profit from the status-quo. They are never outted. Michel is taken from the case and must wait for a regime change before he can ask to be returned to it. When Michel asks the mayor of twenty-five years why he allows a rotten aide to stay,he replies,”I have a life,Pierre.”

The laudable tenor of this film is that Michel will not give up. Marital problems ensue.Marie is tired of being afraid all the time.Michel feels she is selfish. He is fighting for the Lilys of the world. She feels he is king-pin obsessed. She leaves;he cries and begs;she returns. Much happens. There are many set-ups. Michel leaves for the U.S. to help the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) take testimony from a French drug runner. The Corsican Mob retailiates as Marie puts well-dressed haricots verts on the family table. This version of the war on drugs is worth seeing,though this film is not for dreamers. Here believing that nothing is impossible has its costs.

“In The Name of My Daughter”

Like a Greek tragedy where the story is half told by the Greek chorus,the French film “In The Name Of My Daughter” tells a tale of greed and obsessive love without showing key plot elements. I found this fable-like, with the catharsis centered on child and parental relationships. The protective and powerful parent and the yearning-for-freedom-child, in this case a twenty-nine year old divorcee, plays out well. In France, mother/daughter relationships are close.The age old mantras of “I’m not a little girl, anymore” and “My job is to protect you” are here. The sub-theme of the film could be “children can be one’s undoing” ,for ironically,the son of the accused killer finds his loyalty on the side of the righteous,while the wealthy mother loses everything in her daughter’s betrayal.

All of my sympathy went to Renee de Roux,the mother played by Catherine Devenue. Perhaps, this is because the screenplay was based on her memoirs,”Une Femme Face A La Mafia”. Perhaps, because my own daughter was rebellious and is still willful. In any case,Catherine Devenue, the the face of Chanel perfume in the ’70’s, goes through hell. She is not immediately sympathetic. Renee Le Roux is a powerful workaholic~controlling and consumed with keeping her casino palace out of the hands of the Italian Mafia. “The Palais de la Mediterranee” has kept her from giving her daughter the attention she wants. Yet,Devenue’s face radiates love and joyful amusement at her daughter’s independent strivings.

Under the direction of Andre Techine, we see Devenue lose five million francs in one night to crooks. We see her lawyer and personal advisor succumb to her daughter’s flirtations and worse. We see her daughter’s attempted suicide and her refusal to see her mother.

Renee’s own refusal to release her daughter Agnes’s three-million-dollar inheritance seems reasonable given the circumstances. She asks Agnes to wait two years,and offers to financially front a desired bookstore and artisan-textile shop. Agnes wants to “be free”and rejects all to foolishly allow her love-interest and her mother’s former advisor to co-sign a joint account.

Devenue is splendid as she uses cigarette- holder,trench-coat and those eyes and that voice to portray a woman betrayed but still able to sing “Stand By Me”. She understands her daughter,and spends thirty years trying to bring closure to her dissapearance. This mother-love may be the obsessive love to match her daughter’s. When Renee’s driver,Mario, speaks badly about her daughter,she is so pained that she must lie down. She explains that her daughter betrayed her only because she was manipulated. We know she is right.

There is a sophistication in expecting the viewers to know something about the so-called “baize-wars” of the 1970’s. The film’s narrative is not particularly logical. Life relationships are like this; everyone has their reasons. Some reasons are more self-serving than others.

All of my loathing goes to Maurice Agnelet,superbly acted by Guillaume Canet. As the lawyer and family advisor he is the most narcissistic, revengeful and scheming, greedy charmer to appear on screen in quite some time. Even Sergeant Troy in Thomas Hardy’s “Far From The Madding Crowd” could blame his villainy on character flaws.

Maurice’s humiliation of the La Roux family is sick. When he tells Agnes,”You will find a new pal,I’m sure”. Goodbye.”, the audience wanted to jump on the screen. Maurice tells Agnes that he is with his mistress until midnight,but he asks if he can “visit her” afterward. His famous cad words are “Don’t love me too much. I panic.” Maurice is not concerned with the fallout from the liquidation of the Palais casino either. Three hundred and fifty families will lose their livelihood, but he cares not. When Maurice yells at Renee with, “You piss me off. Devotion has its limits!” I screamed,”Right back at you” to the screen.

In extended flashbacks,Agnes, played beautifully by Adele Haenel,reminds me of Isabelle Adjani in her portrayal of Victor Hugo’s daughter in Truffaut’s “Adele H”. Both stalk their lovers,both write endlessly in their journals, and both swim or dream of swimming.The water scenes especially were a metaphor for drowning souls. Agnes’ wish to not stay at the villa,her little-girl “jumping on the bed” in her own apartment , and especially the African,hair-splaying,orgasmic dance were all intimate manifestations of independence and longing. Haenel does her nude scenes as only the French can do,both naturally and feverishly.”Don’t you fancy me?” and “I’m no coward” was as masterfully spoken as “I can’t be content with what you give me.” Whether hysterically crying, accepting bullish behavior or examining herself in the mirror,Haenal shows she can act with the best. Her look and tears as she recited,”I vote against” are Oscar worthy.

This story was the stuff of tabloids,and basically I love how the actors,screenwriters and director elevated it to Greek tragedy. Coastal shots and music are praiseworthy. It is the prolonged shot of the water spout and the story of Maurice’s brother and of his parents neither of whom attended their son’s funeral that stump me. Can someone enlighten?

“Iris”

This week a teacher and friend posted a placard touting the acronym STEAM. Enhancing the education of STEM students ( science,technology,engineering and math) by adding art is seen as a practical advancement, for “what good is any education if one can’t creatively use it”. The “steam metaphor” can be extended. Steam dissipates and reaches:it flows further; whereas, a stem holds one beautiful thing up, steam opens all pores. The documentary “Iris” illustrates how art and hand-crafted trades deepen our lives by polishing our individuality and connecting us to the art of show. “Iris” is also a love story and a peek at personal history.

Iris Apfel is a “rare bird” who for over seventy-five years  influenced interior design and fashion with her personal style. She is engaging and pulsing with life and mission. While not everyone grew up reading back issues of “Women’s Wear Daily”, I ,too, find the intersection of design,verve and collection fun. As director,Albert Mayles (87 himself) films Iris twirling and bowing Ungaro-clad ,we see her as legendary.

How many of us look for a fabric that doesn’t exist? And how many of us seekers would decide to weave our fantasy fabrics ourselves? This is just what the “nonagenerian starlet” Iris Apfel does when she opens Old World Weavers with her husband Carl. The textile company which ran from 1950 through 1992 restored a handcrafted fashion trade. Reproducing fabrics from the past led Iris to restoration projects at the White House. From Truman through Clinton,nine administrations called for her expertise.

In her own words,Iris is a ” busy bee”. From her wheelchair we see her in the process of collecting,haggling with street vendors and playing the bargain hunting game. Her whisky voice announces “I need a scotch after this”. Her renown collection of costume jewelry is a key part of her accessorizing process. As she layers one necklace on top of another she states, ” Do something like this and you start to get a look”. Mayles takes us to the Apfel’s Long Island storage loft as Iris starts to unload her travel acquisitions. Much, I learned , will be sold on “One King’s Lane” this year. Every piece has a memory.

At 90, we see Iris lecturing as visiting professor at the University of Texas,Austin. We see her gifting costumes to museums with exhibitions at The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan, The Norton Museum at West Palm Beach, and The Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. A museum dedicated to displaying her clothing is in the works. From her middle class Queens up-bringing during the Depression to her background in art history through her gut level improvisations,we see a practical business woman who does not compose her visions in designer speak. Her “very Voguey” is almost snarky. As we see her beloved husband blow out his 100 year birthday candles, we hear her “kind of like the eternal flame”wit. He is her “pussycat~cool,cuddly,and he cooks Chinese…couldn’t do any better!”

Bill Cunningham makes a cameo appearance in this film and reminds me of Iris’ quip, “Color can raise the dead”. It would be fun to see the Diane Vreeland,Cunningham and Apfel documentaries together.Curiosity and humor seem to be the attributes of these style holders.Whimsy and elegance pulse through business acumen and aging in this documentary. We are happy that this fashion maven is as she likes to say,”still vertical and sailing into her second century.”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

In this George Miller film, the characters’ brains have morphed from gray matter to black matter. To survive is the single instinct left. The film could be derided as “Chains, Cranes and High-Octane-Thrown-Together-War-Mobiles”, but this dystopian mayhem has some creative must sees. The Pole-Cat Gang is impressive in their leaps and sways, and the re-purposed junk is as imaginative being jerry-rigged as it is falling apart. The standard shoe-fitting Brannock device as gas pedal, the tea strainer nose guard, the skull steering wheel and groin-protector codpiece, and baby-doll-head necklace are cooler than the two-headed lizard.Throw in a car door warrior’s shield, and a souped-up guitar spewing sperm-like fire, and you can see how anger can fuel innovation.

Running from the living and the dead, Mad Max (Tom Hardy) believes as he says:”Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what is broken, you will go insane”. Like Hannibal Lector of “Silence of The Lambs “fame, Max is harnessed with a steel grill mask. He eats things. As he teams up with Furiosa (Charlize Theron),she looks at him and says,”You want that thing off your face?” Theron is the head-shaven ,rogue driver of War Rig. Her job was to transport fuel, but now she has joined the women, or Vuvalini (one knows that one will transpose a few letters here) and deliver her female cargo to safety. Five beautiful breeders are attempting freedom. And all the women are keen on keeping their babies from becoming warlords.

The setting is absent of anything green. Water~known as Aqua-Cola~is used by the powerful Immortan Joe at whim. His little boys are all coated in whitewash once the breeders deliver. Mother-milking contraptions add to the craziness. Everything is a souped-up machine. He engineers cranks that turn waterfalls on and off. He barks nonsense to his subjects:”Don’t become addicted to water or you will resent its absence.” Sandblasted tornadoes of dust cover everything.

I was bored with the reddish canyons and the driving to and from salt flats a few times in this action movie. I longed for the green place,too. I thought the change to blue night scenes was ingenious,and I did like the huge image of Mad Max’s head in its beetle-like emergence from a sand hill.

Furiosa is to break every female stereotype of the fifties. This gal gives “grease-paint” a new meaning,and she is great at compass direction and vehicle mechanics,exhorting lines like,”I think it is the fuel pod.” With three war parties following her, she kicks and shoots, once using Max’s shoulder as a cushion as she tells him not to breathe.

I will say loudly that the dialogue is horrendous. “She is hurt.She is hurt real bad.” may be the worst. “By the way,my name is Max,” a close second. One longs for the plains of silence. The film’s nomenclature hints at comedy:my “neck mates”, Larry and Barry;”guzzaline” for gasoline,”bullet farmers”; and “booty” for the round-rumpled breeders.

With salutations to Tolkien’s orcs and Rome’s Coliseum crowds,Miller’s sequel is not “perfect in every way”, but it is his baby, just not my “cup of tea”.

“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter”

“We all have our own paths” is one of the few sentences spoken by our deluded dreamer protagonist, Kumiko. That some paths are hopelessly crazy yet understandable seems to be the theme. That a determined twenty-nine year old Japanese girl rebels in fantasy and demands privileged status because she “has important things to do” is the storyline. I came away from this film annoyed. Place an unhinged black girl in the script and we would have a different tale.

Everyone is so nice to Kumiko with the exception of her mother,whom our treasure hunter calls three times during her journey to escape life’s expectations of marriage by twenty-five and children by twenty-nine.Kumiko blames her work strife on jealous co-workers. And mom pipes up with ” why would they be jealous of you!”. In truth, her boss Sakigami has her buying his wife’s anniversary gifts, taking his trousers to the cleaners,and making him tea. He complains of her poor disposition.But Kumiko spits in his tea cups,tosses his pants in the trash,and steals his credit card. Her mother asks her if she got a promotion,if she is dating anyone or if she is pregnant. Everyone laughs at grounded mother’s ” why don’t you” suggestive pressure”!

Kumiko’s cold determination and ill preparation is counterbalanced by everyone’s hospitality and warmth. The film’s humor is always laced at the good souls’ expense ,as if aid to Kumiko is foolish and self-serving. I loved the old woman who offered to take her to the Mall of America! Our directors are poking fun at the dreamers in U.S. all. Taken that the Zellner brothers use the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo” as the crux of Kumiko’s “discovery” and the Johnny Merzer lyrics, “Dream when you are blue..dream, dream, dream”, the tone for nihilistic snarkiness is set. Human striving is reduced to a woman walking around in the Minnesota- cold with a stolen bedspread wrapped arround her and a policeman trying to entertain a foreign visitor with American-folklore about Paul Bunyon and Babe minus an appendage.

The overscored music does a good job in mimicking  brain cell distress and addlednessin Kumiko. Sean Porter as Director of Photography captures Rinko Kikuchi’s lovely face and loping walk, her disheveled apartment,and her otherworldly longing with aplomb. She is meek. She is stubborn. She is simple as she steals a library reference book and bribes the guard for only page seventy-five,needed for her destiny. Much is made in this film of maps. I think it is a guy thing. The misfoldings,the careful embroidering of the x marking the spot, the male tourist aids suggesting a yellow markered trip tic state map, all contribute to the making fun with quirky asides.

As I write this,I marvel at all that does happen:the religious guidance,the flat tire,the carpel tunnel joke,the Chinese dinner and bogus translation of all things Asian, and the stiffing of a deaf cabbie and an Indian motel owner for This movie often moves and sounds like brain freeze.

I’ll remember the slurping noodles scene and Bunzo,the bunny,abandoned on a high speed train. “Freedom is an excuse for nothing left to lose” Janis Joplin lyrics don’t play here. Kumiko thinks money,her treasure, will raise her up. She lies,cheats, and steals and her consciousness never rises to ski-lift heights. Her precision is lost in the New World’s snow banks and on the flushed,unspooled tape and flash forward whizz and backward clicks of an old video machine.

Kumiko tries to escape life by modeling herself after the Spanish Conquistadors with her charts and notebook of clues.She sadly succeeds in her escape. You may feel like you have,too,as you leave the theater.

“Far From The Madding Crowd”

Why do we pick the men we do? Women’s selections of male companions must have intrigued Thomas Hardy for as a Victorian novelist much of his work centers on the psychological dynamics of male/female relationships. In “Far From The Madding Crowd”, the independently spirited and capriciously frank Bathsheba Everdene is proposed to by three men: Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts), Mr. William Boldwood ( Michael Sheen),and Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).

“Meet me in the hollow of the ferns”… may be my favorite line. Having seen the 1967 film version crafted with Terence Stamp, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Julie Christie, I was not expecting to love Carey Mulligan in the role of Bathsheba. But,I did. I liked this 2014 costume drama better than John Schlesinger’s. In fact,the entire story is told better under the direction of Thomas Vinterberg.Watch the u-tube trailers of the 1967 version and see Julie  Christie screaming her lines as she plays haughtiness over Mulligan’s willfulness.

The film opens in 1870 Dorset. We are in Hardy country~ southwestern England, Wessex. There are variegated coasts, rolling heaths,verdant forests and luxuriant farmlands. Yet, we begin in the dark and a door opens with light and Bathsheba. A voice-over tells us her circumstances.Bathsheba is too wild to be a governess. She shows us her resourcefulness ,and she knows her power. In the open,free countryside,her independence grows and becomes her sense of pride.

Gabriel, a neighbor and the sturdy oak, has 100 acres of land and 200 sheep. He gives Bathsheba a young lamb and proposes marriage stating that “I will always be there for you.” She rebuffs him with stating that she does not wish to be tamed or married. Gabriel’s  financial fortunes are reversed when his border- collie- in -training impetuously leads his herd over a cliff. All die in the early morning surf. Mr. Gabriel Oaks is hired by Bathsheba to shepherd her interests in barley and wheat grain. She states to her inherited staff that it is her intention to astonish them all.

Sergeant Francis Troy with his scarlet uniform, dark hair and brassy gleam seduces Bathsheba with his sword exercises of trust, thrust , and danger. He tells her she is beautiful and needs to be kissed.Gabriel warns her to stay clear of him and not to believe him :”I care for you too much to see you go to ruin because of him.” A storm ensues as a presage of doom. Bathsheba marries Troy as he gambles,withholds knowledge of a former lover,and drinks French brandy to excess. Poor choice that he is, it is  ironic that he tells her, “I have made a terrible mistake” when we all know that she has.

Mr. Boldwood’s character is changed the most from Hardy’s 1870 novel. His backstory has the country gossips report that he was jilted by a former lover and is a confirmed bachelor because of this. Bathsheba and her aide Liddie tease him with a valentine. Boldwood becomes obsessed with Bathsheba and interrupts a dinner celebration where Gabriel is being lauded for saving Bathsheba’s ewes from clover bloat. Boldwood sings a ballad with Bathsheba where the refrain is “red rose bush how my loved slighted me/I chose the willow tree”. Boldwood presses her for an answer to his marriage proposal. He seems anything but bold when he notes her lack of desire for him. The theater audience laughed at his next lines: “I don’t mind if you marry me for pity.” Boldwood seems weak,never threatening. This change provides for more cinematic tension and then shock as the story proceeds.

Hardy revels in the way people form ideas about a loved one. In delusion,delirium or detachment,human pride holds strong.Bathsheba’s “Gab,I have been a fool” holds even stronger.

Hardy,as a romantic realist and a Victorian used hands to picture the inner workings of the heart. This new film version of the novel understands Hardy’s prose.”Gabriel’s fingers alighted on the young woman’s wrist. It was beating with a throb of intensity. He had frequently felt the same hard,quick beat in the femoral artery of his lambs when overdriven…” Count how many times Bathsheba’s hands and wrists are framed by the camera~limp as she stumbles out if the fern forest,locked as she remains headstrong. Thighs are eschewed here,but passion does flame in nineteen century style.

Anyway, enjoy a great adaptation and even revisit the novel or compare the earlier film and post your own insights in the comment section below.

“The Salt Of The Earth”

“You are the salt of the earth,but if the salt loses its savor how can it be made salty again?” Matthew 5:13

The less than two hour documentary “The Salt Of The Earth” lets us bask in beautiful French and Portuguese subtitles while exploring the spirituality and life work of the Brazilian-photographer,Sebastiao Salgado. When Salgado is on screen, he is artistically lighted with his bushy, gray eyebrows and aquiline nose and bald pate asking us to look more deeply. Co-directed by his son,Juliano Salgado, and Kim Wenders,this is a paean to a life of personal self-sacrifice in bearing witness to some of  this century’s most horrendous man-against-man violence. Munching on salted popcorn,alone,this was painful. My own spirit became deadened and my popcorn lost its savor. Guiltily,I wrestled with the beauty of the images: Niger 1973, the direct, drought- ridden stare of a woman not finding water; Ethiopia,where Coptic Christians leave the open caskets of dead babies not baptized,their eyes rigidly opened so that they can find their way out of limbo; Sudan 1984, images of starvation in Mali.

Salgado,an economist by training,became an adventurer and a photographer with the support of his wife,Leila. Leaving his family of two sons(one handicapped),Salgado is gone for months at a time. He documents the world with light and shadow,photographing groups of people in beautiful,starkly remote settings. Liberation Theology and Doctors Without Borders inform his awareness, and his images ours. He tells us that his “weapon of choice” is the camera. He states that the power of a portrait lies in the fraction of a second.

In Tanzania 1994: refugees are photographed;in Rwanda, genocide; in Yugoslavia,violence and contagious hatred; in Bosnia, piles of corpses and a schoolroom of skulls. Ten and a half years of travel adds Russia, Calcutta,and Kuwait. Salgado announces that his soul is sick, and so is ours. The recorder of images of devastation turns to nature photography. Here we see frames of shimmering iguana paws,gray surf and  brown velvet walruses with white gleaming tusks, silvered-lighted whales and eye -connecting gorillas.

In their book “Genesis 2013”,Salgado and Leila take a positive stance. One half of plant life still exists; they “jumpstart despair”. Returning to Brazil,they become rooted in place,planting more than two and one half million trees on the cattle farm of Salgado’s birth. The land becomes a model for how abused land can be reforested.

While the film can feel like National Geographic on steroids, the artfulness of the photography and the forgiveness and obvious pride of the son and co-director make seeing “The Salt Of The Earth” a thoughtful homage.