Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Grocer’s Son: the way we were

The Grocer’s Son/Le Fils de l'épicier

Director Eric Guirado has given us a slow-paced film. Slow like life in rural France where it takes place. Slow like the developing romance at its centre. Slow like the rebuilding of the family's relationships. Slow like the emerging self-discovery of its main characters. Slow like the growing bonds between the stand-in mobile grocer and his customers.

Antoine Sforza (Nicolas Cazalé) has been sacked from his waiter’s job. When his father is hospitalised, he returns to help in his family grocery in a rural French hamlet. He brings his friend Claire (Clotilde Hesme) with him, hoping to establish a sexual relationship.

He's not a a prime catch. The men in Antoine’s family are all dysfunctional. His bitter, misanthropic father (Daniel Duval) wants nothing to do with him. His brother François (Stéphan Guérin-Tillié), who is a local hairdresser, blames Antoine for deserting the family. Antoine is disorganised, unmotivated and a poor communicator with atrocious inter-personal skills.

The village is a dying community in many ways. The grocery and a motor mechanic’s workshop are the only remaining businesses. Most of the customers of the mobile grocery service seem to be octogenarians. Yet it’s the elderly who breathe life into Antoine, with a lot of help from Claire. Clement (Paul Crauchet), an elderly farmer, and the highly eccentric Lucienne (Liliane Rovère) reawaken his humanity and his good humour. It was refreshing to see a movie that did not involve old people either in or on the way to a nursing home. The recent baby-boomers' flick, The Savages, came to mind immediately.

Before the inevitable crisis in their romance, Claire joins Antoine on his truck rounds and teaches him how to interact with people. She also helps to turn on his tap of self-reflection.

Unhappy marriages are the order of the day. Antoine’s mother (Jeanne Goupil) has been long-suffering support for her hostile, combative husband. Claire had four years of unhappy marriage before a new start as a student. François is in denial, hiding the fact that his wife has left him. He suffers severe depression, which seems to be both a cause and a result of his marriage breakdown.

The Grocer’s Son is very predictable in many ways. It moves inexorably towards a happy ending for most of its main characters. However, this didn’t seem to spoil the experience as the story is about personal discovery. It finishes on a strong note of hope. It is a pity that this happens in a part of society that is fast disappearing even in France. This is not the world of unbridled consumption or conspicuous wealth. It’s the world of 19th Century romanticism. If it still exists somewhere, then let’s hope they can keep it secret.

Another foreign language film that’s worth a visit to the cinema, if you can find it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Man on Wire: Twin Towers Tightrope

Frenchman Philippe Petit walked between the World Trade Center twin towers in August 1974. He had not asked permission of course. He was arrested and handcuffed. The authorities wanted to know why he did it and sent him for a psychiatric assessment. Watch this documentary in a cinema if possible. It's the last question you'll ask yourself.

Philippe had practiced between the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

It was one small step...

One Saturday morning in August 1980 I took these photos from the second top floor of one of the towers. I was visiting Bill Gates, a teacher mate from Up-State New York. We stayed at a Manhattan apartment of one of his friends whose husband worked on that floor. It was a long weekend so we had the place to ourselves. We were parked on the street opposite the buildings in the first picture. While we enjoyed the view, someone stole the car radio. I dragged out the old photos because the Statue of Liberty resonated so strongly with ones from the film.

I'll spare you our tourist snaps from the top of the bridge and the cathedral.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Burn After Reading: Forget After Viewing?

We are great fans of the Coen brothers and enjoyed Burn After Reading a lot. Hard to say whether it’s a spy thriller or a lifestyle comedy. Let’s settle for social satire.

The film has a stellar cast. The actors walk through their roles with ease, with few surprises.

George Clooney amply fits his public persona - sex addict and loving it.

Joel Coen’s partner, Frances McDormand, has her customary touch of zany obsessiveness. This is her sixth movie with the brothers, including her Oscar winning role in Fargo and the very special Raising Arizona. She holds this film together.

John Malkovich does what he is best at – the nasty, manic, egoistical elitist.

Richard Jenkins does victim so well. He is an even more sensitive and gentle male than his character in The Visitor, and more naïve.

Tilda Swinton and Elizabeth Marvell as the not-so-innocent wives give very convincing performances.

The only exception is Brad Pitt whose comedy role is very funny and unexpectedly so. His almost slapstick performance embellishes his failed-man-of-action character. The film's long title of “Intelligence is Relative” could well be applied to his character's I.Q. He’s certainly no match for the CIA and that’s no mean feat in this movie. George Clooney’s dildo humour doesn’t live up to Brad’s visual gymnastics. I couldn’t decide if it was locker-room stuff or a send-up of it.

The minor characters are Hollywood stereotypes: unethical lawyers and the inevitable intelligence-challenged secret agents.

Unfortunately the plot is not as strong as Brad’s acting. But the film’s mixture of soft satire and increasing violence help to bring about the required suspension of disbelief and engagement with the story. At least until you leave the theatre wondering where the Coen Brothers are heading. It’s very mainstream Hollywood in too many ways. Tarantino meets Ridley Scott, but without many original insights or filmic techniques.

It’s not a deep experience but it pokes fun at modern America in a range of winning ways. The body obsession: makeovers, cosmetic surgery, the gym culture (even Malkovich works out towards the end). Conspicuous wealth and consumption. The jogging and divorce circuits. Online dating is important for these people who are so self-obsessed that they can't connect in person.

Central to the plot is the new media focus – the memoir. Where would Oprah and talk radio be without the true confessions of former spies, diet freaks, reformed addicts, and self-improvers? If you haven’t written a book, you’re nobody.

Like many of the characters, the film is hyper-active. It packs a lot into 96 minutes, with George and Brad spending a lot of the time running.

Haven’t seen Body of Lies yet but the shorts indicate that the title could be swapped with Burn After Reading. My greatest disappointment was that it was so lightweight. It could be a case of Forget After Viewing.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Lemon Tree: a bitter sweet film

Lemon Tree is another foreign languages film which is well worth the cinema trip.

According to Eran Riklis, the Israeli director,
Lemon Tree is a simple story about people who find themselves fighting over matters that could have been resolved quite easily if they would just listen to each other.

...this is really a film about solitude as it is reflected in the lives of two women ...
Hiam Abbass plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian woman who fights to keep her lemon grove from destruction by Israeli security because it is next to the Defence Minister's house. Her performance is even stronger than her role in The Visitor. Rona Lipaz gives an equally sensitive performance as the Minister's alienated wife Mira Navon. Both neighbours have children in the United States, one at Georgetown University and the other is a kitchen-hand planning to study IT. Not hard to guess which is which.

The film has its male villains, represented by the politician Israel Navon (Doron Tovory) and the local Palestinian power-broker Abu Camal (Makram Khoury). However, there are several sensitive male charactisations: the lawyer Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman), Salma's surrogate uncle and fellow lemon cultivator (Tarik Copty) and the Israeli guard Quickie (Danny Leshman).

The film is about the things that unite as well as those which have created walls, both literal and figurative, in the Middle East. Make sure you see Lemon Tree if you possibly can.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflections on the Bill Henson witch-hunt

In 2006 part of my teaching job at Maningrida Community Education Centre was as Careers teacher. During the year a poster was circulated by a casting agency for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film, Australia. They were looking for indigenous children and were hoping for assistance from schools in identifying prospective "child" actors, both Primary school age and adolescents. As part of this process, I helped one of our Year 12 students to make an audition tape which was unsuccessful.

I have no criticism of anyone involved in this search for talent. All the protocols about gaining permission from parents were followed as far as I know. No one came into our school, possibly because of its remoteness.

The photo above is from the film's official website. This story reminded me of another Arnhem youth who went to school in Maningrida, David Gulpulil. He first appeared in the 1971 film Walkabout. The film was controversial partly because of the nudity of both 15 year old Gulpilil and 16 year old co-star Jenny Agutter.

It is doubtful whether Walkabout would have screened uncut if it was released in today's current child-protection climate. Apparently the film was only available in a censored version for many years.

Many issues have been raised by the controversy surrounding Bill Henson's photography of children and his search for talent at St.Kilda Primary School. They warrant a detailed, dispassionate discussion such as David Marr's attempts to put this into some kind of context. I doubt anything approaching a mature dialogue is possible after the emotive outbursts we have experienced so far.