Monday, April 25, 2011


Review: The Princess of Montpensier
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Ever the turbulent onscreen duo, the oft-senseless beasts of love and war walk hand in blistered hand in “The Princess of Montpensier,” a French-language epic that keenly aligns the deceptive ideas and impulses that lead to bloody battles, and those that trigger skirmishes of the heart. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and inspired by Madame de La Fayette's 1662 short story, the 140-minute saga is in many ways the antithesis of your typical costume drama, poo-pooing the three-tissue arcs and showboating extravagance that usually come standard, and instead plumbing the nitty-gritty of what these fiery people of the past truly felt and did. Set against the grisly Catholic-Huguenot wars in 16th century France, the story whirls around the widely-coveted Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry), a nervy and naïve young aristocrat who furiously rejects, then dutifully accepts, her arranged marriage to the Prince de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) in a manner that suggests all sorts of untapped inner strength. She's really in love with Henri (Gaspard Ulliel), the dashing Duke de Guise and brother of the man to whom she was formerly betrothed. It seems everyone wants to control the moves Marie makes, and the more she rebels, the more her world unties like a poorly laced corset.

It's startling how fully Tavernier commits to rustic realism, an approach that proves wonderfully distinguishing. Nothing of ornamental flourish is gushed over, and characters and conflicts aren't glamorized as if the dirty real world gave them a pass. The costumes are lavish, but not wardrobe-department fresh. Settings are living spaces, not objects to ogle. The wedding night of Marie and the Prince is an extraordinary sequence, wherein Marie's business-minded father earnestly hosts the groom's family, mentally checking off the items of a very un-Hollywood agenda. He speaks in proud, fascinating detail about the medieval meal he's serving (a bit that throws us because it has no apparent plot purpose), and plays chess with the groom's father outside his daughter's bed chambers while, inside, a team of spectators stands watch as the marriage is consummated. There's a similar sense of unpolished voyeurism when events shift to the battlefield, where cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer seems to hauntingly linger on the anguish of fallen soldiers, rendering them as more than just the usual nameless, perished pawns. Each scenario is charged with the notion of actual life unfolding, each character endowed with feelings that run deep.

Thus, a movie with very little sex (of which, I'll admit, it could use a thrust or two more) boasts a fervent passion that's rather unrelenting. Marie, a very well-drawn and very well-played young woman of equal flaw and virtue, is a busty ball of excitement and apprehension, her breasts dying to escape her bodice as she rolls with the punches of a life in which she has little say. She finds some personal emancipation with the help of the Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a peace-favoring deserter, scholar and friend of the Prince who schools Marie in her husband's military absence, helping her in her eager mission to remedy her ignorance. They talk of politics, of astronomy, of how faith makes one certain of realities that can't be seen, a passage that allows Tavernier to vocalize his thesis (“Sounds a lot like love,” Marie observes). The Count turns out to be another man infatuated with Marie, but rather than muddying an already complicated network of desire (Duke d'Anjou, the King's brother, wants in Marie's knickers, too), the movie makes him an if-I-can't-have-her-I'll-help-her confidant, whose actions eventually mirror those of Shakespeare's priest in “Romeo & Juliet.” But this is not your archetypal love story, nor is it even one that follows the untidy convention of ending things in tragedy.

Marie grows increasingly defiant as matters progress, becoming less fearful of chasing her instincts and disobeying the Prince, whose jealousy rages along with his rivalry with the intentionally imposing, flirtatious Henri (at one point tensions erupt into a terrific impromptu swordfight). Tavernier and his two co-screenwriters, Jean Cosmos and François-Olivier Rousseau, take care to make the desperate, lovelorn Prince into someone substantially sympathetic (if a bit pathetic), drawing loyalties away from the pleasure-powered Princess. Though initially presented as a pseudo-Austen woman who may deserve cheers through her personal journey, Marie is not left standing as a heroine to celebrate. She surely walks away a different girl, scarred by lessons that are bound to be indelible, but she is not rewarded for her “follies of passion,” as she calls them. Completing the film's thematic circle, her love battles wind up as fruitless as the wars that wage around her.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Review: Potiche
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Without a drop of tiger blood, Catherine Deneuve is all kinds of winning in “Potiche,” a campy, colorful lark that's even delectable when it melts into a puddle of syrup. The latest from the ever-exciting, ever-versatile François Ozon, the French comedy sees Deneuve play a rich tyrant's pampered spouse (the title translates to “trophy wife”), who steps out of the shadows toward fulfillment, then pays her liberation forward by claiming positions of power and inciting change. How sweet, how graciously out of step, that we can have a feminist film that laughs at itself. Ozon, with one eyebrow raised and tongue in cheek, hurries to make his intentions known. He introduces Deneuve's character, Suzanne Pujol, during a morning jog, her bright red tracksuit and sprightly surroundings establishing the candied color scheme, a fairy-tale land of privilege, and a warm sense of humor that's decidedly off-kilter (woodland creatures come to greet her, but also hump). With that light touch of naughtiness (bad touch!), Ozon keeps spirits high and moods light even when drama is afoot, thus offering a sister-doing-it-for-herself story that's never funnel-fed.

And, yes, that lovely Deneuve. Ozon, in a feature film career that's spanned little more than a decade, has managed to work with a stunning lineup of France's best and brightest actresses, directing Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Jeanne Moreau, Fanny Ardant, Ludivine Sagnier and Emanuelle Beart, to name a few. Here, it's a Deneuve showcase, with the prolific star aloof and charming in a role that, if not exactly challenging, is certainly a fun pedestal on which to place a legendary muse. From the narrow POV of her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), Suzanne is just another bauble to be kept inside his mansion, voiceless save for her agreements and pastime of writing poetry. It's an existence she's come to accept with gritted teeth (“Of course I'm happy – I made up my mind to be,” she says), despite the nudges and teasings of her grown children, Joëlle (Judith Godrèche) and Laurent (Jérémie Renier). But when an uprising of disgruntled workers at Robert's umbrella factory sends the hypertensive boss into the hospital, Suzanne, at the suggestion of the town's communist mayor (Gerard Depardieu), steps up to fill the void, both at the business and in her life.

"Pujol! Asshole! Pujol! Asshole!"
Though doctored to better reflect the contemporary woes of struggling laborers, “Potiche,” set in 1977, is based on a play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which Ozon had been itching to adapt for years. A class comedy that flirts with the farcical, its closest relative in Ozon's filmography is “8 Women,” the star-studded 2002 whodunit that also had stage origins (and also starred Deneuve). If not style (the costumes! the rounded-edge split-screens! the disco flourishes!), it's breezy wit and easy irony at which Ozon proves most adept. Some of the jokes in “Potiche” tank (“When this happened to Marie Antoinette, she didn't lose her head,” Suzanne says amidst the worker revolt), others soar (“I've made up my mind, and I'm keeping my baby,” Joëlle tells her mother), but all fit into the filmmaker's tapestry of knowing, peppy melodrama. A pretzel of genealogical mysteries and checkered pasts underscores the events of the film's present, peeling back layers to reveal Suzanne's moxie, and often giving the viewer the juicy advantage of being more in-the-know than the characters. It's the endearing self-deprecation, flecked with elements of Almodóvar, John Waters and Jacques Demy, that keep “Potiche” miles above something like “Made in Dagenham” or, for godssakes, “Secretariat.”

Suzanne is more Elle Woods than Rosie the Riveter. Some of the best moments involve seeing her get preposterously dolled up to greet the gruff workers, with whom she aims to restore the friendly bonds in place before Robert took the helm (the factory was once owned by Suzanne's father). Colors brighten along with the conditions, and the workplace becomes more and more of a parasol palace (thanks in, in no small part, to the artsy Laurent, Ozon's requisite gay character, who along with his sister is recruited to be on staff). Subsequent family strife gives the movie the earthbound foothold it needs, but the spotlight remains on Deneuve, whose Suzanne keeps piling on the successes, not the least of which is the emancipation of Robert's secretary/mistress (Karin Viard, mildly calling to mind “Mad Men's” Christina Hendricks). Francophiles will delight at the leading lady's pairing with Depardieu, whose benevolent politico shares a saucy history with Suzanne. A delightful scene sees the pair get their Tony Manero on inside a club, and another, which works despite its overindulgence, may even remind some of a back-in-the-day duet between the two icons. Ozon knows how to pay homage, and he certainly knows how to tip his hat to Deneuve, who at 67 continues to laugh in the face of time's ticking clock and weather the phases of her career. Take that, Charlie Sheen.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Review: Your Highness
1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Having grown up with a steady diet of swords-and-sorcerers fantasy, and having laughed my arse off in “Pineapple Express,” you'd think I'd be a cheerleader for “Your Highness,” a stoner send-up of Arthurian-esque adventures from “Express” director David Gordon Green and co-star Danny McBride. Cheering, however, would require enthusiasm, and “Your Highness” elicits all the ardor of an inebriated eunuch. But before we get to the supporting characters (there is indeed an emasculated servant, played by Toby Jones), let us first bemoan this unfunny comedy's grueling lack of creativity. Like the recent “Paul,” it's a geek-targeted funhouse of wink-wink nods and envelope-shoving bad taste, which boasts little about its makers except that they exhausted their Blockbuster memberships and are handy with an Urban Dictionary. There's homage, there's provocation and there's laziness. McBride, who co-produced “Your Highness,” co-wrote it with “Eastbound & Down” comrade Ben Best, and stars in the lead role, thinks he can rest an entire feature on said allusions and a barrage of profanity, but the witless brew grows thin shortly after the opening credits.

And even if it didn't, Green, a gifted director who for some reason has deigned to adopt McBride as his muse (he's also helmed episodes of “Eastbound”), cripples the film with a slug's pace, allowing scenes to drag incessantly while your attention shifts to, say, wondering who decided how much padding should go into the movie theater seats. Since it's at least partially a fat-buffoon comedy, much of the first act of “Your Highness” involves a lot of whining on the part of McBride's character, Thaddeous, a plump and slacking prince who's jealous of his dashing brother, Fabious (James Franco), pride of the nation and heir apparent to the throne. Like a textbook bully, Thaddeous nurses his insecurities by crudely picking on others, if not toking up a storm and chasing after herds of sheep (a scene that is, in fact, a highlight). After much hubbub too tedious to mention, Fabious's new bride, the Rapunzel-like Bella Donna (an ultra-busty Zooey Deschanel), is babe-napped by the sleazy sorcerer Leezar (Justin Theroux), who means to impregnate her and, somehow, breed a dragon. If Thaddeous doesn't help his bro retrieve the lass, he'll be booted from the kingdom (“S**t,” the medieval Tommy Boy says on cue).

A few of the rampant obscenities indicate the better movie “Your Highness” should have been (there's no denying the pleasure of hearing Leezar, the anti-Gandalf, brag about his talents with the words, “Magic, motherf***er”), but without backup, they're just more scrap on the puerile pile. For their own Ye Olde skewerings, Mel Brooks and Monty Python – whom Green, Best and McBride shouldn't even be credited with attempting to emulate – had a lot more than d**k jokes in their quivers. And even the ultimate phallic gag – a minotaur's severed penis worn as a victory necklace – can't net the kind of extreme laughs McBride and company are shooting for. It reeks of a sort of sick-spirited desperation, like watching a potty-mouthed comic bomb on stage.

With such mighty deficits in the ways of humor, story and momentum, an impossible challenge is placed on the shoulders of actors like Franco and Natalie Portman, who plays a Xena-like archeress out to avenge her slaughtered brothers and carry on their tradition of conquering baddies like Leezar (“It is my legacy to stop anyone who wants to f**k to make dragons,” she tells Thaddeous). It's a losing battle for the awards-friendly thesps, even Franco, who we know is no stranger to productions that seem more than a little...laced. Helpless against the material, he coasts along on fumes, while Portman, forgetting how to use her “V for Vendetta” accent, can't muster the same charm that changed the fate of “No Strings Attached.” She brings physicality to the role, as far as we can tell (in addition to scenes from “Return of the Jedi,” her first appearance, set in an arena, calls to mind those pesky body-double rumors), but not even her flawless physique can provide sufficient distraction.

What's left is a mechanical bird lifted from “Clash of the Titans,” a burnt-out gay Yoda with a catfish face and a jellyfish brain, a climax that's indebted to “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and Ron Howard's “Willow,” and a final scene that doesn't even try to sugarcoat its outright aping of “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.” In every instance, you're simply reminded of movies you'd rather be watching, a number of which aren't even all that good. “Your Highness” is a dragon baby, a penis around the neck – unpleasant, uncalled for and better left unseen.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Review: Certified Copy
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

If you listen closely just after the central turning point in “Certified Copy,” you'll hear the French-speaking female lead (Juliette Binoche, credited only as “She”) refer to her son as the “spitting image” of the male lead, James Miller (William Shimell), with whom she's spending the afternoon in Tuscany. Unless ears deceive, “spitting image” is the equivalent of the French “copie conforme,” as is the title of this film. It's an expression that may well have landed right under “Forget the Original, Just Get a Good Copy” on the list of alternate English-language titles for British author James's new book, also called “Certified Copy.” (Got that?)

The movie begins at a well-attended discussion of the book, where James, beguiling even in his distance and pseudo-cynical self-absorption, unfurls his philosophies about how duplicates of artistic works still carry a great deal of merit, two reasons among many being that the duplicate leads one to the original, and that the original is essentially already a copy of something else. It all calls to mind the writings of Walter Benjamin, whose landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has inevitably popped up in multiple reviews of “Certified Copy.” Using as a springboard the Benjaminian argument of whether or not an artwork's essence – or “aura” – is lost in duplication, richly celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami dives into a beautifully befuddling meditation on the fluidity of relationships, which he regards with the same indefinite subjectivity with which one views the art world. Reminiscent of the deliciously dialogue-laden “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” and featuring one of the more fascinating rug-pulls of recent memory, Kiarostami's latest is a conversation piece in more ways than one.

Binoche's character is an antiques dealer and shop owner whose relation to James is unclear save her being his guide during this Tuscan leg of an apparent book tour. Meeting at her store then driving into the countryside, the two have an odd and mounting tension between them, which we initially chalk up to a simple personality clash. She's an uncomplicated romantic who believes he forces his opinions on others; he's an interminably logical and practical thinker who, though in the business of evaluating viewer responses to art, has little time for emotional minutiae. She carries on like a see-saw of frustration and eager-to-please excitement; he remains cool, analytical and austere. An hour of the film's running time passes, and the pair's afternoon together has unfolded like a very awkward first date, where the attraction is in place, but neither will likely call the other for a second go at it. Then they stop at a café, and things take a subtle, yet tectonic shift. Are they in fact husband and wife? Have they been for 15 years? Is her son his son, too? Or are their sudden, knowing exchanges merely their way of experimentally prolonging the café owner's assumption that they're married?

As moviegoers, we grow accustomed to straightforward narratives that offer clear-cut answers and hit a required quota of banal plot points. Too rarely do we see something so bent to the will of a visionary that perceptions are skewed in support of the emotions and themes being conveyed. It requires trust on the part of the audience, which Kiarostami handily earns and repays in “Certified Copy.” I'll admit that the 70-year-old auteur's most beloved works (“Close-Up,” “The Koker Trilogy,” “Taste of Cherry”) have long eluded me, but there's no mistaking his mastery, regardless of your familiarity with it. The ideas he juggles, which have universal appeal in their romantic implications, and relevance in this era when the original has never been more undervalued, are shared via luscious language that rolls off the tongues of his marvelous lead actors, one a first-timer and the other a Cannes Best Actress winner. The oscillating mood he creates is as delightfully disconcerting as Binoche's stunning face, which he often captures looking directly into the camera. The setting he surveys, a town called Lucignano, where couples venture to christen or strengthen their love, is a medieval beauty admired as a sun-drenched character all its own.

The film's greatest achievement is that it becomes so surprisingly profound that it bypasses its own conceit (or proves its own argument). Haunted and bewitched (if not, necessarily, duped), we fall deep into whatever's going on between She and James, whose emotions, though strangely volatile, grow increasingly, grippingly convincing. That they are perhaps play-acting is a notion that loses ground. Their feelings become representative of a greater set of feelings, which is also supported and represented by the husbands and wives they encounter in the village. As the end nears, it matters very little if they are indeed a married couple, or just the spitting image of one.