Mademoiselle Chambon

Sometimes you are surprised and sometimes you are lucky enough to actually pull a rabbit out of a hat – or find a fine movie by accident. Today I watched a film that before seeing it, I had no knowledge of it, knew neither the lead actor nor actress, had never heard of the director, and basically, decided to view it because of the film’s poster.

Such was my decision to have a look at French director Stephane Brize’s Mademoiselle Chambon. Okay I knew straightaway that this was a French film. The title, Mademoiselle Chambon, was my clue. But that’s all I knew besides the fact that a solo woman on a train station platform is always intriguing. Having said that much,  now let’s set the film up for you.

Jean is a mason. He builds houses. He can install windows, break up concrete with a pneumatic drill, lay bricks, or even take down a wall with a sledge hammer. He is a mason and the son of a mason. He’s proud of his work. He has a wife and a 7 year old son. When we first meet them they’re off for a picnic, and helping the son with his grammar studies. But they hit an impasse when the grammar lesson provides a sample sentence…

The maintenance department prepares a report.

…and then asks, what is the direct object in that sentence. Jean and his wife are stumped. They have no clue. But they work through it with such questions as ‘Who’ and ‘what’ as the grammar lesson instructs. They are simple people living in provincial France. A loving family. We should all be so lucky.

On an afternoon when Jean is picking up his son at the school, he runs into the school teacher, the titular Mademoiselle Veronique Chambon. She asks if he would care to help her out by speaking to the class about his work. Another father had to cancel. She tells him it is a few days off, and he can prepare and she’ll prepare the class.

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Casino Jack

“Washington is like Hollywood, but with uglier faces.”

Yeah, that was what Jack Abramoff said in the film, Casino Jack, a film about the life and times of one’s of Washington’s biggest and most influential power brokers. Jack was real and he was a lobbyist. Make that super-lobbyist. In another movie about movers and shakers, Jerry Maguire, a sports agent extraordinaire – someone said, Show me the money! Well Jack Abramoff not only wanted to see the money – but he kept as much as he could for himself, until John Q. Law caught up with him after Jack’s associate Michael Scanlon ratted him out to save his own sorry ass.

For his crimes, the real Jack Abramoff did a 4 year stretch between 2006 and 2010 in the federal minimum security penitentiary at Cumberland , Md. Directed by the late George Hickenlooper, this is a dramatic/fictional representation about Jack Abramoff. This is no documentary – the title card states “inspired by true events.’ Nonetheless – it plays like one – almost – names are named, and I mean names that went all the way into Washington’s heart of hearts. I mean even into the Oval Office. Kevin Spacey was cast as Jack, and dang, he not only stole the clients money as Jack, but he stole the film while acting in the role of Jack.

This was a bravura performance by Spacey who is clearly one of America’s finest thespians. And speaking of acting, Jon Lovitz, who nearly made the single word ‘acting’ into a personal trademark while he portrayed Master Thespian as a member of the Saturday Night Live TV show, is on board in Casino Jack too. He plays a striving, overreaching, wanna-be playa – Adam Kidan, Jack’s partner/front man in a very shady deal. Only he doesn’t tell Jack about his bankruptcies, or his mob connections in St. Martin and New York, and his predeliction for nose candy, 4200 square foot apartments, and blonde hookers – two at a time.

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Ka-ching!

Barry Pepper, Graham Greene, Spencer Garrett, and Kelly Preston round out the main players in the cast – Pepper plays Michael Scanlon, Abramoff’s sleazy associate, Greene plays the Indian chief who trusted Abramoff to lobby for his tribal casino venture which ended up costing the tribe millions and millions, Garrett stars as Majority Leader of the House, Congressman Tom Delay, and Preston plays Pam Abramoff – Jack’s wife. All perform quite well.

You want to kick some ass on The Hill , we can do that!

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Wonderful Town

Takua Pa is a sleepy Thai town situated North of Phuket, but it is still a southern Thailand location. In the post tsunami era, an architect from Bangkok, called Ton, (Supphasit Kansen) arrives in town to oversee a construction project, and as he puts it – to keep the client happy. There’s not much to do in the town as the tsunami caused considerable damage. Nevertheless he pulls into a hotel in town, and books a room for a month.

The hotel is run by Na – a mid twenties woman played by Anchalee Saisoontorn (making her screen debut) , who along with an older man and woman as caretakers, are the complete hotel staff. The architect is immediately attracted to Na. She feels something herself, but it is a small town, she neither needs nor wants to become the subject of town gossip.

But the man/woman dynamic is potent, and after some starts and stops, they will become lovers. However the way the film is directed by the Thai director, Aditya Assarat, you’re kept guessing if they have or haven’t for a while.

Supphasit Kansen as Ton

Assarat is no hurry to bring us up to speed. There’s plenty of delightful teasing, not by Na, but by the director. In what would be in a western film a sure indicator of some forthcoming intimacy – Ton helps Na take down the wash hanging on lines on the rooftop. She allows this until he reaches for some of her more intimate apparel. At this point, she will shoo him away.

Anchalee Saisoontorn as Na

There’s bike rides, and picnics in fields with long, high grass. This town has the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. It is picturesque place but it has not been developed as a resort, or it was once a resort area – sort of Phuket’s out-of-the-way cousin – but that ended with the tsunami.

However, there are forces at play in the movie. Like with everything else in this film, the director takes his time. The tsunami doesn’t come again although the director implies that it is or will be a presence by showing us the strongly increasing incoming tides.

Like with a natural storm, when the danger arrives, it comes, expected, but we are shocked with its intensity. And like a natural storm, it passes, and the town will once again be cloaked under its mantle of being a sleepy, quiet town in southern Thailand.

This is not a movie that should be labeled as a must-see. But it has its charms. It is not unlike Thai food. Soft and silky, textured so delicately, and yet able to deliver a shock. Only this shock isn’t to your palate instead it is to your sensibilities. Available from Netflix with English subtitles.

A Summer in Genoa aka Genova

Tragedy visits a Chicago family in the form of an auto accident which takes the life of a wife and mother. To get past the grief and to make a new start, the father, Joe (no last names are offered), played by Colin Firth, decides to accept an offer of a job as a visiting English Lit professor and relocate himself and his two daughters to Genoa, Italy.

They are living in the heart of the old city – Genoa’s vicoli or maze-like small streets and alleys serve as an exterior mirror to the mazes that each of us have in our interiors. Maybe compartments is a better term as we try to marginalize or segment the pain, the grief, the loss, and what is often called survivors guilt while we must continue to live after losing a beloved parent. Life continues and each day is a new beginning as the impact of the tragic loss recedes, sometimes more slowly than we can bear.

Joe’s daughters – Kelly (a 16 year old) and Mary (10 years old) are not thrilled. Genoa represents challenges for them while the wounds of losing their mother are still searingly fresh. They don’t speak Italian, they don’t know anyone, and they’ve just been uprooted to a place that couldn’t be more foreign to them.

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The Tree of Life

Some will say that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is about remembrances. Others will say that this is Malick’s cinematic monograph on how we, and the world we occupy, came into existence as seen through the eyes of one person examining his past to determine his future.

Malick opens the film with a Bible quotation from the Book of Job:

In Job 38: 4,7 God asks Job “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Whether you believe in the Biblical version of how the world was created, or you subscribe to the Big Bang Theory, or maybe you like the molecular theory as the starting point leading all the way  up to a cosmic level… it doesn’t much matter because Malick gives you a look at all three. There’s an interesting adjunct to that as well. In a voice over, Mrs. O’Brien says:

There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Malick doesn’t choose either one. He shows us both, and we must decide (although the film doesn’t lead us or even suggest that we should make a decision as to which is our preference).

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Elephant White

Sawadee krup (Hello in Thai). Elephant White does have a white elephant in the title, but said elephant has little more than a walk-on this flick. A 2011 DTV (that’s Direct to Video), Elephant White’s stated purpose is to draw attention to the sex trafficking and child prostitution that goes on in Bangkok. More specifically, a two sentence synopsis would tell you that a CIA type, Curtis Church, who is played by Djimon Hounsou, moonlights on the side as an assassin for hire. Here he is hired by a business man to avenge the death of his daughter at the hands of white slave traders.

The film is mostly a target shoot by Hounsou. Kevin Bacon is onboard as Jimmy the Brit, an arms dealer based in Bangkok, and is Hounsou brother-in-arms, literally. For some reason (political pressure?) the arms dealer was written as a Brit, but Bacon’s accent is so bad that it must be mentioned. You’ll scratch your head to figure out why Bacon’s role wasn’t simply changed to an American.

There’s plenty of action – bombs, hand-to-hand, chases both on foot and by car or truck, and many, many minutes of Honsou’s Church shooting with huge sniper weapons. Sorry, but this gets dull after awhile. Seeing guys go down one by one, through the rifle’s scope just isn’t all that scintillating.

Hounsou does suitably well as an action hero. I liked him when he played a second fiddle to Russell Crowe in the Tigers and Togas epic known as Gladiator. Kevin Bacon is now 53 years old so he doesn’t do romantic leads any more. He knows his weapons (playing Jimmy the Brit), turns out to be a likable character after starting out as a possible bad guy, and even gets off a few funny lines like:

Happiness is a warm gun
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Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema

Do you recognize this city?

To be honest, I could not ID this place from this photo.  But this particular skyline appears quite often in this film, like a leit-motif, only it is a visual note rather than a recurring melodic phrase. It is called the symbol of the New South Africa. It is Johannesburg.

But this film, Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema is not about the glamour and the glitter of glass and steel that began as an idea and ended as a landmark buildings in a city striving for success in the post-apartheid era. While the film doesn’t drive us toward a conclusion that South Africa has passed through apartheid into an even worse situation, it does bring us to a point that all is not well.
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City Island

“What we got here is… failure to communicate.”

That famous quote is from the iconic 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, which starred Paul Newman and garnered an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for George Kennedy. Neither of those men spoke that line above. But that line perfectly describes the story we watch in the 2009 film – City Island which stars Andy Garcia and Julianna Margulies.

There are two further tie-ins. Garcia plays a prison guard, or more  correctly a Corrections Officer, and Steven Strait plays a convict.

This film is a tale about a family that keeps secrets very well, and has trouble communicating. Garcia is Vincent Rizzo. He is a family man with a wife and two kids. They all live in the small enclave called City Island which technically is part of the Bronx, but is nothing like the Bronx that most of us know about from the movies and television.

Vince’s day job is as a Corrections Officer at a nearby prison. His aspirations and dreams are centered on becoming an actor. He enrolls in an acting class – only he can’t tell is wife about it. So on various nights when he has a class, he tells her that he is out for a poker game. That’s his relatively new secret.

He has an older secret and it involves a prisoner at the jail where he works. In fact Rizzo has the prisoner allowed out of jail on a family member type of parole. He brings the prisoner home, only he can’t tell anyone about his connection to the prisoner.

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Hereafter

It was months back, but I recall that my brother was quite enthused about Clint Eastwood‘s (at the time) forthcoming feature film Hereafter. The subject matter, Death, and/or Life After Death (LAD), and how living people come to terms with it, just wasn’t on my calendar for a nice winter movie, even though winter is almost a foreign term in southwest Florida. Okay, maybe there was a bit of interest because I’ve been to Phuket, a Thailand beach resort island, three times, and I’ve stayed in two hotels that would go on to suffer severe damages from the tsunami. Fortunately I wasn’t in Phuket when the tsunami hit.

But anyway I gave Hereafter a pass. But now that it is June, and I was able to get this film from Netflix, I gave it a shot.  Eastwood opens his film with the tsunami with Maui standing in for Phuket. A French girl, Marie Lelay, played by Cecile De France, is swept away by the onrushing waves, and she drowns… well almost.

She’s pulled out of the water, and they try to resuscitate her. She doesn’t respond. We then see Eastwood’s interpretation of death where in Marie’s mind, she’s in a place that is all light, with darkly shadowed people milling around. Are they waiting for something? Are they searching for people they know? We don’t know. Maybe this is death’s anteroom. Or maybe it is the last place or state we are in before death turns out our lights leaving us forever in the eternal void.

But Marie doesn’t die. Moments later she coughs up some water, regains consciousness and is fully alive.

Hereafter actually centers or approaches the topic from three perspectives. Marie Lelay is a French TV journalist. She’s beautiful, successful, and is so very happy. Back in Paris, after her near death experience, or maybe she did experience death as an French doctor would tell her later, Marie wants answers , and she has trouble getting past her experience. In fact, she can’t get past it.

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