ELLE (2016, France)

November 17, 2016

elle Greetings again from the darkness. It’s best not to pre-judge what to expect in a new Paul Verhoeven directed film. We haven’t seen or heard much from him in the past decade (the underrated Black Book, 2006), but we know surprises and twists and entertainment will be part of his work given his track record of Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls. Factor in that he is now working with one of the best actresses on the planet in Isabelle Huppert, and we walk into the theatre with no assumptions but a high level of anticipation.

The phrase ‘tour de force’ is no exaggeration for Ms. Huppert’s performance here. No time is provided for settling into one’s seat as the opening scene stuns us with a brutal sexual attack by a masked intruder. Afterwards, the bloodied victim calmly cleans the house, soaks in a tub and orders takeout. This is our introduction to Michele (Huppert) and begins our two hour mission of trying to figure her out.

Is she the ultimate feminist? She is the co-owner (with her best friend Anna) of a video game company that specializes in highly stylized and violent fantasy games (no subtle irony in that). Is she demented? She fools around with the husbands of her best friend and neighbor. Is she simply off-center? She scolds her mother for wanting to marry a much younger man, and her son for living with his selfish girlfriend who has a new baby via another man. She is not a good friend, business partner, mother, daughter, wife or person. This is no sympathetic character, yet thanks to Ms. Huppert, we simply can’t take our eyes off of her or stop wondering how she will handle the next situation (of which there are many).

Based on the novel “Oh …” by Phillipe Dijan, with a screenplay from David Birke (who has a similar theme in much of his work), the film spares us little from the daily life of Michele. We see her as a confident business person, a sexual being – whether peering through binoculars at a neighbor or trysting with a married man – and a somewhat devious and devilish person intent on revenge. It’s not until later in the film that we learn the family history that has been the driving force behind her rebuilding her life while also being unable to escape the past.

Ms. Huppert is in most if not every scene. It’s a powerful and rare performance that is complemented by some fine supporting actors: Anne Consigny as Anna (Michele’s friend and business partner), Christian Berkel as Robert (Anna’s husband and Michele’s play toy), Charles Berling as Richard (Michele’s ex-husband), Judith Magre as Michele’s mom, Laurent Lafitte as Patrick (the neighbor), and Jonas Bloquet as Vincent (the dim bulb son). Michele has interactions with each of these characters … none better than the Christmas dinner party where all are in attendance.

Verhoeven’s film can be viewed as a slightly sleazy guilty pleasure, or as a profile of a strong, independent woman with a flawed moral compass. It’s a reminder that we never fully escape the shadow cast by our parents, and some pay a greater price than others. It’s rumored that no major American actress would take on the role, which in the end, benefits the film greatly … no other actress could have provided what was needed (except perhaps Barbara Stanwyck, who died more than 25 years ago). Ms. Huppert’s performance allows this to cross many genres, and it is undoubtedly the best of the year in this category: a comically mean rape-revenge psychological thriller centered on consent and desire. Should you doubt this, perhaps Michele’s own words will convince: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all.” It’s a pleasure to meet you ma’am.

watch the trailer:

 

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TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

watch the trailer: