Valentino opens doors on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills

Onlookers and paparazzi filled a stretch of Rodeo Drive Tuesday night for the opening of the Valentino store in Beverly Hills. Guests included Kim Kardashian, Rose McGowan, Molly Sims, Rachel Zoe, Minka Kelly and several other celebrities.

To celebrate the Valentino design house’s 50th anniversary, creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli have launched a collection of ready-to-wear and accessories in animal prints, such as giraffe, jaguar, tiger, cheetah, zebra and panther.

A few of my shots from the event … you can see pix of the full celeb roster at HuffPost/Style.

Valentino is one of the world’s best known fashion brands.

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Actor Jason Lewis poses with fans on Rodeo Drive Tuesday night.

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Guests mingle at the party for the Valentino store opening.

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COL•COA French film fest in Los Angeles announces lineup

François Truffart announces the COL•COA program.

With five Oscar wins by “The Artist” still fresh in people’s minds, Los Angeles is gearing up to welcome more French film talent to the city. The City of Lights, City of Angels (COL•COA) festival, a week of French film premieres in Hollywood, runs April 16-23.

Last night, at the French Consulate in Beverly Hills, the Franco-American Cultural Fund announced the program for the fest, now in its 16th year.

“The historic triumph of ‘The Artist’ reflects a remarkable year for French cinema and we are glad to introduce a broad spectrum of new films to Hollywood that reveal both the quality and diversity of recent French productions,” said François Truffart, COL•COA executive director and artistic director.

COL•COA will feature 34 features and 21 shorts. It opens on Monday, April 16, with the North American premiere of “My Way” (“CloClo”), a biopic about French pop star Claude François, directed and co-written by Florent-Emilio Siri. The film, already a critical and commercial success in France, stars Jérémie Renier (“The Kid with a Bike”).

Closing the fest on Sunday, April 22, is a hit comedy called “The Intouchables” by writing/directing team Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. François Cluzet and Omar Sy star.

Of course I am most looking forward to the film noir series on Friday, April 20, which will include “Paris By Night” (“Une nuit”) by Philippe Lefebvre; Olivier Marchal’s “A Gang Story” (“Les Lyonnais”) and “Early One Morning” (“De bon matin”) from Jean-Marc Moutout.

More on the fest later; meanwhile be sure to check the COL•COA site and snag your tickets – they will sell quickly!

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‘The Raid’ a disappointing swoop into neo-noir territory

The Raid/2011/Sony Pictures Classics/100 min.

The central character of “The Raid” (Iko Uwais) aims to complete a SWAT team’s covert mission to remove a crime lord from a dilapidated apartment building in Jakarta. This is particularly challenging once their cover is blown, their leader (Joe Taslim) falls and they are trapped inside.

Fans of martial-arts action flicks might find this (and the Mike Shinoda/Joseph Trapanese score) good fun. The choreography of the fight scenes was top-notch. But I’d been hoping that a bit of intrigue and noir storytelling would be layered into the mix; instead “The Raid” was ridiculously, relentlessly, stupefyingly violent. Yawn.

Perhaps Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans (who teamed with Uwais on 2009’s “Merantau”) sums it up best: “I’m the guy that makes stunt performers take multiple kicks to the head for the pleasure of what I hope is a captivated audience. … I deal in blood and mayhem.”

“The Raid” opened in New York and LA on March 23.

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Billy Wilder superbly skewers Tinseltown in ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) is found dead in Norma Desmond’s pool.

Without a doubt, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” is one of the greatest movies ever made about Hollywood, perhaps one of the greatest movies ever made.

Aging Hollywood star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is admittedly a little cut off from reality. She fawns over her pet monkey, has rats in her pool, autographs pile after pile of 8 x 10 glossies for her fans, even though she hasn’t made a picture in years. But, like so many women of film noir, the “Sunset Blvd.” heroine was ahead of her time. She was a veteran movie star who wanted to create her own roles, look her best and date a younger, sexy man. Anything wrong with that?

Unfortunately, though, she spins out of control and winds up shooting this boy toy in a jealous pique. There’s always a downside to being a visionary, I guess. By mentioning the murder, I’m not spoiling anything because the movie opens with Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating lifelessly in Norma’s pool, having stumbled in after she plugged him. He then narrates the movie via flashback, a favorite film-noir technique, but Wilder was the first to let the voice belong to a dead guy. In fact, there are two (perfectly merged) narratives – dead Joe reflecting on the past and in-the-moment Joe, unaware of his fate.

Norma (Gloria Swanson) tries to keep Joe entertained.

An Ohio newspaperman, Joe has come to LA to be a screenwriter but his career has stalled and he’s short on money. Looking for a place to stash his car so that the finance company won’t repossess it, he spots an old mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

It’s an old home, but it’s not deserted – Norma lives there with her butler and former director, Max von Mayerling (real-life director Erich von Stroheim). Once she learns Joe is a writer – a tall, buff, gorgeous writer – she asks him to collaborate on a screenplay that she hopes will relaunch her career. They seal the deal over a glass of champagne and Norma decides he should move in with her. Joe agrees but occasionally sneaks away to slum it with his young, aspiring movie-maker friends, including earnest, ambitious and fresh-faced Betty Schaefer (Wisconsin-native Nancy Olson).

Aspiring writer Betty (Nancy Olson) connects with Joe at a party.

Betty and Joe decide to co-write a script in their free time, but Norma isn’t one to share her man. In her final dramatic encounter with Joe, Norma ironically achieves her long-held dream of hearing “Lights, camera, action!” once more.

“Sunset Blvd.” is rich with irony. Von Stroheim is just one of many Hollywood greats playing parts that were very close to their own lives. (Von Stroheim, a major silent-film director most renowned for “Greed” from 1924, directed Swanson in 1929’s “Queen Kelly,” a few frames of which are shown in “Sunset Blvd.”) Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper play themselves as do actors Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson as Norma’s friends from her glory days.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched “Sunset Blvd.” but each time I view, it seems fresh, funny and contemporary, which is the mark of a truly classic film. From the rich, shadow-laden visuals (I love the first time we see Norma – coiled like a viper, clutching her antique cigarette holder, peeking out from behind Venetian blinds) to the perfect, snappy pacing to the outstanding score by Franz Waxman, Wilder left not one detail to chance.

Butler and driver Max (Erich Von Stroheim) takes Norma and Joe to a meeting at Paramount with legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Most importantly, Wilder elicited tremendous performances from his actors – Swanson is not only deluded and desperate and vain, she’s funny (especially when she impersonates Charlie Chaplin) and determined and strangely endearing. Holden wins us over, even though there’s very little to like about his character. Of course, a big part of great acting is precise casting and Wilder was lucky on that front.

There was of course no way he could have foreseen how indelibly Swanson and Holden would stamp their parts on the pop-culture landscape. Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri reportedly turned down the Norma role. Montgomery Clift and Fred MacMurray passed on the chance to add Joe Gillis to their list of credits. (Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly were also considered.)

Wilder and his longtime creative partner Charles Brackett wrote the first-rate script with help from D.M. Marshman, Jr. Relentlessly cynical and unforgiving of Hollywood’s callous, cruel and exploitative side, the story ruffled studio- exec feathers but resonated with critics and audiences.

“Sunset Blvd.” received Oscar noms for best picture, director, actor (Holden), actress (Swanson), supporting actor (Von Stroheim) and supporting actress (Olson) as well as for editing and cinematography (John F. Seitz). It won three – for story/screenplay, art direction and score.

Though perhaps not quintessential film noir, Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond is nonetheless an unforgettable femme fatale, whose life might’ve unfolded very differently had she but Botox enough and time.

“Sunset Blvd.” plays tonight at 7:30 p.m. (in a double bill with David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”) at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

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‘Sunset Blvd.’ quick hit

Sunset Blvd./1950/Paramount Pictures/110 min.

“You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood,” said MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to writer/director Billy Wilder after a screening of “Sunset Blvd.”

In this magnificent skewering of Tinseltown, Gloria Swanson, a real-life silent film star, plays Norma Desmond, a fictional silent film star whom time has forgotten. William Holden is her sometime boyfriend and screenwriter of her comeback script; Erich von Stroheim is her ex-husband and ex-director, now a live-in butler.

Personally, I adore the idea of putting an ex-hubby on the payroll to do all my household chores, in a starched gray uniform, no less! “Sunset Blvd.” is a classic to be watched again and again.

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Top 10 lines from Billy Wilder’s classic ‘Sunset Blvd.’

Gloria Swanson and Billy Wilder

“Sunset Blvd,” Billy Wilder’s scathing portrait of Hollywood, plays this Saturday in a double bill with “Mulholland Dr.” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

“Sunset Blvd” stars Gloria Swanson as silent film star Norma Desmond seeking a return to the screen, William Holden as her younger boyfriend, a writer named Joe Gillis, and Erich von Stroheim as her faithful servant and eyeshadow adjuster.

My review will run Friday; meanwhile here are my favorite lines from this terrific film, widely considered to be one of the greatest American movies ever made. It was written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.

1. Norma Desmond: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

2. Joe Gillis: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.”

3. Salesman at a men’s clothing store, to Joe: “As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?”

4. Norma Desmond: “No-one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.”

5. Joe Gillis referring to Norma’s script: “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.”

6. Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself): “You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

7. Norma Desmond: “Without me, there wouldn’t be any Paramount studio.”

Nancy Olson and William Holden

8. Nancy Olson as Joe’s friend Betty: “Where have you been keeping yourself? I’ve got the most wonderful news for you.”
Joe: “I haven’t been keeping myself at all, lately.”

9. Joe Gillis talking about his car: “I kept it across the street in a parking lot behind Rudy’s shoeshine parlor. Rudy never asked any questions about your finances – he’d just look at your heels and know the score.

10. Norma Desmond: “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

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New on DVD, Blu-ray: ‘Skin I Live in’ and ‘To Catch a Thief’

By Michael Wilmington

Antonio Banderas

The Skin I Live In (DVD)/2011/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment/117 min.

Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish master of kink and perverse soap opera (“Matador,” “Law of Desire,” “Talk to Her”), here plunges into high Gothic melodrama, with Antonio Banderas as a wealthy and reclusive plastic surgeon, who becomes obsessed with implanting the features of his beautiful, beloved, dead wife on the face of a female prisoner (Elena Anaya) whom he keeps hidden away in his posh isolated home.

Also involved: a mysterious housekeeper who knows some dark secrets (Marisa Paredes) and a raunchy interloper in a tiger suit (Roberto Álamo).

Not for every taste of course – no Almodovar film is – but a good, creepy elegant old-school horror movie worthy of its obvious influences: Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face,” James Whale’s Frankenstein, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. And the reunion of Almodovar and star Banderas, is a felicitous one. At the very least, this film will give you a different slant on Banderas’ “Puss in Boots.” (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Documentary featurettes; Q&A with Almodovar

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Grant and Kelly: One of Hitchcock’s sexiest duos.

To Catch a Thief (Blu-ray)/1955/Paramount/106 min.

Cary Grant is a Riviera cat burglar, framed by another mysterious thief and chased by both the local gendarmerie and his old pals in the Resistance. Grace Kelly is a rich, gorgeous vacationer who can really get those fireworks and colored lights going.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining movies, beautifully shot in Cannes and surrounding locations, with Grant and Kelly making up his sexiest couple, except maybe for Grant and Bergman in “Notorious.”

From the (not too good) novel by David Dodge, scripted by John Michael Hayes. With Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Vanel and John Williams.

Pure – well, a little impure – fun.

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Retro sipping for St. Pat’s from the Stark Bar and FNB

Green beer not doing it for you? Take inspiration from Ray’s and Stark Bar (at Lacma, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.) in Los Angeles and FNB to add vintage flair to your St. Patrick’s festivities. Here are two recipes from the bar’s extensive cocktail list and one of my own.

The Ginger Rogers hits the spot.

The Ginger Rogers
2 ounces gin
1 ounce ginger syrup (theirs is housemade with fresh ginger)
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
Top with ice and ginger ale; garnish with fresh mint

The Cheap Detective
2 ounces St. Germain elderflower liqueur
1 ounce Cynar
¾ ounce Campari
Garnish with grapefruit peel

From my kitchen: The LA Fizzy Blonde
8 ounces ginger ale (don’t use diet)
2 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
Mix soda and juice. Add ice and lime slice to garnish

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Another realistic gem from Belgium’s Dardenne brothers

The Kid with a Bike/2011/IFC/87 min.

Both a fiercely realistic crime drama and a tender, unsentimental, story of maternal love, “The Kid with a Bike” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is one of the best films I’ve seen in years.

Ex-documentarians known for their realism and compassion for troubled characters – “The Promise” (1996), “Rosetta” (1999), “The Son” (2002), “The Child” (2005), “Lorna’s Silence” (2008) – the Dardenne brothers won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Jury prize for their latest work.

Watching “Kid,” set in Belgium’s Meuse valley, we meet Cyril (Thomas Doret), a restless, stubborn and intense 11-year-old boy, whose coldly negligent father Guy (Jérémie Renier) has placed him in a group home for children. Sure that this situation is temporary, Cyril figures that if he can leave the home and recover his bike, he’ll be able to reconnect with his father. His search plays a bit like a detective story as he tracks down the bike and his dad, only to be sent back to the home.

Shortly after this setback, Cyril randomly clings to a woman named Samantha (Cécile de France) and she is moved to try to help him, allowing him to leave the home on weekends to stay with her. Though Samantha is patient and generous, the boy’s craving for his father’s affection and a budding friendship with a neighborhood gang leader (chillingly played by Egon Di Mateo) gets Cyril into trouble, the repercussions of which could change the course of his life.

The film masterfully blends moods and genres – domestic drama, crime movie and fantasy. Says Jean-Pierre Dardenne: “We wanted to construct the film as a kind of fairy tale with baddies who make the boy lose his illusions, and Samantha, who appears as a kind of fairy.”

Poignant performances – newcomer Doret is a natural – assured direction, restrained writing and arresting use of music make “The Kid with a Bike” an exceptional cinematic achievement.

“The Kid with a Bike” opens today in LA and New York.

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‘Anatomy of a Murder:’ Preminger’s crowning achievement

Anatomy of a Murder/1959/Columbia Pictures/160 min.

Criterion’s DVD rerelease of “Anatomy of a Murder” is this month’s giveaway prize. To be entered in the draw to win, just make a comment on any post this month.

By Michael Wilmington

Lee Remick is sexy and flirtatious Laura Manion, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. Laura's dog Muff is frequently at her side.

One of the best and most true-to-life of all courtroom dramas, “Anatomy of a Murder” is also the best film producer-director Otto Preminger ever made. And he was a master – of film noir (“Laura,” “Fallen Angel,” “Whirlpool,” “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” “Angel Face”), of urban drama (“The Man with the Golden Arm”), of romance (“Bonjour Tristesse,” “Daisy Kenyon”), of historical epics (“Exodus”), of spy dramas (“The Human Factor”), of musicals (“Carmen Jones”) and, most characteristically, of dramas that examine big, complex institutions: “Advise and Consent,” “The Cardinal,” “In Harm’s Way.”

“Anatomy” is a great, realistic film on a great subject, with writing that cuts to the bone. It also has one of the most famous title sequences (by Saul Bass) in movie history. And one of the most influential scores, original jazz, composed and played by Duke Ellington.

The film’s source material was a best-selling book by John D. Voelker, a Michigan State Supreme Court Justice, using the pen name Robert Traver. He based the book on an actual murder case in which he’d been the prosecuting attorney. In that trial, an Army man shot and killed a popular small-town bar-owner who, he said, had raped his wife.

From left: James Stewart plays a lawyer defending an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) with help from his old friend and fellow lawyer (Arthur O'Connell).

Voelker/Traver and Wendell Mayes adapted the book and a phenomenal cast brought the story to the screen. We see Jimmy Stewart at his best as the wily and ingenious old-school defense lawyer Paul Biegler, Ben Gazzara as his cocky murder-trial defendant/client Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion, Lee Remick as Manion’s sexy wife Laura, George C. Scott as the icily astute prosecutor Claude Dancer, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell as Paul’s sharp-tongued secretary Maida Rutledge and Paul’s amiably soused fellow counsel Parnell McCarthy. The trial’s owlish, chatty but punctiliously fair Judge Weaver is played unforgettably by famed attorney Joseph Welch. Kathryn Grant is also memorable as the sweet but mysterious Mary Pilant.

If Paul is going to get Manion off, the only defense that is likely to work is Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity – an “irresistible impulse” that drove Manion to kill his wife’s rapist. The movie makes clear that Paul is not necessarily seeking the truth, but a victory for his client. So the trial becomes, in some sense, a piece of theater. Paul is creating a dramatic scenario that we know is a slanted one. Judge Weaver is there to mediate, but also to be a kind of commentator and chorus.

At the same time, Preminger (the son of a Viennese trial lawyer and a law school graduate who never practiced law himself) gives us a course in what happens during a trial and why the American legal system, for all its seeming flaws, is a model of both legal science and human compassion.

We want Paul Biegler to win, but mostly because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart – who brilliantly manipulates his movie persona as the stammering, sincere, dryly funny hero, while also showing us a somewhat devious side beneath the mask. It’s an incredibly adroit performance, as good as Stewart’s signature roles as George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” and Jeff Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

And Stewart anchors an eminently satisfying cast. Remick is wonderful as Manion’s flirtatious, cheerfully brazen and narcissistic wife Laura, a part originally intended for Lana Turner. The prosecution’s arrogant head lawyer Claude Dancer is played with nerveless intensity by Scott. Stewart, O’Connell and Scott got Oscar noms for their work.

Preminger shot the movie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Marquette, Ishpeming, Big Bay and Michigamme). The streets, the bar and the courthouse are real. And the scenes in Paul’s home (with its books, fishing gear and record collection) were shot in Voelker’s own house. “Anatomy” has the flavor of a semi-documentary, or of one of those Henry Hathaway crime dramas/noirs of the ’40s: “The House on 92nd Street,” “Call Northside 777” (with Stewart as a crusading Chicago reporter) and “Kiss of Death.”

Laura (Lee Remick) and her husband share pathology as well as passion.

Preminger’s filmmaking style is often called “objective.” He doesn’t try to force reactions on us, instead leaving us free to observe and judge. “Anatomy of a Murder” is especially ripe for such analysis, since the audience is essentially the jury.

But there’s a catch. Does anyone really watch a Preminger movie without knowing who the good guys and bad guys are? Even in “Anatomy of a Murder” we sense Paul might be defending a guilty client, but we also know he’s upholding the law, and his vision of it: the depth, mercy and grandeur of the law in which he deeply believes.

The fact is that Preminger is never completely objective. A lawyer as well as a man of the theater, he is always arguing a viewpoint, letting us know whom he likes and whom he doesn’t. He just does it in a subtler, more stylish, less forced manner than most other directors.

What’s special about Preminger’s cinematic style is his propensity for long takes and single shots with an unobtrusively moving camera. Preminger once said that, ideally, every scene should be done in a single shot. And that’s often what he often tries to do, for the sake of the actors (who don’t get their performances chopped up) and to preserve the feel of realism.

Lee Remick, Eve Arden and James Stewart appear in a courtroom scene.

To some in 1959, “Anatomy” looked like an opportunistic and deliberately sensational shocker, with a script that contained words such as “rape,” “bitch” and panties.” The film was even banned temporarily in Chicago. But Preminger played anti-censorship battles with such shrewd facility that it sometimes seemed he had gulled the censors into being his unofficial P.R. team.

“Anatomy of a Murder” may have raised hackles in its day, but it’s survived as a movie treasure and is one of the top films from 1959 – a year that also saw the release of classics like Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo,” George Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Vincente Minnelli’s “Some Came Running.”

Preminger’s trial drama can stand with any of them.

“Anatomy” will play Friday and Saturday at the New Beverly in LA.

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