Three COLCOA films view World War Two through the eyes of women and children

The unthinkable horrors and everyday nightmares on the home front during World War II are movingly depicted in three excellent new French films, which premiered at this year’s COLCOA French Film Festival: “The Innocents,” “Come What May” and “Fanny’s Journey.”

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents” is a shocking film set in 1945 Poland.

“The Innocents,” from director Anne Fontaine, received both the Audience Award and a Critics’ Special Mention. (Unlike 1961’s “The Innocents” – an adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story – by director Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, this film is based on fact.) Lou de Laâge stars as a French Red Cross doctor who comes to the aid of a Polish convent in 1945, after learning that several nuns have been raped by Russian soldiers. Fontaine’s graceful sweeping storytelling balances the shocking subject matter. She elicits memorable performances from the cast as she shows the nuns questioning their faith in varying degrees. Luminous cinematography and a somber score enhance the chilling mood.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

“Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In 1940, about 8 million French people left their homes as the invading German Panzers made their way through the Ardennes forest. “Come What May” tells the intimate story of a handful of villagers (August Diehl, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Alice Isaaz and Matthew Rhys) as they abandon their town to head for the coast, where they hope to be safe from the invasion. Director and co-writer Christian Carion based the film on his mother’s real-life recollections of fleeing the Nazis at age 14. Beautifully made and acted, the film also boasts a score from Oscar winner Ennio Morricone. “Come What May” won the festival’s Critics’ Award.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud (center) plays Fanny Ben Ami.

In “Fanny’s Journey,” Léonie Souchaud plays Fanny Ben Ami, who in 1939, when she was 13, fended for herself and her younger sisters, after their father was arrested in Paris. The girls stay briefly in a refectory for Jewish children but when that is no longer safe, Fanny faces a fearsome duty: leading a group of children left on their own through Nazi-occupied Europe to the Swiss border.

Director and co-writer Lola Doillon (daughter of filmmaker Jacques Doillon) has made an exquisite-looking period film – both a tense thriller and tender coming-of-age story. She has carried on the family tradition of delivering effortlessly fresh and spontaneous performances from child actors. “Fanny’s Journey” is based on Ben Ami’s autobiography.

FNB writer Mike Wilmington called the film “an instant classic.”

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‘Courted’ touts top acting, but its stories disappoint

In “Courted,” writer/director Christian Vincent transports us to the professional and private world of Michel Racine, a fussbudget French judge in the criminal courts. Racine is a memorable characterization, beautifully played by Fabrice Luchini, who received last year’s Best Actor prize at the Venice International Film Festival for this performance.

“Courted” (“L’Hermine” in French) had its West Coast premiere at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles Wednesday night, the same night as its North American premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival in New York.

Courted posterThe movie, which almost instantly recalls Sidney Lumet’s courtroom classic, “Twelve Angry Men,” shows Racine presiding over a brutal murder case, in which a 7-month-old child has died. The child’s surly father (Victor Pontecorvo) is the defendant. As the mechanics of the trial unfold, we meet the lawyers, the jury and a key witness, the child’s mother (Candy Ming). The jurors are a chatty bunch and one of them tells the group she has heard through the grapevine that Racine is known around the courthouse for his arrogance.

But he’s also a human being with very human problems. Indeed, it’s a bit jarring to see Racine, at the end of the day, sans his regal ermine robe, ordering soup in the tacky hotel where he lives, a result of his pending divorce.

By coincidence, another juror (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an empathetic Danish-born doctor, has crossed paths with Racine in the past, and this connection plays out as a budding romance.

A novel premise, “Courted” has much to offer – it’s well written and well acted all around. Luchini removes Racine’s pompous, curmudgeonly veneer to reveal his wistful vulnerability. Knudsen shines as the woman who attracts him, a lonely divorced mom who has devoted herself to her kids and career.

Crisply shot and nicely paced, the film’s tonal changes between drama and romcom are gracefully handled. But, at the same time, this mix of genres creates some problems. While it’s fascinating to see the French judicial system at work, shown with some of the same engrossing detail as Lumet’s great films and Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order,” the trial scenes lack the crackling tension that would have completely hooked us voyeurs.

Similarly, there’s a shortage of subtle chemistry between Luchini and Knudsen – both are sympathetic but there is an awkward flatness between them that never lifts. Even if this is intentional, it’s hard to care much about this fledgling couple. There’s a pivotal moment in the trial that would seem to clinch their relationship and oddly that moment is glossed over, a small but significant flaw.

Also strangely lost in the shuffle is any authentic reaction or concern about an unusually dire and depressing murder case. The characters’ jaded detachment is puzzling.

The fact that veteran writer/director Christian Vincent’s point of view remains rigidly superficial limits the film – the merged storylines should pulse with riveting intensity on two fronts, but instead “Courted” retreats disappointingly into bland disengagement.

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Enchanté, Monsieur Sy … COLCOA opens with a deftly performed drama, ‘Monsieur Chocolat’

Omar Sy

Omar Sy

France’s hottest export right now just might be actor/writer/producer Omar Sy. His new film “Monsieur Chocolat,” was the opening selection at the City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival Monday night in Hollywood.

The 38-year-old, easy-on-the-eyes French actor attended the fest reception and stayed after the film for a Q&A with director Roschdy Zem.

Monsieur Chocolat” is based on a true story of two circus clowns – one black and one white – who change the dynamics of comic performance in turn-of-the-century France, clearly no small task, given society’s hard-wired and rampant racism, not to mention the hardscrabble and precarious life of on-the-road entertainers. James Thierrée co-stars.

Sy’s most famous film is 2011’s “The Intouchables,” where he played a streetwise caregiver to a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet). Enormously popular in France, the movie became the best selling French film of all time, but was less well received in the U.S.

A gifted comic actor, Sy’s engaging performance is the highlight of this flick. Thierrée, too, is at the top of his game. In fact, these are two of the best actors in contemporary French cinema.

Enchanté, Monsieur Sy! Let’s hope he stays all nine days of this truly charming and delightful festival.

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Noir City Hollywood kicks off with an Argentine noir

Noir City Hollywood starts Friday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The famed fest is presented by the American Cinematheque in collaboration with the Film Noir Foundation.

The provocative series opens with the Foundation’s restoration of the 1956 Argentine noir “Los tallos amargos” (“The Bitter Stems,” 1956, Fernando Ayala), followed by 1947’sRiff-Raff” (Ted Tatzlaff). A reception will take place between the films.

The fest runs through April 24. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation will introduce the movies.

Paul Henreid and Bette Davis try to recapture their love in “Deception.”

Paul Henreid and Bette Davis try to recapture their love in “Deception.”

For the double feature of “Deception” (1946, Irving Rapper), starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, and “Hollow Triumph” (1948, Steve Sekely) on Saturday, April 23, Paul Henreid’s daughter, Monika Henreid, will join Muller for a discussion of her dad’s work in both films.

On the closing day, Sunday, April 24, the Film Noir Foundation and its media publishing partner Flicker Alley will host a reception celebrating the Blu-ray/DVD releases of two FNF 35mm restorations: “Too Late for Tears” (1949, Byron Haskin) and “Woman on the Run” (1950, Norman Foster). Stay for an encore screening (in 35mm) of “Too Late for Tears.”

Deep Valley posterOther highlights include:

Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster star in “All My Sons” (1948, Irving Reis), based on Arthur Miller’s play.

William Powell flexes his film noir muscle in “Take One False Step” (1949, Chester Erskine).

The work of French poetic realist/film noir specialist Julien Duvivier gets a double feature—“Flesh and Fantasy” (1943) and “Destiny” (1944). Also notable: the Jazz Noir double feature, and the Anthony Mann double feature: “Side Street” (1949) and “Dr. Broadway” (1942).

Tony Curtis doubtless does some fine-ass lip snarling in 1952’s “Flesh and Fury.”

Ida Lupino in “Deep Valley” (1947, Jean Negulesco) and the usual suspects—Virginia Mayo, Zachary Scott, Elisha Cook Jr. and Dorothy Malone—in “Flaxy Martin” (1949, Richard L. Bare). Note to self: Check if @FlaxyMartin is taken.

Dead Reckoning” (1947, John Cromwell), a good little yarn starring Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. Read more here: Dead Reckoning review.

So get your pencil skirts pressed and your fedoras flashing as you gear up for some twisty, chewy badness, guaranteed to trigger your existential angst and your black-and-white nostalgia but not before giving you some wry laughs, sexy camerawork, sizzling chemistry and boundless charisma.

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COLCOA celebrates 20th anniversary with a superb lineup

The COLCOA French Film Festival turns 20 this year!

The Franco-American Cultural Fund’s City of Lights, City of Angels (COLCOA) French Film Festival, now in its 20th year, will run April 18-26 at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.

COLCOA’s executive producer and artistic director François Truffart has announced that a record 70 films and television series will be shown at the fest. This includes four world premieres, seven international premieres, 19 North American or U.S. premieres, 17 West Coast premieres and 21 new shorts. Fest organizers say COLCOA is the world’s largest event dedicated to French films and television.

The festival will open on Monday, April 18, with the North American premiere of “Monsieur Chocolat,a biopic about the first French black clown, directed by Roschdy Zem, and starring Omar Sy. The fest will close with a romantic comedy called “Up for Love,” starring Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin and Virginie Efira.

COLCOA will celebrate the 11th anniversary of its Film Noir Series with a three-title series to run Friday night, kicking off with “A Decent Man,” a dark drama about a feckless dude (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who falls into a dire trap of dishonesty. Emmanuel Finkiel directed and co-wrote.

Kalinka film posterThe next film in the series is director and co-writer Vincent Garenq’s “Kalinka” (“Au nom de ma fille”), the story of a father’s  27-year fight for justice in the name of his murdered daughter, starring the always-magnificent Daniel Auteuil.

The final movie is “Fast Convoy,” which the fest calls a “slick, turbo-charged road thriller.” It was co-written and directed by Frédéric Schoendoerffer and stars Benoît Magimel.

All other series are back as well: COLCOA Shorts, Classics, and Documentaries as well as Happy Hour Talks, World Cinema Produced by France, the After 10 series and the French NeWave 2.0 series.

Bon anniversaire, COLCOA !

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‘Life’ is rough when you look for the film noir elements

It’s a Wonderful Life/ 1946/ Paramount/130 min

Michael Wilmington provides a fresh look at essential Christmas Eve viewing: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve dismissed this film as sappy, watch the last act one more time and you’ll likely appreciate anew its noir mood and atmosphere.

Michael Wilmington

Scenario for Christmas: A whimsical guardian angel shows a good-hearted small-town guy, on the brink of suicide, what would have happened if he’d never lived and what a difference his life really made to everyone around him. You’ve seen it before, but it always works. And it always will.

Frank Capra‘s holiday masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an exhilarating mix of angelic fantasy and small-town comedy, of political fable and poetic license, of Norman Rockwell and film noir.

The last act of this beloved Christmas classic — where George Bailey (James Stewart, in his favorite role) sees his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls turned into a dark semi-urban nightmare, as it would have been if it were run by George’s rich, greedy nemesis, Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) — is a pure film-noir nightmare, with a tormented protagonist, a world bent into bad-dreams-come-true and a fate that (temporarily) can’t be escaped.

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

James Stewart falls into a Christmas nightmare in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

There are lots of real film-noir mainstays in the cast, people who fit easily into the noir universe — notably Gloria Grahame (“In a Lonely Place,” “Human Desire,” “The Big Heat”) as the town’s blonde bombshell Violet; Thomas Mitchell (“Dark Waters,” “The Dark Mirror,” “While the City Sleeps”) as George’s absent-minded Uncle Billy; Barrymore (“Key Largo”) as the evil banker Potter; and Sheldon Leonard (“Decoy”) as tough Nick the bartender.

The movie’s crack Capra ensemble also boasts Ward Bond (“The Maltese Falcon,” “On Dangerous Ground,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”) and Frank Faylen (“The Blue Dahlia,” “Detective Story,” “The Sniper”) as cop and cabbie (and “Sesame Street” namesakes) Bert and Ernie. And of course there’s the great, shy, stammering Stewart himself, who went on to make such classic noirs as “Call Northside 777,” plus, for Hitchcock, “Rope,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

It's a Wonderful Life posterThe script, by turns witty and sentimental, was adapted from a Christmas fable by poet Philip Van Doren Stern. “Life” had a raft of A-list writers, namely Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-wife team who adapted Dashiell Hammett‘s “Thin Man” for the movies. On “Life,” they received uncredited assistance from such stalwart noir writers as Jo Swerling (“Leave Her to Heaven”), Dalton Trumbo (“Gun Crazy”), Clifford Odets (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker (you heard me right).

Lead cinematographer Joe Biroc (“Cry Danger,” “The Killer That Stalked New York”) gives the movie a distinctly nightmarish look.

The point of cataloging “Life’s” noir vets is that most of the talent in the movie were known more for film noir than the simplistic goody-two-shoes stuff people mistakenly feel is the essence of both “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Capra-corn. Capra wanted smart, sophisticated collaborators who knew what happened when the lights went off. Noir people.

Capra had already experimented with a mixture of humor, sentiment and noir in his 1944 comedy of murders, with Cary Grant, “Arsenic and Old Lace” but “Wonderful Life” has the style down pat. We see George’s kindness, generosity and sometimes-antic humor shining throughout his difficult but rewarding life as recounted up above to his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers). But then we see him in a downpour of terror and anguish when he suddenly faces financial ruin, flees his family, wrecks his car, stands on a bridge and contemplates suicide. And finally at the “Auld Lang Syne” end, we get the Bailey family pride and joy when the nightmare ends. Well, some great noirs have happy endings too …

In many ways, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Charles Dickens‘ “A Christmas Carol” in reverse. (Barrymore was famous for his interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge, which he reprised every year at Christmas on radio and which he probably would have played for the 1938 MGM movie, had he not been wheelchair-bound by the time of its production.)

Anyway, it all jelled into a movie and an experience, both spinetingling and heartwarming, that nobody ever forgets: On a magical Christmas Eve, a good man understands the meaning of his life and the effects of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Scrooge sees the consequences of his own selfishness.

Most importantly, “Life” had Frank Capra, a directorial magician who could mix comedy and drama, move audiences deeply and also make them laugh, like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra always thought this was his best movie, even though it was a horrible disappointment to him financially and professionally. The original 1946 audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, that Capra was trying to set up with his friends George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston. Largely because of “Life,” they lost their Liberty.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” takes you right over the edge. Almost. It’s a wonderful picture: a very funny, often charming, but also terrifying movie about life’s most horrible disappointments, about all your nightmares coming true and all your dreams being torn apart. And that was echoed in real life. George Bailey failed (for a while), and Frank Capra failed (for a while) too.

But Capra was right. This is his best movie. I can’t keep a dry eye when George’s brother Harry (Todd Karns) toasts him under the Christmas tree as “the richest man in town,” the Bedford Falls crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” and they find Zuzu’s petals. I don’t even want to.

If you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when Harry raises that glass, everybody sings and George hears the bell — well, the hell with you. “Bah, Humbug,” as Potter would say. But the Bedford Falls folks are still going to shout: “Merry Christmas everyone!”

Noir people too.

You can read more of Michael Wilmington’s reviews at Movie City News.

Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski

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Happy birthday, Gloria Grahame, top film noir femme fatale

Gloria Grahame is one of our favorite bad girls.

Gloria Grahame is one of our favorite bad girls.

While lounging this holiday weekend or perhaps while shopping (for yourself, who else?) or having a tad more chocolate and champagne, be sure to remember one of our favorite bad girls: the inimitable Miss Gloria Grahame, kittenish with a slight lisp and sexy as hell. She could play a vixen like no one else and she courted scandal off-screen as well.

Gloria was born today (Nov. 28) in Los Angeles in 1923. She died on Oct. 5, 1981.

A few years ago, we decided to honor Ms. Grahame with her own special day (in addition to her b’day because one day was simply not enough) and we invite you to revisit our praise:

You will also find links to several GG film noir classics.


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AFI FEST delights film noir fans

Film noir aficionados were gratified to see Pablo Trapero’s “The Clan,” a grisly crime story about the infamous Puccio family, featured at AFI FEST presented by Audi. “The Clan” is Argentina’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Other AFI FEST highlights:

By the Sea,” directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt, who also stars in the film with husband Brad Pitt. Dark and moody and sexy, just the way we like ’em.

Concussion,” starring Will Smith as a doctor who takes on the NFL. Co-starring Alec Baldwin and directed by Peter Landesman.

Director Patricia Riggen’s “The 33,” a tense drama about the 2010 collapse of a Chilean mine and the rescue attempts that followed.

The Big Short,” a comedy/drama about a Wall Street wild man who cashed in on the housing market and defaulting subprime home loans. Directed by Adam McKay, based on real events. Starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell.

The full lineup included 17 docs and 10 Foreign Language Oscar entries among 127 total films from 45 countries.

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Nancy Olson to appear at ‘Sunset Blvd.’ screening in LA

Sunset b & wAcademy Award Nominee Nancy Olson Livingston will participate in a Q&A with film critic Stephen Farber at a 65th anniversary screening of “Sunset Blvd.” The event starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 21, at the Laemmle Royal in West LA. By popular demand, an additional 7:30 p.m. show has been added.

For our part, we offer our top 10 favorite lines from this magnificent film noir movie, directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and starring (along with Nancy Olson) the incomparable Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim. The film garnered 11 Oscar nominations and won three (script, music and art direction).

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‘Double Indemnity’ plays nationwide on the big screen

Cissy and Raymond Chandler were married for 30 years.

Cissy Chandler (1870-1954) was married to Raymond Chandler for 30 years.

Just this morning, I finished reading “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” (Pantheon Books, 2007) by Judith Freeman. It’s a look at Chandler’s work and his 30-year marriage to a mysterious woman named Cissy Hurlburt Porcher Pascal, a sexy but refined redhead from the Midwest who was 18 years his senior. (It was her third marriage; his first and only.)  Not that she bothered to tell him her real age, natch. Details, details …

Double Indemnity July 19-20In the book, Freeman describes a turning point in Chandler’s career: When he received the offer from Paramount Studios to adapt James M. Cain’s novel “Double Indemnity” for the big screen, working in partnership with writer/director Billy Wilder.

The film, starring Fred Mac Murray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, was released in 1944. It earned seven Oscar noms, including screenplay, which was extremely rare for a film noir title.

Freeman writes:

“Ray didn’t get the idea of the whole thing at first. When Joe Sistrom, the producer, called and offered him the job, Ray said he could probably do it, but he wouldn’t be able to turn in the screenplay for a couple of weeks, and it would cost them a thousand bucks. Sistrom laughed. Was the guy being funny, or was he really that naïve about the way the movie business worked? Sistrom told him he’d be working with Wilder, in an office on the studio lot, that he’d have ten weeks to do the screenplay, and he’d be getting seven hundred and fifty bucks a week. Ray did the math. Ray liked the result. Ray saw the future … and Ray said, Yes. Sure. Why not?”

Precisely! So, why not treat yourself to a big-screen viewing of this genre-defining film? TCM, Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment are partnering to bring this classic to select cinemas nationwide on Sunday, July 19 and Monday, July 20.

“That tears it,” as Walter Neff would say.

See you there, noiristas. Meanwhile, you can read our review as well as 14 reasons we adore this flick.

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