‘Courted’ touts top acting, but its stories disappoint

By Film Noir Blonde and Michael Wilmington

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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Film noir news: Come out & see her this time, Noir City opens, ‘Dog Day’ turns 40, Poverty Row book party, Cecil B. DeMille showcased and ‘Sunset’ in Sherman Oaks

Mae West

Mae West

“It’s not the men in my life, it’s life in my men.” The original bad girl Mae West will be honored at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14., with a special program at the Hollywood Heritage Museum.

Happily ever after. Not. Noir City: The Film Noir Festival returns to the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, Jan. 16–25, with a program of 25 titles depicting the darker side of marriage. The fest will travel to several other cities, including Los Angeles, later in the year.

Catch this dog. The singular neo-noir “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975, Sidney Lumet), starring Al Pacino, screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It’s on a double bill with “The Dog,” (2013, Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren). The story behind “Dog Day Afternoon” (a man robbing a bank to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation) was true, and this doc explores the off-screen drama, providing a riveting look at New York in the 1970s and the early days of the gay liberation movement.

Early Poverty Row StudiosLocation, location, location. Though it’s a myth that the classic film noir canon consisted entirely of B-movies, the genre’s writers, directors, cinematographers and set designers often worked on minuscule budgets. Hey, it wasn’t all bad. They had more room to experiment and defy the censors that way – just look at Edgar Ulmer.

Many of them were regular denizens of the scrappy little Hollywood studios known as Poverty Row and so we are eagerly looking forward to Marc Wanamaker and E.J. Stephens’ new book: “Early Poverty Row Studios.”

The authors will discuss the book at 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood. See you there!

UCLA honors DeMille, a Hollywood pioneer. Starting Sunday, Jan. 18, the UCLA Film & Television Archive presents the film series, “The Greatest Showman: Cecil B. DeMille,” at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood Village.

This retrospective of one of cinema’s greatest storytellers will showcase 10 films restored by the archive, including “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “The Plainsman” (1937) and “The Buccaneer” (1938). A legendary producer and director, DeMille (1881-1959) helped put Hollywood on the map and set a high bar in terms of both artistry and showmanship. The series ends Feb. 28.

Joe (William Holden) lets Norma (Gloria Swanson) dry him after a swim.

Joe (William Holden) lets Norma (Gloria Swanson) dry him after a swim.

“I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.” Arguably, Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.” is the finest movie ever made about Hollywood. Inarguably, it’s deliciously noir. 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, she was ahead of her time. Norma 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?

Robert Walker is hard to top in 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.” So is co-star Farley Granger.

Robert Walker is hard to top in 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.” So is co-star Farley Granger.

Luscious William Holden plays Joe, Norma’s younger lover, and it’s worth watching just to lust after Holden. See it on the big screen at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19, at the ArcLight Cinema in Sherman Oaks. Co-presented with the Skirball Cultural Center, in conjunction with its outstanding film noir exhibitions.

Read the FNB review here.

Just the ticket? Meanwhile, Ben Affleck and others from the “Gone Girl” team are remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train.” Hmm. Hope they can do it justice. Or at least give the Robert Walker character a few flashy suits. 😉

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‘Marnie’ is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story

Marnie/1964/Universal Pictures/130 min.

In honor of Tippi Hedren’s 82nd birthday earlier this month (Jan. 19), I’m running this review of “Marnie.” In 1983, Hedren, a Minnesota native of Scandinavian descent, founded the Roar Foundation to support abandoned exotic felines at the Shambala Preserve in Acton, Calif.

Most cynics have romantic souls and if there’s one Hitchcock film that works on this premise it’s “Marnie.” Though the legendary auteur frequently featured redemptive, romantic endings, here a pair of feuding lovers must work through many an issue before they hit happily ever after. It’s also a portrait of a wayward woman struggling with a tortured psyche, stemming from an unresolved childhood trauma.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) and Mark (Sean Connery) must work through many an issue.

In the opening scene we meet impeccably dressed, raven-haired career girl Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) carrying a citron-colored handbag that’s as covetable today as it was in 1964. (Hedren starred in Hitchcock’s “The Birds” one year earlier.)

Marnie has just finished doing what she does best: stealing from her employer, then donning a new disguise so she can pull the same scam at another company.

Besides her sizable clothing and hair-color budget, Marnie wants money to give to her poor frumpy Mama (Louise Latham), telling her: “That’s what money’s for. To spend.” (Especially when it’s someone else’s cash.) But despite these handouts, which Marnie personally delivers, Mama’s uptight and hard to please, preferring to lavish her attention on a little girl from the neighborhood (Kimberly Beck) instead of on her daughter.

At her next job, Marnie sports auburn up-do’s and sensible shoes. It’s here that she meets devastatingly handsome businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Intense and domineering, Mark is quickly smitten but ice-queen Marnie has no interest in him or in any man, though she does weaken long enough to kiss him.

Diane Baker plays sassy Lil.

Not so impressed with Marnie is Mark’s sharp, sassy sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker). Packed with interesting women, the cast also includes Mariette Hartley as Marnie’s office colleague and Melody Thomas Scott as young Marnie.

Marnie’s coldness just makes Mark more determined – he is used to getting what he wants – and once he finds out about her criminal past, he uses this info to hasten their marriage.

The fact that Marnie can’t stand his touch doesn’t make for the most romantic honeymoon. Perhaps if he were a tad less controlling …

Will Mark help Marnie confront her past before her spate of Dior-collar crime catches up with her? That’s the movie’s source of suspense. It’s loosely based on a novel by Winston Graham but Hitchcock typically used the literary source material as merely a starting point to create a tension-filled, sometimes terrifying, reality and render his unique vision. The script came from Jay Presson Allen, a former actress and writer, who also worked with Sidney Lumet.

Hitchcock enjoyed exploring psychosexual theory in his films, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes not. In this case, Dr. Hitch diagnoses frigidity, rescue fantasies, control issues bordering on obsession, repressed memories and of course a major power struggle.

The movie was trashed upon its release. Critics called Hitchcock sloppy and unfairly pounced on Hedren’s acting. The editing is occasionally choppy, some of the backdrops look fake, the screen goes red when Marnie sees the color red, there are thunderstorms aplenty. Though they might seem flawed or slightly old-hat, these noirish devices reflect Marnie’s off-kilter world, her confused and anguished psychological state.

And Hitchcock’s personality was too controlling and perfectionistic to have coasted through this movie. Conscious of every detail of every frame, he sometimes shopped for and selected accessories like hats and handbags because even these seemingly minor visual elements affected the color palette of each shot. He also wanted classic lines for the clothes so that in years to come they wouldn’t look dated.

Always engaging, sometimes thrilling, “Marnie” is a complex, thoughtful and satisfying story.

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In his short life, Jean Vigo helped ignite a cinematic uprising

October’s reader giveaway, announced earlier this month, is Criterion’s anthology of French filmmaker Jean Vigo and a Chicago film fest T-shirt. To enter, just comment on any post this month. Here, critic Michael Wilmington discusses the director and his work.

He died at 29: Jean Vigo, the spirit of youth, of art, of cinematic rebellion, of France between the wars. He was a citizen of the world cinema, even though he directed only four films: two documentary shorts, a featurette, and one feature, all of them to some degree commercial and critical failures. And yet Vigo lives.

The son of a revolutionary who died in a prison, Vigo helped ignite an artistic and cinematic uprising. He and his co-conspirators, Jean Renoir, Pierre Chenal, Julien Duvivier, and Marcel Carné, created Poetic Realism, beautiful stylized portrayals of marginalized, often doomed characters, such as criminals. This style of filmmaking, along with German Expression, greatly influenced film noir.

Jean Vigo

The look of Vigo’s films inspired 1940s and ’50s Hollywood. His great collaborator was the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, a poet of light, who later shot “On the Waterfront” for Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men.”

Vigo’s works are records of the real – love and sex, wealth and poverty, French culture, French life as it was lived in the 1930s – and documents of the surreal, that mysterious land of our dreams.

He made movies about sunny resort cities and the bourgeoisie at play (1930’s “À propos de Nice), about a real-life Olympic champion swimmer (1931’s “Taris”), about schoolboys in revolt in a school run by monsters (1933’s “Zéro de Conduite”) and about two lovers and a wild old man on a barge on the river (1934’s “L’Atalante”).

“Zéro de Conduite,” a 44-minute featurette was based on Vigo’s memories of boarding school days, a nightmare of absurdities, tangled up with lyrical flights of freedom. The sarcastic treatment given the school’s bizarre academics is probably partly responsible for the film’s long banning in France (1933-45).

Dita Parlo and Michel Simon star in "L'Atalante."

“L’Atalante” remains one of the most hypnotically beautiful and lyrical films ever made. Twice, in 1962 and 1992, “L’Atalante” was voted one of the 10 greatest films of all time in the Sight and Sound International film poll. It is now a national treasure in France.

Vigo died in 1934. His work was trashed and forgotten, then resurrected and restored a decade after his death, and seen all over the world. If you see these films, they will make you feel more alive. They will flood your heart with love, your eyes with beauty and your mind with poetry, mad comedy and dreams. There are only four Jean Vigo films, but they open up a world for us. If we let them.

This Criterion anthology offers excellent special features and of course the films:

“À propos de Nice” (1930, silent, English intertitles)

“Taris” (1931, English subtitles) With Jean Taris.

“Zéro de Conduite” (1933, English subtitles) With Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre.

“L’Atalante” (1934, English subtitles) With Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre.

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