The Intouchables

B Comedy

  • Written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

I can’t really complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowd pleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing the_intouchablesfriendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver.

No surprise that this has become a box office bonanza. It’s funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life. It stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma. It has everything that Hollywood execs love in a movie except explosions and English dialog.

Besides, the friendship it celebrates is between a rich white guy and his black servant. That fits easily into most people’s comfort zone. Actually, that fits into too many people’s comfort zone, if you ask me.

The white guy, Philippe (François Cluzet), lives in a mansion and enjoys great wealth. But he lacks a full body. Paralyzed from the neck down in an accident, he can move neither his arms nor his legs. He’s irritable, and caregivers seldom last.

Then, almost on a whim, he hires Driss (Omar Sy), a street-smart black African immigrant with a criminal record and no real desire to work. In fact, he goes to the job interview because the welfare office requires that he go to a certain number of them.

Of course they’re going to bond and become close. Driss helps Philippe learn how to enjoy life again. Meanwhile, Driss learns about the work ethic and begins to take up painting.

As Driss, Sy carries the movie. He’s funny, charismatic, sexy, and holds the screen like a pro. His performance is The Intouchables’ best asset, and probably has as much to do with its commercial success as the feel-good plot. If he doesn’t emerge from this as one of France’s biggest stars, we can only blame racism.

 The Intouchables is as carefully designed as a well-made clock. Unfortunately, it’s almost as predictable. You see everything coming a mile away, but you forgive that because the picture is so entertaining.

A more troubling problem: With its master/servant friendship, the story gets uncomfortably close to magic negro mythology. It manages to avoid the worst pitfalls of that offensive cliché, largely because Driss has his own problems. But then, his problems are those of the underclass. The picture avoids one offensive cliché for another.

Yet I liked the picture. Two-thirds of the way through, I was ready to give it a B+. Then I saw the "crisis" that ends the second act (all commercial movies have a crisis at the end of the second act). I won’t say what happens, but it’s  utterly pointless and unbelievable.

The Intouchables works as a fluffy piece of entertainment, thanks largely to Omar Sy’s performance. Prepare to be touched, even if you’re aware of the manipulation.

I saw The Intouchables at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Film Books I’d Love to Read (Now If Only Someone Would Write Them)

I read a lot of books about cinema history. But I’m picky. I’m seldom interested in movie star biographies, or anyone’s autobiography. But I love a good overview of an era, the story of a major transition, or a scholarly biography of a producer, director, or screenwriter.

Here are a few books that I would love to read. The problem: No one has written them yet. I’d write them myself if I had the time.

Powers Behind the Thrones: The Careers of Joseph and Nicholas Schenck
Throughout the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, MGM president Louis B. Mayer was widely considered the most powerful man in Hollywood. Yet he served at the pleasure of Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM’s parent company, Loews, Inc. Meanwhile, Nick’s brother Joe married a movie star, produced Buster Keaton’s best work, served as president of United Artists, then of 20th Century Fox, and spent time in prison. They weren’t artists, but they made a lot of art possible. At least one Schenck brother turns up in just about any book about Hollywood’s first half century, but to my knowledge, no one has written a book about them.

Film With No Freedom: The Art of Cinema in Oppressive and Totalitarian Societies
One could reasonably assume that great art requires freedom–especially when the art also requires industrial-scale production. But against all expectations, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions. Consider the Soviet Union, which gave us Potemkin, Mother, October, Man with a Movie Camera, The Cranes are Flying, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Andrei Rublev and many others (although all of these came before or after the worst years of Stalinism). Iran has been producing great cinema for years. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to name a great film that came out of Nazi Germany or Maoist China. I’d love to read an intelligent discussion on this.

From New York to Hollywood: The American Film Industry in the 1910s
In 1910, the American movie industry is based in New York, all movies were one-reelers, actors went unbilled, and the major companies were Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. No one took movies seriously, either as an art or an industry. By 1920, everyone had moved to Hollywood, feature films dominated the market and were built around specific movie stars, and the major companies were Paramount, Universal, and Fox. One of my favorite film history books, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, covers Hollywood in the 1940s, year by year. Someone should use the same structure for this important decade.

The Color of Dreams: How the Movie Industry Slowly Abandoned Black and White
You can find good books on the talkie and widescreen revolutions (The Speed of Sound is an excellent choice), but I have yet to find one on the much slower evolution from black and white to color. I’ve covered this briefly in a blog post, but someone else should cover it in more detail.

What’s Screening: May 25 – 31

Only one festival this week: New Czech Films at the Roxie. It runs Tuesday through Thursday, and then picks up again in the middle of next week.

Not much else, either.

Roxie Fundraiser Dinner, The Verdi Club, Wednesday, 6:30. Help keep the Roxie running with this special event. It’s extremely expensive, but all for a good cause. RSVP ahead of time.

A Marx Brothers Triple Bill: Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, & Horse Feathers, Castro, Saturday. Three of their best films. A crudely-shot, early talkie based on a Broadway play, Animal Crackers overcomes its technical crudity by being very funny. "Marxist" humor always tears down the pompous and the self-important, and Animal Crackers’ society party makes the perfect setting for the Brothers’ special form of anarchy. Monkey Business, their first film not based on a play, throws its plot to the wind as the world’s greatest Marxists disrupt an ocean liner. In Horse Feathers, the Marx Brothers go to college, where they major in puns, pranks, and chasing Thelma Todd. The only film where all four perform different variations on the same song–each sillier than the last.

B Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Rudolph Valentino danced, female hearts fluttered, and a star was born. Aside from that justifiably famous tango sequence, the lavishly-produced Four Horseman makes for an entertaining evening. This World War I epic follows two Argentinian families who find themselves on different sides of the European war. The antiwar message is significantly diluted, however, by an insistence on blaming everything on the Germans.

B Hugo, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Martin Scorsese’s family film (that almost sounds like an oxymoron) proves to be reasonably hugoentertaining. But then, its very plot seems intended to enchant cinephiles like myself. I doubt I would have liked it near as much if it had been about the meat-packing industry. Scorsese uses the latest CGI and 3D technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. Read my Thoughts on Hugo. Both Hugo and the second feature, The Adventures of Tintin, will be presented in digital 3D.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday, noon. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and is receiving special theatrical presentations. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

What’s Screening: May 18 – 24

This week in Bay Area festivals:I Wake Up Dreaming continues through Thursday. And the Crossroads Festival opens Friday and runs through the weekend.

C- Elles, Bridge, Shattuck, opens Friday. This NC-17 French/Polish co-production has a lot of sex, and a lot of nudity (both male and female), but is in no way erotic. That’s odd, because it stars Juliette Binoche, who could be erotic cleaning a cat box. In this self-important yet shallow drama, she plays a freelance journalist researching an article about young prostitutes working their way through college. Binoche does her best, which is always excellent. But the screenplay gives her so little to go on that she appears to be emoting in a vacuum. Read my full review.

Shorts in Brief, Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The name sounds redundant, but this collection of Pixar shorts looks like a fun afternoon.

A+ Children of Paradise, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Shot while the Nazi occupation of Paris fell apart, Children of Paradise may be the most ecstatically French film ever made.children_of_paradise A three-hour epic set in the theater scene of early 19th-century Paris, it follows the life of a beautiful woman (Arletty) and four men who fall under her spell—each in his own unique way. The story is rich, romantic, and deeply in love with theatrical traditions. In this version of Paris, even the violent thugs see their lives as works of art. Written by Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. Newly restored, the Castro will be screening Children of Paradise in DCP. That was how I saw it in March, and it never looked so wonderful. In fact, based on the restoration, I’ve upgraded Children of Paradise from an A to a rare A+.  I discuss it in more detail here.

A- Milk, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. Yep, I’m always a sucker for a historical epic, especially one set in a time and place that I can remember. Sprawling but never boring, and inspiring without preaching. I’ve always known that Sean Penn was a great actor; it’s nice to know that he can do “happy” as well as more tragic emotions. James Franco is also very good as what in a more conventional film would be called the "chick" part. A fund raiser for the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for montygrailthe Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. The funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.

A- Howard Hawks double bill: Sergeant York & To Have and Have Not, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The A- goes to Sergeant York. No other event morally challenged pacifists like World War II. So it’s no surprise that, as America entered that horribly necessary inferno, Howard Hawks filmed the story of a deeply religious and pacifistic Christian (Gary Cooper) who first objected to serving, then went on to prove extraordinary skill and courage on the battlefield. Not quite that good, To Have and Have Not ignited the Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen. Aside from the considerable charisma and sexual sparks, it’s an entertaining tale of war-time intrigue, with a couple of great scenes. David Thomson will introduce Saturday’s 7:30 screening.

B- Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Camera 3, Saturday & Sunday, 9:30. Steve Jobs was a stevejobsbrilliant, charismatic figure who drastically changed the world we live in. But does that mean you’ll enjoy a 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview consisting of a single close-up? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes—up to a point. That charisma, combined with the simple fact that Jobs had some interesting things to say in 1995, make this a reasonably entertaining and informative document. But there’s no filmmaking craftsmanship whatsoever here, and there’s a limit to how much time you can watch a single close-up. Thus, the Lost Interview begins to wear out its welcome well before it’s through. Read my full review for more.

Harold and Maude, Castro, Wednesday. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate cinematic statement of the hippie generation. At least that’s how I remember it. I loved it passionately in the 1970′s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged. On a double bill with Brewster McCloud, which I only saw once, about 40 years ago, and I hated it then.

Yellow Submarine, Elmwood, Saturday, noon. The Beatles’ one animated feature–which to my knowledge hasn’t played the Bay Area in years–has been restored, and is receiving special theatrical presentations. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this whimsical fantasy for me to issue a grade. If memory serves, Yellow Submarine is a wonderful movie for taking drugs, and equally wonderful for taking your kids. Just don’t take both.

D+ Darling Companion, Shattuck, opens Friday. I hate watching good actors struggle through a bad script. This particular bad script concerns a long-married couple (Diane Keaton and Kevin Kline) and several relatives searching for a missing dog. It’s supposed to turn into a search for self-discovery, but the people are too shallow and contrived to be worth discovering. The result is a character-driven comedy almost entirely lacking in believable characters, or laughs. If it were not for the inspired cast, which also includes Dianne Wiest and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, the movie would be an entire loss. Read my full review.

F Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Camera 3, Saturday. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.

Why Silents Are Golden: This Year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival

As regular readers know, I’m passionate about silent movies. Without the crutch of spoken words, a motion picture becomes pure cinema–reality on an entirely different plane. The actors can be fully unique, complex individuals (not that they always are) while remaining archetypes.

Take Louise Brooks. In silent films, she’s magical, mysterious, and the very embodiment of female sexuality. In a talkie, she’s a pretty girl from Kansas.

When you see a silent film, properly presented, you get more than a movie; you get a concert. When silents ruled the cinema, every movie theater kept musicians on the payroll. Today, more than 80 years after the death of the art form, there’s no lack for talented and creative composers and musicians skilled at accompanying silent files.

And there’s no better way to enjoy the films and the musicians than the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For four days every July, the Festival takes over the Castro Theater to exhibit well-known masterpieces, forgotten gems, and rare prints, while also bringing in exceptional musicians to accompany them. The Castro’s own gaudy glory, huge screen, and variable-speed projectors add to the atmosphere, as does the large, enthusiastic audience that the festival attracts.

This year, the Festival runs from Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 15. Here are just a sampling of the screenings I’m most looking forward to:

  • Wings. The festival opens with the first Best Picture Oscar winner. Newly restored by Paramount, it will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (amongst my favorites), with live sound effects by one of Hollywood’s best, Ben Burtt, (for more on Burtt, see The Sound of Wall-E at the Rafael).
  • The Loves of Pharaoh. This big, German historical epic, directed by Ernst Lubitsch shortly before he came to America, will be accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.
  • Pandora’s Box. Speaking of Louise Brooks, here’s her masterpiece. Newly restored, it will be accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
  • The Docks of New York. I’ve never seen this highly-praised Josef von Sternberg drama, but I’m looking forward to it. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.
  • The Cameraman. Buster Keaton’s first film for MGM, his penultimate silent, and, in many people’s opinions, his last masterpiece. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany both this and the newly restored “Trip to the Moon.”


C- sex drama

  • Wrtten by Malgorzata Szumowska and Tine Byrckel
  • Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

Let’s get the expectations raised by this French/Polish co-production’s NC-17 rating out of the way first. Yes, there is a lot of sex, and a lot of nudity (both male and female). And no, I didn’t find anything in Elles to be erotic.

Which is odd, because the film stars Juliette Binoche, who could be erotic cleaning a cat box.

In this self-important yet shallow drama, she plays Anne, a freelance journalist and apparently full-time housewife. While her husband is away at work and her two son in school, she spends her time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and interviewing two young college students moonlighting as prostitutes (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig).

She’s working on an article about these young women–why and how they started ellesselling their bodies, how they feel about it, what it’s like to lie to everyone close to them. The film also shows them with their various clients in scenes that stop just short of hardcore. Until quite late in the picture, we’re not sure whether these sex scenes are flashbacks, cross-cutting, or Anne’s fantasies, sparked by the the stories that the prostitutes tell her.

And if there’s anything Anne needs to escape into, it’s fantasy. Her teenage son smokes pot, skips school, and rebels against everything. Her younger son is addicted to video games. Her relationship with her husband is in serious trouble, although the filmmakers never bother to tell us the nature of their problems.

That’s the film’s biggest problem: We never really get to know who Anne is and what’s eating her inside. She’s clearly suffering from depression. Whenever she’s home, she mopes around looking glum. She occasionally takes a masturbation break, but that doesn’t cheer her up much. She just looks sad as she cleans rooms, fights with kitchen gadgets, cooks a dinner for guests she doesn’t like, and wanders around their large, luxurious Paris flat. (Her husband’s job must be quite lucrative. I can tell you from personal experience that freelance journalists don’t make that kind of money.)

She only comes alive when she’s with the prostitutes. She clearly enjoys being with these young women, and hearing about their sex lives. They become her friends–apparently her only friends.

The movie itself comes alive only with one of the prostitutes–the one played by Demoustier. She’s upbeat and  seems to genuinely enjoy getting paid for sex, but the lying involved is getting to her. She has a boyfriend, and he thinks she works in a fast food joint. You know that relationship is headed for a disaster. She also has some interesting johns, including one begins a little foreplay and then starts crying.

Elles would have been a better film if it had stuck to that character. As Anne, Binoche does her best, which is always excellent. But director/co-writer Szumowska didn’t give us enough information about her to make Binoche’s performance work. She’s a brilliant actor, but here she’s trying to emote in a vacuum.

Szumowska had an interesting idea, a great cast, and the willingness to embrace explicit sexuality. Too bad she didn’t make a good film.

Violence as Light Entertainment–The Moral Question

I love a good turn-off-the-brain action movie–one where the hero gets to dispatch multiple bad guys without remorse but with plenty of clever quips. But the older I get, the more I begin to wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with these pictures. Do they teach us that we can solve our problems by killing the right people?

I’m not talking about thrillers, which usually involve a relatively normal person stuck in a dangerous situation and having to find a way out. I’m talking about movies with an exceptional hero, a high body count, and absolutely no moral ambiguity.

Some personal history:

I was a very serious young cinephile in the spring of 1974. I loved Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and The Seventh Seal (I still do). I thought of cinema only as a serious art form in the service of fixing the world. I also loved Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, but I justified these on the grounds that.great comedy was inherently subversive, and thus doing it’s part for making the world a better place.

But action movies? Unless they were black satires, or lessons in the horror of violence, I had no interest in them.

That spring, I attended a special afternoon screening devoted to three-strip Technicolor. It included two features, the second of which was The Adventures of Robin Hood.

That movie was a revelation. I had no idea that a simple action movie, with a silly plot, witty dialog, and beautifully-choreographed but utterly unbelievable fights, could be so much fun. I discovered a whole new purpose for cinema, and I was hooked.

I still consider Adventures of Robin Hood the gold standard for mindless (but not witless) action. Other such movies that I love include the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), The Flame and the Arrow, Die Hard, some of the James Bond movies, and the first and third Indiana Jones movies.

None of these movies are entirely amoral. The villains are unquestionably evil, whether they’re imperialists, usurpers, exploiters of the working class, heartless murderers, and/or Nazis. Not using violence would only result in more innocent deaths.(Actually, I don’t really see usurpers as necessarily evil. The fact that your father was king doesn’t–in my book–make you the right person to rule the country. But the usurpers in these movies are always far worse than the rightful king.) But in real life, things are never that simple. Even Nazis have mothers, wives, and children. Most of the hero’s victims are mere henchmen who, for all we know, were forced into serving evil.

There’s a wonderful shot in The Bridge On the River Kwai. A new recruit has just killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It was, in the context of war, an entirely justified act. But the camera briefly lingers the dead man’s Buddhist prayer beads and a photo of a smiling family. That sort of nuance never shows up in mindless action pictures.

Real conflicts don’t just dirty the hero’s hands–they dirty his (or her) soul. Sometimes, they kill the hero or people very close to him. In Adventures of Robin Hood, with all of its battles, not a single merry man takes a mortal wound. By contrast, Harry Potter is very realistic.

So what do these movies tell us? That violence, when in the cause of good, is trouble-blackswanfree? That killing the right people will solve your problems and not cost you anything except a minor wound and a few hours’ annoyance?

In these movies’ defense, I could argue that they’re so unrealistic that I have a hard time believing that anyone would take them seriously. I’ve shown these movies to my kids when they reached appropriate ages–and with Robin Hood, that was very young. I don’t regret it. And I’m not going to stop watching them. After all, what serious examination of the horrors of violence can match something like this video (which I unfortunately can’t embed).

But I wonder…