Coco Before Chanel (2009)

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Before Chanel no. 5 and the interlocking Cs, and before the iconic quilted bag and the classic Chanel suit there was Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan whose unorthodox fashion sense revolutionized the way we dress. And in the French film (with English subtitles) Coco Before Chanel we learn of Coco Chanel’s early years.

Gabrielle Chanel’s life began quite humbly. As the film commences, young Gabrielle Chanel, along with her sister, are left at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Though Gabrielle’s childhood seemed bleak, she did learn how to sew, and the simple austerity of the nun’s habits influences her design aesthetic. Years, later and now played by Audrey Tatou, Gabrielle is working as a seamstress at a dress shop and singing at a cabaret with her sister.

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While singing in the cabaret, Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man of considerable wealth. They strike up a friendship and he bestows her with the nickname, Coco, the name of a song she and her sister often sing. Before long Coco becomes his erstwhile mistress. She thinks his wealth may be beneficial in improving her life. Before long she is living with Balsan at his country estate.

Coco isn’t in love with Balsan, yet she bristles when he calls her his “geisha” and doesn’t appreciate when he tries to keep her hidden in the kitchen when he’s entertaining guests. Coco is not the type of femme to be ignored, and she finally asserts herself and introduces herself to Balsan’s friends.

One of Balsan’s friends is an actress and former lover Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos). Emilienne grows fond of Coco, and is quite intrigued by her odd dress sense. At a time where women wore elaborate dresses and hats, overdone with lace, ribbons, plumes, flowers and other accessories, Coco’s simple, menswear-inspired designs were truly avant garde. But Emilienne grows to love Coco’s look, and begins to support Coco’s fashion endeavors.

At this time Coco also meets and falls in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy English man. Boy adores Coco but he won’t marry her. He is betrothed to another. Not surprisingly, Coco is not happy with this news, and she makes sure Capel provides with enough money to set up her own dress shop. Coco may never share his last name, but she’ll be damned if she gets nothing out of the love affair.

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Throughout the film, we get brief flashes on Coco’s fashion influences. She cuts up Balsan’s ties, suits and shirts to fit her petite figure. She lounges around in men’s pajamas. While at the sea, she notices the fishermen’s striped jerseys, and soon they become part of her look. In another pivotal scene, we see Coco at a dress shop, administering instructions to the shopkeeper on the kind of dress she wants, black, and no corset underneath. Voila, the little black dress, the mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe, is created.

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It is these moments I wish Coco Before Chanel would have focused on. Only rarely do we get to see Coco become the Coco Chanel in scenes where she is draping and cutting of fabric, making hats and finding inspiration for her designs. I do wish the film focused more on the emerging designer, and not the romantic melodramatics among Coco, Balsan and Boy Capel. The romantic melodramatics stunted the film, and made it come across like another costume drama you might find on PBS. This narrative isn’t exactly original, and if Coco Chanel was anything it was original.

Though I’m sure Coco’s personal life was interesting, I wanted it in smaller doses. It was Coco’s ascent as a fashion designer and laser-focused work ethic on creating her clothing and her brand that I wanted to see. We do get a brief glimpse of this at the end when Coco presents one of her collections at her atelier in Paris. But these scenes are all too fleeting. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel, Coco After Chanel. Mais oui?

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The Spotlight

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Wonder Woman has made over $400 Million domestically.

Laura Dern could be the first woman president of the Motion Picture Academy.

From the “Who Knew?” files Princess Leia earned her Ph.D when she was 19.

Billie Lourd on life after losing her mother, Carrie Fisher, and her grandmother, Debbie Reynolds.

Horror movie Get Out is the most profitable film of 2017 (so far).

According to Judd Apatow, conservatives can’t make good entertainment.

Eight of today’s most influential female action heroes.

Milwaukee Film Fest is adding Purple Rain to its 2017 fest.

SAG-AFTRA renews contract with studios.

Chloe Grace Moretz on being body shamed by male co-stars.

 

 

 

 

No Impact Man (2009)

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We recycle. We carry our groceries in cloth bags. We shop local farmers’ markets. And we’ve even traded our traditional light bulbs for long-lasting, energy efficient spiral fluorescent bulbs. We do the best to reduce our carbon footprint and be more ecologically-sound. Still, we know we’re making an impact on our planet. Could we possibly make no impact?

Colin Beavan, a Manhattan-based writer, decided to become more “green” and lessen his family’s impact on the planet. In fact, he wanted to make no impact at all, thus becoming “No Impact Man.” Beavan began his experiment in 2006 and blogged about it soon gaining media attention from both the New York Times and Good Morning America. And his (and his very patient family) journey is captured in the Justin Schein and Laura Gabbert documentary No Impact Man.

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Beavan’s experiment went a bit further than most of us would be willing in the pursuit of making no impact. He and his family lived without electricity, public transportation, driving, television, toilet paper (yes, toilet paper) and new clothing other than the bare necessities. Beavan rode his bike everywhere, bought local produce at the farmers’ market, walked up countless stairs instead of taking the elevator and composted food scraps.

Along for the ride is Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, and their adorable toddler, Isabella. Not surprisingly, Michelle is less than thrilled with her husband’s grand scheme. She’s a writer for Business Week, and is a girl with a yen for Starbucks and retail therapy. But she loves her husband, and figures she can do this experiment for a year even as she goes through serious caffeine withdrawal, and expresses her desire for another child.

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Not quite sure what he’s getting into, Beavan embraces his experiment with giddy zeal. Using no toilet paper? How exciting! And it’s not long before his blog gets media attention. Though some people find his experiment intriguing and inspiring, many write him off as an affront to capitalism, abusive towards his family and a smug, humorless yuppie. Or as Michelle plainly puts it, “They’re calling us bourgeois fucks.”

Beyond the media attention, things don’t always run smoothly. Beavan and his wife bicker about having another child. Milk gets spoiled when the family relies on using two clay pots for refrigeration. And remember, no toilet paper, which makes them subjects for ridicule.

But still, the family soldiers on in their quest to lessen their impact on the environment. It’s not long before they find out that some things about their experiment are pretty cool. They enjoy spending time at the park and riding their bikes together. Even an old-school games of charades turns out to be more fun than a night in front of the boob tube watching reality TV.

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No Impact Man can at times be exasperating (no toilet paper), but you can’t help but come away with some more awareness. It helps that Beavan (and his family) is rather likable, frustrating, yet likable. Sure, Beavan can be a bit rigid, but he’s no finger-wagging scold. He knows what he’s doing is experimental. Sure, Michelle whines at times (that must be the caffeine withdrawal), but she’s no bitchy shrew. In the end, you see a family that truly loves and appreciates each other, and you also learn a few things. Shop at local farmers’ markets? Why yes. Stop using toilet paper? You’ll get my Charmin Double-Ply when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

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The Spotlight

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Toronto Film Festival to focus on the Trump era in film making and the Hollywood gender gap.

John Carpenter remembers George Romero.

The New York Times story on the late Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau.

Felicity Jones is replacing Natalie Portman in Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic.

Why Girl Trip and black sisterhood matters.

The power of Jane Austen 200 years after her death and the potency of 1995’s Sense and Sensibility.

Star Wars actor John Boyega on the lack of diversity in film.

Is Hollywood focusing to much on the male audience?

Film executive Shari Lansing reflects on her legendary career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blame It On Fidel (2006)

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It’s 1970s France, and little nine year old Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) lives a charmed life. She resides in Paris with her journalist mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), lawyer father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) and little brother, Francois (Benjamin Feuillet). She is adored by her grandparents who make their home in a grand estate in the French countryside. As Blame It On Fidel begins, we see Nina at a family wedding, outfitted in an immaculate frock, and schooling her lesser cousins on the proper way to cut a piece of fruit with a knife and fork.

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However, Nina’s life is about to get topsy-turvy. Her father, originally from Spain, takes in his sister and her daughter after his brother-in-law disappears under Franco’s fascist regime. Doing this alters Nina’s parents’ priorities. Fernando begins to focus his new radicalized politics on his law practice. Marie, stops writing superficial articles for Marie Claire, and begins to write articles about serious women’s issues, including the thorny topic of abortion.

Nina doesn’t care about any of these things. She just knows her life has been changed completely. And she doesn’t like it. Her beloved nanny, Filomena, is let go only to be replaced by a string of different nannies (including one who provides the title of the film). Her family moves from their huge home to a cramped apartment. Bearded, smoking radicals are always around taking up her parents’ time. And Nina is removed from her beloved religion class at school.

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The movie is seen mostly through Nina’s nine-year-old eyes. She doesn’t care about what’s going on in the world. She just wants things to go back to the way they were. Sure, she’s self-absorbed, but so are most children. They want security and stability. They don’t care about “sticking it to the Man.”

And what makes Blame It On Fidel most effective is how it is shot at a child’s eye level. This is most evident when little Nina is dragged along with her parents to take part in a political demonstration. All Nina can see are legs, arms and feet. She is too small to see the faces of the protesting adults. And when things get out of hand, and tear gas fills the streets, you feel Nina’s fear and confusion.

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Blame It On Fidel is superbly directed by Julie Gravras, herself the daughter of lefty movie director Costas-Gravras. This is a film that could easily be grim and one-dimensional  but a has wry humor and a bittersweet sentiment. Nina’s parents may want to change the world, but their love for her will never waver. And perhaps once Nina gets older, she will realize this.

All the performances are wonderfully acted. But Miss Kervel-Bey is astounding as young Nina, her serious face and intense eyes conveying so much. With a lesser talent, Nina might come across as bratty and spoiled, but Kervel-Bey gives this young character a heart and soul the movie so richly deserves.

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Blame It On Fidel is not rated, and is in French with English subtitles.

The Spotlight

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EXCITING NEWS!!! Milwaukee Film Fest to take over Milwaukee’s iconic Oriental Theatre. Just a quick note, the reporter, Dan Shafer, is a former editor of mine.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired from Han Solo Star War’s spin-off.

Here is a list of the Hollywood Reporter’s 100 most powerful people in entertainment.
rvel when it comes to making money-over $600 million worldwide.

Hopefully this will garner Gal Gardot bigger paychecks in the sequels.

Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring from acting.

Is Tom Cruise a bit of a control freak?

 

Sophia Coppola on why she decided to remake The Beguiled.

Study proves movies with diverse casts make more money.

Collider’s list of the best box office hits of the 21st century (so far).

This is a must-read essay on the bleakness of mental illness and how mental illness affected the late Carrie Fisher.

 

 

Stephanie Daley (2006)

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We see a trail of blood on the snow. A teenage girl staggers up a hill in some type of struggle. Next she is being carted away in an ambulance. We later find out this girl gave birth in a bathroom stall when a baby’s corpse is found in a toilet by the local authorities.

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Amber Tamblyn plays Stephanie Daley, the title character of this intense drama. Stephanie has been charged with killing her newborn. She claims she had no idea she was pregnant, and that the baby was stillborn. It is up to Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), a forensic psychologist, to evaluate Stephanie before she goes to trial.

Lydie herself experienced a stillbirth, and is now pregnant with another child. Her marriage to an architect, played by Timothy Hutton, is on shaky ground. Also, instead of being overjoyed about being pregnant after losing a baby so tragically, Lydie is apprehensive, worried if everything will be okay this time around.

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Stephanie, now known by the media as “ski mom,” is viewed as a horrible murderess of an innocent life. Lydie knows there is much more to the case than tabloid headlines, and she is both empathetic and bewildered by the young woman. Stephanie has a flat affect in these sessions, showing almost no emotion as Lydie questions her about what led up to that fateful day.

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We see Stephanie’s story unfold in flashbacks. She gets pregnant the first time she has sex. The guy tells her he withdrew in time. With her lack of sex education, Stephanie has herself convinced that she can’t be pregnant despite the physical changes. She begins to wear very loose clothing. No one suspects she is pregnant. But how could Stephanie not know she’s pregnant? Is she in denial? This is left ambiguous.

Stephanie’s loneliness in her situation is palpable. Her parents, played by Jim Gaffigan and Melissa Leo, are loving, yet oblivious to what Stephanie is going through. Her high school friends are caught up in new boyfriends and extracurricular activities. And the boy who impregnated her is long gone.

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While on a class ski trip Stephanie goes into labor. She struggles to make it to the ski lodge where she gives birth in a bathroom stall. People go in and out of the ladies’ room completely unaware of what is going on. Stephanie gives birth with no assistance, no hygiene and no drugs. We never see the baby come out of Stephanie, but do see her face in utter agony. This scene is gut-wrenching, and very difficult to watch. In the commentary, director and screenwriter Hilary Brougher claimed some people actually fainted while watching this scene at various film festivals.

Lydie is fully committed in getting the truth out of Stephanie, yet she can’t help but see parallels to her own experiences. She wonders if she truly accepted her stillbirth in the proper manner. And she also questions the choice of getting pregnant so soon after her stillbirth. Plus, Lydie knows her marriage is on the rocks. Can she and her husband make it?

This movie, just like life, is filled with questions. Nothing is ever easily solvable. We live in a world where teen moms are condemned as nasty sluts, and at the same time MTV has made teen moms into media sensations.

Stephanie Daley isn’t so much a “who-dun-it” as it is a “why-dun-it.” It examines the human psyche with both complexity and compassion. The performances are outstanding. And if this movie would have gotten more media attention when it was first released, Amber Tamblyn could have been nominated for an Oscar. Stephanie Daley is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. And it is one that stirs both discussion and debate.

Guilty Pleasure Movies: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979)

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In 1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Vince Lombardi High students love rock ‘n’ roll, but they don’t seem too interested in getting an education. The leader of these wayward students is Riff Randall played by PJ Soles (whatever happened to her?). Riff is a huge Ramones fan and would love for them to play at her school. Unfortunately, she has Principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) to deal with. Principal Togar hates rock music and vows to keep it out of the hallowed halls of Vince Lombardi High. After all, how can students concentrate on studying for finals when they’re too busy cranking up the Ramones to ear shattering decibels? Principal Togar recruits horrified parents to burn the offending records, which inspires Riff and the rest of the students take over the school. They are joined by the Ramones who are made honorary Vince Lombardi High students. Finally, the police are summoned and they demand the students evacuate the school, which leads to one hell of a finale. Hmm, my high school years certainly weren’t this explosive.

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is loads of fun and boasts a kick ass soundtrack. It’s the perfect guilty pleasure flick for anyone who has wanted to stick it to the man, or in this case, the principal. When you wanna rock, reading, writing and ‘rithmetic can wait.

Saving Face (2004)

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In writer/director Alice Wu’s inter-generational family comedy Saving Face, Michelle Krusiec plays Wil (short for Wilhelmina), a medical resident without much time for a life let alone romance. The only social life Wil seems to have is at Chinese-American gatherings in Queens where people try to set her up available young Chinese-American men.

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However, Wil has a secret. She’s a lesbian. And at one of these gatherings she meets Vivian (Lynn Chen), another lesbian who is also a dancer. Sparks fly between the two women, and slowly their flirtation turns into a romance. However, Wil isn’t quite ready to come out to her family so the romance has to remain a secret much to Vivian’s chagrin (and it doesn’t help that Vivian’s father is also Wil’s boss at the hospital).

In Saving Face, Wil’s mother (Joan Chen) also has a secret, but it won’t stay a secret for long. She’s in her forties, widowed, living with her parents…and pregnant. And she’s not exactly too forthcoming on the man who fathered her child.

Bringing shame onto the family name, Wil’s mother (known as Ma) is kicked out of her parent’s home. Knowing nowhere to turn, she ends up on Wil’s doorstep, and Wil takes her mother in, wondering how she’s going to keep her romance with Vivian a secret and deal with Ma’s impending late in life motherhood.

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As Ma’s belly grows, Wil learns more about her mother, seeing her more as a flesh and blood woman with her own desires and needs. However, this doesn’t exactly inspire Wil to come clean to her mother, and she tries furtively to keep her relationship with Vivian a secret. To be knocked up out of wedlock is one thing; to be a lesbian is quite another. What will the neighbors think? Actually, it’s one of Wil’s neighbors who tries to get her to face herself and Ma.

But will this happen soon enough? When Vivian announces she’s been offered a chance to dance in Paris, Wil realizes she needs to make a decision. Come clean, and admit her romance with Vivian, or remain closeted and let Vivian go. In other words, save face (yet lose someone she truly cares about).

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And Ma must also make some major decisions. One is opening up about who’s the father of her child, a man that superficially, might not seem suitable. And this decision must be made soon before Ma makes the disastrous mistake of marrying someone she doesn’t love just to give her unborn child a name.

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Saving Face examines how we balance the old world (when Wil is with her grandparents she speaks in Mandarin) with a “modern society” (unplanned pregnancy, homosexuality and careerism). And in like any other family, the families in Saving Face are flawed, yet loving. Saving Face may remind viewers of the sleeper hit My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. And though Saving Face is a bit predictable, its good performances and sweet charm make it worthwhile viewing.