a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Archive for November, 2013

Mesmerzing”Maigret” French TV series now out on MHz DVDs!

Rarely, have I ever stumbled upon a new fictional detective that has totally mesmerized me. Full disclosure, I’m sort of obsessed by Agatha Christie and her great detectives Hercule Poirot and esp. Miss Marple. At last I’ve found some one new, who is quite  obsession-worthy  It is the late great French writer(Belgian born) Georges Simenon and his legendary police commissaire detective Jules Maigret. New to me, but well-known to millions of readers and viewers, esp. in Europe.’

Out now in a marvelously entertaining DVD set released by MHz videos, it features “Maigret” as played by the late great French actor Bruno Cremer, who is well into his 70s when he shot this wonderful series that ran for more than a decade on French TV. And how lucky the French are to have such a high quality TV series running regularly! Most American Network TV is a vulgar joke by comparison.(I’m not counting the excellent work now done on Cable. Like for instance, “Breaking Bad.” But it’s Cable and I don’t get AMC!! )

The Maigret novels have been filmed many, many times  in Europe on TV and in film, but I can’t imagine any of these incarnations beating Cremer’s Commissaire and this flawlessly executed, beautifully filmed TV series.

Subtitled, mais oui, it is always a brain teaser, and very atmospheric, as it takes you back in time to 1950s Paris, where Maigret, a very dogged police inspector, who does everything by the book ( if he can ) plies his trade, pursuing criminals of all social strata and bringing them to justice. As boring as this methodology seems, “Maigret” is never dull pour une instante!

Oui, he’s a for-real policeman, le vrai chose, and Simenon celebrates the French gendarmes at every turn. His Maigret is not a private detective like Poirot or Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or an amateur sleuth like Miss Marple. Maigret is actually a commissaire or commissioner of the Paris “Brigade Criminelle.” There are no flatfoots or bumbling gum shoes here, as there always are in Agatha Christie. Policemen are shown to be intelligent, hard-working, admirable and relentless in the pursuit of crime. Simenon shows them as objects of great respect and not derision.

And Maigret, who simply smokes a pipe throughout almost every episode, is the most intelligent and sterling of them all. Like the also pipe-smoking Sherlock Holmes, like all classical detectives, he’s observant and diligent to a fault. Nothing and no one escapes his seemingly casual glances. So you have to be truly as on your toes when you watch it, as he is, watching and listening carefully to everything. And what a Gallic joy that is!

Seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories about Maigret were published between 1931 and 1972. Georges Simenon wrote over a hundred novels and is considered one of France’s greatest and certainly most prolific writers of the last century, but Inspector Maigret was by far his most famous and widely beloved creation. There is a statue to George Simenon, mais oui, bien sur, in France, and also a statue to Maigret in Belgium! Are there any statues to Hercule Poirot lurking about the English countryside? Not that I know of.

Like Christie, each mystery is its’ own perfect stand-alone box of tantalizing puzzles. And one of the delights of this TV incarnation is its’ setting in ’50’s Paris. In  Parisian environs we don’t usually see in French films, so it all feels wonderfully classic and also refreshingly new at the same time.

Each episode of “Maigret” is like its’ own little movie, and the mysteries are almost always impenetrable to all but Commissaire Maigret.

Bruno Cremer’s height and girth and his low, rumbling, grumbling voice are perfectly suited to Maigret. He lumbers when he walks, has a police office that is notoriously untidy and has a distinct dislike of stairs. All traits I found impossibly endearing. His Maigret like all iconic roles in a great, perfectly cast performer’s hands is mesmerizing and you keep wanting to go back to him and see MORE. And MORE!

And with this new series of DVDs from MHz Networks you can! There is also now an MHz TV station in many cities. Check your local listings.

I’ve watched many of the MHz” Maigret”episodes twice. Indeed, the stories are so complex and the characters so deftly drawn,marvelously performed  and thoroughly French that you can’t wait to go back to them as see them re-watch again.  And warning, they’re addictive. They’ll grow on you.

All the actors were new to me (and I watch a lot of French movies!) very talented, and perfectly cast. One in particular whose intriguing name was Remi Martin, was notably good in “Seven Little Crosses”, as a distraught father of a missing child.

As Maigret and the entire Parisian police force, track the little boy as he runs about Paris breaking the glass on police call boxes, another peculiarly French anachronism, the sound of a person running and breathing heavily, is then slowly followed upon by shots only of the school boy’s feet running, running…Classy, eerie, as is the marvelous sound track by  Laurent Petitgirard.

It is a sweltering August Bank Holiday in pre-air-conditioned Paris. And is Maigret on vacation? Non! And he makes sure his entire staff is out sweating and tracking the murderer of old ladies who live alone. Who seems to be a prototypical serial killer.

Another episode that I enjoyed was “Maigret at L’Etoile du Nord” a hotel near the Gare du Nord train station. This time it’s Christmas and it’s snowing. And Maigret isn’t taking off for une Joyeux Noel. As he says, “Murderers don’t take off for the holidays.”

Another favorite quote, Maigret grumbles “I hate solving murders in hotels. You never know where to start!”

And he’s invariably calling the always unseen Madame Maigret, his wife, and apologizing for missing his train.

But don’t miss this delightful series of classic French thrillers!

And newsflash! “Maigret” and many other international crime-soliving TV series can be found on http://www.mhznetworks.org! Stay tuned, dear readers, dear cineastes, for the latest updates on these marvelous European TV series that I like and you might, too!

Oscars in November ~ Where We Stand Now

OK. It’s on! The Oscar season has more than officially started. We are in what’s called “Phase One”  and as I’ve been saying since Toronto. It was all over as soon as I saw “12 Years A Slave.” Nothing could touch it. Nothing has.

Of course, it’s a very bad position to be the front-runner from the get go, but quality is quality and this is one of the greatest films of all time, a masterpiece, and the Academy cannot deny it it’s due. AND it’s making money, too.

I was worried when it first unspooled at Telluride that the praise was too deafening to be true. But when I saw it, the hosannas were understated. It’s one of the greats.

I was also worried that it was too much too soon. Could it sustain all the way though this LONG Oscar season, which doesn’t end this year until MARCH!

But it has been sustaining and people are going to see it, placing it at a strong #7 now on the Box-Office Top Ten for two weeks in a row.

And the critics awards aren’t going to be handed out for another 2-3 weeks or so. And when it starts, I’m telling you it won’t stop. “12 Years a Slave” is going to win EVERYthing!

The Best Actor race is much more variable with Chiwetel Ejiafor still out in front in my estimation. That’s for playing the title role in “12 Years a Slave”. And the Academy is poised to make history, which it often doesn’t shy away from doing, by giving Steve McQueen an Oscar for Best Director. He would be the first black man to ever win this award, shockingly.The news this year is that African-American and Black films and stars have all arrived and are here to stay, with performances that should be recognized. I am also predicting a record number of AA nominees this year. Maybe the Most In Oscar History. Call it the Obama Effect hits the Oscar big time this year. And I think that’s a good thing for everybody.

“12 Years a Slave” two months after TIFF is still a juggernaut that can’t be stopped. And thank goodness, everyone is getting on board.

The Gurus of Gold (which I used to be one for several seasons) has both 12YAS, McQueen and Ejiafor in the number one spots in their respective categories. And Lupito Nyong’o, too for Best Supporting Actress. The brilliant actress whose family really is from Africa(her father was a diplomat and politician) and she’s a Yale School of Drama graduate to boot. That stunning performance as Patsey, the tragic slave heroine will haunt your dreams. I can never stop praising her searing, magnificent performance. And Lupita is growing on the Awards Circuit every day, giving gracious, intelligent interview after interview. She’s the Cinderella story of the year, and she’s more than ready for her close-up.

And I still say Michael Fassbender’s multi-faceted turn as the villainous slave-owner Edwin Epps will also win the German-born, Irish actor a Best Supporting Actor Award. He’s got the industry cred behind him, with many many starring roles in movies lined up and coming out one right after the other.So Hollywood has a vested interest in him becoming a bigger and bigger and bigger star. His getting this award will validate all those expensive movies that have already invested millions in him becoming one of Hollywood’s new, true stars. Who also happens to be a great actor, too. And I think his non-campaigning  campaign is only going to help him. Silence is sometimes golden. Ask Garbo, if she were still alive. Ask Jean DuJardin and Michel Hazanaviscious. Hell, ask Mo’nique.

And the fascinating Fassbinder’s  got the title role in the controversial “The Counselor” out now. He’s also one of the leads in the X-Men franchise, and on and on and on. He’s what movie stars are made of, and so is Lupita Nyong’o.

Best Actress I feel personally is going to go to Sandra Bullock for “Gravity.” A sensationally popular mega-hit, which people are seeing over and over again, Bullock, or Sandy as she’s know to one and all in Hollywood, is the only person in 95% of the movie. George Clooney is barely in it. Spoiler alert.

With “Saving Mr. Banks” on the horizon, and two other major players “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” still unseen, it’s non-sensical to even call everything as I have been calling it since Sept. and Toronto. But hey! It’s the Oscars! It’s the Silly Season as David Karr of the NY Times so accurately called it, back in the Golden Days when he was the Times’ Oscar guy. He called himself “The Carpetbagger.” Because that’s what he felt like being a TImes financial reporter covering the Oscars. And so yes, it’s silliness personified.

But then so are the three unseen films which cover “Mary Poppins” back story, and financial guys at different end of the social spectrums. And different eras. Call me irresponsible, but I don’t see anything in the subject matters of these three films, all maybe comedies, We don’t know for sure yet. But yes, they all seem picayune by comparison.

But I can tell you what will win Best Animated Feature already Disney’s “Frozen” and Best Song “Let It Go” From Frozen.

And I don’t see any of these last three films really shaking up The Race.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” A surprise & a triumph!

Who knew that behind the facade of one of the most unlikely Pop Culture/TV icons of the last century lay such a tragic back story? “Becoming Dr. Ruth” lays all that bare to chilling, enlightening, suspenseful effect. It’s a one hour 40 min. show, with no intermission but it flew by at 100 mph. Powered by an unforgettable performance by Debra Jo Rupp as the eponymous title character. And oh yes, it’s one woman show.

At the always charming Westside Theater on W.43rd St., it’s pint-sized house and stage is just the right size for this tiny titan’s staggering story.

She is simply packing up her Washington Heights apartment that she shared with her late third husband. The stage is full of brown packing boxes, which trigger, doing the most mundane of casts, in the plainest of settings, but with the most gorgeous views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridges, Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s many memories of her childhood destroyed by Hitler and the holocaust come flooding back .Each item she packs invariably reminds of childhood moments. memories, both devastating and sweet.

As a child, she was sent out of her Frankfurt Orthodox Jewish home on the Kindertransport that got her safely to Switzerland for the remainder of the war, but she never say her father, mother and grandmother again. These memories are told plainly and without sentimental effect as Dr. Ruth, formerly Karola Sigel, lays them out in stark detail. You think “Great! She escaped to Switzerland!” but the loss of her family, and later in life, her  seeking to rebuild her own, as  first on a kibbutz in Israel and then later in Paris and finally New York, haunts her. And us.

The loss of her parents, about whom she was never able to find any information, is an ineffable tragedy that powers her drive to succeed, and succeed she does! As America’s Go-To guru of sexual advice in the ’70s. She clearly helps rebuild Americans’ damaged libidos and spirits with her always jovial, infectious optimism, which is the note on which the play ends, as she finally says proudly displaying a picture of her four grandchildren, “You see, Hitler, you lost.”

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” is the best new play I’ve seen so far this season, and although there is only one woman on stage, Debra Jo Rupp, fills it with Dr. Ruth’s ebullient, indomitable spirit, and a cast of thousands.

“The Book Thief” Definitely Oscar Worthy!

Just saw a truly wonderful late entry into the Oscar Race, Fox 2000’s “The Book Thief”, a small “little” film that is anything but. “The Book Thief” creeps up and steals your heart away and leaves you devastated.  Oscar, are you watching?

It’s World War II and an unseen narrator eerily sets the scene.  Who this narrator is slowly to be revealed is one of the main mysteries of “The Book Thief.” Is it Geoffrey Rush? The film’s leading man. Or just who is it?

Of course, this immediately sets up the greatest of film dynamics which is  the audience wanting to know “What’s going to happen next?” And with “The Book Thief” that suspense is maintained literally til the last frame. Which is really an achievement.

We’re in a familiar setting, Germany during WW II. In fact, it seems to resemble very closely another German back-dropped war drama “The Reader” which won Kate Winslet one Oscar and two Golden Globes.

“The Book Thief”could land a slew of Oscar nods, too. Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush) and Best Supporting Actress (Emily Watson) Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe more.

It depends on just how wily Fox 2000, sometimes referred to as Big Fox, plays its’ Oscar campaign from here on out. Fox Searchlight, of course, has a sweeping winner with “12 Years a Slave”. But “The Book Thief” should gets its’ due also.

IF enough Academy members get to see it in time to nominate it.

Geoffrey Rush gives one of his most beguiling and sweetly sympathetic performances as the adoptive father of the titular heroine, the child Leisl played by newcomer Sophie Nelisse, who is the Book Thief.

And Emily Watson gives hands down one of the best performances of her career as Leisl’s turbulent adoptive mother who is practising tough love with the child for most of the movie.

So familiar is this setting,i half-expected Kate Winslet to bicycle around the corner in braids any second. The aqua hue of the light is almost the same color of the lighting in “The Reader.”

The Nazi book burning that really sets the film in motion is frightening, and Leisl, who loves books so passionately that she begins to steal them, is traumatized by this event that she witnesses as a choir member of the Hitler Youth singing “Deustcheland Uber Alles.”

She even is so bold to steal one of the still smoldering books from the embers of the pile in one of the film’s pivotal moments. It’s still burning and as her kindly doting adoptive father Geoffrey Rush hurries her home, she starts coughing from the smoke that is coming from the still burning book hidden under her coat.

Rush takes the book from her then hides it under his coat. And more I cannot reveal, because the plot involves and tricks you with its’ many twists and turns that are its’ strengths. As well as the superb performances of Sophie Nelisse, Rush and Watson.

Don’t read any reviews that might spoil the delight of experiencing “The Book Thief” for the first time, not knowing what was going to happen. Just know that it COULD be nominated for Best Picture, though nobody is predicting it for the moment. BUT I AM.

Germany, the Halocaust, the Nazis, WWII, Academy Award Winner Geoffrey Rush, an adorable little girl heroine, it’s catkip to Oscar Voters, and to me as well. See it!

I Feel Betrayed by “Betrayal”

The hottest thing on Broadway right now is the Mike Nichols directed revival of one Harold Pinter’s late plays, “Betrayal.” Starring Daniel Craig it is breaking box-office records and raking in $400 a seat if you REALLY want to see it that badly. Let me tell you to rush to refund your ticket money, because you’re going to feel betrayed by “Betrayal.”

It’s really not much of anything. And oh, it goes BACKWARDS in time. As if it needs some kind of pretension of depth, of which there seems to be none. 

It’s not chilling or threatening or any of the other Harold Pinter hallmarks. 

I must admit, I’m in the John Simon camp of critics on this one. I’m not a fan, and always feel like he’s getting away with something. In “Betrayal,” he IS getting away with something and it’s YOUR MONEY, if you’re stupid enough to spend it on this hyped-up piece of trash.

Oh yes, I do love Daniel Craig. Who doesn’t? But onstage he does not have the same presence he has on film. He holds back. And though he comes from a solid British stage background, you’d never know it.  He seems charisma-free.

His wife, the Academy Award winning actress Rachel Weisz, never seems to miss hitting the bulls-eye in any film I’ve seen her in. Again that cinematic presence and chemistry does not translate on stage. At least not here.

And she’s playing opposite her husband, as his wife, and there’s zero electricity between them. 

The Brits have never seemed so cold or distasteful to me as they do here in “Betrayal”. Perhaps that’s Pinter’s point. To make you have the ’70s London literary set…But…somehow I think that’s not what was meant. 

Whatever was meant is not meant here as this production means absolutely nothing. It was only 90 mins. It was 90 mins. too long.

 

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