Farewell, My Queen (A)
France: Benoit Jacquot, 2012, Cohen Media Group
It is July 14, 1789, in France, the day the Bastille was stormed and fell to an angry revolutionary mob. In Farewell, My Queen, though, we are not with the revolutionaries, nor with the king's soldiers fighting them, or giving up before the fight. We are watching in a sparely furnished back room of the Palace of Versailles, as a minor servant of Queen Marie Antoinette wakes, scratches a mosquito bite, dresses, gets ready for the day, and then walks through corridors, up stairs, and past the busy rooms of the palace (the real Palace of Versailles) for her appointment with the queen (Diane Kruger).
This young lady we watch is Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), reader to the queen -- and the central character and main observer in Benoit Jacquot's remarkable historical drama. Sidonie reads books, romances, fashion magazines and the like to her employer, whose literary tastes are more a source of amusement than edification -- and we soon see that if there had been less amusement and more edification in the rooms of the palace, then the queen, King Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois), and the queen's pets and playmates, the courtiers, the employees and all the members of the court would not be where they are now -- inside a palace, almost heedlessly trying to conduct a normal royal routine, while outside, a howling mob will begin to tear down their world, and to set their king and queen on the path to the guillotine.
It will be a while though before that blood really starts to flow, those heads to fall. This absorbing historical tale -- based on a novel by Pascal Thomas, scripted by Gilles Taurand and director Jacquot -- will show us instead how people who have always been sheltered and shielded from the outside world and the vicissitudes of life, behave as their world slowly but inexorably begins to collapse. Mostly we see things through the eyes of Sidonie -- a bright young woman with a crush on the queen, who in turn, is besotted with her own erotic court favorite Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Indeed, the queen's alleged exploits, carried on before elegant mirrors in rooms like Fragonard paintings, are notorious throughout the kingdom, high and low, and they're a part of what the mob outside is said to hate -- though if the people had more food and less gossip, if their lives were less mean and hungry, they might be less incensed at the peccadilloes of the aristos. Perhaps.
But this is the queen who allegedly said: "The people want bread? Let them eat cake!" This is a neck that -- however much her pets love it -- is ready to be sliced by the mob. We know she is doomed. Much of the tension of the film comes from our own wonderment at when the queen and the king and the court will realize it too. Instead, they act, in the few days (July 14-17, 1789) that we and Sidonie watch them, as if only a temporary disturbance -- a tempest in a pastry shop -- were under way, not the end of the world.
Benoit Jacquot is a masterly French film chronicler of the sometimes languorous, sometimes feverish lives of women (The School of Flesh, A Single Woman). He knows how to enfold us in a woman's point of view, build tension slowly and surely, lead us to conclusions that are unexpected but seemingly inevitable. Here, at first, the tumult seems far away. It keeps advancing, like a slow pounding wave coming closer and closer. Jacquot and designer Katia Wyszkop and cinematographer Romain Winding set and shoot the film with a cool eye, and with an ironic sense of the beauty and foolishness before us: these silly, sumptuously gowned and crowned ladies and gentlemen strutting through their dying splendor, cake crumbling on their lips.
Farewell, My Queen was shot mostly in Versailles, but it is not the Versailles that we might imagine. Jacquot presents his story not so much as a richly appointed costume drama, but as a palatial costume drama shot with a streetwise eye. There are even rats -- as there were probably were in Versailles.
Farewell, My Queen takes us into the Palace of Versailles by the back way, into queen's chamber by the back door, into the hands of the Revolution on a coach fleeing through the trees and country. There is no obvious historical or political preachment or polemics here because there is no one to preach. There is only Death storming. Waiting. (Special features: interview with Benoit Jacquot; on-set interview; trailer.)
Taken 2 (C)
U.S.: Olivier Megaton, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Taken may have been a surprise hit for star Liam Neeson back in 2008. But it was also absolutely ludicrous: a fast, dopey. lushly produced one-against-a-bunch action movie that gained what little dramatic credibility it had from Neeson's admirably straight-faced performance as Bryan Mills, a super-skilled ex-CIA op and unstoppable killing machine who lets nothing get in his way, especially logic, while chasing and destroying the Eastern European crooks and terrorists who've kidnapped his too often ignored teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace).
In the first Taken, Mills takes apart Paris. In this outrageous sequel, Mills and wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) are kidnapped by maniac Murad (Rade erbedija), who was mixed up in the first fiasco. Kim tries to find her parents, and her dad takes apart Istanbul, with all hell breaking loose after a touching opening where Murad holds a mass burial for all the people Mills killed in the first movie.
For the next sequel, I guess Mills can take apart Hollywood, after the rest of his family, and the actors playing them, are kidnapped by a maniac screenwriting team trying to force producer Luc Besson and director Olivier Megaton into writing better lines and a more sensible story. A hopeless-sounding idea? Trust me. As long as Neeson can keep a straight face and a muscular torso, the audience may buy it. And if they don't, there's always Hong Kong or Beijing next time around.
Hit and Run (B)
U. S.: David Palmer & Dax Shepard, 2012, Universal
Part of Hit and Run -- a hell-on-wheels car-chase comedy-actioner from actor-writer-co-director Dax Shepard -- is playful, funny and even sweet-tempered. And part of it is hard and raunchy and a little mean. The two parts don't always jibe or mix well, but at least they provide a little variety and at least some entertainment -- more than most shows of this kind do. I liked at least some of those parts, and the movie -- which costars Shepard, Kristen Bell, Bradley Cooper, Tom Arnold and a 1967 vintage Lincoln Continental that Shepard drives made me laugh a little. So did the two movies that seem to be its prime inspirations: star Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham's Smokey and the Bandit, and the late Tony Scott's and writer Quentin Tarantino's True Romance.
A few laughs are better than none, even if the movie is irritating at times. But if Hit and Run is clichéd (and it is), it's likably clichéd: a kind of ersatz down-home project that looks as it were slapped together by a bunch of movie buddies out for a good time. Hit and Run has a hot tang, like a good barbecue sandwich, with a cold beer backing it up and catchy song on the jukebox ("East Bound and Down" maybe).
In the movie, Shepard plays "Charlie Bronson" (a sub for his character's real name Yul Perkins, an ex-wheelman for a California hold-up aggregation. Charlie turned in the gang, and is now in a witness protection program in tiny Milton, California -- living a mellow life with his tough, adorable girlfriend, Annie Bean (played by Shepard's girlfriend Bell, a.k.a. "Sarah Marshall"), and monitored by a nervous Federal Marshall, Randy Anderson (Arnold). Charlie/Yul is troubled only by the persistent interferences of Annie's old boyfriend Gil Rathbinn (Michael Rosenbaum) and by the fact that he's never told Annie, who works in nonviolent crisis management, about his outlaw past and his current witness protection status.
Enter the big problems: Annie is offered a dream job in crisis management studies at a Los Angeles university, and Charlie, who can't go to L.A. for a number of reasons, decides to show he's a mensch by driving her there. On the road, ready to mess with him or each other, are nervous Marshall Randy, who's also the worst driver in the movie, buttinsky Gil, his brother, gay cop Terry (Jess Rowland) and, worst of all, Charlie's old gang -- led by dreadlocked psychopath (and Charlie's one-time best friend) Alex Demetri, played nastily by Bradley Cooper, who has to be doing this movie partly out of friendship.
The movie just keeps genially crashing along: not particularly good, but not too bad either (except in spots). Of course, a show where Tom Arnold gets more laughs than Bradley Cooper in dreadlocks, is an anomaly to begin with -- but Hit and Run keeps springing funny little surprises along the way, like Beau Bridges' ass-kicking scene as Charlie's dad Clint. Look at it this way: It could have been worse. It could have been Cannonball Run III.