REVIEW: My Golden Days

16 05 2017

Maybe I’m missing something by not watching Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Sex Life … How I Got Into an Argument” before heading into “My Golden Days,” since both films revolve around Mathieu Amalric’s Paul Daedalus. (I blame the film’s lack of streaming availability in the U.S.) With no prior attachment to a character who spends the entire movie reflecting back on how three childhood and adolescent memories shaped him, the film felt self-indulgent and even a little self-serving.

And of course, the thread that I found the most fascinating – where a teenaged Daedalus sneaks into the USSR to give a forged passport to a Jewish dissident – lasts about just 20 minutes. Desplechin doles out a disproportionate amount of time to Daedalus’ first bombshell romantic experience with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). From my perspective, this seemed like the kind of coming-of-age story we’ve all seen a hundred times.

The distinguishing feature of “My Golden Days” is that Desplechin frames these experiences through the lens of memory, in all the ways it softens the edges of and selectively omits from the historical record. It’s present both in the hazy narration of Daedalus and the techniques he uses, such as the early-cinema iris effect. But these memories were just that – memories – for me. If they were hinting at some kind of larger truth or grander developments in the Daedalus character, they were lost on this viewer. C+

REVIEW: Hitchcock/Truffaut

12 12 2015

Hitchcock:TruffautThough Kent Jones’ documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut” may bear the name of two deceased titans of the cinema, but make no mistake about it: this film is focused on those still living and producing vital work.

Of course, the consummate critic and historian Jones does present the the subject in more than sufficient detail. French New Wave founding father Francois Truffaut idolized the British filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, whose work was popular yet not necessarily given much clout as art. Truffaut set out to prove it was just that in a series of conversations with the Master of Suspense, which he later transcribed into “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” The book became a seminal text in the field of film studies and, as Martin Scorsese personally attests in the documentary, inspired the next generation of filmmakers.

In recounting the making of the book and the influence which it exerted, Jones himself crafts a documentary likely to be studied as often as “Visions of Light.” (That reference means everything to anyone who has taken an Intro to Film class and nothing to everyone else, by the way.) “Hitchcock/Truffaut” provides an excellent primer on auteurist theory while also delving into Freudian, historical and economically determinist readings of Hitchcock’s work. If any of this sounds complex, it all feels effortless to understand when explained by today’s masters David Fincher or Wes Anderson.

The most exciting moments of the documentary come from hearing these contemporary filmmakers delving into the theoretical questions raised in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s conversation. Plenty of times, these directors have to answer questions about the influence of cinema’s giants, but it is usually only in conjunction with how it manifests in their latest film. Here, people like Richard Linklater and James Gray, two directors who rarely make films that resemble Hitchcock’s suspenseful thrillers, can talk about the surprising ways in which his work and his methods affected the way they understand their own work.

This kind of in-depth discussion gives “Hitchcock/Truffaut” a profundity far beyond the sound bites we normally get from filmmakers on a press tour. At times, Jones seems to lose sight of the original conversation in favor of letting Scorsese geek out over “Psycho,” but these joyful nuggets prove his point that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s dialogue is one still worth studying. This celebrated past has clearly exerted its influence in the present, and now, thanks somewhat in part to this documentary, it will continue doing so in the future. A-3halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 13, 2015)

13 08 2015

A Christmas TaleIt’s hotter than Hades here in Houston, so I ventured into Arnaud Despelchin’s “A Christmas Tale” for some escapism.  (Just kidding, I watched it mostly because the Criterion Collection deemed it worthy of inclusion in their hallowed ground of cinephilia.)  Despite the title, this is a film that should not be dusted off every December to watch ritualistically like “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Rather, “A Christmas Tale” merely uses the holiday as its setting – not its subject.  A large French family needs to gather under the same roof for all this drama to play out, and what better occasion is there for that than Christmas?  Instead of celebration, this day brings bitterness, resentment, and sorrow.

The family’s matriarch, Catherine Deneuve’s regal Junon Vuillard, needs a bone-marrow transplant to treat her fast-progressing cancer.  She needs a match from one of her children or grandchildren, all of which seem to struggle with some sort of serious issue.  (Except the two toddlers, but one can only imagine what kind of misery awaits them when they are old enough.)  To list everyone’s baggage would just consume the word count of a whole other review, not to mention spoil the fun of watching everyone collide and implode.

Though two and a half hours for a family melodrama might seem excessive, “A Christmas Tale” never buckles under the weight of its runtime.  Despelchin’s epic sprawl and familial brawl recalls the ’90s works of Paul Thomas Anderson – a comparison anyone who reads my reviews is high enough praise to earn the distinction of the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  Here is a movie with a grandiosity to its mood that feels perfectly cinematic, never exaggerated or gauche, anchored in a sharply written script and fine performance by a stellar cast.  What more could one ask for underneath the tree?

REVIEW: Jimmy P.

16 06 2014

Jimmy PCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Every year, Cannes is known to select a dud or two for its official selection, an honor bestowed upon “Jimmy P.” at last year’s edition.  Arnaud Desplechin’s English-language debut, sometimes subtitled “Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” is a tedious bore whose two hour duration feels like two years.  I found myself dozing off repeatedly throughout the film, yet I felt like I hardly missed a thing when I would wake up.

Psychotherapy doesn’t have to be boring – just look at the films of Woody Allen, which incorporate the process humorously and insightfully into their proceedings.  (Heck, even the forgettable “A Dangerous Method” made it somewhat intriguing.)  Desplechin’s snooze-fest, on the other hand, is a clunky procedural that focuses on the nitty-gritty psychology.  The film adapts unconventional source material – essentially a textbook on psychotherapy – and fails to find what’s cinematic about it.

Furthermore, it yields little revelatory light on either of its characters, therapist George Devereux (Mathieu Amalric) or patient Jimmy Picard (Benicio del Toro).  Amalric and del Toro are both great actors, so it’s disappointing that Desplechin has them playing at such an understated level.  Del Toro gets a few shining moments given the fact that his character sustained traumatic injuries in World War II, but Amalric is absolutely affectless.

Not every great performance has to be over-the-top scenery chewing, but it always feels like “Jimmy P.” is holding back the big moment we need to fully make sense of the characters.  Aiming simultaneously too high with its adaptation and too low with its excessively cautious directing, the film is a fairly thorough misfire.  C-1halfstars