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+

F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 7, 2016)

7 01 2016

Mesrine Killer InstinctIt’s common to attribute all the attributes of high-octane, adrenaline-pumping cinema to the “Hollywood” style, as if big studios are the only entities capable of producing great action thrillers. But great classical genre films can came from anywhere in the world. Case in point: the French crime saga “Mesrine,” broken up into “Killer Instinct” (part 1) and “Public Enemy #1” (part 2).

These films may not rise to the standard of high art that normally defines my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column, but I think it’s important to spotlight the many varieties of international cinema. Believe it or not, France has more to offer than austere Godard works or quirky Ozon films. They have people like Jean-François Richet, director of the “Mesrine” films, too! This is about as slick and thrilling as entertainment comes.

The movie makes a great showcase for Vincent Cassel, who stars as titular gangster Jacques Mesrine. After becoming disillusioned by France’s loss in the Algerian War, the ex-soldier enters the world of organized crime and quickly becomes a Pacino-like figure on the international circuit. Compared to some other recent mob movies (COUGH, “Black Mass“), Mesrine is always captivating to observe. He’s a man defined by his confidence, which earns him great success until it becomes the hubris that leads to his ruin.

When Cassel acts in English-language movies, he struggles to shed his thick French accent. That is not a knock against him, and it even served him well in “Black Swan.” But, often times, the cadences distract from the dialogue because it is so pronounced. In “Mesrine,” speaking in his native language, Cassel seems more comfortable and relaxed to act to his full capability. He sure does own the screen here.

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: The Blue Room

11 11 2014

The Blue RoomMathieu Amalric’s directorial venture “The Blue Room” is cobbled together from some fairly familiar elements: adulterous lovers, ongoing deceit, crimes of passion, to name a few.  But like many a successful film, the components themselves matter less than their arrangement.

Amalric is quite the visual stylist, a skill he could easily have absorbed from some of the great filmmakers with whom he has collaborated over the years (Julian Schnabel, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg).  “The Blue Room” is a carefully constructed collage of image and sound, compellingly edited to gently pivot between past and present.  Each shot hums with equal parts mystery and beauty.

The film clocks in at a lean 76 minutes, yet that is more than enough time for Amalric to provide an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel that feels complete enough for the price of admission.  The level of intrigue does start to drop off some at the back half of “The Blue Room,” though, as the police interrogation and criminal trial of the lovers moves from a framing device to the film’s main storyline.  Still, Amalric keeps things interesting through the shrouding and obfuscating of narrative truth.

“The Blue Room” doles out information on a need-to-know basis, not immediately declaring what crime the lovers have committed, who is under suspicion, or even who the victim is.  Moreover, the motives and allegiances of uneasily married Julien (Amalric, in front of the screen) and his mistress, the unhappily wedded Esther (Stéphanie Cléau), are always murkily identified at best.

Amalric’s purposeful indeterminacy extends as far as his portrayal of their sexual encounters.  If their moaning is audible, Amalric shows shots of the locale rather than the entwining of their bodies.  If they are visibly making love, the soundtrack reflects an entirely different noise.  These half-truths in “The Blue Room” eventually add up to something just short of complete illumination – but far greater than the average cinematic affair.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Venus in Fur

20 06 2014

Venus in FurCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

We’re now witnessing the late films of Roman Polanski, whether we like it or not.  The director gave us one of the all-time great horror films (“Rosemary’s Baby“), neo-noirs (“Chinatown”), and Holocaust films (“The Pianist”).  Yet now, he seems content to draw his legacy to a close with a sort of artistic retreat into filmed theater.

His latest film, “Venus in Fur,” has more than a few similarities with Polanski’s previous directorial effort, 2011’s meekly received “Carnage.”  They are both adaptations of a stage play with a small set of characters locked in a continuous scene restricted to a single space.  And Polanski, who proved to be quite the consummate visual filmmaker in decades past, seems content to just yell “action!” and have the actors do their work.

He controls the chaos a lot better in “Venus in Fur,” although that could be due in part to the cast of only two – one of which is his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who he’s presumably on the same wavelength with to begin.  She plays Vanda, an aging actress who invites herself to audition for the director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric).  He’s adapting the novel “Venus in Furs,” which is notable for introducing the phrase sadomasochism into the world brain.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Vanda and Thomas play a game of verbal chess over sexual politics and gender identity.  They arrive at more than a few interesting conclusions as their power dynamics and roles begin to shift.  Seigner and Amalric’s acting keeps “Venus in Fur” interesting whenever the location starts to feel boring or the whole enterprise just feels a little bit stalled.

“Venus in Fur” feels like many things, none of which is a Polanski film.  Although I have to give credit to a director who, at 80, is making us reconsider what exactly his movies are.  B-2stars

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

REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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