REVIEW: Tom at the Farm

12 08 2015

Tom at the FarmXavier Dolan has earned a reputation as one of the most exciting rising stars in world cinema in no small part due to his directorial verve.  “Tom at the Farm” showcases a different side of him, though: restraint.  This pastoral chamber drama plays like a spare Polanski thriller with a hurried, impatient modern bent.

While this only sees release in the United States after “Mommy,” Dolan shot it before that film as the follow-up to “Laurence Anyways.”  This confirms my suspicion that the latter, a nearly three-hour opus, contains two movies worth of stylistic flourishes from the director.

Tom (Dolan, in front of the camera) arrives at the rural abode his late boyfriend Guillaume’s family, but the grieving mother has no clue what kind of friend Tom was.  Ta-da, tension! The conflict does add a few wrinkles with Guillaume’s brother and a female friend thrown into the mix, although it never really seems to reach the level of weightiness that the aesthetic suggests Dolan thinks the story possesses.

Sometimes, “Tom at the Farm” feels like Dolan just building tension for its own sake. He’s good at it because he’s a talented filmmaker. But this is more of an exercise than an epiphany. It serves Dolan by broadening his repertoire more than it serves the audience as entertaining, provocative cinema.

This is him cutting his teeth, not flexing his muscles.  Consider “Tom at the Farm” a placeholder, an unfulfilled promise of a great thriller Dolan could make – should he choose to return to the genre, of course.  B- / 2stars

REVIEW: Heartbeats

18 01 2015

HeartbeatsXavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats” amounts to little more than a schoolyard game between the straight female Marie (Monia Chokri) and gay male Francis (Dolan) for the affections of a sexually ambiguous Adonis, the flirtatious and friendly Nicolas (Niels Schneider).  Holding him up as a physical ideal, they objectify Nicolas as a prize to win.  And since Dolan casts himself, determining where his sympathy lies hardly proves daunting.

But the story is hardly the story of “Heartbeats.”  The precocious Dolan loves playing with speed, motion, and movement; on the latter front, he could rival the widely recognized master, David Fincher.  At times, the style threatens to overwhelm the film by virtue of its sheer virtuosity.  Fincher once said, “They know you can do anything, so the question is what don’t you do.”  Dolan, somewhat problematically, does everything he can do, and the movie comes off a bit like a highlight reel.

Still, “Heartbeats” tingles with the sexual energy of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” mostly because of its powerful visual language. Dolan, impressively, manages to leave it unconsummated.  Possibilities and suggestions float through the air, yet they mostly just linger there.  Though Dolan goes all out with his bold technique, the beating heart of the film is anchored in this very authentic representation of love and desire.  Such a portrayal makes the film both watchable and enjoyable, even after the seemingly endless parade of mini-music videos.  B2halfstars

Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 2

30 08 2014

9:15 A.M.  Good morning from Telluride!  Looks like today is going to be an action-packed day of moviegoing and talking with filmmakers.  I had to be up for a discussion at the ripe hour of 7:15 A.M. today, which was just as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!

This morning’s festivities kick off with a screening of Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” which won the Best Actor prize at Cannes this year.  While you wait for my reaction, perhaps you’d like to see some of my pictures that I’ve been taking?!

12:15 P.M.: I’m at a panel right now that includes…

Mike Leigh
Wim Wenders
Werner Herzog
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Francis Ford Coppola
Ethan Hawke
Walter Murch


Also, “Mr. Turner” was quite good, too.

3:27 P.M.: So, where to begin on the past three hours. Getting to be in conversation with Francis Ford Coppola for an hour was insane. Hearing from the insanely normal and approachable Xavier Dolan was neat, too. Although it’s pretty hard to top getting to meet Leonard Maltin, whose movie guides were always on my bookshelf growing up. I told him how much those meant to me, and he was clearly very humbled to hear those words. Then we got to talk about film criticism for a few minutes … simply incredible.

3:45 P.M.: Not going to lie, I’m not the most excited for our next selection, some 40 year old German film called “Baal.” I should go in with more of an open mind, but knowing that I’m in here and “Foxcatcher” is out there…

9:45 P.M.: So “Baal” was awful and basically a waste of my time, as predicted. Then essentially none of my student group got into “The Imitation Game,” despite the fact that we were supposedly guaranteed seats more or less. Guess I’ll have to catch this flick that’s being hotly tipped for Oscars on Monday … add it to the list with “Foxcatcher.”

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

Bennett Miller, Channing Tatum, and Steve Carell

So now I’m in line for Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film starring Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon that premiered to acclaim in Venice this week. Of course, there was a free outdoor screening of “Foxcatcher” that just had to overlap with this screening by 15 minutes. But no, I guess I’ll just have to keep hanging…

P.S. – Celebrity sightings today include Laura Linney (just chilling solo outside a theater) as well as Steve Carell and Channing Tatum outside the “Foxcatcher” screening.

10:28 P.M.: Laura Dern spotted at “99 Homes.”

1:13 A.M.:  Back in bed still reflecting on and reeling from “99 Homes.”  Not that I don’t want to immediately post a review (because I could probably cobble my thoughts together now), but I desperately need some sleep and have a rare chance to get two full cycles.  Good evening (though it’s doubtful anyone is reading this live)!


30 08 2014

mommyTelluride Film Festival

Fascination with portraying a particular kind of relationship on screen is not necessarily a bad thing – just look at how many compelling films Martin Scorsese has turned out about fathers and sons.  When that fascination turns to fixation, though, further exploration can just wind up being counterproductive.

That’s the case with wunderkind Xavier Dolan, releasing his fifth feature film “Mommy” at the ripe old age of 25.  It’s certainly an accomplished work with plenty to laud: namely, Dolan’s mastery of music and montage.  To those unfamiliar with his work, the film may come across quite unique and fresh.

Yet dig back into Dolan’s filmography to find his debut feature, “I Killed My Mother,” which is essentially the same film as “Mommy.”  Both put a dysfunctional mother-son relationship at their core and takes a look at the way each party drives each other towards insanity.

In “Mommy,” Antoine Olivier Pilon plays a foul-mouthed teen, Steve, who suffers from ADHD and other afflictions.  He clearly tries the patience of his mother, Anne Dorval’s Diane, who’s no angel herself.  Dolan sets their misadventures in an alternative Canadian reality where Diane could have Steve involuntarily committed to a hospital, and it’s clear that easy route is never far out of mind.

“Mommy” also introduces a third character into the mix (“I Killed My Mother” was essentially a two-hander), Suzanne Clement’s friendly neighbor Kyla.  She agrees to help homeschool Steve while his mom is out working, which results in her becoming somewhat like a regular family member.  What exactly Kyla adds to the mix – or what Diane and Steve want to take away from her – is never expressly clear, giving “Mommy” its sole bit of tension.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 1

29 08 2014

12:45 P.M.:  TGIF, everyone!  I’m headed into a packed day that will have me at some incredible events.  For all those who are really dying to know, here’s the schedule I’ve been given for the festival.

TFF Schedule

As far as I can tell, I will be at the world premiere of “The 50 Year Argument” (which is Martin Scorsese’s latest documentary) and the North American premiere of Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”  And then … a 35th anniversary tribute to “Apocalpyse Now” will have Francis Ford Coppola in person along with several below-the-line talent.  Incredible.  Geeking out so much.

1:00 P.M.: Ken Burns in the house!

1:49 P.M.: Only had about 20-25 minutes with Ken Burns, but he certainly had quite a lot to say! I’ll write up some of his profundities later. But meanwhile, I’m now at the 35th anniversary screening of “Apocalypse Now” with Francis Ford Coppola in the house!

2:00 P.M.: Spotted Mike Leigh at the “Apocalypse Now” screening.

5:30 P.M.: Left In stunned silence once again by “Apocalypse Now.” And learned so much about its construction and intention from FFC and gang.

5:50 P.M.: Now at the “feed” for the festival (basically a picnic for all badge holders, including talent). Free dinner and drinks. Plus sightings of Ken Burns again on a business call – and Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow.

6:50 P.M.: Spotted Jon Stewart. Some people went to bother him in conversation, and apparently he was receptive enough to take a picture. I was not so bold, though.

9:22 P.M.: Just emerged from the Scorsese documentary on the New York Review of Books, “The 50 Year Argument.” Mike Leigh was sitting behind me, and after the film, he seemed to linger a tad bit when he heard me discussing the film with others.

This documentary is going to be broadcast on HBO in a few weeks, and I advise you to skip it. Or do laundry while you watch it. Unless you have a connection to the Review, you’ll probably find this self-congratulatory anniversary celebration a tedious and slow paced history lesson. (Still deciding whether or not I’ll give it a full review since it’s not made for a theatrical release.)

Anyways, back in line now for Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.” Quite excited for this one, which took home the Jury Prize at Cannes this May.

12:45 A.M.: Wow, what a long and draining day. I must say, I did prefer “Mommy” when Xavier Dolan called it “I Killed My Mother” five years ago.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 27, 2014)

27 06 2014

I Killed My MotherXavier Dolan has had quite a run over the past few years.  This May, the 25-year-old wunderkind not only cracked the official competition slate at Cannes, but also won the Jury Prize.  Just five years ago, his debut feature “I Killed My Mother” announced his arrival on the international scene at the Cannes sidebar Director’s Fortnight.

Thought it took that film a whopping four years to wash up on American shores, it’s an incredibly accomplished first feature with the confidence that it takes many filmmakers years to develop.  “I Killed My Mother” is visually daring, emotionally satisfying, and narratively compelling.  As such, it is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Despite what the title might have you think, there is no murder in the film.  That’s not to say, however, that Dolan’s angsty 16-year-old character Hubert doesn’t contemplate offing his mother a great deal.  She pushes his buttons just as he pushes hers, resulting in plenty of bickering and nasty quarrels.

It’s not just a rant against mothers, though.  Dolan’s film contemplates the very root of mother-son tensions, the subject of stories for millennia.  “I Killed My Mother” feels like a courtroom drama at times as we weigh who is culpable for all the drama occurring before our eyes.  The answer isn’t ever entirely clear as we’re presented with a dilemma resembling the chicken-and-egg question.  Which came first?

Anne Dorval, playing the eponymous matriach Chantale, provides the pitch-perfect performance for the inquisitive Dolan.  She channels the essence of the matron nicely in the way she tries to provide tough love for her defiant son.  But as hard as she tries to provide consistent care, she lapses as all humans do.  Dorval’s deeply humane portrait of a woman torn by these two forces makes “I Killed My Mother” all the more fascinating to watch unfold.

While Dorval steals the movie on screen, it’s Dolan who commands it off screen.  His remarkable aesthetic flair mixes various styles of filmmaking deftly, giving “I Killed My Mother” an appropriately fractured feel.  The form matches the content remarkably well, for what better way to tell a story about conflicting feelings than with conflicting methods of presentation?  This has all the makings of a masterful film for any director; it’s merely compounded by the fact that it’s a debut for Dolan, who couldn’t even legally buy alcohol in the United States when he made it.  (He’s Canadian, anyways, so that fact doesn’t really matter.)

REVIEW: Laurence Anyways

18 04 2013

Laurence AnywaysRiverRun International Film Festival

Writing reviews that hinge on an “I like it, but…” are always fun, so here goes my latest.  (And if you want a classic example of this type of review, see my take on Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”)

Though I haven’t seen any of Xavier Dolan’s previous two films, “I Killed My Mother” and “Heartbeats,” I immensely respect this young wunderkind’s talent.  He is a master of cinematic art at 24, and I cannot wait to see how he pushes the form in the future.  Heck, for all we know, he could be the future of film.

But now is not the future, nor is his third film “Laurence Anyways.”  It shows promises of greatness and hints at a bold, brash masterpiece coming down the pipes.  Dolan, however, falls into plenty of typical early-feature shortcomings with this film – namely, unevenness.

I can imagine it would be a bit intimidating trying to tell Dolan to control his ambitions – after all, he only directed, wrote, and edited this film.  (Oh, and he designed the costumes.)  But he toggles between two totally different styles in “Laurence Anyways,” a pared-down reality and a wildly imaginative impressionism.  The two stand in pretty stark contrast to each other, especially when one abruptly transitions to the other.  I am not saying they can’t coexist peacefully, but the way Dolan does it here just feels sloppy and choppy.

The story he tells, that of Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) seeking to become the woman he feels that he is meant to be inside, is certainly interesting and provocative.  Tackling transvestism and transgender issues has been something seldom tackled by filmmakers save perhaps Pedro Almodóvar, and he explores its complications with sensitivity and without a hint of exploitation or disrespect.  At the heart of “Laurence Anyways” is a human story, not an exclusively LGBTQ story, as Laurence struggles with his attractions and repulsions to Fred (Suzanne Clément).  This emphasis on the personal does harm the film a little, however, when it tries to wax political at the close.

I was definitely intimidated by the nearly three hour runtime of “Laurence Anyways” going in, and it wound up being less of an issue than I expected.  I was always caught up in the action of the film; heck, by the end, I felt like I had spent a lifetime with Laurence and Fred.  Their saga spans over a decade, and the film needed to be that long to capture all the micro-level complexities Dolan wanted to portray.

Yet a part of me thinks that for a story of such sprawling breadth, perhaps film was not the correct medium.  The past five years have been an incredible artistic Renaissance for cable television.  Shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” are moving beyond episodic plots and into exploring traditionally filmic narratives with aesthetic integrity.  Many still consider television to be a bastard art compared to film, but there really should be no shame in giving a story the room to breathe in a series or mini-series format.

So while there’s plenty to admire in “Laurence Anyways,” I saw plenty of room for improvement as well.  It’s one of those movies where I just cross my fingers and hope it’s a harbinger of better things to come further down the road, not indicative of an upper limit.  B- / 2stars