JANE BY CHARLOTTE (2022, doc)

March 17, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Fearless, brave, and risk-taking. These are words often used to describe the acting choices of Charlotte Gainsbourg, who has been on screen regularly since she was a teenager. And it’s no wonder, given a resume that includes such films as NYMPHOMANIAC VOL I and II (2013), MELANCHOLIA (2011), and ANTICHRIST (2009). But it’s likely she’s never been more reticent than when directing her first film … a documentary on her mother, actor and singer Jane Birkin. This is anything but another profile of a famous person. No, this is something so intimate and personal that we often feel like we are eavesdropping and invading the privacy of mother and daughter.

We open with Jane singing on stage with the symphony at Bataclan Paris. It’s a reminder of how this icon from the ‘swinging 60’s’ remains a beloved figure today. But this is no career retrospective. In fact, there is very little structure … it’s kind of a meandering journey through the time Jane and daughter Charlotte spend together. Much of it is filmed at Jane’s beautiful riverfront home in France, and it seems Charlotte’s focus is on creating some special moments that she can recall once her 74-year-old mother is no longer around. Death, illness, and aging are all discussed.

Jane Birkin may be best known as the muse to Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte’s father, and for singing his risqué song, “Je t’ame, moi non plus”. There is an initial awkwardness between mother and daughter, and that’s likely due to the uncertainty over the reason for this documentary. Charlotte, also a photographer, is frequently seen snapping pictures of her mother, even as the film crew does their thing. It’s obvious both mother and daughter are more comfortable with the camera than they are with each other, though they do warm up as things progress.

Jane discusses her propensity to hoard items, rarely discarding anything. She jokes that Charlotte will have to decide what’s to keep once she’s gone. One of the oddest sequences occurs when the two ladies visit Serge’s old home. He passed away in 1991 and it appears the home hasn’t changed much, other than to display items as if it were a museum. Even some of the canned food has exploded since it’s been more than 30 years. It’s kinda creepy and a bit surreal watching them fumble through the place, picking out items that bring back memories.

“The Birkin”, a handbag by Hermes, still sells for thousands of dollars, and Jane makes it clear she still cares about her looks … wrinkles and famously tousled hair. The insecurities and guilt are never really dealt with here, leaving it mostly a project of love and respect. Perhaps Charlotte wanted to ensure that the moments put on film were never about regret and instead about finding joy and comfort together. It seems this is much more a film for these two ladies, and less so for the rest of us. For a more interesting primer, see JANE B FOR AGNES V, a 1988 documentary on Jane Birkin by Agnes Varda. That’s not a home movie.

Opening March 18, 2022 in New York and March 25, 2022 in Los Angeles

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SUNDOWN (2022)

January 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. How quickly we make assumptions and judge the actions of others. We all do it, and writer-director Michel Franco (NEW ORDER, 2020) seizes on this common human trait in this unconventional film centered on a man who simply doesn’t act like we expect him to. Because of our tendencies to judge, Franco is able to confound, even frustrate us, by slowly revealing details that we wouldn’t have guessed.

To pull this off, the filmmaker needs and receives a tremendous performance from Tim Roth. The actor takes a much different approach than his usual animated tic style, and here is exceedingly understated … so much so that we are a bit uncomfortable watching him. He rarely speaks and seems distant from the others. The film opens with a family vacationing in Acapulco. They are clearly well-to-do folks, as evidenced by the stunning resort suite. Neil (Mr. Roth) and Allison Bennett (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are on holiday with two older kids Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). Our assumptions about what we are seeing are in full bloom, and that continues when Allison receives a call about a family tragedy.

As the family frantically packs and rushes to the airport for an early flight home, Neil claims to have left his passport at the hotel and will catch the next flight home. Instead, the film and Neil take a much different path … one that leads to Neil becoming even more withdrawn. He moves into a cheap motel and spends his time lounging on the beach with a bucket of Coronas by his side. He befriends Berenice, a local played by Iazua Larios. Yet even then, Neil puts forth little effort to communicate. We keep asking, “What is wrong with him?” “What is he doing?” These are the same questions Allison asks when she returns to confront him.

As viewers, we are constantly revising the conclusions we previously jumped to as the details slowly eek out. This will likely cause frustration for some viewers, especially since Neil is not a likable guy – he just gives us nothing to relate to. Checking out from the pressures of one’s life is never as romantic as it might sound, yet Neil seems extremely comfortable with his decisions. Class and cultural differences are at play here, and it’s possible Roth and the film are at their best when answers aren’t being provided. At least that’s when the most tension is present. Franco’s film is an unusual one, and certainly not one that everyone will appreciate, but he and Roth give us plenty to digest.

Opening in select theaters on January 28, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


DARK CRIMES (2018)

May 30, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. A neo-noir “inspired by actual events” and based on a compelling 2008 “New Yorker” article by the great David Grann (THE LOST CITY OF Z) seems to have the necessary components for a satisfying thriller. So what went wrong? Unfortunately, a messy script from Jeremy Brock (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) prevents this one from ever having a chance at grabbing our attention, much less holding it.

This is the first English language film from director Alexandros Avranas (MISS VIOLENCE, 2013) and his cast is led by Jim Carrey as police inspector Tadek, a disgraced cop who takes care of his elderly mother while also obsessing over the now coldcase that ruined his career. Carrey sports a Polish accent through “most” of his performance … a performance that is mostly subdued, especially given his career. Joining him as co-leads in the cast are two other excellent actors: Martin Csokas and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Csokas plays Kozlow, the main antagonist and suspect – an author with clues to the key murder highlighted in his novel. Ms. Gainsbourg is underutilized as Kasia, the former sex worker, now intimate acquaintance of Kozlow. She is the key to solving the case.

Grann’s article entitled “True Crimes: A Postmodern Murder Mystery” told the story of novelist/convicted murderer Krystian Bala. It’s an article worth reading and one that bears only passing resemblance to this screen adaptation. The film is purposefully drab, bleak, dark, grey and dour, with a stark, cold look to the characters and most every scene. Tadek is a man on a mission to save his reputation, even at the expense of his family life, or really any life at all. The game of cat and mouse between Tadek and Kozlow never reaches the level of tension that the film seems to think it does … even in the one-on-one interrogation scene or the seemingly endless blabbering of the recordings Tadek listens to.

There is a terrific international cast of supporting actors including iVlad Ivanov, Robert Wieckiewicz, Piotr Glowacki and Agata Kulesza, but the cast is only able to do so much with the material. Perhaps the draw is supposed to be Jim Carrey is the darkest role of his career. On the bright side, the story is neatly wrapped up at the end thanks to one character who deserves a “win”.

watch the trailer:

 


NORMAN (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the subtitle, ‘The Moderate Rise and Rapid Fall of a New York Fixer’, writer/director Joseph Cedar removes one layer of the mystery that otherwise envelops the lead character Norman Oppenheimer. We find ourselves somewhat sympathetic for the obviously lonely guy, while also accepting this as Cedar’s commentary on today’s real world obsession with networking. “It’s who you know” is the call of the business world, and few stake claim to more contacts that Norman.

Richard Gere stars as Norman, and we immediately notice his usual on screen air of superiority is missing, replaced instead by a fast-talking sense of desperation … in fact, Norman reeks of desperation. Cedar divides the film into four Acts: A Foot in the Door, The Right Horse, The Anonymous Donor, and The Price of Peace. These acts begin with Norman stalking/meeting an Israeli Deputy Minister after a conference, buying him an $1100 pair of Lanvin shoes, and then tracking their relationship over the next few years as Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) ultimately becomes Prime Minister of Israel, and is embroiled in a scandal that directly impacts Norman.

It’s a terrific script with exceptional performances from both Mr. Gere and Mr. Ashkenazi (who also starred in director Cedar’s excellent Oscar nominated Footnote, 2011). Their awkward initial connection seems grounded in reality – despite the expensive gift. These are two men who dream big, but go about things in quite different ways. Other terrific actors show up throughout, including: Michael Sheen as Norman’s lawyer nephew; Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi; Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin and Josh Charles as businessmen; Isaach De Bankole as the shoe salesman; Hank Azaria as Norman’s mirror-image from the streets; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a disconcertingly quiet and calm Israeli investigator.

There are many interesting elements in the film – some are small details, while others are quite impactful. Examples of these include the whimsical music from Japanese composer Jun Miyake, Norman’s questionable diet, the emphasis on “Unnamed US businessman”, the twist on a simple question “What do you need?”, the recurring shot of the shoes, and the creative use of split screen montage during multiple phone calls.

Most hustlers don’t generate a great deal of success, and Norman is often an annoying, even an unwelcome presence. However, it seems clear he is well-intentioned, and despite a proclivity for fabricating facts, his sincerity makes him a somewhat sympathetic figure … one that by the film’s end, has accomplished quite a few favors that should have delivered the recognition and influence he so craved. Norman’s “art of the deal” may not be textbook, but it makes for entertaining viewing.

watch the trailer:

 


MISUNDERSTOOD (Incompresa, Italy, 2015)

September 23, 2015

misunderstood Greetings again from the darkness. Asia Argento is a multi-talented filmmaker – actress, writer, director and producer. Her father is Dario Argento, well known for directing gialo horror films, and her mother is Italian actress Daria Niccolodi. Add in her grandmother, who was famed documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, and it’s understandable why Asia has created (with co-writer Barbara Alberti) this semi-autobiographical story of Aria … a young girl struggling with self-absorbed parents and a world where she doesn’t seem to fit.

It doesn’t take long before we realize the film is poorly titled. “Abused and Mistreated” or “Sucky Parents” would be more accurate. Aria, wonderfully played by Giulia Salerno, is a very observant, tougher than we might expect, skinny kid who is fifth in the household pecking order behind her bombastic parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gabriel Garko) and her two older sisters (Carolina Poccioni, Anna Lou Casoudi).  Aria has a good friend at school, but is mostly an outcast due to her superior essay writing ability and her semi-famous, but rarely present parents.

Featuring one of the more dysfunctional family dinners you’ll ever see, the filmmaker’s deft touch allows us to pull for Aria as she is booted from her mom’s house, and then from her dad’s … and then the cycle repeats. Realizing that a connection with her parents (or sisters) will never be more than surface, Aria adopts a wild cat named Dac and proceeds to tote him everywhere. Dac’s blackness plays off the color surrounding others – especially her flashy dad and always pink sister.

Being as this is Italian cinema, the characters are always emotional (sometimes way up, sometimes way down), periodically violent, and always passionate. Aria is the tortured young soul simply trying to survive this coming-of-age story with a socially and morally unacceptable parental structure. It’s so apparent that with some semblance of love, Aria would fully blossom.

There are flashes of levity, including the dad’s over-the-top superstitions, and the expert use of Lou Christie’s “Two Faces Have I”, that provide us a glimmer of hope. However, when Aria says “There are many ways to cry”, we know those flashes and that glimmer are all but gone. Though the film is set in 1984, Aria’s plea for us to “Be Nice” is as timely today as ever.

watch the trailer:

 


SAMBA (France, 2015)

July 30, 2015

samba Greetings again from the darkness. Co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano delivered one of the best movies of 2012 with The Intouchables, and reunite to adapt a novel from Delphine Coulin. It’s another “odd couple” story, this time focusing on Samba (Omar Sy) and Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The familiar blend of drama and comedy is present, and the French immigration process takes a few shots.

Omar Sy exploded on the scene in The Intouchables and again proves what a tremendous screen presence he has. However this time his turn is mostly dramatic, while the bulk of the comedy arrives courtesy of his friend Wilson (played by Tahar Rahim from A Prophet). Ten years ago, Samba immigrated to France from Senegal, and has been sending money home ever since. A police incident leaves Samba in danger of being deported, and he receives help from Alice, an inexperienced immigration worker who is dealing with her own issues … she’s a hard core corporate burn out (hide your cell phone fellas!).

Given the subject matter, the film is much funnier and pleasant to watch than one might expect. The actors listed above, along with Izia Higelin as another immigration worker, are all wonderful and interesting to watch as their characters struggle through the hand they’ve been dealt. Samba and Wilson steal moments of joy while living in constant fear of being discovered, while Alice is borderline depressive and insomniac. She and Samba spend much of the movie in clumsy flirtations while their stressful situations swirl around. It’s awkward to watch, but we do find ourselves hoping things work out for each of them.

A very promising opening sequence contrasts the attendees of a high-dollar wedding with the working class of those in the kitchen- of which Samba is one. Unfortunately, this contrast is mostly hinted at for the rest of the film, except for one terrific “back and forth/ him and her” segment. The best guess is that there is an outstanding dramatic story hidden by the overuse of comedy. While the laughs are legitimate and appreciated, the film leaves us feeling a bit empty, given the lack of information and insight we take away in regards to French immigration.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


MELANCHOLIA

November 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who walks into this film having not seen the trailer or being unfamiliar with the previous works of writer/director Lars von Trier has my sincere sympathy. He is a unique and ambitious filmmaker with a touch of expressionism, abstractness and a unique visual style. His movies are seen by a small audience and appreciated by even fewer. And on top of that, he may be the least politically correct celeb working today.

The film begins with a most unusual prologue backed by an ominous Wagner composition and numerous visuals that play like slow moving paintings come to life. Clearly, the end of the world is at hand. After that, we get two parts: Part 1 Justine, and Part 2 Claire. Justine (Kristen Dunst) is first seen in her wedding gown heading towards the reception with her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Normally, this is one of the happiest times of anyone’s life, but here something is just not quite right. Once inside, we begin to understand. Justine’s family and friends are all a bit off-center, and she is the worst of all.

 I won’t go into the details because what really matters is that Melancholia, a large blue planet, is headed directly towards earth. Kiefer Sutherland plays Justine’s rich brother-in-law and he assures everyone that the “pass by” will be a special moment and no need to fear a collision. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) believes her husband and tries to comfort her sister Justine.

The supporting cast is outstanding and includes not only Alexander Skarsgard as the groom, but also his father Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s over-bearing employer; Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s beyond bitter mother; John Hurt as the take-no-responsibilty father; Jesper Christensen as the faithful caretaker; and creepy Udo Kier as the wedding planner. It’s quite a cast and the only real point of their existence seems to be having Justine and the viewer question if this existence is better than no existence … which could happen in 5 days.

 This year has provided quite a metaphysical buffet at the theater. We have had The Tree of Life, Another Earth, Take Shelter and now this entry from von Trier. This group will have you questioning many things in life, and beyond. The other similarity between the three is the artistic craftsmanship with which each is made. Clearly two famous paintings play a key role for von Trier, and his final shot is done with such a deft touch that only guys like Tony Scott and Michael Bay will feel let down.

I certainly can’t recommend this one to all. It is somewhat slow moving and filled with symbolism and characters bordering on depression. It is beautiful to look at, but tough to watch. My guess is you already know if this is one for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy risky, creative filmmaking designed to initiate thought in the viewer … even if that thought might be questioning how one would handle pending doom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to movies to be uplifting and funny – a way to take your mind off the heavy stuff

watch the trailer:


THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION (2009)

July 4, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most everyone is familiar with the peak of Merchant-Ivory film collaboration which included: A Room With a View, Remains of the Day, and Howard’s End to name a few. Ismail Merchant died a few years ago, but director James Ivory returns with a powerful, yet odd film based on Peter Cameron’s novel.

The film boasts a very nice cast: Anthony Hopkins as the aging, gay man who is the brother of a famous (now dead) novelist; Laura Linney as the widow of the writer; and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the writer’s former mistress. Oh yeah, these three all live together (plus Hopkins’ younger Japanese partner) in a compound in Uruguay on land the writer left behind after his suicide.

The story gets interesting when Omar (played by Omar Metwally) shows up unannounced after receiving a declination of his request to write a biography on the novelist. Hopkins supports the idea as he expects it will generate book sales and revenue for the group. Linney is flat against it thinking it will spill too many secrets. Gainsbourg initially sides with Linney, but changes her vote when she falls for Omar.

On the surface, the story is about Omar’s attempt to win over Linney’s bitter character and change her mind. The much more appealing story is Omar’s awakening to life in this oddball community, now that he is out of the clutches of his domineering type-A girlfriend and co-worker played superbly by Alexandra Maria Lara. Talk about a personality that makes you want to run away to Uruguay! She almost makes Linney’s character seem charming.  Almost.

Mr. Ivory excels in subtlety and he is in fine form here. So many “little” moments make this story really click. It is also beautifully photographed. This is a really good film with interesting characters and a theme of finding one’s self that will probably get lost in the mass confusion of summer giants like Twilight and Toy Story 3. If you get the chance, make the time to see this one.