NON-FICTION (Doubles vies, France, 2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it’s only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce … and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard’s latest manuscript. Alain claims it’s too easy to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it’s “auto-fiction”, meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON – or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard’s sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife, and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain’s publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character worries about infidelities, while it’s a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as “very French” in that it consists of ‘4 very witty lines’. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes “feel-bad books” rather than the usual “feel good” ones. And Alain refers to Leonard’s last book as “a worst seller”.

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keep the film from ever feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can’t help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the vibrant dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to “Double Lives” which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the ‘Martian Martian’ song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained … in a mostly French manner.

initially screened at 2019 Dallas International Film Festival

watch the trailer:

 

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DIFF 2019 Day 7

April 20, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival

 Greetings again from the darkness. The penultimate day of the festival and my eyes are tired and my rear end is sore from sitting … not complaining, just explaining the reality of so many movies over so many days. This day was the oddest mixture of films and one that could only happen at a film festival. I started with a prestigious French farce, followed by a hardcore international business documentary, and ended the evening with a quirky independent comedy on a topic that’s typically off-limits. What a fun day!

 

 

Here is my recap of the films from Day 7:

 

NON-FICTION (France)

Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it’s only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce … and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard’s latest manuscript. Alain claims it’s too easy to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it’s “auto-fiction”, meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke’s WHITE RIBBON – or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard’s sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain’s wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard’s wife – and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard’s ego or provide any boost whatsoever to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain’s publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character worries about infidelities, while it’s a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as “very French” in that it consists of ‘4 very witty lines’. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes “feel-bad books” rather than the usual “feel good” ones. And Alain refers to Leonard’s last book as “a worst seller”.

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keep the film from ever feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can’t help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the heavy dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to “Double Lives” which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the ‘Martian Martian’ song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained … in a mostly French manner.

 

AMERICAN FACTORY (doc)

 In December 2008, General Motors shut down the truck plant in Dayton, Ohio, putting approximately 2000 folks out of work. Six years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Glass, invested millions to turn the shell of the plant into a retro-fitted factory and the first U.S. operation for his company – a company he claims owns 70% of the auto glass market. In doing so, the factory hired approximately 1000 locals, many of whom had not had consistent work since the GM plant closed years prior.

Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you’ll likely be re-defining the word.

While there were good intentions on both sides, the differences that start out as kind of funny turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These folks must spend two years away from their family, as they try to make sense of a land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different … they don’t work as hard, they don’t dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won’t work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers – a point that’s difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.

U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the ‘rust belt’, the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China’s Workers’ Union works in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual – one even in a JAWS tshirt – while the lean Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.

What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one’s work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It’s a very fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they’ll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month!  As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can’t spell Fuyao with “fu”. The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship.

 

FRANCES FERGUSON

 We can usually assume some movie topics are off-limits for comedy material. For instance, the reception for a comedy about the Holocaust would likely be less than positive. Well brace yourself, because director Bob Byington (SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, 2012) delivers a very funny and offbeat movie about a sexual predator. Having the sex offender be a very pretty mid-20’s woman takes some of the edge off, but the film never lets us forget her crime.

The very talented Kaley Wheless (recently seen as Woody Harrelson’s daughter in THE HIGHWAYMEN on Netflix) stars as Frances, a woman who specializes in bad decisions. The narrator – an always excellent Nick Offerman – explains that Frances married Nick (Keith Poulson) and immediately thought it was the best thing. And then she thought it was the worst thing. And then she wondered, what’s the difference? Next came having a baby – daughter Parfait (is that a real name these days?). And finally, came her worst decision of all.

As a substitute teacher at the high school, Frances sets sight on hunky senior Jake, and then turns the fantasy into reality … a reality that ends with her arrest and time in jail. We do see some of her time while incarcerated, but most of the film occurs once she is released and on probation. Spending time with her mom (Jennifer Prediger) is of little help to her, but group therapy led by David Krumholtz does allow her think through some things.

Director Byington and lead actress Wheless are credited with the story, while Scott King wrote the screenplay. Ms. Wheless’ deadpan delivery and acidic nature while seemingly surrendering to life is a key to why the comedy works, and we must tip our cap to the script as well. There’s a bit of NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE awkwardness on display, and filming in North Platte, Nebraska, seems like the perfect call.

 


THE 33 (2015)

November 12, 2015

the 33 Greetings again from the darkness. How do you structure a film based on a true story that lasted 69 days, occurred 5 years ago, and was followed live on TV by half of the global population? Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, 2012) delivers a film designed to tug on heartstrings, and is based on the book “Deep Down Dark” from Hector Tobar, as well as interviews with the key players.

In 2010, the San Jose copper/gold mine collapsed trapping 33 Chilean miners more than 2300 feet under tons of rubble and an unstable rock that dwarfed the Empire State Building. Through some pretty solid special effects, we are there for the collapse. It’s this segment and the immediate reactions from the miners that provide the film’s best segment. We feel the miner’s sense of panic and doom as they begin to come to grips with their plight.

The film rotates between three struggles: the isolation of the miners struggling to survive, the tent city populated by their families struggling to maintain hope, and the Chilean government struggling with the politics and public relations of a rescue mission. From a character standpoint, each of these three segments is given a face. Antonio Banderas as Mario becomes the focal point of the miners. He searches for an escape route, takes charge of the (very limited) food rations, and acts as referee and light of hope in an extremely volatile situation. Juliette Binoche (yes the French actress) is Maria, the sister of one of the trapped miners and the most assertive of those pushing the government to attempt a rescue. Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Goldborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, and the one who pushes the government to move forward with the costly rescue mission.

Other key characters include Bob Gunton as Chile’s President Pinera, Lou Diamond Phillips as “Don Lucho”, the safety inspector, Gabriel Byrne as the chief engineer, James Brolin as Jeff Hart (leading the U.S. drilling team), Naomi Scott as Mario’s wife, and three of the other miners: Oscar Nunez, Mario Casas, and Juan Pablo Raba.

The most bizarre segment comes courtesy of miner hallucinations. It’s a fantasy-infused Last Supper sequence that plays out to the sounds of a Bellini opera, while the food and drink flow and the family members join in the joy. It’s not difficult to imagine the brain taking these poor gentlemen to such places of mental torture.

As if the approach is to make the most viewer-friendly buried miner film possible, we aren’t witness to much underground conflict, and the internal bickering within the Chilean government officials is kept to a minimum. We do get to see the media circus that occurred during the ordeal … of course, most of us witnessed it in real time.

Director Riggen has delivered a film that taps into the multitude of emotions for the different groups of people, rather than concentrating on the miserable situation of the miners. It’s a challenge to keep us interested in a true story of which we all know the ending, but most viewers will stay engaged with the characters. It should also be noted that the minimalistic score is some of the last work from the late, great James Horner.

Watch the trailer:

 

 


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2015)

April 25, 2015

clouds of sils maria Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us don’t spend much time re-living our past, and we certainly don’t go through the emotional turmoil of analyzing our early lives from a different perspective. This story puts actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) in those shoes and then we watch as she fights, claws and battles her way through.

Maria is a well-respected veteran actress who has been offered a role in the revival of the play that made her a star more than 20 years earlier. The play was written by her mentor, who dies suddenly as she is on her way to visit. Hotshot director Klaus (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria for the role of the older woman, and this is difficult for Maria to accept since she played what she considers the far more interesting younger woman in the first version. Internal psychological warfare breaks out.

Maria’s personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) struggles to keep Maria informed of today’s world – celebrity gossip is especially key in their conversations. They also run lines together, and the parallels between the play and their real lives are so prevalent that the lines are often blurred between written word and spoken word. Things get really dicey when Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) enters the picture as the talented, extremely popular, personally out of control actress slated to play opposite Maria in the play.

These three actresses are exceptional … yes, even you Kristen Stewart haters will be impressed. They each bring extraordinary depth to their role, and all are a bit outside of what would be considered their comfort zone. Their exchanges are fun, but what’s not said is every bit as exciting and key.

Filmed in the Sils Maria area of the Alps, the landscape is beyond breathtaking. Maloja Snake is the title of the play, and it refers to the fantastic cloud formations that snake through the peaks and valleys of this marvel of nature. The scenery is a nice complement to the emotional rides each of the characters take, and writer/director Olivier Assayas ensures that we have no shortage of talking points after the film.

watch the trailer:

 


GODZILLA (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzilla Greetings again from the darkness. Sixty years after Godzilla made his initial screen appearance, we get a full blown Hollywood special effects blockbuster version that will eclipse the $100 million mark in its first weekend. This is director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film (Monsters, 2010) and he juggles the modern day re-imagining with the Japanese roots and a hand full of other tributes throughout.

The cast seems impressive: Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn. Unfortunately, most of these fine actors have little to do, and instead the dominant human presence (most every scene) is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who somehow keeps getting gigs despite lacking even a dollop of screen presence or acting ability. Of course, this movie is supposed to belong to Godzilla, and even he is usurped on screen time by two nuclear-feasting praying mantis creatures that share some attributes with the classic “Alien”. These screen hogs are called MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and are quite substantial … crushing skyscrapers by landing.

The 1954 original film was an anti-nuclear statement, though the re-edited U.S. version replaced the political statement with Raymond Burr. Mr. Burr also appeared in the 1984 sequel which included a storyline of feeding off a nuclear plant (borrowed in this year’s version). This film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston working at a 1999 nuclear plant is an unmistakable nod to the recent Fukushima disaster, and sets the stage for the collision of science (Watanabe) and military (Strathairn). Director Edwards clearly enjoys his Jaws-like teasing of Godzilla, who finally shows up after almost an hour. And despite the Jurassic Park roar by our titular monster, this doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s 1993 classic. We do get the quite familiar shots of bystanders running down the street, glancing back in fear – a must for any monster movie, and it should be noted that Godzilla films have a legacy of multiple creatures, as well as the man versus nature theme.

Having seen this one in 3D, I’ll mention again that the enhanced effects offered by this technology do not offset the darkened, dulled look. Add that to the almost total lack of color – it’s borderline Black and White – and there are simply too few breathtaking visual moments to consider this a monster classic.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a monster movie fan or a follower of the Godzilla legacy OR you need proof that a lead actor can be less engaging than Matthew Broderick was in the 1998 Godzilla film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe technological advances should produce a more visually stunning film than Jurassic Park from 21 years ago OR you happen to be a huge Juliette Binoche fan and expect to see her in a lead role.

watch the trailer:

 

 


COSMOPOLIS (2012)

September 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Cronenberg is a brilliant filmmaker. Brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into popular or even accessible. He tends to make movies that force a level of discomfort while viewing, while also stretching our intellect as we attempt to follow. Even his films that come closest to mainstream (A History of Violence, The Fly) refuse to allow us to just sit and be entertained. His more esoteric films (Naked Lunch, Crash) will cause your thoughts to swim and your gut to churn.

This latest is based on the Don DeLillo novel and there is no known group of film lovers for whom this can be recommended, save Cronenberg fans. Even that doesn’t reduce its brilliance. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, the ultimate example of the 1% that is receiving such notice these days. Packer is a young, billionaire, who rides around in his mobile high tech ivory tower (you might call it a white stretch limo), taking meetings while on his mission to get a haircut. The meetings are vignettes designed to grow increasingly abstract and dialogue heavy as the film progresses.

The meetings feature Jay Baruchel as his Chief of Technology, Philip Nozuka as an Analyst, Emily Hampshire as his Chief of Finance, Samantha Morton as his Chief of Theory … oh, and a special meeting with his mistress Juliette Binoche. He also manages to continually run into his new wife played by Sarah Gadon, and work in his daily doctor’s exam which is extremely thorough. All of these occur while he is being protected by his security chief played by Kevin Durand.

 This film is not plot driven, but rather ideal and theory driven. From the discussions we can tell that the financial systems are collapsing and Packer is losing millions by the minute. His fortune is vanishing and there are threats on his life. The most interesting threat comes from his true polar opposite in life – Benno Levin played by Paul Giamatti. This sequence is the film’s longest and most dialogue heavy. Understanding every sentence is not necessary to realize it’s a comment on the faceless many vs the evil privileged. The paranoia has boiled over to the point where anarchy and violence somehow make sense.

Twilight fans will not be pleased with Pattinson’s performance, but he is absolutely perfect as Packer. His cold, arrogant nature and monotone voice are anything but emotionless. He apparently realizes his path is leading to the Village of the Damned, and he seems to have designed his own purgatory. One of the funniest, yet still odd, moments arrives in the form of Mathieu Amalric, who will generate recollections of a Rupert Murdoch incident.

Howard Shore provides an extremely subtle score that fits with the mood changes a the film progresses. Again, this is a bit like watching a philosophical laboratory experiment and certainly won’t appeal to a wide audience. If you are a Cronenberg fan, have at it. If not … the risk is yours.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big time Cronenberg fan (I can’t think of another reason)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Twilight fan expecting Robert Pattinson’s bedroom eyes to steal your heart

watch the trailer:


CERTIFIED COPY (Copie Conforme, Fr)

April 26, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. OK, I feel terrible. This movie is a darling of the critics. Juliette Binoche won the highest acting award at Cannes for her performance. It’s the first film from outside of Iran by legendary writer/director Abbas Kiarostami (Under the Olive Tree). It is a technical masterpiece filled with various philosophies on art, love and life. It’s filmed in one of the most beautiful and historic areas in the world. The one thing it didn’t do very well was capture my interest. I know … I feel terrible.

In my defense, this is a very odd film. Is it about two people courting each other? Is it about two people role-playing? Is it about two people trying to re-capture or deflect a previous relationship? Is it all of those things? To make matters worse, it plays a bit like a grown-up Before Sunrise or Before Sunset. Brace yourself … I didn’t much like either of those Richard Linklater classics. Again, I feel terrible.

 Pretty much everything I have to say about this movie is positive. Ms. Binoche is outstanding and captivating. William Shimell is a long way from his British Opera fame, but does an admirable job as the less-than-enchanting writer and object of Ms. Binoche’s attention. The quaint Tuscan town of Lucignano comes off beautifully as the locale that newlyweds flock to for romance and photo ops. The sound editing is spectacular: birds chirping and flapping, water dripping from fountains, footsteps clattering … all of these make up the realistic backdrop for the barrage of verbal tangling. Even the camera work is expert. Sometimes we are POV with one of the  characters, while other times we are the eyes unto which they gaze. Both effects are startling.

All those pieces are very well done and technically expert. The two characters are interesting enough on their own, but the “story” or approach of having these two play-pretend just didn’t grab me. Yes, Yes, Yes … I feel just terrible about it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the endless jabbering between two people like what we heard in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset … only these two don’t play nicely.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a beautiful Tuscan setting is just not quite enough for you.