DIFF 2017: Day Seven

April 9, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s Thursday and we are in the home stretch for the festival. Only four days remain, and a second wave of new films and filmmakers has hit the schedule. By the end of today, I will have watched 22 DIFF movies with 3 full and exciting days to go. Below is a recap of the three movies I watched on Thursday April 6, 2017:

 

 

IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (Juste la fin du monde)

All it takes is either Vincent Cassel or Marion Cotillard in the cast, and a movie becomes a must-see for me. Combine both of them with some other terrific French actors: Lea Seydoux, Nathalie Baye and rising star Gaspard Ulliel, and then have the project directed by daring young filmmaker Xavier Dolan (Mommy, 2014), and the pieces are in place for an important and stimulating cinematic experience. Then again, sometimes having the pieces just isn’t quite enough.

Based on the play from Jean-Luc Lagarce, the film begins with Louis (Mr. Ulliel) on a flight back home for the first visit with his family in 12 years. Louis is now a successful writer, and the reason for his trip home is to deliver some important news … news that requires a face-to-face gathering. As he enters the home, it’s obvious there are significant underlying issues with these folks. The family dynamics are light-years beyond strained, and what follows is 99 minutes of yelling, bickering and blaming. It’s a miserable experience for Louis, and unfortunately for us viewers as well.

Ms. Cotillard’s Catherine is subservient wife to Mr. Cassel’s Antoine, the bitter brother who doesn’t seem overly joyous that Louis has finally decided to visit. Ms. Seydoux is the little sis who barely has memories of Louis living at home, but desperately wants to form a bond while he’s present. The matriarch is played by Ms. Baye who has the best and most honest line of the film. She tells Louis: “I don’t understand you. But I love you.” That line could have been the title of the film as it seems that none of these people have any understanding or empathy for the other family members, though there is a connection that only relatives can share.

Mr. Dolan films everyone up close creating a sense of claustrophobia and annoyance that takes the dialogue to near breaking point on a few occasions. He also employs some extremely creative camera angles with some of these ultra-tight shots. Lastly, you aren’t likely to see a more fitting or effective use of a cuckoo clock in any movie this year. Its role as a metaphor is clear, and just as clear … these people are themselves cuckoo!

 

ELLA BRENNAN: COMMANDING THE TABLE (documentary)

Actress Patricia Clarkson narrates this profile of restaurateur-extraordinaire and incredibly dedicated, successful and influential businesswoman Ella Brennan. For anyone who has eaten at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, the flavorful impact of Ms. Brennan is surely known. However, there is so much more to her story and documentarian Leslie Iwerks does a thorough and entertaining job of serving up the details.

Whether or not you consider yourself a “foodie”, you’ve likely heard of Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme – two of the first celebrity chefs. Both got their start thanks to Ms. Brennan, and both still credit her for much of their success. The story begins in the 1940’s when Ella was just out of high school and her much older brother Owen put her to work in his restaurant. She studied vigorously, both through books and observation.

To fully appreciate this amazing woman, the era must be considered. Women in business were rarely provided opportunities, and from an industry perspective, food was not yet a national obsession. Ms. Brennan bucked both by building a business and generating national interest in various types of food, flavors and meals.

When a family feud caused a split and the loss of Brennan’s restaurant on Royal, Ella opened Commander’s Palace, a now globally famous eatery that is must-dining for locals and tourists alike. Director Iwerks chronicles changes in menus and chefs, and focuses on Ms. Brennan’s commitment to running a business the right way, and being a vital part of the community. Never is this more evident than in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005. Her story is the ultimate success story of a self-made woman who preserved through good times and bad, and her legacy is not likely to be forgotten in the culinary world.

 

SPETTACOLO (documentary)

For those of us a little rusty on our Italian, it’s pronounced spe-TAK-ola and it means “the show” or “the play”. That is the perfect title for a documentary on the Tuscany region farming town of Monticchiello. On April 6, 1944, the townspeople took a stand against the German invasion during WWII, and for more than 50 years the town has staged a live presentation to maintain their bravely-earned voice.

More than an annual tradition, the play is a lifelong commitment that proves how art and participation can connect those within a community. Co-directors Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol) and Chris Shellen take us through the early stages of planning where discussions are held to determine this year’s “hot topic”. This determines the focus of the play and what will be discussed and presented. What follows is script writing from long time director Andrea Cresti, stage building, and hours upon hours of rehearsal. Along the way, we learn how the younger generation is showing little interest in the tradition, casting doubt on not just the future of the play, but also the identity of the town.

In an effort to help us better understand the folks involved and just what it means to the community, the film moves at a very deliberate … ok, pretty darn slow place. Of course, this is Tuscany, so the topography and landscape are breathtaking – including one stunning shot of summer’s sunflowers. The film captures the difficulty in maintaining tradition, and as Mr. Cresti states, it might be better if the play ends before losing all meaning.

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THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

watch the trailer:

 


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (La belle et le bette, France, 2015)

January 28, 2016

beauty and the beast Greetings again from the darkness. If you are looking for dancing tea cups or singing candelabras, you’ve come to the wrong movie. If you are looking for the Gothic approach to the dark psychological analysis of the original story … again, you’ve come to the wrong movie. Director Christophe Gans (Silent Hill, 2006) offers up a version that is neither animated Disney (1991) nor Jean Cocteau (1946), though his film does have a visual flair that will likely keep audiences (it’s not for very young kids) engaged throughout.

The familiar story was first written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve in 1740, however, it’s the revised version from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 that provides the fairy tale/fable that has been filmed so many times since. The story’s genealogy based in France instills a bit more hope and responsibility in a project starring Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux and Andre Dussolier, and directed by the Frenchman Gans.

Ms. Seydoux is an admirable Belle, and her grace and beauty make for quite the contrast to her needy and entitled sisters. Her time in the castle with the Beast is limited, and therein is the film’s biggest weakness. We never really see the transformation of the Beast to a man who repents, turns over a new leaf, and is worthy of love … it all just kind of happens thanks to the beautiful dresses. Mr. Gans and Sandra Vo-Anh co-wrote the script, and this misstep deflates the core of the story. We are on our own to interpret the messages of class warfare, greed, and judging others by looks. The focus instead is on the visual presentation, which at times is spectacular.

The set design and costumes are especially impressive and elaborate, and though the look of the Beast may not be precisely to your imagination, the film isn’t shy about putting him front and center with the camera. Vincent Cassel’s time as the Prince is pretty well done, and the CGI and explanation of the gold doe, nymph of the forest, magic healing water, pack of beagles and the curse are enough to move the story along … even if some details are lacking.

A bedtime story being read to two young kids is the framing device and might explain why the fantasy world is emphasized over the dark psychological undertones (more prevalent in the Cocteau version). While some might view the ending as somewhat mawkish, it’s really nice to see happily-ever-after is not twisted into some contemporary take on independence.

watch the trailer:

 


SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skpyDiCrMZs

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

December 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. You should know that as serious as I am about movies, I am perfectly comfortable accepting the Mission Impossible franchise for what it is … a thrilling roller coaster ride of breathtaking stunts, outlandish missions, stunning visuals, bone-jarring fights, and above all else, Tom Cruise. Mr. Cruise is back in his element as Agent Ethan Hunt … equal parts sleuth, cage fighter and super hero.

This is the fourth installment of the re-boot which began in 1996. Cruise was in his  mid-30’s then, and is pushing 50 now. In remarkable physical condition, he seems to take great pride in his ability to pull off these fantastic stunts. However, he tops them all here as he hangs from the world’s tallest building – Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This is one of the most impressive action stunt sequences ever seen, with multiple camera angles that will definitely jar your senses if you are the least bit sensitive to heights. This alone is worth the price of admission.

 No need to go into much detail as the plot/mission is as preposterous as the others in the franchise. Ethan’s team is made up of computer geek and walking one-liner Simon Pegg as Benji; Paula Patton (Precious) as Jane (we must always have a pretty woman); and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) as Brandt, the world’s most dangerous “analyst”. This team is chasing after Michael Nyqvist (Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), who plays Hendricks … a European loony trying to nuke the world for no apparent reason. To get to Hendricks, the team must go through a filthy rich playboy played by Amil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire) and a trained assassin played by Lea Seydoux (the shopkeeper in Midnight in Paris).

 This latest installment is directed by Brad Bird, straight from Pixar via Ratatouille and The Incredibles, both of which prepared him for this first live-action thriller. With an eye for action sequences and a feel for lapses in dialogue, Mr. Bird’s first live action outing is quite impressive. Plus, he included an endless stream of gadgets, technology, fight scenes and crazy stunts. The sandstorm and futuristic parking garage scenes are especially effective … not to mention the prototype BMW that Cruise zips through the streets of India.  My only real complaint is that the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme song never really cuts loose like it should. Still, if you liked the first three, you will like this one.

note: the rumor is that Jeremy Renner will be taking over the MI franchise when Cruise steps down.  He is also the guy to take over for Matt Damon in the Bourne series … and is Hawkeye in The Avengers.  Don’t look for Mr. Renner to get soft around the middle for awhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Mission Impossible franchise OR you enjoy stunning stunts and bone-crunching fights OR you want to see the role that Tom Cruise was seemingly born to play

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: fights, stunts, nuclear threats, and Tom Cruise do nothing for you.

watch the trailer:


MIDNIGHT IN PARIS

June 8, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not so many years ago, Woody Allen was thought of (along with Martin Scorcese) as the quintessential New York City filmmaker. He understood that and even poked fun at himself in his most popular film Annie Hall. At age 75, Mr. Allen remains an incredibly prolific filmmaker cranking out an original script and film every year. With his recent work, he has ventured outside of NYC and into England, Spain and now France. Clearly these new locales have re-ignited his creativity.

The script for Midnight in Paris is some of his best writing in years, and he explores our (and his) love of nostalgia without sacrificing the customary relationship struggles. While I hold steadfast to my rule of providing no spoilers, a quick glance at the character names gives you all the clues you need to put the basic idea in place.

 Owen Wilson plays Gil, a financially successful Hollywood hack screenwriter who longs to be a serious novelist in the vein of his literary heroes from 1920’s Paris. Gil goes on vacation to Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). Of course the parents don’t like Gil and it doesn’t take long (maybe one scene) for us to figure out that Gil and Inez are misfits as a couple.

In an attempt to escape the disrespect from Inez and the yammering of her know-it-all friend played by Michael Sheen, Gil goes wandering the nighttime streets of Paris. What happens next is either science-fiction or the culmination of Gil’s dreams. The bell tolls midnight and Gil is whisked away via a classic Peugeot to the world of literary giants he so worships.

As a viewer, half the fun in this one is staying alert to pick up the clues to the references: Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Alice B Toklas, Djuna Barnes, TS Eliot, Matisse, Leo Stein, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Degas, Cole Porter and Picasso. Kathy Bates spikes the film with her lively turn as Gertrude Stein. Corey Stoll makes a ferociously direct Ernest Hemingway. Adrien Brody offers up a slightly off-center Salvador Dali – good for a laugh.  Marion Cotillard brings elegance and beauty to her role of the ultimate art groupie.  Of course, suspension of reality must occur if we are to buy off on her character choosing Gil (Wilson) over the bombastic Hemingway and fiery Picasso!

 This movie plays kind of like an all-star game. A chance to see all the names and players that you have heard about … all under one roof. For film lovers, there is a great little exchange between Owen Wilson’s character and Luis Bunuel. Woody has created a 90 minute tribute to all of us (like Gil) who have yearned to work with and live among the artistic giants. I would love to see Mr. Allen’s notes as he put this idea together. We can only imagine what didn’t make the film! Despite all the fun of inside jokes, the romantic idea of nostalgia and wishing for a better time is discussed and analyzed. Mr. Allen tells us that EVERYONE, no matter their era, has a romantic vision of some previous time which they believe would better suit their style and creative force. The story is balanced by having Gil’s novel based in a nostalgia store, and he ends up meeting an intriguing young lady (Lea Seydoux) at a Paris store that sells old records and books.

 Owen Wilson in the lead role is probably the only mistake Mr. Allen made.  Though his puppy dog excitement and innocence is played full tilt in the classic world he discovers, he just can’t hold up his end in scenes with Cotillard or Bates.  Despite this, I found the ideas and excitement of the setting to outweigh the distraction of Wilson.

As always, Mr. Allen has beautiful music accompanying his words and scenes. This time we are also treated to some breathtaking images of Paris, the Seine, and wonderful works of art (Rodin, Picasso, etc). Of course casting Carla Bruni, wife to the President of France (Nicolas Sarkozy) might have entitled him to film in Paris settings we don’t often see in movies. One gets the impression that this one was quite a bit of fun for Woody to assemble. If you enjoy art or literary history, you too will find this to be one jolly easter egg hunt!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would enjoy a dreamlike trip to the artistic wonderland of Paris in the 20’s OR you thrive on discovering the hidden gems in Woody Allen films

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you still call them “freedom fries” OR you and your therapist are still working to overcome your anger at Owen Wilson for letting Marley die