FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON (Mal de pierres, France, 2017)

August 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Nicole Garcia (The Adversary, 2002) takes the best-selling novel from Milena Agus and harkens back to good old-fashioned movie melodrama – with a French twist. Of course, most any project is elevated with the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard in the lead role. Few can suffer on screen as expertly as Ms. Cotillard, and she conveys that disquiet through most of this story.

What is love? You’d best not look to Gabrielle (Cotillard) for clarification. As a young woman, her search for love and sexual fulfillment follows the fantasies of the novels she reads (Wuthering Heights). Her corresponding inappropriate behavior teeters between delusion and hysteria. It’s the 1950’s in rural France, so her actions and attitude are not much appreciated, and her parents bribe Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), a local bricklayer, to marry Gabrielle. She is then given the choice of (an “arranged”) marriage or a mental institution.

As a romantic dreamer whose blurred reality expects love to mirror those romance novels, Gabrielle’s self-centeredness and failure to grasp reality results in a loveless marriage – and easily one of the most uncomfortable lovemaking scenes in the history of French cinema. Beyond that, severe kidney stones make it impossible for her to bear children. In hopes of “the cure”, she is sent for treatment to a spa in the Alps (it’s the same spa from Paolo Sorrentino’s 2015 film YOUTH).

While at the spa, she meets handsome Andre (Louis Garrel), a gravely ill soldier from the Indochina War. Gabrielle imagines Andre to be everything she dreamt a lover should be (except for that whole sickness thing). The contrast between the two love-making sessions is startling, and it seems as though Gabrielle has found her bliss.

The years pass after her release from the spa, and Gabrielle makes one mistake after another … blind to what and who is right in front of her … while holding on to the dreamer’s dream. She is certainly not a likeable person, and is downright cruel to her loyal (and extremely quiet) husband Jose. However, Ms. Cotillard is such an accomplished actress that we somehow pull for Gabrielle to “snap out of it”.

The novel was adapted by Jacques Fieschi, Natalie Carter and director Garcia, and you’ll likely either be a fan or not, depending on your taste for old-fashioned melodrama. Despite numerous awkward moments, it’s beautifully photographed by cinematographer Christophe Beaucame. Additionally, the music plays a vital role here – both composer Daniel Pemberton’s use of the violin, and the duality of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto that connects Gabrielle’s two worlds. You may say she’s a dreamer, but I hope she’s the only one.

watch the trailer:

 

 


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.


ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemekis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemekis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

watch the trailer:

 


TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit, Belgium, 2014)

January 29, 2015

two days one night Greetings again from the darkness. The Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne) are filmmakers who excel at forcing us to take notice of human nature. This time they take the unusual step of working with an A-lister in Marion Cotillard, yet rather than create a distraction, this works for making the lead character even more realistic and believable.

Sandra (Ms. Cotillard) is a working class wife and mother who has gone through recovery after a bout with severe depression. She has been on leave from her factory job and now uses her Xanax as a crutch when she gets a little anxious. Just as it’s time for her to return to work, she learns her co-workers chose a bonus over allowing Sandra to keep her job, through some type of cruel vote facilitated by company management.

Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) encourages the boss to allow a re-vote on Monday, and Sandra’s husband (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) advises her to visit each of the 16 co-workers and request that they reconsider their vote. Though she would rather curl up in bed, Sandra’s trek to visit each co-worker takes every ounce of courage and energy she can muster.

This is a fascinating study of economic realities vs human nature, even right vs wrong. Can these people look beyond what is best for themselves and do the right thing for Sandra? These individual meetings are excruciating to watch. Asking each person to vote for her is agonizing for Sandra, while each of the co-workers has their own personal struggles that make the decision not so simple.

Marion Cotillard is a revelation here. This is not the glamorous movie star you might think of. Instead, she dresses down, wears minimal make-up, and walks and talks like the desperate working class woman she is playing … all while carrying the burden of a clinical depressed person. Mostly, she taps into an emotional state that is powerful to watch. The Oscar nominated is definitely justified.

While it seems the suspense of each scene is almost more than Sandra can take, there is a moment of release and joy during the sing-along with Van Morrison (on the radio). The character of Sandra defines “putting up a good fight”, and she proves that sometimes that is the most important thing.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

 


RUST AND BONE (De rouille et d’os, Fr, 2012)

January 1, 2013

rust Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jacques Audiard offers up a much different story than his previous film, the powerful A Prophet. Audiard co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain based on a short story from Craig Davidson, and the result is a quasi-love story with very little traditional romance.

The two lead performances are simply outstanding. Marion Cotillard plays Steph, a free-spirited Orca trainer at a Sea World type facility, who becomes a double amputee after a freak work site accident. Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) is Ali, an emotionally stunted single dad who has all the qualifications of a big time loser … though with a glimmer of goodness. Their two lives intersect when Ali is working as a bouncer at a nightclub, and then again after Steph’s accident.

rust2 It’s very interesting to see how this story is treated by a French writer/director as opposed to how it might have been handled by a US filmmaker. Audiard allows much quiet simmering by the two lead actors as they both work through their own disabilities – hers physical, his emotional. They both straddle the fine line between human frailty and internal strength, often with the help of the other. It’s not difficult to imagine an American take on this story focusing on the Steph’s painful rehab and struggle to adjust, while also zeroing in on Ali’s physicality as a street brawler and sex machine.

rust3 Cotillard is a true movie star and Schoenaerts soon will be. It’s so rare these days to see two strong talents in such a “little” movie, especially one in which neither character comes close to approaching glamorous – and Ali is not even likable most of the time. This is a well written, well acted character study that points out how a good soul can often save another who might not even care to be saved.

Alexandre Desplat provides yet another strong score – this one complimented by many familiar songs. For those who tend to spend there movie time with only American films, this is one that will provide proof of just how different the view can be through the same camera lens.

**NOTE: very effective CGI allows for many intimate scenes featuring Steph after the amputations

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyAJDL3mTxI

 


THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

July 23, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the series, this is a sensational ending to the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. Though replicating Heath Ledger’s Joker is not possible, every other piece of this finale worked for me … and worked exceptionally well. There are critics who are nit-picking, saying that the story is muddled, the villain a letdown, run time too long, the first half is slow or the second half is too traditional in action. My challenge to these critics … name a better comic book hero film. For me, this is an incredibly entertaining and ambitious film that sets the standard for the genre.

 In addition to director Nolan, many of the familiar characters are back. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. New to the series are Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Officer Blake, Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, and best of all, Tom Hardy as Bane – the hulking masked monster wreaking havoc on Batman and Gotham.

 I will not go into any of the plot points other than to say this is the first time we have seen a villain who is at least Batman’s match physically and mentally. Bane is a wrecking ball with a general’s strategic skills and voice that is begging to impersonated by intoxicated males of all ages for years to come. There are a couple of twists that add much fun for the fans of the first two films, including a return appearance by a key member of Batman Begins. Also, Michael Caine is given a couple of wonderful scenes to prove he is more than a driver and butler.

Since this is Batman, the action scenes have to be analyzed. It should be noted that Batman is not on screen very often, but when he is, it is quite thrilling. We have new toys and weapons, and quite a bit of fisticuffs with Bane and Catwoman that compete with any of the giant firepower scenes.  One of the more fascinating sets is the prison based in a pit of despair that harkens back to Poe. This pit plays an important role in the past and present.  For those who were worried that Catwoman’s presence might take away from the aura of the movie, fear not. Ms. Hathaway creates an interesting duality that proves very interesting.

 Neither Mr. Nolan nor his DOP Wally Pfister are proponents of 3D (Thank Goodness!!), so instead we get treated to 50 minutes of actual 70mm IMAX footage. This means, if possible, you should catch this on an IMAX screen. I have seen it IMAX and XD, and while both are visually stunning, the IMAX is an overwhelming site at times.

The movie picks up 8 years after the ending of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent is worshiped as a hero, and Bruce Wayne is a Howard Hughes type recluse – broken body and all. The initial aerial sequence is a fun start to a film that runs just under 3 hours. Of course, there is so much offered here that deserves comment, however, I believe the film is best watched with only the upfront primer of the first two films in the series. I will give nothing away here that might impact the joy of discovery during this gem. Contrary to some critics, I believe the story is fairly easy to follow and quite intense, thrilling and pure cinematic joy … including the thumping score from Hans Zimmer.

For those who claim there is a lack of humor … Exhibit #1: Hines Ward returning a kickoff for a TD. Come on, how long since he was fast enough for that??

Note: Though I haven’t addressed the Aurora shooting here, I did post a statement on the blog on July 20.

watch the trailer:


CONTAGION

September 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Fellow germophobes beware: the first few minutes of this movie will have you reaching for disinfectant and a surgical mask. Just remember – it’s only a movie. The scary part is that we have already experienced much of the terror that the film presents. We have seen first hand the effects of Swine Flu and Asian Bird Flu. We understand the fear of uncertainty and helplessness. It’s important to note that a virus is a living element capable of mutating and spreading … it looks for a way to get stronger and survive.

 The movie goes for the gut punch in the first few minutes. We see Gwyneth Paltrow returning home to hubby Matt Damon after an overseas business trip. We immediately know she is sick, but we aren’t sure of the source … though the film provides many source possibilities. Simultaneously we are shown numerous people with the Paltrow symptoms all over the world, and quickly understand that these are related and the “monster” is spreading quickly.

 Cut to Dr. Cheeve (Laurence Fishbourne) and his team at CDC. He partners with Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) of the World Health Organization and Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet) from the Epidemic Intelligence Services. We are left to fill in the blanks on how these organizations work together to study and interpret the source and danger of an outbreak.

 The true heroes of science are those in the labs. Here we have Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle, from The King’s Speech) and Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould). We understand that these are highly talented people with the very specific skills needed to save the planet.

From a movie making perspective, the film is technically fine. The camera work and acting are all excellent. Director Steven Soderbergh is a superstar director and well-respected. Writer Scott Z Burns has quite an impressive resume. The cast is as deep and spectacular as any you will see this year. Then why am I in such a funk about this film? It disappoints me to say that the film plays like a disjointed mess. We get bits and pieces of numerous stories throughout, but never do we really connect with a single character. Matt Damon and Lawrence Fishbourne have the most screen time, but neither are accessible or give us any reason to believe we know them … only their desperation. Jude Law plays a super-blogger who teeters between exposing governmental conspiracies and his own insider trading for personal gain. There are subplots with Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle and Laurence Fishbourne that all could have been intriguing, but we get the glossy outline version, rather than an actual story.

 The film focuses not on the personal side of the outbreak, but rather the process of damage control, scientific research and lab work for a vaccine. But we only get scattered bits of any of this. Same with the political side. We see a “world” teleconference with the CDC and leaders from many countries, but never an explanation on why they are all looking to the U.S. for a miracle cure. It would have been fascinating to see how or if the experts from Japan, China, India and the U.S. work together in times of a global epidemic. Instead, we get thoughtful poses from Mr. Fishbourne. What a waste.

Despite the potential for greatness, this film is neither thrilling or dramatic or informative. Mostly I wondered how much time the endless stream of movie stars actually spent on set. It appears Mr. Soderbergh now enjoys hanging with an all-star cast more than really making a statement with a movie. Additionally, I found the quasi-Techno soundtrack to be distracting and annoying. There are numerous virus outbreak movies that are superior to this one.

Whether you see this movie or not … remember to wash your hands!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to play “spot the movie star” OR world epidemic movies are your guilty pleasure

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe a thriller should be thrilling OR you agree that an endless checklist of partial subplots can be annoying

watch the trailer: