When I was in high school, I was just trying to get by, doing my homework and trying to figure out what I wanted to see on television that night (hey, it was the 70’s and it was a Golden Age, so sue me).  But for Gilles, the hero of the new coming of age (1971 to be specific) film Something in the Air, written and directed by Olivier Assayas (the wonderful French filmmaker of Irma Vep, Carlos and Summer Hours), he’s creating art work, traveling all over Europe, working for his father’s television production company, doing drugs, having intense romantic and meaningful sex with two different women and trying to decide whether he wants to become a filmmaker.  But that’s not the kicker.  Oh, no.  To make matters worse, he’s an active member of the revolutionary movement of the time (you know, running away from riot police, selling newspapers, graffitting up his school and having to leave town for fear he might be arrested for assaulting a guard).  And he’s not just a Communist.  To not only insert the knife in my back, but to twist it around a few times,  he’s been with the movement so long, he’s actually growing disillusioned with it.  What happened to earning enough money to hire a limo to go to prom?
I was quite involved with Gilles and his journey.   My friend found it somewhat boring and familiar.  I do have to admit, it is a bit leisurely paced and it could use more tension at times.  The story tends to meander around without a strong focus and Gilles himself, played by Clement Metayer with a lot of hair, is perhaps a bit too mopey and passive without the energy of the great coming of age heroes like Jim Stark, Antoine Doinel and Laurent Chivalier to really give the story the energy boost it could use.   So it probably won’t make it to the top of my Assayas films.  But I still found myself often mesmerized and deeply empathetic with everything going on on screen.  It took me to a world that was so foreign to me, I just had to find out how it was all going to turn out.
Electrick Children is another coming of age film, but that’s where the similarity stops.  The description of the movie states that the central character, fifteen year old Rachel, is Mormon.  I could be wrong, of course.  I’m not an expert on comparative religions.  But by the time the movie was over, I felt she was about as Mormon as Mother Theresa.  
In one way, I suppose that’s not writer/director Rebecca Thomas’s fault (she didn’t write the description after all—well, I don’t think).  But what I do think is her fault is that this cult or whatever it is that Rachel belongs to never seemed that well thought out or was that convincing.  Many people might call it nitpicking, but when Rachel takes a story her mother told her about a red mustang (which the mother calls a horse) and the isolated and culturally ignorant Rachel can instantly recognize a car as a mustang (something I can’t do, no derisive comments please) and when she and her brother use the phrase “immaculate conception” incorrectly, a phrase that it is unlikely she would ever have heard in her short life (whatever religion Rachel is, she sure ain’t Catholic), then one does have to wonder whether this world Thomas has created is a bit too haphazard and was made up as Thomas went along.
This feeling for me was extended to the plot as well.  Rachel gets pregnant, but claims she has never had sex.  This is not that unique an idea as some people might think (Quinceanera, Agnes of God, Hail Mary, Child of Darkness, Child of Light deal with similar ideas), but the method of impregnation is—she listens to a rock and roll cassette tape and believes the singer of a particular song somehow did the deed (no, I’m not making this up).  Needless to say, no one believes her (though a quick trip to the gynecologist would have immediately proven her claim) and it causes some consternation in her small circle of religious.  As a result, her parents force her into a marriage that would never be legally recognized (and could probably get said parents arrested on some sort of child sexual slavery charge).   So she runs away along with her brother, Mr. Will, who the family is accusing of being the father.
And the movie quickly goes…well, not exactly haphazardly nowhere, but also not haphazardly anywhere either.  Since Rachel has no real chance of ever finding the singer of the song on the tape, and since she has no real plan (or even any way of forming a plan) to do so, her journey has little choice but to become an episodic series of scenes driven by coincidence both poetic and Candide like.   She and Mr. Will end up hanging with a group of musicians who spend their time drinking, doing drugs and skateboarding.   In fact, Rachel has no real journey.  She just goes from place to place to place, but it’s unclear how any of it really helps her realize anything.
The strongest aspect of the script is, oddly enough, Mr. Will, who quickly becomes seduced by skate boarding (a method of transportation he treats with all the awe of King Kong meeting Fay Wray and become the most touching moments in the film) and then by drugs and sex.  His journey is solid and makes sense.   One can follow his character arc.  But Rachel’s always felt a bit vague, as if Thomas had a great idea of getting Rachel pregnant while a virgin, but then didn’t quite know what to do with it.   Because of this, the ending is also feels a bit off.  Based on the way the story has proceeded, the decisions made by Rachel and Mr. Will should have been filled with irony and been the total opposite, rather than what happens here.
Everyone works very hard in this movie and everyone takes it deathly serious (Billy Zane in the small role of Rachel’s father even grew hair for the occasion).  And Thomas shows some nice directorial flourishes here and there.  So as a visual stylist, she definitely shows promise.  But as a writer, I’m not convinced that’s her forte.

FILM, THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE, Part Deux: Carlos, Submarino, Dos Hernanos, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Everyone Else, Rare Exports

Further Quick Run Downs on Films I Haven’t Reviewed Yet

Carlos is Olivier (Summer Hours) Assayas’s latest film (well, it’s a three part television mini-series, actually, but let’s not quibble). It’s a magnificent achievement that helps put Assayas at the forefront of contemporary French filmmakers. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (code-name Carlos, aka The Jackal, though his only connection to that assassin was that authorities found a copy of the Frederick Forsyth book among his belongings) was one of the superstar terrorists of the 1970’s, but his life, at least as portrayed here, was in many ways a comedy of errors. His biggest hit, the one that put him number one on the top 40, was the 1975 OPEC meeting he took over, during which he accidentally kills the minister from the country that was eventually to give him asylum (oopsies). Suddenly, like an actor whose latest billion dollar film flopped, no one wanted him anymore and Carlos spent much of the time flying from place to place, being constantly rejected until he had to make a humiliating deal to survive. The whole movie in many ways reads as a treatise on the uselessness and ridiculousness of terrorism. It’s not so much that it’s immoral in itself, as that it is doomed to failure and just never works. Edgar Ramirez plays Carlos and probably gives the performance of the year. It’s also one of the films of the year.

Submarino is the latest film from Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg, the director of the powerful film Festen. Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country on earth, but you’d never know it by the downbeat films we’re getting from there. Submarino is about two brothers, Nick and Martin, who, as very young boys, were left by their alcoholic mother to take care of their baby brother; the baby dies under their care, a horrifying incident that latches onto their lives and never lets go. Now adults, Nick is an ex-con who can’t stop drinking while getting random blowjobs from a neighbor and trying to help a mentally compromised friend. Martin is a drug addict who has a child. The two brothers, who haven’t seen each other for a long time, meet up again at their mother’s funeral. When the mother’s death brings Martin money, he starts selling. He ends up in prison and now Nick has to decide whether to take care of his nephew. One wants to dislike these two siblings, but the script by Tobias Linholm and Vinterberg, as well as the strong performances by Jakob Cedergren as Nick and Gustav Fischer Kjaerulff as Martin, won’t let us. And no matter how dark life becomes, Vinterberg strongly believes in the power of redemption.

Dos Hernanos from Argentina is a comic study of a brother and sister. The brother is gay, passive and takes care of their sick mother while the sister is a bully and at times seems to have a precarious hold on reality. When their mother dies, the sister takes over everything including her brother’s life. But while brother starts making inroads toward independence during an amateur production of Oedipus Rex (an odd choice here since it doesn’t seem to have any relation to what is going on off-stage—at least I hope not), sister must accept the idea that she can’t even control her own life, must less anyone else’s. I saw the film at an Argentine film festival and asked a couple I met what they thought of it. They disliked it intensely. They didn’t “get it”, and they have a point. Once the director/writer Daniel Burman and co-writer Diego Dubcovsky decide to not make the sister mentally unstable, which she sure seems to be for most of the movie, they didn’t know how to resolve the situation and the ending is a bit of a mess. But until then, this is a fun, often hilarious character study of a dysfunctional relationship.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the last in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy about the mildly autistic IT genius and central character of a series of popular Swedish mystery novels. In the same way that Denmark is supposed to be the happiest country on earth, yet as of late has been releasing some of the most depressing movies in Europe, Sweden is supposed to be a country incredibly low in crimes like murder, yet seems to release extremely violent mystery novels. My friends hate the movie and the critics were disappointed. I loved it, which caused my friends to look at my oddly (no word on how the critics felt about my opinion, but it probably wouldn’t have been much more positive). I thought the story (director Daniel Alfredson, writer/adaptation by Ulf Ryberg) brought everything together and resolved Salander’s story and character arc very satisfactorily; Salander goes from someone who trusts no one, least of all the government, and comes to realize that there are people out there who care and sometimes the government, in the right hands, can do the right thing. Noomi Rapace, like Edgar Ramirez for Carlos and Vincent Cassell for Mesrine, gives one of the performances of the year and the mystery is first rate. I’m not sure why I’m in such a minority here.

Everyone Else is a study of a Gitti and Chris, a man and woman on holiday whose relationship takes a sudden turn when Chris runs into an acquaintance and he begins to wonder whether he is out of his girlfriend’s league. Gitti, realizing that something is wrong, bangs her head against the wall for awhile and then decides to take her life into her own hands and tells Chris she doesn’t’ love him anymore (take that passive aggressors everywhere). For the first two thirds, the movie (written and directed by Maren Ade) works very well and Birgit Minichmayr gives a strong performance in the lead. The ending however is a serious misstep. Maren Ade, for some odd reason, wants a happy ending and the lengths she puts the characters through to get to it are just a bit too manipulative to be convincing. And who would want Gitti to go back to that louse of a boyfriend anyway?

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a dark twist on the Santa Clause story. Instead of a holly, jolly fat man who brings toys to boys and girls, he’s a demonic figure who eats children alive. Some time ago, the local villagers in a town on the Finnish/Russian border had enough and encased Santa in ice and then proceeded to rewrite the myth. Now an oil drilling company (headed by English speaking characters of course) accidentally finds Santa, which reawakens Santa’s elves who then work to free him by stealing heaters and melting his ice prison while taking children prisoner so Santa can eat upon his reappearance. The elves say it all, naked old men who run around looking like refugees from NAMBLA, providing some fun tongue in cheek humor to the whole thing. All in all, a fun, quirky little film, imaginatively told.


I’m continuing on with my Netflix/On Demand movie watching (still trying to conserve money) and last night I watched Olivier Assayas’s Late August, Early September and Blindness. I had seen Late August… before, but though I remember liking it, I couldn’t quite remember it. But seeing it again, all the pleasure came rushing back. This is a type of film I usually only see coming out of Europe, mainly France. It’s not about anything but people relating to one another, strong character driven stories, non-genre, what’s often called adult dramas in the U.S.

What I find frustrating in watching films like this, is that I don’t usually see the same sort of films being made in the U.S. or if I do, they just don’t seem to be anywhere near as good or insightful (of course, there are exceptions and the French also make their fair share of bad movies, so I am talking in generalities and personal feelings that could be seen as prejudiced). Woody Allen is probably our foremost practitioner here, God bless him.

All Late August… is about is a man who is struggling with three relationships, actually four if you can’t the character himself. He’s someone involved in the writing biz, but doesn’t really write himself, but does odd jobs connected to writing (like encyclopedia articles on living writers or ghost writing a politician’s biography). The three relationships he caroms among is his ex-wife who still loves him, his new lover who he doesn’t love enough, and a writer who has never written a successful book and is considered a difficult read who can’t connect with the audience. The writer is especially someone who causes the hero consternation because the hero feels that that is the life he should have lead, but didn’t. But in the end, that’s all the story is about.

Why don’t we make such stories in the U.S.? Or if we do, why aren’t they as good or ambitious as the French?

Some theories, which will have to remain theories because I don’t know for sure, and these are just coming off the top of my head, improvisationally without a lot of forethought:

There must be an audience for them in France.

Perhaps the way French movies are financed, maybe not all of them have to deliver a considerable profit. There may be a part of the French film industry in which huge profits are not the primary motivator.

This may also mean they don’t have to be pitched the same way here. After all, the way movies are made and sold here, it seems to be easier to get a movie based on the pitch line “a man is bitten by a radioactive spider and turns into a superhero” over a pitch line of “a man struggles with his relationships with an ex-wife, a new girlfriend and a failed writer the man is jealous of”.

French morality may allow for a more open expression of sex and relationships and allows the writers/directors to take more chances (I’m sometimes amazed in writing groups and in talking with people who do coverage how prudish Americans still are).

There could be plenty of other reasons, but when I want adult drama, I rarely look for it in the U.S.

I also saw Blindness, which didn’t get very good reviews and it’s one of those movies where one can tell exactly where it stops working and that is when Danny Glover has to explain a lot of the plot via exposition. The characters, which were not that interesting in the first place (with the exception of a thief played by Don McKellar–who also wrote, go figure), never quite recover after this.

The project is the odd combination of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (who did the wonderful City of Men and The Constant Gardener) and the Canadian Don McKellar, who I remember from the incredible Last Night (which he also wrote and directed) and the incredible series Slings and Arrows.

The idea is brilliant. People, one by one, start going blind. But as interesting as I found the first part, I never bought it. I had no problem with the idea of the government panicking enough to round up people and put them in quarantine–what I couldn’t buy is the way the quarantine prison was run–it made regular prisons seem like gardens of Eden. But this is not what happened during the flu epidemic of 1917, during the AIDS epidemic, during Legionnaire’s Disease. People may have been quarantined, but except in a few cases, they were not treated like animals. None of this made a lot of sense or was believable, which meant that a lot that happened afterwards was quite believable.

However, the idea was so strong, it does sort of carry one through to the end.

END OF DAYS: Reviews of O’Horton, Summer Hours, The Boys, Up

A series of films opened with the subject matter of people getting older and/or time passing. Never the most cheerful of subjects, but one of the most avoidable ones.

The first is O’Horton, a character study of a man who is forced to retire as a train conductor. He doesn’t really take it well, becoming lost in a haze of ennui and not knowing what to do with his life. He’s the sort of central character that writing teachers and authors of screenwriting tomes will tell you it’s against the rules to create, the passive observer of life whose main goal is to survive whatever is thrown at him. O’Horton goes through a series of adventures he has little control over until he finally decides to take a leap of faith (both metaphorical and literal) and realizes that just because he’s retired that doesn’t mean life has to end. Sorry, screenwriting 101, O’Horton, written and directed by Bent Hamer, is a fascinating movie, a deeply moving meditation over what to do when one has to start over late in life. It’s quirky and slightly off kilter, a film made by someone with his own personal take on life.

Summer Hours is about a family that has to decide what to do with an inheritance. Only one of the children wants to hold on to everything; the others have gone their own ways and have little use for the great house and what’s inside it that their mothers left them when she died. In many films, the set up would be an excuse for the author to have the various characters go at each other, yelling and screaming about their awful lives, with secrets and crisscrossing accusations tumbling out of their mouths like the contents of Fibber McGee’s closet. Writer and director Olivier Assayas takes a different turn. Everyone here acts very adult and very reasonable, demonstrating that even when everyone acts the way they should, life is still tragic and sad. I saw Summer Hours last year at a film festival and considered it one of the best films of 2008.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is about the songwriting team of Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman who were the only songwriters on under contract at Disney and gave the such well known songs as the peripatetic It’s A Small, Small World. The movie is strongest when it is a character study of these two men who for some reason, reasons even they don’t understand, become estranged. The main cause was probably just a difference in temperament and background (one was a serious man who was one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp—the Sherman’s are Jewish; the other a happy go lucky guy who never saw action). The movie is weakest when directors Gregory V. and Jeff Sherman try to make these men out to be songwriting geniuses. The Sherman’s were good, reaching their apotheosis in the movie Mary Poppins. But please, they were no Stephen Soundheim, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan or Jacques Brel.
Up is a fun story with that old chestnut of a plot, an older person and a kid bonding (it dates at least as far back as Little Lord Fountleroy and Shirley Temple movies). It’s a beautifully told story and a beautiful to look at movie. Ed Asner gets to reprise his Lou Grant curmudgeon with a heart of gold role as the old geezer, though he finds his geezerized match in Christopher Plummer. The talking dogs are a riot. And it’s all in 3D.