Saturday, April 30, 2011




Les regrets (2009)***1/2


Cedric Kahn’s tale of romantic obsession drips with confusion, passion and uncontrolled horniness. Yvan Attal stars as Matthieu, a 40ish architect from Paris who has returned to his provincial home town to sit at his mother’s deathbed. At the hospital, he accidently bumps into a sweetheart from his youth - willowy, mysterious Maya (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) – and the pair find that the intervening years have done little to dampen their animal attraction. But other things have changed; Matthieu is now married to a kind, supportive woman (Arly Jover), while Maya has wed an unstable fellow named Franck (Philippe Katerine) who is a Gallic version of what Americans would call a redneck drunk. The bulk of the film is quite good, with generous amounts of intrigue, peril and schtupping. The final reels lose some intensity, but Attal’s performance is so impressive Les regrets remains a worthy watch.





The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)****

The Secret in Their Eyes comes so close to being a truly special film its wobbly and too-clever-by-half ending is a bitter disappointment. Told mainly through flashbacks, the story is all about a retired prosecutor in Buenos Aires (Ricardo Darin) and his attempts to solve a long closed rape and murder case of shocking brutality. The script features biting wit and extremely clever dialogue, and is just as entertaining as it is engrossing. And there’s some unrequited romance, as Darin’s old flame for his former boss (Soledad Villemil) gets re-ignited. Director Juan Jose Campanella guides most of the film with brilliant conviction, then inexplicably spends the last 20 minutes vomiting on himself, cinematically speaking. But the movie’s strengths are so appealing The Secret in Their Eyes still gets a grudging 4 stars.



Father of My Children (2009)***1/2


Kind of like two films in one, Father of My Children features a wonderful performance by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Gregoire Canvel, a film producer based in Paris. The nattily clad Canvel spends his days on a cell phone, putting out fires at various film sets throughout Europe. Despite the high pressure lifestyle, he still tries to be a good family man, spending weekends with his wife (Chiara Caselli) and 3 little girls at their country house. Directed by Mia Hansen-Love, the film captures the harried essence Canvel’s life through details that have an authentic ring. As someone who has spent a significant part of his life loitering around the offices of assorted production companies, Hansen-Love captures the buzzing intensity of Canvel’s workplace with perfect pitch. When the pressures mount to the breaking point, tragedy ensues and a shocked Caselli is left to pick up the pieces. The film then takes a surprisingly unsentimental approach and focuses on the nuts and bolts of practicality as the family attempts to dig out from the financial mess left behind. Based on a true story, Father of My Children accomplishes what it sets out do: it entertains and depresses while offering very little in the way of catharsis.



Les regrets (2009)***1/2


Cedric Kahn’s tale of romantic obsession drips with confusion, passion and uncontrolled horniness. Yvan Attal stars as Matthieu, a 40ish architect from Paris who has returned to his provincial home town to sit at his mother’s deathbed. At the hospital, he accidently bumps into a sweetheart from his youth - willowy, mysterious Maya (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) – and the pair find that the intervening years have done little to dampen their animal attraction. But other things have changed; Matthieu is now married to a kind, supportive woman (Arly Jover), while Maya has wed an unstable fellow named Franck (Philippe Katerine) who is a Gallic version of what Americans would call a redneck drunk. The bulk of the film is quite good, with generous amounts of intrigue, peril and schtupping. The final reels lose some intensity, but Attal’s performance is so impressive Les regrets remains a worthy watch.





The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)****

The Secret in Their Eyes comes so close to being a truly special film its wobbly and too-clever-by-half ending is a bitter disappointment. Told mainly through flashbacks, the story is all about a retired prosecutor in Buenos Aires (Ricardo Darin) and his attempts to solve a long closed rape and murder case of shocking brutality. The script features biting wit and extremely clever dialogue, and is just as entertaining as it is engrossing. And there’s some unrequited romance, as Darin’s old flame for his former boss (Soledad Villemil) gets re-ignited. Director Juan Jose Campanella guides most of the film with brilliant conviction, then inexplicably spends the last 20 minutes vomiting on himself, cinematically speaking. But the movie’s strengths are so appealing The Secret in Their Eyes still gets a grudging 4 stars.



Father of My Children (2009)***1/2


Kind of like two films in one, Father of My Children features a wonderful performance by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Gregoire Canvel, a film producer based in Paris. The nattily clad Canvel spends his days on a cell phone, putting out fires at various film sets throughout Europe. Despite the high pressure lifestyle, he still tries to be a good family man, spending weekends with his wife (Chiara Caselli) and 3 little girls at their country house. Directed by Mia Hansen-Love, the film captures the harried essence Canvel’s life through details that have an authentic ring. As someone who has spent a significant part of his life loitering around the offices of assorted production companies, Hansen-Love captures the buzzing intensity of Canvel’s workplace with perfect pitch. When the pressures mount to the breaking point, tragedy ensues and a shocked Caselli is left to pick up the pieces. The film then takes a surprisingly unsentimental approach and focuses on the nuts and bolts of practicality as the family attempts to dig out from the financial mess left behind. Based on a true story, Father of My Children accomplishes what it sets out do: it entertains and depresses while offering very little in the way of catharsis.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In Memory of Dexter Gordon 2

I've decided to take a little break from film chatter and devote this week to a celebration of Dexter. In this clip, probably filmed for European TV in the 1960s, he brings his best chops...

In Memory of Dexter Gordon 2

I've decided to take a little break from film chatter and devote this week to a celebration of Dexter. In this clip, probably filmed for European TV in the 1960s, he brings his best chops...

Monday, April 25, 2011

In Memory of Dexter Gordon

The great Dexter Gordon died on this day 21 years ago. Here's a video tribute featuring his extraordinary - and always evolving - version of Body and Soul.

In Memory of Dexter Gordon

The great Dexter Gordon died on this day 21 years ago. Here's a video tribute featuring his extraordinary - and always evolving - version of Body and Soul.

Friday, April 22, 2011

301/302 (1995)****


Reviewed by Shu Zin

301/302 is a Korean thriller directed by Cheol-su Park, who here tells a story about a writer from apartment 302 (Syn-Hai Hwang) who goes missing. She has some serious issues with eating and food; her neighbor in 301 (Eun-jin Bang), coincidentally, has become obsessive about cooking. 302 addresses women’s issues in her articles, and sometimes she gets quite racy. “Terms for an Ideal Sex Life” is what she calls one of them, as the camera observes her, wittily, at her desktop. We get to know first her neighbor, and then, in bits, the writer herself, as a detective tries to figure out what has become of her.

The story is told from various points of view, and there are some understated funny bits that surprise, and an especially good solitary eating and drinking scene that delivers just a little ecstasy. Soon after, two storylines take off at a gallop into unexpected territory, and disturbing sets in. This makes the overall pacing of the film’s storytelling somewhat awkward. The timeline sashays about some, but if you go with the flow, you’ll know enough by the end, and it is so much fun getting there. The cinematography is consistently exciting, with bright contrasts, big color, and nothing blurry or shadowy. The design of the production is marvelous to look at; there are some excellent, loving close-ups of food sizzling or bubbling, or being chewed, gleaming wine glasses on a shelf, a timer on the counter of a high tech kitchen - you get the picture: a love of visual detail. Recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

301/302 (1995)****


Reviewed by Shu Zin

301/302 is a Korean thriller directed by Cheol-su Park, who here tells a story about a writer from apartment 302 (Syn-Hai Hwang) who goes missing. She has some serious issues with eating and food; her neighbor in 301 (Eun-jin Bang), coincidentally, has become obsessive about cooking. 302 addresses women’s issues in her articles, and sometimes she gets quite racy. “Terms for an Ideal Sex Life” is what she calls one of them, as the camera observes her, wittily, at her desktop. We get to know first her neighbor, and then, in bits, the writer herself, as a detective tries to figure out what has become of her.

The story is told from various points of view, and there are some understated funny bits that surprise, and an especially good solitary eating and drinking scene that delivers just a little ecstasy. Soon after, two storylines take off at a gallop into unexpected territory, and disturbing sets in. This makes the overall pacing of the film’s storytelling somewhat awkward. The timeline sashays about some, but if you go with the flow, you’ll know enough by the end, and it is so much fun getting there. The cinematography is consistently exciting, with bright contrasts, big color, and nothing blurry or shadowy. The design of the production is marvelous to look at; there are some excellent, loving close-ups of food sizzling or bubbling, or being chewed, gleaming wine glasses on a shelf, a timer on the counter of a high tech kitchen - you get the picture: a love of visual detail. Recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kes (1969)****1/2


Billy Casper’s attempt to train a wild bird is not so much an effort to master nature, but to unify with it, as nature offers his only visible means of escape from the unfair and peculiar strictures of the British social order. Though steeped in the distinct traditions and impenetrable accents of Yorkshire, Kes is a film that achieves a universal resonance through settings and performances that astonish with their unshakable, rough-hewn conviction.


Full Review at IONCINEMA.com

Kes (1969)****1/2


Billy Casper’s attempt to train a wild bird is not so much an effort to master nature, but to unify with it, as nature offers his only visible means of escape from the unfair and peculiar strictures of the British social order. Though steeped in the distinct traditions and impenetrable accents of Yorkshire, Kes is a film that achieves a universal resonance through settings and performances that astonish with their unshakable, rough-hewn conviction.


Full Review at IONCINEMA.com

Monday, April 18, 2011






Erreur de la banque en votre faveur (2009)***1/2




Bank Error in Your Favor is a fast paced feel good comedy – as feel good as the French get anyway – that combines elements of caper films with economic populism. Gerard Lanvin stars as a personal assistant, actually a glorified waiter, to a group of bankers who gather everyday in a private conference room to plot imaginative ways of manipulating the CAC-40. When Lanvin is pink-slipped for a cheaper replacement, he decides to use some accidently heard insider information to help himself and his struggling middle-class drinking buddies. The film then becomes a swirling maze of crosses and double crosses as the bankers, angry that ordinary people are actually making money, attempt to hoist Lanvin on his own petard. You’ll be giggling as these blue collar workers forsake their usual sports conversations for heated debates on the merits of various financial instruments. It’s all good, escapist fun, with a bit of romantic steam along the way.






Buddy Rich: Jazz Legend 1917-1987 (1996)****




This lengthy disc will give you a thorough education into the life and times of this extraordinary talent who, by virtue of a demon fast left hand, accomplished things with drum kits that have not been equaled, before or since, by any human. We learn all about Buddy’s childhood as a vaudevillian tap dancer, to his big band days with Harry James to his frequent appearances on the Tonight Show, where America got an entertaining dose of his biting, caustic wit. Through rare archival footage we see Buddy’s aborted attempts to find his own musical identity, including a bluesy bebop quartet that mixed with his hard-charging style about as well as oil and water. There are the classic drum battles, where Buddy would trade paradiddles with any percussionist foolish enough to share the stage with him. Here, his blazing wrists make the great Gene Krupa look like a rather intimidated marching band reject.



Buddy didn’t really hit his musical stride until well into his 50s, with the forming of a big band consisting mainly of Eastman School graduates, but this talented incarnation produced some absolutely stunning music. In all, the disc, like Buddy’s drum solos, drags on a bit too long. But we are left with an awestruck appreciation of this man and his lightening hands.






Clara et Moi (2004)****



Arnaud Viard's quiet romance, set in Paris, is as simple and straightforward as its title implies. Here we meet a young actor named Antoine (Julien Boisselier) who happens to meet the shy, lovely Clara (Julie Gayet) on the Metro one afternoon and, somewhere between Concorde and Montparnasse, finds himself hopelessly smitten. But the couple’s bliss is threatened when some new information about Clara surfaces, forcing Antoine to make a difficult and painful decision. Clear, concise and engaging, Clara et Moi is one of the more affecting contemporary romances made in recent years, and viewers' hearts will be touched by this story of lovers placed in an impossible position by the vagaries of fate.





Erreur de la banque en votre faveur (2009)***1/2




Bank Error in Your Favor is a fast paced feel good comedy – as feel good as the French get anyway – that combines elements of caper films with economic populism. Gerard Lanvin stars as a personal assistant, actually a glorified waiter, to a group of bankers who gather everyday in a private conference room to plot imaginative ways of manipulating the CAC-40. When Lanvin is pink-slipped for a cheaper replacement, he decides to use some accidently heard insider information to help himself and his struggling middle-class drinking buddies. The film then becomes a swirling maze of crosses and double crosses as the bankers, angry that ordinary people are actually making money, attempt to hoist Lanvin on his own petard. You’ll be giggling as these blue collar workers forsake their usual sports conversations for heated debates on the merits of various financial instruments. It’s all good, escapist fun, with a bit of romantic steam along the way.






Buddy Rich: Jazz Legend 1917-1987 (1996)****




This lengthy disc will give you a thorough education into the life and times of this extraordinary talent who, by virtue of a demon fast left hand, accomplished things with drum kits that have not been equaled, before or since, by any human. We learn all about Buddy’s childhood as a vaudevillian tap dancer, to his big band days with Harry James to his frequent appearances on the Tonight Show, where America got an entertaining dose of his biting, caustic wit. Through rare archival footage we see Buddy’s aborted attempts to find his own musical identity, including a bluesy bebop quartet that mixed with his hard-charging style about as well as oil and water. There are the classic drum battles, where Buddy would trade paradiddles with any percussionist foolish enough to share the stage with him. Here, his blazing wrists make the great Gene Krupa look like a rather intimidated marching band reject.



Buddy didn’t really hit his musical stride until well into his 50s, with the forming of a big band consisting mainly of Eastman School graduates, but this talented incarnation produced some absolutely stunning music. In all, the disc, like Buddy’s drum solos, drags on a bit too long. But we are left with an awestruck appreciation of this man and his lightening hands.






Clara et Moi (2004)****



Arnaud Viard's quiet romance, set in Paris, is as simple and straightforward as its title implies. Here we meet a young actor named Antoine (Julien Boisselier) who happens to meet the shy, lovely Clara (Julie Gayet) on the Metro one afternoon and, somewhere between Concorde and Montparnasse, finds himself hopelessly smitten. But the couple’s bliss is threatened when some new information about Clara surfaces, forcing Antoine to make a difficult and painful decision. Clear, concise and engaging, Clara et Moi is one of the more affecting contemporary romances made in recent years, and viewers' hearts will be touched by this story of lovers placed in an impossible position by the vagaries of fate.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tito and Me (1992) ****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

TITO AND ME is a delightfully caustic, instructive story narrated by an adorable, precocious, chubby little boy called Zoran (Dimitrije Vojnov). He is stubborn enough despite a repressive atmosphere to retain his childish intelligence, straightforwardness and trenchant honesty at the age of about 12, but he is too young (thankfully for us, the audience) to appreciate his own grand sense of irony that colors many of his observations.



Zoran recounts his having fallen in love, not once, but twice, and his writing a poem for a mandatory entry into a students’ contest which answers the questions, “Do you love Marshall Tito? And how much do you love him?” Zoran’s quite hastily composed effort reflects little critical thought (and this is a small, but brilliantly made and important point) and, most likely, because of this, Zoran is rewarded by his being chosen with a group of children to visit Tito’s boyhood homeland in Yugoslavia, a punishing walking tour to be led by the comedic bureaucrat, Comrade Raja (Lazar Ristovski)

Zoran’s innocent face and disarming good nature belie the power of a child’s honest assessment of events in his life within the crushing context of communism, as he addresses allegiances, the role of art in society, the Church, and How To Get Recognition in a Communist System. The real dénouement happens sometime before the actual end of the movie, when Zoran politely declines to pick a sandwich out of a trash bin and wins a staring contest with Comrade Raja, driving the latter to drink and worse. The tide shifts at this moment, and a small win for independent thinking is what washes up.


TITO AND ME is utterly charming, but devastating, as well. It has cuts from actual vintage footage of Tito and his adoring masses, impressive and very depressing. Best of all is his mewing fondness for that powerful demographic: The Children. One could see this movie as a heads up. Children are amenable and vulnerable to propaganda, but - not always! If you can set aside prejudice (as I had to do) and commit to a film narrated by a 12-yr old, this one will delight. It is subtle, intelligent, filled with nuanced humor and well-made. Goran Markovic directs. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Tito and Me (1992) ****

Reviewed by Shu Zin

TITO AND ME is a delightfully caustic, instructive story narrated by an adorable, precocious, chubby little boy called Zoran (Dimitrije Vojnov). He is stubborn enough despite a repressive atmosphere to retain his childish intelligence, straightforwardness and trenchant honesty at the age of about 12, but he is too young (thankfully for us, the audience) to appreciate his own grand sense of irony that colors many of his observations.



Zoran recounts his having fallen in love, not once, but twice, and his writing a poem for a mandatory entry into a students’ contest which answers the questions, “Do you love Marshall Tito? And how much do you love him?” Zoran’s quite hastily composed effort reflects little critical thought (and this is a small, but brilliantly made and important point) and, most likely, because of this, Zoran is rewarded by his being chosen with a group of children to visit Tito’s boyhood homeland in Yugoslavia, a punishing walking tour to be led by the comedic bureaucrat, Comrade Raja (Lazar Ristovski)

Zoran’s innocent face and disarming good nature belie the power of a child’s honest assessment of events in his life within the crushing context of communism, as he addresses allegiances, the role of art in society, the Church, and How To Get Recognition in a Communist System. The real dénouement happens sometime before the actual end of the movie, when Zoran politely declines to pick a sandwich out of a trash bin and wins a staring contest with Comrade Raja, driving the latter to drink and worse. The tide shifts at this moment, and a small win for independent thinking is what washes up.


TITO AND ME is utterly charming, but devastating, as well. It has cuts from actual vintage footage of Tito and his adoring masses, impressive and very depressing. Best of all is his mewing fondness for that powerful demographic: The Children. One could see this movie as a heads up. Children are amenable and vulnerable to propaganda, but - not always! If you can set aside prejudice (as I had to do) and commit to a film narrated by a 12-yr old, this one will delight. It is subtle, intelligent, filled with nuanced humor and well-made. Goran Markovic directs. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Shu Zin

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

White Material (2009)****Blu-ray




In White Material, director Claire Denis weaves a complex cinematic tapestry out of narrative threads as coarse and dry as Isabelle Huppert’s fiery, windblown hair. Set in an African nation in the throes of civil war, the film reduces the waning days of European colonialism to a small scale story of a coffee farmer and her attempts to remain tethered to a familiar economic model in the midst of violent collapse. The film is rife with intentional geo-political vagueness; not only is the country unnamed, the precise aims of the warring factions are never defined or discussed. Both sides wear the same tattered uniforms and employ the same brutal means, creating a swirling maelstrom of terror and confusion. The only certainty is this tortured land no longer has a status quo to defend, and the Europeans who exploited its riches will soon be caught in a crossfire that grows ever closer.

Isabelle Huppert stars – in the truest sense of the word – as Maria Vial, de facto manager of her ailing ex father-in-law’s coffee plantation, a once thriving operation complete with tenet houses, scores of eager laborers and the large, clanging machinery of agricultural industry. For years, the Vial Plantation was a shining beacon of commerce in the dark, arid vastness, but those days are long gone, as the most recent generation has decided that growing coffee is far beneath them. In this film, European men are portrayed as slightly less than useless, and that aspersion extends to the Vial clan as well. Maria’s former husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) has been virtually disowned due to his new marriage to a local woman (Adele Ado) and Maria’s 20-ish son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a pampered lay-about who seems firmly convinced that any attempt at physical labor would immediately kill him. Thus, command of the failing enterprise has fallen on Maria’s slender but determined shoulders, albeit at the worst possible time.

Like Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah, Huppert stands stubbornly convinced that the political upheaval encircling her estate is a limited, insular affair that neither concerns nor affects the daily routine that defines her life. But by measures both strong and subtle, Denis shows us the increasingly desperate crumbling of Maria’s comfortable world. The structure of the film itself creates a disoriented vertigo, as the early reels present seemingly random events that drift unbound from chronology. Denis, who was nominated for a Golden Lion for this film, and Editor Guy Lecorne create a fluid mosaic of Maria’s past and present culled from the character’s bubbling pool of fearful memories. Amazingly, this laddered method of storytelling creates curiosity and sympathy but not a hint of narrative confusion. Indeed, Denis’ risky approach ultimately seems the perfect choice; not only is it empathic, it’s also efficient. On the macro level, Denis is able to tell a sprawling tale of political disintegration in a tidy 106 minutes, and at an intra-scene pace that rarely strays from real time.

Much of the credit must go to Huppert, who conveys more emotional turmoil with her chin than most actors can evoke with their entire bodies. Not since Heaven’s Gate 30 years ago, has Huppert taken a role so wholly dependent on her unique physicality. In an early scene, Huppert desperately clings to the side of a rusty, overcrowded bus in a life-or-death attempt to escape the advancing rebels. Her tiny arms bulge from the strain as her body is engulfed in a hot, dry wind, manifesting not only her character’s fierce determination but also her stubborn resistance. She had been offered more comfortable seating on top of the bus, but that would mean fraternizing with her former workers as equals. For the proud Maria that is a bridge too far, even in a world gone mad.

But White Material’s most haunting images are also its simplest, as Huppert, left alone on the plantation, frantically searches for her family amid an eerie and menacing silence. She is not yet aware of the full toll this conflict has taken, particularly on the unbalanced Manuel. As she paces the farm’s thick jungles and dusty roads, Denis’ lenses grow ever wider, reducing Huppert’s dominance of the frame and her environment. We are left only with a slight, fair-haired figure in a frilly pink dress, imperiled not only by the intense African sun, but also by sweaty, heavily armed demons – both real and imagined – hiding in the murky shadows.


DISC REVIEW

The transfer, in 2.35:1 and personally supervised by Denis and cameraman Yves Cape, is of astonishing depth and clarity, and represents another first rate effort by Criterion. Somehow, Denis and Cape make the dominant tones of beige and umber seem like exciting, vibrant new colors. It’s as if the design of the African wilderness had been color-cued from Huppert’s auburn tresses, creating an ironic visual harmony for this story of societal chaos. To those who denigrate Blu-ray and proclaim that watching movies on cell phones is the wave of the future, we proudly submit this gorgeous disc in rebuttal.

The mix is crisp, clear and exceedingly well balanced. And it provides a perfect platform for Stuart Staples’ thoroughly modern but haunting score, as mournful cellos evoke the tortured weeping of the sun-baked African plains.


Interview with Director Claire Denis

Among the disc’s wealth of supplements is this interview with director Denis, who magnanimously credits Huppert with providing much of the creative spark during the project’s development. The production faced a number of obstacles, including the impounding of vital equipment by Cameroon authorities, and Denis details how she and the crew overcame their difficulties by teamwork and clever improvisation.

Interview with Actress Isabelle Huppert

 Huppert discusses many aspects of the film in great depth, and shows a profound understanding not only of her character, but the dramatic subtext of the entire project. Her comments make one wonder if this supremely talented actress has ever had an itch to direct. She certainly has the instincts.


Interview with Actor Isaach De Bankolé

De Bankolé, who plays a militant leader known as The Boxer, first worked with Denis 20 years ago on her debut film Chocolat. He discusses how the history of political violence in his home nation of Ivory Coast helped him craft a character both charismatic and enigmatic.

2010 Ecrans Noirs Film Festival

This 13 minute documentary, shot by Denis on home video, chronicles her rather frustrating return to Cameroon for a special screening of White Material. Her happy reunion with the film’s crew is plagued by frequent technical issues that eventually threaten the entire presentation. The short is an interesting, funny and at times heartbreaking look at the perils of staging a world class event in a poverty stricken setting.


White Material Booklet

A lavishly illustrated, 22 page booklet is included and features a wonderful essay by Film Comment Editor Amy Taubin. We learn much about the background of film, as well as Taubin’s perceptive observations on how White Material is thematically a natural extension of the Claire Denis filmography.

A deleted scene and the film’s theatrical trailer complete the bonus material.


FINAL THOUGHTS
Despite it’s time-shifting storyline and exotic locale, White Material retains many comforting attributes of familiarity. Indeed, in this age of rapidly accelerated political change, the film’s occasional, and more than passing, resemblances to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now do not seem like mere coincidence. Claire Denis’ film bears witness to the death rattles of colonization, and the viewer is thrust into the center of the conflict, but from a uniquely non-judgmental perspective. If the West’s misadventures in the developing world have taught us anything, it’s that often there’s no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. And, as Denis and Huppert brilliantly make clear, sometimes it’s best to drop your coffee beans and run like hell.







White Material (2009)****Blu-ray




In White Material, director Claire Denis weaves a complex cinematic tapestry out of narrative threads as coarse and dry as Isabelle Huppert’s fiery, windblown hair. Set in an African nation in the throes of civil war, the film reduces the waning days of European colonialism to a small scale story of a coffee farmer and her attempts to remain tethered to a familiar economic model in the midst of violent collapse. The film is rife with intentional geo-political vagueness; not only is the country unnamed, the precise aims of the warring factions are never defined or discussed. Both sides wear the same tattered uniforms and employ the same brutal means, creating a swirling maelstrom of terror and confusion. The only certainty is this tortured land no longer has a status quo to defend, and the Europeans who exploited its riches will soon be caught in a crossfire that grows ever closer.

Isabelle Huppert stars – in the truest sense of the word – as Maria Vial, de facto manager of her ailing ex father-in-law’s coffee plantation, a once thriving operation complete with tenet houses, scores of eager laborers and the large, clanging machinery of agricultural industry. For years, the Vial Plantation was a shining beacon of commerce in the dark, arid vastness, but those days are long gone, as the most recent generation has decided that growing coffee is far beneath them. In this film, European men are portrayed as slightly less than useless, and that aspersion extends to the Vial clan as well. Maria’s former husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) has been virtually disowned due to his new marriage to a local woman (Adele Ado) and Maria’s 20-ish son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a pampered lay-about who seems firmly convinced that any attempt at physical labor would immediately kill him. Thus, command of the failing enterprise has fallen on Maria’s slender but determined shoulders, albeit at the worst possible time.

Like Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah, Huppert stands stubbornly convinced that the political upheaval encircling her estate is a limited, insular affair that neither concerns nor affects the daily routine that defines her life. But by measures both strong and subtle, Denis shows us the increasingly desperate crumbling of Maria’s comfortable world. The structure of the film itself creates a disoriented vertigo, as the early reels present seemingly random events that drift unbound from chronology. Denis, who was nominated for a Golden Lion for this film, and Editor Guy Lecorne create a fluid mosaic of Maria’s past and present culled from the character’s bubbling pool of fearful memories. Amazingly, this laddered method of storytelling creates curiosity and sympathy but not a hint of narrative confusion. Indeed, Denis’ risky approach ultimately seems the perfect choice; not only is it empathic, it’s also efficient. On the macro level, Denis is able to tell a sprawling tale of political disintegration in a tidy 106 minutes, and at an intra-scene pace that rarely strays from real time.

Much of the credit must go to Huppert, who conveys more emotional turmoil with her chin than most actors can evoke with their entire bodies. Not since Heaven’s Gate 30 years ago, has Huppert taken a role so wholly dependent on her unique physicality. In an early scene, Huppert desperately clings to the side of a rusty, overcrowded bus in a life-or-death attempt to escape the advancing rebels. Her tiny arms bulge from the strain as her body is engulfed in a hot, dry wind, manifesting not only her character’s fierce determination but also her stubborn resistance. She had been offered more comfortable seating on top of the bus, but that would mean fraternizing with her former workers as equals. For the proud Maria that is a bridge too far, even in a world gone mad.

But White Material’s most haunting images are also its simplest, as Huppert, left alone on the plantation, frantically searches for her family amid an eerie and menacing silence. She is not yet aware of the full toll this conflict has taken, particularly on the unbalanced Manuel. As she paces the farm’s thick jungles and dusty roads, Denis’ lenses grow ever wider, reducing Huppert’s dominance of the frame and her environment. We are left only with a slight, fair-haired figure in a frilly pink dress, imperiled not only by the intense African sun, but also by sweaty, heavily armed demons – both real and imagined – hiding in the murky shadows.


DISC REVIEW

The transfer, in 2.35:1 and personally supervised by Denis and cameraman Yves Cape, is of astonishing depth and clarity, and represents another first rate effort by Criterion. Somehow, Denis and Cape make the dominant tones of beige and umber seem like exciting, vibrant new colors. It’s as if the design of the African wilderness had been color-cued from Huppert’s auburn tresses, creating an ironic visual harmony for this story of societal chaos. To those who denigrate Blu-ray and proclaim that watching movies on cell phones is the wave of the future, we proudly submit this gorgeous disc in rebuttal.

The mix is crisp, clear and exceedingly well balanced. And it provides a perfect platform for Stuart Staples’ thoroughly modern but haunting score, as mournful cellos evoke the tortured weeping of the sun-baked African plains.


Interview with Director Claire Denis

Among the disc’s wealth of supplements is this interview with director Denis, who magnanimously credits Huppert with providing much of the creative spark during the project’s development. The production faced a number of obstacles, including the impounding of vital equipment by Cameroon authorities, and Denis details how she and the crew overcame their difficulties by teamwork and clever improvisation.

Interview with Actress Isabelle Huppert

 Huppert discusses many aspects of the film in great depth, and shows a profound understanding not only of her character, but the dramatic subtext of the entire project. Her comments make one wonder if this supremely talented actress has ever had an itch to direct. She certainly has the instincts.


Interview with Actor Isaach De Bankolé

De Bankolé, who plays a militant leader known as The Boxer, first worked with Denis 20 years ago on her debut film Chocolat. He discusses how the history of political violence in his home nation of Ivory Coast helped him craft a character both charismatic and enigmatic.

2010 Ecrans Noirs Film Festival

This 13 minute documentary, shot by Denis on home video, chronicles her rather frustrating return to Cameroon for a special screening of White Material. Her happy reunion with the film’s crew is plagued by frequent technical issues that eventually threaten the entire presentation. The short is an interesting, funny and at times heartbreaking look at the perils of staging a world class event in a poverty stricken setting.


White Material Booklet

A lavishly illustrated, 22 page booklet is included and features a wonderful essay by Film Comment Editor Amy Taubin. We learn much about the background of film, as well as Taubin’s perceptive observations on how White Material is thematically a natural extension of the Claire Denis filmography.

A deleted scene and the film’s theatrical trailer complete the bonus material.


FINAL THOUGHTS
Despite it’s time-shifting storyline and exotic locale, White Material retains many comforting attributes of familiarity. Indeed, in this age of rapidly accelerated political change, the film’s occasional, and more than passing, resemblances to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now do not seem like mere coincidence. Claire Denis’ film bears witness to the death rattles of colonization, and the viewer is thrust into the center of the conflict, but from a uniquely non-judgmental perspective. If the West’s misadventures in the developing world have taught us anything, it’s that often there’s no distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. And, as Denis and Huppert brilliantly make clear, sometimes it’s best to drop your coffee beans and run like hell.







Monday, April 11, 2011

Extérieur, nuit (1980)****


One of the great things about Dish Network is the access to international television, particularly their package of French programming. Nestled amid TV5’s comedies and newsmagazines are some real cinematic gems. Yeah, you’ll sit through a few stinkers in the process of unearthing them, but the obscure finds make the effort worthwhile. One such film is Extérieur, nuit, a murky existentialist drama about three aimless, drifting lives in the unromantic Paris of 1980.

Written and directed by Jacques Bral, a low profile filmmaker with an impressive resume – he wrote and produced Street of No Return, Sam Fuller’s last feature in 1989 - Extérieur, nuit combines the thematics of Jules et Jim with the atmospherics of Taxi Driver. A successful studio musician named Leo (Gerard Lanvin) forsakes his comfortable career to return to the rough, smoky jazz clubs of la rive gauche, where gigs and paychecks are uncertain at best. Leo shows up, saxophone and luggage in tow, at the bohemian doorstep of Bony (the impossibly young and dashing Andre Dussollier), an old friend from the hippie days, who now spends most of his time staring into space in a forlorn effort to become a famous novelist.


For a while, the two pals engage in what 30ish bachelors do best - trading sarcastic comments while drinking to oblivion in Paris’ wealth of neighborhood bars. One cold, damp night, Leo staggers into a cab driven by a mysterious woman of glistening liquid eyes and smoldering sensuality (Christine Boisson), who has discovered inventive ways of making chauffeuring profitable. The seductive Cora lives much as an over-age street urchin and her free spirited contours bewitch Leo into tender feelings he neither wants nor understands. But eventually, his passions for Cora are shared by the bemused Bony, and the stage is set for a thorough testing of the concepts of free love and open relationships.


Shot largely at night, the film is a celebration – albeit a brooding, at times painful one – of the possibilities of young adulthood in a time of aggressive sexuality and changing ideas of romance. Cora and Leo enter into a tortured form of courtship, as each party alternately asserts notions of love and independence; confusing terms that had little meaning in a sophisticated world that no longer valued monogomy. When Leo raises the thought of marriage as a way out of their shared misery, both he and Cora bristle at the idea of suburbs and children, and a bright light glares on the preposterousness of their love.


The acting in Extérieur, nuit is consistently wonderful, featuring a cast that has gone on to long and successful careers in the industry. Lanvin, who has become ruggedly handsome in his middle years and now largely plays cops and gangsters, comes off here as a sort of cuddly Robert DeNiro; a young man rife with angst and alienation but ultimately warm and empathetic. Christine Boisson’s notorious first screen appearance was as an oversexed teenager masturbating to a photo of Paul Newman in the moderately kinky classic Emmanuelle, but here she’s all business, honing a sharp edge of sexual and emotional danger that allows the narrative to cut through the lost meanderings of the male protagonists. And there’s the great Andre Dussollier, as our eyes, ears and heart, who shows an early mastery of the subtle physical timing that made him an international star.


Extérieur, nuit has yet to be released in North America on DVD, but that will likely change as the film has undergone a re-discovery in recent years. In 2009, it was prominently featured at the Lyon Film Festival and in 2010 it was released for a theatrical run throughout France. And director Bral is back in the saddle again, currently filming a new drama called Le Noir (Te) Vous Va Si Bien in Paris.


Despite its dark and bittersweet tonality, Extérieur, nuit almost seems like innocent nostalgia today. Hidden within its coarse folds is a world of thoughtful pauses and reflective self-evaluation; a world where people didn’t spend every spare moment fiddling with cell phones and telling Facebook they’d suffered hang nail. It was a world where idle navel gazing over a glass of scotch, neat, was not only tolerated, but encouraged. And following one’s heart - no matter how wrong-headed or dreadful the result - was infinitely more important than following Twitter.

Extérieur, nuit (1980)****


One of the great things about Dish Network is the access to international television, particularly their package of French programming. Nestled amid TV5’s comedies and newsmagazines are some real cinematic gems. Yeah, you’ll sit through a few stinkers in the process of unearthing them, but the obscure finds make the effort worthwhile. One such film is Extérieur, nuit, a murky existentialist drama about three aimless, drifting lives in the unromantic Paris of 1980.

Written and directed by Jacques Bral, a low profile filmmaker with an impressive resume – he wrote and produced Street of No Return, Sam Fuller’s last feature in 1989 - Extérieur, nuit combines the thematics of Jules et Jim with the atmospherics of Taxi Driver. A successful studio musician named Leo (Gerard Lanvin) forsakes his comfortable career to return to the rough, smoky jazz clubs of la rive gauche, where gigs and paychecks are uncertain at best. Leo shows up, saxophone and luggage in tow, at the bohemian doorstep of Bony (the impossibly young and dashing Andre Dussollier), an old friend from the hippie days, who now spends most of his time staring into space in a forlorn effort to become a famous novelist.


For a while, the two pals engage in what 30ish bachelors do best - trading sarcastic comments while drinking to oblivion in Paris’ wealth of neighborhood bars. One cold, damp night, Leo staggers into a cab driven by a mysterious woman of glistening liquid eyes and smoldering sensuality (Christine Boisson), who has discovered inventive ways of making chauffeuring profitable. The seductive Cora lives much as an over-age street urchin and her free spirited contours bewitch Leo into tender feelings he neither wants nor understands. But eventually, his passions for Cora are shared by the bemused Bony, and the stage is set for a thorough testing of the concepts of free love and open relationships.


Shot largely at night, the film is a celebration – albeit a brooding, at times painful one – of the possibilities of young adulthood in a time of aggressive sexuality and changing ideas of romance. Cora and Leo enter into a tortured form of courtship, as each party alternately asserts notions of love and independence; confusing terms that had little meaning in a sophisticated world that no longer valued monogomy. When Leo raises the thought of marriage as a way out of their shared misery, both he and Cora bristle at the idea of suburbs and children, and a bright light glares on the preposterousness of their love.


The acting in Extérieur, nuit is consistently wonderful, featuring a cast that has gone on to long and successful careers in the industry. Lanvin, who has become ruggedly handsome in his middle years and now largely plays cops and gangsters, comes off here as a sort of cuddly Robert DeNiro; a young man rife with angst and alienation but ultimately warm and empathetic. Christine Boisson’s notorious first screen appearance was as an oversexed teenager masturbating to a photo of Paul Newman in the moderately kinky classic Emmanuelle, but here she’s all business, honing a sharp edge of sexual and emotional danger that allows the narrative to cut through the lost meanderings of the male protagonists. And there’s the great Andre Dussollier, as our eyes, ears and heart, who shows an early mastery of the subtle physical timing that made him an international star.


Extérieur, nuit has yet to be released in North America on DVD, but that will likely change as the film has undergone a re-discovery in recent years. In 2009, it was prominently featured at the Lyon Film Festival and in 2010 it was released for a theatrical run throughout France. And director Bral is back in the saddle again, currently filming a new drama called Le Noir (Te) Vous Va Si Bien in Paris.


Despite its dark and bittersweet tonality, Extérieur, nuit almost seems like innocent nostalgia today. Hidden within its coarse folds is a world of thoughtful pauses and reflective self-evaluation; a world where people didn’t spend every spare moment fiddling with cell phones and telling Facebook they’d suffered hang nail. It was a world where idle navel gazing over a glass of scotch, neat, was not only tolerated, but encouraged. And following one’s heart - no matter how wrong-headed or dreadful the result - was infinitely more important than following Twitter.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Blogger Round-Up 4-8-2011


Gather ‘round Pardners, here’s what ya’ll missed on the innernets while ridin’ the range…


My ol’ pal Wayward Muse is back an’ blogggin up a storm. She picks the good'uns to write about. Take a gander at her reviews and picher shows


JB has a spankin’ new review of Salvador Allende that makes mine look like something a polecat drug home. That cowpoke shore writes purdy.


That nice lady over yonder in France, Miz Lawrenson, has an essay on writin’ that’ll bring tears to your eyes. Y’all pay her a visit…


My buddy Doug is still runnin’ fer President, an’ if things git anymore hinky in Warshington, he just might win!


The ol’ Retro Hound has a passel of book covers and other stuff that y’all may remember from days gone by. Everytime I visit, I git all misty fer the good ol’ days. Tell’em Bunchie sent you.


Take a second look at some Movin’ Picher gems at Quality Cult Cinema. Ol’ Tiger over there has seen it all…even Soylent Green!


Bob has been up to his usual magic at European Film Stars Postcards. I’m right partial to this post about Elizabeth Taylor, lord rest her soul. Where else kin you get educatin’ while looking at purdy pichers?


Well, I see the sun settin in the west pardners, so I better git back to punchin’ doggies.

God it’s exhausting to write in the voice of Ward Bond.

Blogger Round-Up 4-8-2011


Gather ‘round Pardners, here’s what ya’ll missed on the innernets while ridin’ the range…


My ol’ pal Wayward Muse is back an’ blogggin up a storm. She picks the good'uns to write about. Take a gander at her reviews and picher shows


JB has a spankin’ new review of Salvador Allende that makes mine look like something a polecat drug home. That cowpoke shore writes purdy.


That nice lady over yonder in France, Miz Lawrenson, has an essay on writin’ that’ll bring tears to your eyes. Y’all pay her a visit…


My buddy Doug is still runnin’ fer President, an’ if things git anymore hinky in Warshington, he just might win!


The ol’ Retro Hound has a passel of book covers and other stuff that y’all may remember from days gone by. Everytime I visit, I git all misty fer the good ol’ days. Tell’em Bunchie sent you.


Take a second look at some Movin’ Picher gems at Quality Cult Cinema. Ol’ Tiger over there has seen it all…even Soylent Green!


Bob has been up to his usual magic at European Film Stars Postcards. I’m right partial to this post about Elizabeth Taylor, lord rest her soul. Where else kin you get educatin’ while looking at purdy pichers?


Well, I see the sun settin in the west pardners, so I better git back to punchin’ doggies.

God it’s exhausting to write in the voice of Ward Bond.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Salvador Allende (2004)***1/2


Hidden amid the joy and horror of Allende’s story is a chilling parable for our times, as a popular young President, elected on a platform of hope, ironically unleashes the worst elements and instincts of the nation he has sworn to serve.

Read My Full Review at IONCINEMA.com

Salvador Allende (2004)***1/2


Hidden amid the joy and horror of Allende’s story is a chilling parable for our times, as a popular young President, elected on a platform of hope, ironically unleashes the worst elements and instincts of the nation he has sworn to serve.

Read My Full Review at IONCINEMA.com

80 Years at the Races

Most Marx Brothers aficionados agree that 1937’s A Day at the Races was the last truly great film featuring the zany siblings. Produced by ...