Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Part One: Vichyssoise

Welcome to the launch of a new feature, in which I’ll be posting some of my favorite never-fail recipes - and suggestions for films to go along with the final results….

Folks always ask, “How can you stand Arizona in the summer?” Well, first of all it’s a dry heat (there really is a difference), and I make this recipe…a lot. A cold, yummy soup makes 120F almost bearable….

A few swirls of Olive Oil (I’m not big on measuring)

3 tbs Butter

1 Onion, chopped (I like sweet Vidalias for this but any kind will do, and yes I know you’re supposed to use leeks but I never seem to have any)

¼ cup Sherry

3 cups Chicken Stock

3 medium Potatoes, peeled and diced

1 cup milk (any fat level you like)

2 heaping dollops Sour Cream (about 4 oz.) …go on, add a little more….

Soup Crackers (mandatory)

1. Place oil and butter in a good, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat until butter dissolves.

2. Add onions and cook until they soften a bit.

3. Place chicken stock in Pyrex container and microwave 4 minutes or until lightly  bubbling (this step is just to save you a little time)

4. Add sherry and cook until onions have absorbed most of it.

5. Add chicken stock and potatoes and simmer covered about 20 minutes or until potatoes are done.

6. Turn off heat and puree contents with an immersion blender (or use a regular blender, but be careful, the soup is not cold yet!)

7. Add milk and sour cream, and stir gently over low heat until sour cream has liquefied.

8. Pour soup into storage container and refrigerate over night. Serve with crackers. 

This is one of those recipes that can be tweaked endlessly. It’s also good with some chopped asparagus or broccoli florets thrown in with the potatoes. Just before serving, try grating a little Parmesan on top or a few drops of truffle oil. Yumskers…

A warm, sunny French film goes great with this dish. May we suggest:

A Summer's Tale

The Perfume of Yvonne

Let it Rain


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zazie dans le metro (1960)****1/2

Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro is a dizzying, delightful – and absolutely insane – surreal comedy heroically rescued from obscurity by a shining new Criterion release. Based on a best selling novel by Raymond Queneau, Zazie offers such a staggering onslaught of candy colored images and clever wordplay it’s as if the film emanates not from a projector, but a kaleidoscope. By the time all is said and done, and its mesmerizing web finally begins to dissolve, viewers will likely want to start the disc over again just to prove that what they saw the first time was real, and not the result of some fevered delirium.

First and foremost, Zazie dans le metro is an examination of the foibles of the adult world as seen through the eyes of an exceptionally bright child – at least that is one of many applicable interpretations – and can be considered a slapstick laced Catcher in the Rye for the tweener set. In the early scenes, Malle creates a tableau that has the look and feel of an illustrated children’s story come to life. Obviously inspired by the work of Ludwig Bemelman, creator of the Madeline series, the Paris depicted here is a funky, bohemian wonderland of crumbling art nouveau cheese shops and fat feral cats. The citizenry sport the regal haberdashery of a bygone era, but it’s a style consciousness gone to seed; their waistcoats becoming more threadbare as their aging bodies sag ever closer to the sidewalk. But despite its trappings, the story is no Eloise at the Plaza sunny, genteel adventure; for along the way this screwy comedy will deal with incest, child abuse, cross dressing and all flavors and manifestations of human sexuality.

12 year old Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) has come to Paris for the weekend with her free spirited, widowed mother (Odette Piquet). She is dropped off with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) for safekeeping, while Mom visits with the most recent of her string of ne’er-do-well boyfriends. Young Zazie is a child prodigy in at least two skill sets: seeing through adult deceptions and the blatant use of foul language, and she plies both of these talents with the effortless flair of a true master. She’s also adept at creating mayhem, and when her desire to ride the Paris subway is thwarted by a sudden labor stoppage, Zazie decides to take out her frustrations on an unsuspecting populace. And when the dust settles from the resulting madcap maelstrom, the City of Lights will never be the same.

It’s always tempting to try to place a 50 year old film into some sort of cinematic perspective, but Malle synthesizes such a vast gamut of outlandish styles in Zazie dans le metro it would require years of devoted study to precisely determine his derivations from his innovations. There are strong allusions to the work of Jacques Tati – with examples almost too numerous to count - including one rooftop shot that’s a verbatim homage to Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. But one could make a case that the admiration channeled in each direction, as Malle’s destruction of a restaurant here is mirrored in the climactic scene of Tati’s Play Time from 1967. Malle also clearly draws on the mechanical aesthetics of silent comedies, as many scenes feature a slight undercranking – both as an optical effect and at the camera – which bestows the characters with the amusing, herky-jerky motions of the Keystone Kops.

The film’s middle section features a delightful extended chase scene, complete with virtually every visual gag in the Chuck Jones playbook, as Zazie plays Roadrunner to Vitorio Capreolli’s hapless coyote. But, true to the film’s daring and decadent ethos, the script clearly hints that this version of Wile E. Coyote may in truth be a child molester. Capriolli plays a variety of roles over the course of the film or, more precisely, adopts the role of shape shifting predator of children, attractive young women and, ultimately, of nations, as a thinly disguised Mussolini. And, while the two films could not be more different in execution, Zazie’s depictions of childhood share a spiritual similarity to The 400 Blows, made only a year earlier. It’s unfathomable to this reviewer why Truffaut’s classic became part of the film school canon while Malle’s equally excellent product remained largely unknown.

Philippe Noiret gets his turn in the spotlight in a harrowing sequence filmed at the top of the Eiffel Tower and, while it’s all played for goofy laughs, it features the type of perilous stunts that would only be attempted through CGI today. Noiret, his character having lost his glasses, precariously hangs from girders and waltzes along the edges of open beams in a lengthy montage that will send acrophobics screaming from the room in a cold sweat. Noiret is young here, and still too babyfaced for the gruff teddy bear persona he would eventually develop. But through his verbal sparring with Zazie we the see the genesis of his unique chemistry with child actors; a chemistry that would make Tornatore’s Cinema Paradisio an enormous international hit 20 years later.

As the film begins to scale up toward its monumental conclusion – and monumental is the only word for it – Malle’s vision of Paris devolves into a nihilist, gridlocked netherworld of juggling polar bears, fascist restaurants, dream sequences, food fights, dancing girls, destroyed automobiles and enough broken champagne bottles to launch a thousand ships. Just when you thought the film had reached a critical mass of absurdity, there’s always a new, even broader exercise in cinematic Dadaism emerging from the rubble. Eventually both the film and the subway strike resolve and the imaginative world of Zazie returns to normal, but most viewers will find that reentry difficult and even slightly depressing. For Louis Malle created a beguiling world devoid of logic or limits, with a comedic buffet so deliciously rich and chewy one visit hardly seems sufficient.

The film is thankfully presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and, as one of the few French films of this era shot in color, offers a bold and refreshing look. Like kids in a candy store, Malle and his crew use every opportunity to inject even more chroma into the proceedings with extensive use of colored key lights motivated by neon signs in the background. Warm reds and golds are the predominate tonalities in the day exteriors, and the transfer delivers these colors with a nicely controlled sharpness. At first blush, the green channel appears under-dialed on some scenes, but it’s important to keep in mind the abundance of grays in the architecture of Paris, and keeping unwanted hues out of these shots would be quite a challenge for any colorist. The matrices created here are finely balanced and work well in keeping Zazie’s outrageous visual shifts in harmonious unity.
The original mono track has been beautifully restored as well, with a few dubbing “dead spots” that only add to the film’s eccentric charm. The mix keeps the actors front and center at all times; appropriate since Zazie, despite its hyperactive visuals, is still very much a dialogue driven picture. There must have been quite an urge to create a juiced 5.1 track to compete with all the ocular zaniness, but fortunately good taste prevailed.

This new release gives us a bit more perspective on the career of Louis Malle, and a deeper appreciation of his wide range of filmmaking talent. While often lumped in with auteurs of the nouvelle vague, the Malle filmography includes everything from heartbreaking tales of wartime (Au revoir les enfants) to hypnotic minimal films (My Dinner with Andre) to conventional Hollywood style romantic thrillers (Damage). Zazie completes the mosaic, and further defines Malle as a throwback to the great journeyman directors – talents like John Ford and Michael Curtiz - whose chief concern was to make a wonderful film regardless of the genre, as opposed to creating a personal brand. Despite its occasional dark allusions, Zazie is a joyous exercise in festive, flamboyant excess. After a deliberate and measured beginning, the film seems to become possessed, and is soon propelled to an irresistible momentum. By virtue of its sheer aggressive lunacy, Zazie dans le metro makes It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World look like a work by Tarkovsky.

Reviewed by David Anderson

Friday, June 24, 2011

Happy Birthday Vittorio!

The great and highly influential cinematographer Vittorio Storaro turns 71 today. Here's a random sampling of some of his best work...

The Conformist (1970)

Last Tango in Paris (1973)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Reds (1981)

One From the Heart (1982)

The Last Emperor (1987)

Dick Tracy (1990)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer with Julie

It's officially summer. Nobody wants to read long winded, pedantic reviews of depressing Albanian films. Instead, here's a few of my favorite pics of the great Julie Newmar:

For more Julie pics Click Here

Summer With Julie Part Two Click Here

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bride Flight (2010)****1/2

With Bride Flight finally getting a theatrical release in the U.S. we offer our review, originally posted in October 2010

Bride Flight is a great big honking crowd pleaser of a film; full of adventure, romance, exotic locales, dark secrets and even a smattering of hot sex. Set in 1953, the story focuses on four lucky – if you consider having your wits scared out of you lucky – winners of free passage aboard a KLM turboprop bound from Holland to New Zealand.

The flight is a bit of a publicity stunt – KLM is competing with several other airlines to set a new airspeed record for the London to Christchurch route – and such is the pilot’s obsession with victory that no variation is allowed in the flight path; bone-rattling turbulence and violent thunderstorms be damned.

On board we meet three young women, all of them engaged and on their way to be reunited with their future husbands; the men having gone ahead to New Zealand months ago to find employment and lodging. Also on the manifest is a strapping young hunk named Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) who plans to grow grapes and eventually preside over a famous winery.

Fate takes a hand when Frank is seated next to Ada (Karina Smulders), a sheltered innocent whose marriage to a strict, humorless Calvinist (Micha Hulsof) has been virtually pre-arranged by her parents. Frank arouses passions in the sensual young Ada she has never felt before, and with the speeding plane frequently tossing the passengers about like rag dolls, there’s plenty of opportunity for physical contact. We also meet Esther (Anna Drijer), a woman much more interested in a career than family life, who happens to appreciate Frank’s charms as well, and Marjorie (Elise Schaap), who dreams of a large family, but will find the creation of that family a dangerous struggle.

The quartet eventually split up to pursue their own destinies in the rocky wilds of New Zealand, and the pioneer lifestyle provides plenty of hardships and humorous surprises for the young women. But Ada, despite doing her best to comply with every whim of her stern new husband, can never forget the dashing young man she left on the tarmac at Christchurch. Meanwhile Esther - who has given up on the notion of married life ever working for her - gets reacquainted with Frank on a moonlit night. And the results will profoundly change the lives of all the protagonists.

The paths of the women intersect numerous times over the next few decades, and it is this multi-generational storyline that gives Bride Flight such wide audience appeal. To viewers of a certain age, there is the clear draw of nostalgia as director Ben Sombogaart and his team have paid fanatical attention to detail. The art direction and set dressing give us a palpable and poignant sense of life for these European expats. They have traveled to the other side of the world and are desperately trying to put their stamp on this exotic land via sentimental bric-a-brac and lacey ephemeral reminders of life in Holland. Through the course of film the characters will encounter many new landscapes, but the most challenging ones prove to be the craggy recesses of their own lives.

The filmmaking is exceedingly competent and, at times, even inspired, without ever becoming flashy or distracting. The film is in essence a small scale story of quiet desperation, elevated to an epic level by the stoic bravery and common human folly of the characters. We cheer for their successes, and despair when the expectations and morality of 1950s society conspire against them. Talented Karina Smulders is simply riveting as Ada, whose character stands as a poster child for the perils women faced when they were routinely treated as second class citizens.

Ultimately, a funeral draws the principals together in the present day, and they wear their silver hair and creased faces as badges of honor for all they’ve endured. A cynic could certainly make a case that the film is simply an overplotted bit of melodrama - a bodice ripper with a side order of fresh kiwis. But thanks to Sombogaart’s masterful, restrained storytelling and pitch-perfect performances from the leads, Bride Flight slowly weaves its irresistible web. A web that snares audiences, who can only sit and revel in its splendor.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)***

Midnight in Paris is one of those novelty conceit films Woody Allen emits every so often.  Owen Wilson is quite good as a successful screenwriter who really wants to be a struggling novelist - a struggling novelist in 1920s Paris to be precise - and through a magical subterfuge gets a shot at it. The film features a few spot on observations about American politics and a large cast ranging from talented unknowns to the First Lady of France, and all strata in between. Unfortunately, the novelty wears off long before the conceit.

Blue Valentine (2010)**

A coldly calculated, overworked simulation of a gritty, hyper-real American Indie. Michele Williams and Ryan Gosling lend their star power to this tale of a young married couple who spend their days making each other miserable. Through confusing flashbacks and one abysmal night in a cheesy Poconos honeymoon suite, we learn much more about them that we ever wanted to know. Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, but he doesn’t deserve all the blame.

Nos trios (2010)****

A cautionary tale that explains how becoming romantically obsessed with someone other than your spouse is not such a great idea, especially if there’s young kids at home. Emmanuelle Beart gets a serious case of the hots for new neighbor Philippe (Stefano Accoursi) and conducts steamy liaisons too numerous and noisy to hide from 10 year old Sebastien (Nathan Georgelin). Too young to be left on his own, the boy eventually accompanies the secret lovers as a sort of mascot, and becomes quite confused about the concept of family. Jacques Gamblin, always a talent to be reckoned with, is terrific as Beart’s head-in-the-clouds inventor husband. As expected, Beart’s mess does not end well for anyone concerned, but the film has many intriguing and involving moments.

The Male Animal (1942)***1/2

A jovial romp, based on a play by Thurber, that suffers the occasional drags. Young Henry Fonda plays a principled English professor who has gotten into hot water for including a poetic letter written by controversial anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti in his lesson plan. Meanwhile his employer - green, leafy Midwestern University - is fixin’ to throw a big shindig for the Michigan game, featuring the return of a distinguished All American halfback (the great Jack Carson), who happens to be the old flame of Fonda’s hotcha wife (Olivia DeHavilland). Much silliness ensues, but it’s all brought to relevance by a climactic speech from Fonda, decrying the bullying of school donors, and the tenuous relationship of big time football and academics; a speech that sounds like it could have been written last week. Henry Fonda, we miss you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ozon's Triumphant Return to Comedy



The last time director François Ozon attempted a goofball comedy, the star studded 8 Women from 2002, results were mixed, with a few hilarious segments interspersed with labored jokes and high camp production numbers that fell flat as a crêpe. The film did achieve a sharp polarization of audiences – folks either loved it or hated it –but fully appreciating the film was dependent on familiarity with the screen personae of the leading ladies in Ozon’s assemblage. 8 Women is a film that’s gotten better with age, and only improves with repeated viewings; its subtle under currents and rich in-jokes more apparent after the initial shock. And no matter how many times you’ve seen it, the brief catfight between Huppert and Deneuve – that Isabelle seems to enjoy so rapturously – is an absolute scream.

No such unevenness plagues Potiche, Ozon’s crowd pleaser from 2010, which quietly snuck into Phoenix last week, no doubt embarrassed by its tardiness, only to be buried beneath Woody Allen’s latest and a pile of fledgling X-Men. Potiche is a silly situational farce, full of convenient plot twists and warm, fuzzy coinkydinks. Set in the 1970s, the film is production designed to the hilt with lots of gold and avocado and massive mechanical telephones covered by hand knit cozies. But the film’s stylistics are not geared to a mere recreation of the period. Ozon’s ambitions run deeper; not just to parody the look and feel of 1977, but to both skewer and celebrate the era’s popular entertainment and changing social mores.

Catherine Deneuve, who at 67 has never looked better, stars as Suzanne Pujol, pampered trophy wife of Robert (always wonderful Fabrice Luchini), the wealthy CEO of an umbrella manufacturing company founded long ago by Suzanne’s father. When Robert stubbornly refuses to negotiate with the union, protests erupt at the factory, spurred on by local mayor and communist MP Marice Babin (Gerard Depardieu). Robert, who suffers from one of those convenient heart conditions, is felled during an apoplectic fit as the protests wear on, and is advised to go on an extended rest cure. Suzanne takes over the factory’s day-to-day operations and, despite her inexperience and cocooned perfect life, slowly begins to win over the workers with her compassionate sense of fair play. Those charms extend to strike leader Babin as well and, in a surprising turn, we discover these two political polar opposites share a secret history.

At this point the plot, which features more convolutions than an Escher staircase, pretty much runs on autopilot, sustained by its own daffy momentum. Freed from the demands of nuanced storytelling, Ozon parties down with some delightful 70s flavored set pieces. Deneuve and Depardieu visit a disco, supposedly for a business meeting, and before long they’re out on the illuminated floor in full boogie beneath a mirrored ball. This is the type of wacked dance number Ozon struggled with in 8 Women, but here he keeps it simple and the results are silky smooth. The fact that these moves seem second nature to Deneuve and Depardieu, two survivors of the disco era, certainly doesn’t hurt.

Jérémie Rénier and Judith Godrèche play Deneuve’s adult kids, and they each approach their roles with studious attention to detail. Godrèche, who looks great in wide 70s stripes and Farah Fawcett hair, perfectly presages the building conservative cultural backlash that would erupt in the 1980s, while Rénier, adorned in bodyshirts and brightly colored ascots, discovers a new freedom of lifestyle when he becomes top designer at the factory. When Luchini returns from sick leave, he’s less than happy with the changes Deneuve has implemented, and launches a corporate subterfuge to overturn them. But with the help of Luchini’s secretary and long time mistress (Karin Viard), Deneuve exploits her charismatic management style in pursuit of a much bigger goal; a goal that will make the umbrella factory seem like small potatoes and leave Luchini and Depardieu gasping in her wake.

In the last year or so, Gerard Depardieu’s public image has taken a serious beating. His continuing feud with Juliette Binoche has only gotten nastier, while he’s become the ever increasing butt of jokes about his weight, which has reached alarming proportions. But as his recent performances attest, he’s still a charismatic and highly skilled actor, with the added bulk only enhancing his commanding presence. He can also be extremely generous. Given a juicy opportunity here to play villain and romantic lead rolled into one, Depardieu never tries to take the spotlight from Deneuve; his approach to the role obviously laced with deep respect and admiration. Depardieu’s years of experience have taught him the vital lesson of how to dominate without being dominating. He’s all too happy to support his old friend Cathy and retreat gracefully into the background when it’s her turn to shine. Their intimate chemistry is reminiscent of two old soldiers who meet for a drink 40 years later in a plush hotel’s twinkly piano bar. As they quietly reminisce, the busy modern world rushes by, unsuspecting of their past heroics.

But Potiche’s brightest diadem is claimed by Deneuve, due to a performance that’s dialed in exactly right. Her early scenes of suburban bliss strike the perfect tones of high perch obliviousness tempered with the best aspects of limousine liberalism. When her surprising past is revealed, she sells the notion through ribald, unapologetic glances but maintains her proper garden club decorum. After portraying Suzanne as a cloistered, head in the clouds housewife devoted to nature jogs and quickly scribbled poetry, the film shifts to tap her deep pools of strength and wisdom, and makes a convincing case that the experience of raising children and dealing with male egos offers a sounder education than any business school degree. Indeed, such were the roots of the middle class feminism that swept the professional world in the 1970s; the only thing missing in Ozon’s simulation is Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman playing in the background. Deveuve is a joy to watch through it all, and with Ozon’s inspired staging and Philippe Rombi’s delightfully melodramatic score, they manage to keep Potiche happily spinning in a goofy comedic groove.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tweeting My Junk

Tweeting one's junk is all the rage. Here's mine. And unlike a certain congressman, I can say with complete confidence this is my 100% unretouched junk:

1974 Chevy Luv pickup

Polaroid Camera

  Autographed Poster of Matt Leinart

Broken VHS Deck - I have several of these

Book about Michael Dukakis

Dot Matrix Printer

Hall & Oates Albums

Hope you enjoyed looking at my junk.
Are you as turned on as I am?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In the City of Sylvia (2007)****1/2


Filmmaking is usually a quest for reduction. Whether it’s a sprawling historical epic, a suspenseful crime drama or an abstract essay on the mysteries of existence, typically the trick is to externalize the story into small chunks that can be coherently told through character interactions. If those interactions have the ring of truth, sparkle with wit, simmer with sexual tension, or portray a universal humanity – or any combination of the above – then that’s just icing on the cake. 

In the City of Sylvia takes the opposite approach. It enlarges what appears to be a simple case of mistaken identity into a bewildering, hypnotic meditation on romance, voyeurism and the deceptive power of embellished memories. Through languid pacing and a dearth of dialogue, the film approaches the deep psychological reverie of a novel. But instead of reading a character’s innermost thoughts, we are forced into our own mental constructions. Director Jose Luis Guerin tantalizes the viewer with scraps of disconnected information; tidbits that our minds scramble to neatly sort and order. But it’s not really a conscious effort; rather an innate desire to fill in the blanks. In the City of Sylvia presents settings and situations so familiar and banal, so full of memory triggers, that our own experiences and hazy recollections are recruited to flesh out the narrative. It’s only natural; when presented with a vacuum, we tend to fill it with ourselves. 

Without giving too much away, In the City of Sylvia concerns a young man with steely blue eyes (Xavier Lafitte) who has come to the ancient city of Strasbourg for a solitary summer holiday. Much of the film is spent following the young man on leisurely strolls down Strasbourg’s quiet, narrow streets. He usually ends up at an outdoor café near the National Theatre, where he spends his afternoons nursing beers while engaging in an unusually intense form of people watching. While he makes quick sketches of his fellow patrons in a thick notebook, his gaze shifts from table to table; his attention randomly focusing on an ever changing variety of young women. From inside the theatre, a willowy brunette emerges (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), and our young man closes his sketchbook and secretly follows her into the bright sun of a lazy French afternoon.

These sequences play as a sensualist’s delight, with Guerin capturing a resonant sense of the quietly giddy interaction of public loafing; that peaceful timelessness that comes when the sun and the wine and the weather all blissfully combine. Editor Núria Esquerra has an exquisite sense of rhythm and backtimes her entry points perfectly from a shot’s payoff. The effect is a relaxing, some could say torpid, tempo that never actually dawdles. As Lafitte’s ambling pursuit is eventually discovered by de Ayala, the film confounds our expectations with a resolution that only muddles the situation, and the viewer is forced to supply the jagged pieces required to complete the mosaic. But our knowledge is fractional and incomplete, and for the remainder of Lafitte’s dreamy sojourn we are immersed in a deeply meditative sort of whodunit.

In one fleeting shot, Guerin offers up an explanation, at least a possible explanation, to the conundrum that eludes young Lafitte. The moment is handled in an offhand way and seems much too casual to be the profound answer he seeks. Or, his mind may be too jumbled to recognize truth when it materializes right in front of him, or right behind him; an image Guerin uses as a recurrent motif. As Lafitte’s visit draws to a close, he seeks out the mysterious de Ayala one last time. A lonely vigil on a train platform gives him, and the viewer, ample opportunity to speculate on the lives of the assembled strangers. The young man’s intense observation of his surroundings becomes an infinity mirror. As he attempts to put this milling throng of commuters into a logical context, viewers will be trying to do the same for this intriguingly stark and deceptively simple film. At least Lafitte is granted a reprieve when the end titles roll. We’re not as lucky. We’ll likely remain under In the City of Sylvia’s magic spell for quite some time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Hustler (1961)*****Blu-ray

The Hustler is a splendidly constructed entertainment, with each frame attesting to high levels of craft in every phase of its production. Helmed by Robert Rossen, a talented writer/director of hardnosed dramas, this is at heart a sports movie that somehow manages to avoid the genre’s clichéd baggage.

Read my entire review at

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Recently Viewed: Late Spring Edition

Reprise (2006)**1/2

Reprise is a sort of Breaking Away for the literary set that director Joachim Trier attempts to spice up with graphics and editorial flourishes. Philip (Anders Danielson Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman Hoiner) have been friends since childhood, and have developed a special bond over a shared love of edgy novels and obscure techno albums. Now in their early 20s, the young men each submit manuscripts and Erik’s is accepted for publication while Philip’s work is roundly rejected. Philip falls into a deep depression requiring a hospital stay (damned socialized medicine) and Erik is consumed by trying not to feel guilty. Trier gets, or at least doesn’t prevent, nice performances from his actors, especially Lie, who can hold his head in utter despair with the best of them, and Viktoria Winge, whose blithe, hippie qualities offer Philip, and the viewer, some heartfelt solace. But a promising subplot concerning a reclusive author, a Norwegian version J.D. Salinger, goes absolutely no where while our heroes’ group of “normal” guy friends only distract from the progression. There’s an interesting film in this material, but Reprise falls short of its target. Still, there’s some fine music by New Order and Joy Division that will make you nostalgic for parachute pants and poppers. Maybe not.

The History Boys (2006)***1/2 


The bubbly percussion of Blue Monday can also be heard in this film, set in 1983 and currently showing on Sundance. Based on a play by Alan Bennett, The History Boys details the year long effort by a group of Sheffield school teachers to prepare a close knit bunch of insufferably bright lads for their Oxford entrance exams. The film cleverly presents the central dilemma of modern education – whether students should be taught to pass standard tests or given a well-rounded, if somewhat subjective, education about life – and presents strong arguments for both sides of the debate. Richard Griffiths, delightfully creepy Uncle Monty from Withnail and I, shines as an entrenched instructor who firmly believes in the old style of freewheeling. While his performance is a bit cartoony in spots, at about the midway point he delivers a somber and heartfelt analysis of a Thomas Hardy poem that will bring you to tears. There are no other moments of equal emotional depth however, and the film seems to lose some narrative focus as it reaches the finish. But in all The History Boys is a worthwhile and entertaining diversion, if you have nothing pressing to do.

A Year Ago in Winter (2008)****

This moody German import, adapted from an American novel by Scott Campbell, can also be found on Sundance. A grieving mother (Corrina Harfouch, Germany’s answer to Helen Mirren) commissions a painting from a middle-aged local artist (Josef Bierbichler), who specializes in large scale commemorative portraits of the dead. Harfouch’s bright and beloved teenage son died under mysterious circumstances a few months prior, and she hopes the enormous canvas will bring her a sense of closure. But Bierbichler, whose constant contact with painful, aggrieved customers has forced him to retreat into virtual hermit status, finds himself fascinated by the family of the recently departed, especially his willowy, dreamy - and deeply troubled - sister (Karoline Herferth). Part intriguing mystery, part analysis of the stages of grief, A Year Ago in Winter unfolds slowly and carefully, with finely tuned performances and damply chilling textures. It drags on a bit long, but ends on rewarding notes of nuanced and truly meaningful catharsis.

Pièce montée (2010)***

Pièce montée (Wedding Cake) is a big, dumb, French wedding comedy, set in one of those charming country villages that make frazzled Americans want to say the hell with it and move. Aided enormously by its assemblage of talent – Jeremie Renier, Clemence Posey, Jean-Pierre Marielle and Julie Depardieu all lend their names to the film’s impressive call sheet - Pièce montée advances with a brisk, amusing momentum. Along the way there are several cases of cold feet and family resentments aplenty, and even a rekindling of a long forbidden romance. Depardieu steals the show, as usual, with her turn as a free spirited Maid-of-Honor, but she is fun to watch here and, considering her pedigree, really can’t help herself. Pièce montée is one of the better goofball comedies to show up on TV5 Monde in recent months, and while that’s not exactly a compliment, it has the distinction of being at least tolerable from beginning to end.