Friday, July 24, 2015

Recently Viewed July 2015

Just a Sigh (2013) ✭✭✭½
Netflix WI

If you’re in the mood for light romanic fare or simply yearning for the sights and sounds of Paris, Just a Sigh nicely fills the bill. It’s one of those films about two strangers (Gabriel Bryne, Emmanuelle Devos) who briefly meet on a train but feel an immediate romantic spark. Over the course of the next few hours, the rarefied romantic air of the French capital turns that spark into a passionate flame, and the couple toss caution to the wind. But it’s not all rainbows and moonbeams, as Devos faces some hard realities about her failed acting career while Byrne confronts his own mortality when he attends the funeral of a former colleague. The real star of the film is the city of Paris. Its quiet side streets, bustling boulevards and relaxed bistros form a daydreamy tribute to life’s rich pageant of possibilities. The movie won Jérôme Bonnell the Best Director Award at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2013.

Bird People (2014) ✭✭✭
Netflix WI

First half of the film is brilliant. Second half gets too cute for its own good. It's a metaphor. I get it.

L'adversaire (2002) ✬✬✬½
TV5 Monde

Daniel Auteuil is great here as a deeply disturbed sociopath. This dark film is based on a true incident from 1993, which makes it even creepier.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

News and Notes, July 2015

Going to the movies is becoming a bit more affordable thanks to Dealflix, a new service that offers discounts on tickets and snacks. Click here to find a participating theater in your area.

Hey Mulholland Drive fans, Criterion has scheduled that deluxe Blu-ray edition you've been waiting for. Look for it October 27, 2015.

GetTV is a new way for cord-cutters to get their fix of classic movies. Now broadcasting in most markets, you can find your local affiliate here.

The BBC has come up with a new list of the 100 Greatest American Films. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Today in Bunched History: The Girl on the Train (2009) ✬✬✬✬

First posted July 17, 2013

The Girl on the Train is a complex and richly observed film all about lies; big ones, small ones, kind ones and dangerous ones. Emilie Dequenne – proving her Palme d’Or winning performance in Rosetta was no fluke – is outstanding as an aimless young woman named Jeanne, who seems to be just marking time and waiting for her life to begin.

She lives with her mother (Catherine Deneuve), who runs a day-care out of their home and scours the internet want ads in search of secretarial work for her unambitious daughter. Concurrently, we meet a Jewish family lead by a successful lawyer (Michel Blanc), his precocious grandson Nathan (Jeremie Quaegebeur) and Nathan’s estranged parents (Matheiu Demy and Ronit Elkabetz). The film is divided into two parts, and the bulk of the first act deals with Jeanne’s burgeoning relationship with a dodgy amateur wrestler (Nicolas Duvachelle), who mysteriously always has plenty of Euros on hand.

The impressionable Jeanne slowly falls under the full sway of her hunky suitor, but an act of violence reveals the shocking true nature of their relationship, and eventually Jeanne realizes that in the most important romance of her life, she has been treated as a virtual nonentity.  The sum total of the lies Dequenne has been told throughout the film begin to seriously affect her psyche, blurring her own ability to judge real from imaginary.

She then concocts a fable that casts her as the pitiable victim of a hate crime, and the news media, being what it is, latches onto the story and transforms it into a nationwide spectacle. When Deneuve turns to her old flame Blanc for legal help, eventually Jeanne meets young Nathan, whose unrelenting frankness gets him barred from the dinner table, and two of them spend an innocent night together that shows her the value of sharply defined truth, and ultimately changes her course in life.

Director Techine is operating on many levels of commentary here, and he does a great job of tangling the narrative threads in such a way that they form a strong rope rather than a hopeless jumble. He uses visual design as a subtle way of depicting not only class differences, but mental acuity as well.

Deneuve and Dequenne dress in garishly mismatched colorful patterns, while Blanc and his family are always clad in muted solid colors. Deneuve’s suburban home is decorated in busy floral prints while Blanc’s office is painted in charcoal and off white. Blanc invariably leaves his window open, letting in the clamor of the street, and while his daughter-in-law complains about the noise, Blanc is so mentally focused the din does not bother him.

Blanc is not susceptible to outside influences, be it the rumble of random traffic or the droning of the news media. That trait has been inherited by Nathan, who sees through the clutter of adult lies with wisdom far beyond his years. Or perhaps, like a character from a J.D. Salinger story, it is his lack of years that gives him such moral certainty.

Regardless, Nathan and Jeanne manage to find their way to personal peace, despite the swirling maelstrom of distortions and half-truths that surrounds them. And yes, Nathan’s character does take on religious overtones, as if this young Jewish child has been sent to save the world; and if not the whole world, at least one confused and bewildered soul.


Add to Queue

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New on TV: July 2015

Mozart in the Jungle (2014) ✭✭✭✭


Well produced Amazon original series about the tense inner workings of a symphony orchestra. Gael García Bernal stars as a fiery young conductor and former musical prodigy tasked with reviving the moribund New York Symphony. Along the way he faces push back and makes a few enemies, in particular the orchestra's snooty key patron (Bernadette Peters) and its devious musical director (Malcolm McDowell). Meanwhile, Lola Kirke (daughter of Simon Kirke who was the drummer with Free and Bad Company) is terrific as a fresh faced oboist from North Carolina with dreams of making the big time in NYC. Her story evolves on a separate track, but soon she gets her shot at stardom and Bernal's attentions.

The writing is generally quite good and each 30 minute episode moves at a sprightly and entertaining pace. The musical performance sequences appear convincing to me, but I'd like an expert's verdict on the string fingering. One thing about the show I don’t like is the producers’ not-too-subtle attempts at blaming the Musician’s Union for the failing popularity of large municipal orchestras. Ironically, as the scheming McDowell is chauffeured around Manhattan in his private town car, it’s easy to see the real reason orchestras can’t make ends meet.

Rita (2012 - 15) ✬✬½

Danish TV / Netflix

I hate to rate this series so low, but it just hasn't worked for me so far. I'm usually a big fan of Danish TV, loving Borgen and Anna Pihl, but Rita seems to sell itself too hard. It's all about a sexy, free-sprited single mom (Millie Dinesen) who battles the bureaucracy at the high school where she teaches and other people's ideas about how she should behave. It's now in season 3, so the show must have found a decent audience. I'll try a few more episodes and if my opinions change I'll revise this post.

Monday, July 13, 2015

L’enfant Turns 10

Released 10 years ago, L’enfant (The Child) is another of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s gritty tales of desperate souls on society’s fringe. Photographed in the brothers’ unique minimalist style of social realism, the film is about a poverty stricken young couple (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François), barely out of childhood themselves, who are soon overwhelmed by the prospect of raising their unplanned new baby. Unemployed and virtually homeless, Renier attempts to support his new family by petty theft and whatever crooked deals he can hatch on the wet, grimy streets of Liege, Belgium. Then one day he gets an idea about how to turn his new son into a profit center; a foul and heartbreaking scheme that quickly goes off the rails, sending his flailing existence into a full blown fight for survival.

The Dardennes have built an impressive filmography with these glimpses into the lifestyles of the destitute and forgotten, and they come by their street cred honestly. After 20 years of eeking out a living with documentaries and corporate training films, the brothers decided to apply their guerrilla filmmaking techniques to works of fiction, and never looked back. Their rough-hewn stories of undocumented immigrants, crafty street urchins and factory workers doomed by globalization have earned them bookcases full of international awards and made them fixtures on the festival circuit. But the Dardennes haven’t forgotten their roots, and continue to give their viewers bleak immersions in the daily lives of those fighting a losing battle with modern capitalism.

The Dardennes force us to look at this dark and damaged world with understanding and empathy. Not by casting the downtrodden as heroes, but by simply showing us a clear, unadorned portrait of their dire struggles and distant dreams. In the ironically titled L’enfant, it’s often difficult to know who is the most childish, the innocent baby or the immature, irresponsible parent. In a way, the underclass depicted in L’enfant is our child too; a product of our failed families, failed schools, failed politics and failed compassion. The rungs of the economic ladder are fragile indeed, and the cinema of the Dardenne Brothers proves we are all just one bad step from a devastating fall.

Friday, July 10, 2015

SIlverado Turns 30

Lawrence Kasdan's broad brush rendering of the classic western is everything a good shoot-em-up should be. Made at a time when westerns were rarer than hen's teeth, Silverado serves up a simple, violent morality without apologies or ambivalence. The cast is a who's who of 80s cinema, ranging from that great bear of a man Brian Dennehy as the West’s most crooked sheriff, to diminutive Linda Hunt who nearly steals the movie as an iron-willed saloon owner. Scott Glenn is outstanding as Emmett, a rugged character he was born to play, and the screen can barely contain Kevin Costner in the role that launched his career. The film also features memorable turns by Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Rosanna Arquette and even John Cleese as a displaced Brit wandering the limitless vistas America’s rocky badlands.

While most contemporary westerns reflect society’s uneasiness with some aspects of the genre’s mythology, tending to focus on the hardships and injustices of frontier life rather than its heroic individuals, Silverado suffers from no such illusions of social relevance. It is a rousing, rip snortin’ cowboy adventure flick that feels like a lost artifact from the 1930s. Its good guys are taciturn, upstanding citizens of sterling moral fiber while its bad guys are very, very bad. That’s really all you need to know, because if you try to follow the plot too closely you’ll realize that some of it doesn’t really make any sense. But Kasdan’s buckskin clad noble knights have no time for minor narrative inconsistencies; they’re much too busy avenging wrongs, recovering from gunshot wounds and loading their pistols for a final battle to save their dusty town from the clutches of corrupt lawmen and greedy ranchers. And as we cheer their two fisted exploits, Silverado transports us back to childhood, when the sight of a virtuous man atop a galloping steed made us believe everything would be all right.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Quickies for July 2015

Place Vendôme (1998) ✭✭✭✭

Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Jacques Dutronc team up in this complex film by Nicole Garcia. Not your typical crime drama, the film deals more with the aftermath of crime, as the principles face the consequences of 20 years worth of dirty dealings, double crosses and bad love affairs. A bit over plotted perhaps, but great acting and characters.

Haute Cuisine (2012) ✭✭✭½

Charming light drama about a country cook who becomes President Mitterrand's personal chef. Don't see this hungry. Catherine Frot is terrific as usual.

Tomboy (2011) ✭✭✭✭

Another film from Céline Sciamma about gender identity issues among the very young. A touchy subject, but it's handled with sensitivity and good taste. Sciamma gets amazing performances from child actors. She has a special gift.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Days of Future Passed: Fourth of July Brunswick Stew

In celebration of Independence Day, we present this moldy oldie from 2012.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about my Dad’s Woodmen lodge and the planning of their annual Fourth of July stew sale. I thought I should go into a little more detail on this customary delight. Brunswick Stew is a culinary tradition in rural Southern Virginia. It is also popular in parts of North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky, where it is known as “Burgoo." Both Georgia and Virginia have counties named Brunswick, and both places claim to have invented it. It's a controversy that will never be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, just as there will never be an officially accepted “best recipe” for the dish. Ingredients vary from stew chef to stew chef, but the recipe below is fairly typical:

About 70 squirrels, cut up

2 large stewing chickens, cut up

6 gals. water

2 1/2 lbs. salt pork, chopped

2 1/2 gals. butter beans(lima beans)

3 1/2 gals. cubed peeled potatoes

4 gals. chopped peeled tomatoes

1 gal. cubed peeled carrots

2 1/2 gals. freshly cut corn

1 pod red pepper, chopped

3/4 c. black pepper

1 3/4 c. salt

2 1/4 c. sugar

I’m happy to report that squirrels are no longer used, although there are theories that Brunswick Stew originated in the 1800’s as a way of making the arboreal rodents palatable. One ate what one could find in those days, and some very old recipes advocate serving the stew with chopped acorns on top as a garnish. The folks in this picture are probably fixin' to seriously chow down on some squirrel based stew.

Chicken is the meat of choice these days, deboned and skinless in a nod to health concerns, although some old timers will try to slip a few chunks of fat back into the pot when no one’s looking. The cooking technique is simple, provided one has the specialized equipment and a small army of assistants. Basically add all the ingredients in a large - and I do mean large - cast iron pot of at least 35 gallon capacity (50 if you’ve got it). Then you make a wood fire under the pot, bring the stew to boil and stir for 4 to 5 hours until all the ingredients disintegrate, or “cook up” as the stewmakers call it. You should be left with an orange colored, thick and gooey melange, with only the occasional shred of chicken or kernel of corn as evidence of the dish’s components.

The trick is to keep the fire hot and the pot stirred. Back in the 1960's when my Dad worked on stir patrol, he would cut a tree limb about 8 feet long and 4 inches in diameter, preferably from a sturdy oak. He would then skin off all the tree bark, leaving a pristine and formidable stew stirring device of unrivaled efficiency.

On July 4th, folks would begin to gather at the Woodmen camp about 11 o’clock, ravenously hungry and eager to sample the concoction. Farmers would set up their wagons and trailers for use as makeshift picnic tables, often with the stray tobacco leaf or trace of dried cow manure providing an earthy ambiance. The idea of eating piping hot stew outdoors in the middle of a steamy Virginia summer may seem counterintuitive, but eventually the diner’s natural air conditioning begins to kick in. I suppose it’s similar to the Italian tradition of consuming hot beverages on blazing afternoons; once one’s internal temperature is sufficiently raised, the surface of the sun seems cool in comparison. In short, we sweated while we ate, streams of perspiration serving as visual evidence of culinary bliss.

The Woodmen still produce their famous mid-summer delicacy, although there have been a few changes over the years. Boat oars are now used for the intense stirring, in deference not only to ergonomics but to our few remaining mighty oaks. Folks don’t hang around and sit at tables encrusted with agricultural detritus anymore, preferring to purchase the stew in to-go containers to enjoy later in the comfort of their air conditioned homes. The sale no longer occurs precisely on Independence Day but is now held the prior Saturday. The Woodmen have adopted a flexible schedule that avoids competition from local parades and allows its members to enjoy the Fourth with their families at the beach; a decadent luxury unthinkable when the stew tradition began.

In case you’re wondering if the splendors of Brunswick Stew can be replicated by the home cook, the short answer is no. The internet is jam packed with Brunswick Stew recipes, all promising to render delicious results. The ones I have tried make a fine vegetable soup at best, with none of the magical, viscous alchemy that elevates Brunswick Stew to the level of iconic cuisine. It’s simply a matter of physics. A typical home cooktop is not going to generate the blast furnace heat required to alter foodstuffs at the subatomic level. Your overpriced stainless steel stockpot may bear the autograph of a famous Food Channel personality, but it’s not going to conduct heat like an enormous, well seasoned cast iron vessel. Your tightly insulated kitchen doesn’t permit the balmy, humidity tinged breezes of a cloudless Southern morning; vapors that give the mixture a sultry majesty.
Worst of all, your stew will not have been prepared by kind hearted, hard working men who would rise at 3 AM on a major holiday to pluck chickens and pick home grown vegetables by the glow of a summer moon. They did it out of love: love for tradition, for family and for community. That generation of men are all gone now but, despite a few allowances for modernity, the tradition still continues. While we become ever more polarized and fragmented as a nation, amazingly there’s still one thing all can agree on: the taste of Brunswick Stew on a hot summer day is proof of angels among us.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Caché Turns 10

Written and directed by Michael Haneke, 2005’s Caché was an international hit, and further cemented Haneke’s reputation as a highly skilled - and highly controversial - filmmaker. Here we meet Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), an affluent Parisian couple involved in the publishing industry. Their busy and successful lives are disrupted by a series of VHS tapes they find at their front door; tapes that contain images of them going about their daily routines. Clearly Georges and Anne are under surveillance, but by whom and for what purpose are baffling mysteries that will drive not only the narrative but also a wedge between the frightened couple.

While it ‘s generally pegged as a thriller for classification purposes, Caché is equally an allegory, appropriating the elements of Hitchcock to craft an immersive retelling of the story of Isaac and Ishmael. Aided by Haneke’s trademark hyper-real aesthetic, the film plays with viewers’ perceptions and preconceptions, alternating mundane snapshots of everyday life with scenes of sudden and shocking violence. Its slow burn storytelling gradually builds an impressive creep factor, with each piece of the puzzle pointing to a larger and deeper conundrum affecting all humanity.

Throughout his career, Haneke’s grim stylistics and occasional lapses into sadism - Caché has a scene with a chicken bloodily beheaded - have so distracted and enraged viewers it’s easy to forget that he is first and foremost a superb director of actors. Auteuil and Binoche have an astonishing chemistry here. Their furtive glances and unspoken suspicions boil into a thick atmosphere of stress and tension that threatens to choke their marriage. The dark secrets held between - and kept from - each other add greater dimension to the film, and cleverly appeals to the viewer's empathy.

As Georges is forced to confront a misdeed from the distant past, he becomes a symbol for the world’s liberal democracies built on the backs of cheap labor and the sins of colonialism. His tormenters have no clear demands or goals, they only want to inflict slow drips of terror and suffering in ever more maddening doses. Caché neither proceeds nor resolves in the manner of a conventional thriller, but its spellbinding tempos and complex enigmas will keep you riveted to your seat, and haunt your mind for days.