Monday, May 30, 2016

Au hasard Balthazar Turns 50

Over the years, countless reams of film scholarship have been written about the work of French director Robert Bresson (1901–1999). Within those lofty tomes, it’s doubtful you’ll find precise agreement from any two critics on the true nature of Breeson’s oeuvre, or the universal truths hidden in the director’s obtuse messaging. Bresson’s meaty, meticulous films are comprised of vague allegories and faint adumbrations, begging to be analyzed and dissected down to the granular level. Yet his filmography’s cinematic DNA remains a sublime mystery, as his films manage to edify and illuminate, often while leaving his viewers utterly dumbfounded.

Au hasard Balthazar (1966) is a prototypical Bresson dirge. Set in a dismal provincial backwater seemingly untouched by modernity, the film is the story of a donkey colt, his young owner Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) and their eventual expulsion from paradise. As Anne and the wooly-headed Balthazar grow and mature, there is no longer time for childhood frolics in the wild grasses of their country home, and each must proceed to their individual destinies. For Balthazar, this means a life of toil and misuse at the cruel hands of a variety of local farmers, while the penniless Marie must rely on her wits, as well as her budding sexuality, to survive.

For the viewer, there is much here to unpack as Breeson spares no biblical allusions or religious iconography in the unspooling of his parallel stories. At times, Au hasard Balthazar feels like a grafting of a Disney film unto The Passion of the Christ, as Balthazar’s tortured struggles lend him a saintly, sacrificial air. One could also make a case that Au hasard Balthazar is an unadorned, no holds barred feminist homology, as Marie and Balthazar often find themselves exploited by the same slack-jawed male miscreants, and always for reasons that boil down to ego and avarice.

For current sensibilities, Au hasard Balthazar can be a tough film to watch. Despite Breeson’s noble intentions, the donkey’s travails amount to graphic animal cruelty, and the film would likely be subject to protests and boycotts in today’s world. It’s true that such gristly scenes are important to Bresson’s thesis, but it’s cold comfort and prevents me from giving the film a whole-hearted recommendation. Those game for an immersion in Bresson’s mundane yet mystical worlds should seek out Diary of a Country Priest (1951) or A Man Escaped (1956) for a more palatable entry into this director’s unique and haunting filmography.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Man and a Woman Turns 50

Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman from 1966 was one of those rare films that pleased audiences and critics alike. The film nabbed the Palme d’Or and two Oscars while playing to crowded theaters worldwide. Over the years it has remained a popular property, generating over 6 million dollars in home video rentals. These days, film scholars consider Lelouch something of a lightweight, never awarding him the gravitas of Truffaut or Godard, his nouvelle vague brethren. But A Man and a Woman was a highly influential movie, especially to Hollywood filmmakers who admired its near perfect balance of entertainment and innovation.

While generically described as a romantic drama, A Man and a Woman reduces the genre to a study of specific moments in the formation of a love affair. The film deals more with the mental and emotional processes of falling in love than actually being in love. The couple in question, champion race car driver Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and script supervisor Anne (Anouk Aimèe) spend relatively little time together onscreen - just a few Sunday afternoons - yet memories of these brief reveries fill their weekdays like a ghostly presence. The couple is only separate on the physical plane, as new passions fill their once empty souls.

Lelouch’s stylish direction, complete with memory sequences, color shifting and music-cued montages, speaks a language that has become standard, some could say trite, filmmaker vocabulary. But here Lelouch wields the tools with skill and assurance, supporting and deepening the film’s existential air. Whenever the film threatens to become a bit too precious, Lelouch cleverly ups the ante with exciting scenes from the race track, including a harrowing nighttime sequence depicting the Monte Carlo Rally. But these are not mere junk-food thrills, for Jean-Louis and Anne will find the twisting course of love an even more perilous navigation.

Its influence extending to such iconic films as Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  nd countless music videos of the 1980’s and 90’s, A Man and a Woman continues to be relevant and rewarding. Neither nihilist nor fluffy, the film ultimately resolves with an honest appraisal of love’s dangers, and the courage required by lovers to venture on. Jean-Louis and Anne may not be a match made in heaven, but within the realm of flawed humanity they could do a lot worse.

Monday, May 23, 2016

New on Netflix: June 2016

June 1 
7 Chinese Brothers (2015) 
72 Cutest Animals: Season 1 
72 Dangerous Places: Season 1 
A Walk to Remember (2002) 
Big Stone Gap (2014) 
Bob Ross: Beauty is Everywhere (1990) 
Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed: Season 1-2 
Cold in July (2014) 
Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land On The Moon? (2001) 
Cuba: The Forgotten Revolution (2015) 
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) 
El Libro de Piedra (1969) 
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) 

Extraordinary Tales (2015) 
The Fear of 13 (2015) 
Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel García Márquez (2015) 
Gentlemen and Gangsters: Season 1 
The Good Witch: Season 1 
The Great Alone (2015) 
Hadwin’s Judgement (2015) 
J. Edgar (2011) 
Jaco (2015) 
Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) 
Jurassic Park (1993) 
Jurassic Park III (2001) 
Lion Heart (2013) 
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) 
Meadowland (2015) 
The Odd Couple II (1998) 
Off Camera: Series 1 
Pokémon the Movie: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages (2015) 
Pokémon: XY: Kalos Quest: Season 2 
Portrait of a Serial Monogamist (2015) 
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015) 

Rock the Kasbah (2015) 
Sam Klemke’s Time Machine (2015) 
Second Coming (2014) 
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015) 
UFOs: The Best Evidence Ever (Caught on Tape) (1997) 
Underdogs (2013) 
What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy (2015) 
Wildlike (2014) 
June 2 
Beauty & the Beast: Season 3 
Pretty Little Liars: Season 6 
June 3 
Bo Burnham: Make Happy – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
June 6
Darkweb (2015) 
June 7 

Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015) 
Jarhead 3: The Seige (2016) 
June 10 
LEGO Friends: The Power of Friendship: Season 2 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
Voltron: Legendary Defender: Season 1 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
June 11
Me Him Her (2016) 
Scandal: Season 5 
June 12
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (2015) 
June 14
The League: Season 7 
June 15 
After The Spill (2015) 
Boom Bust Boom (2016) 
The Giver (2014) 
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) 
Naz & Maalik (2015) 
Night Owls (2015) 
Poverty, Inc. (2014) 
Top Spin (2015) 
TransFatty Lives (2015) 
June 16 
Being Mary Jane: Season 3 
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 3 
The Unborn (2009) 
June 17 
All Hail King Julien: Season 3 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 

Orange is the New Black: Season 4 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
June 18 
Cedar Cove: Season 3 
Grey’s Anatomy: Season 12 
June 19 
Bunk’d: Season 1 
I Am Thor (2015) 
June 20 
Life Story: Series 1 
The Making of Life Story 
June 21 
Best Friends Whenever: Season 1 
June 22
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) 
Spotlight (2015) 
June 24
Dragons: Race to the Edge: Season 3 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
June 27 
Cronies (2015) 
June 29 
Life (2015) 
June 30 
A Very Secret Service: Season 1 – NETFLIX ORIGINAL 
Palio (2015) 
(T)ERROR (2015)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cannes 2016: The Winners Are....

Odd year at Cannes. The jury couldn't decide on just one best director, a film that was universally panned took second prize, while the Palme d'Or went to a director who a year ago was considering retirement. 

Palme d'Or: Ken Loach for I, Daniel Blake

Grand Prize: Xavier Dolan for It's Only the End of the World

Best Director: Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper and Cristian Mungiu for Graduation (tie)

Best Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi for The Salesman

Best Actor: Shahab Hosseini from Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman

Best Actress: Jaclyn Rose for Ma Rosa

Jury Prize: American Honey

Camera d'Or: Divines

Saturday, May 21, 2016

New on Amazon Prime Video: June 2016

Downton Abbey (Season 6) — June 2
Lego Ninjago (season 1) — June 6
Mr. Robot
 (season 1) — June 13
Braindead (season 1) — June 17
The Good Wife (season 7) — June 20
American Gothic (season 1) — June 26
Available starting June 1

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now: Redux (2001)
The Black Stallion (1979)
Carrie (1976)
Criminal Law (1988)
Death Wish 2 (1982)
Double Whammy (2001)
Foolish (1999)
The Golden Child (1986)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Ground Control (1998)
Hammett (1982)
Heartburn (1986)
In & Out (1997)
Iron Eagle IV – On the Attack (1995)
The Million Dollar Hotel (2000)
Mulholland Falls (1996)

One from the Heart (1991)
The Presidio (1988)
The Rage – Carrie 2 (1999)
Runaway Bride (1999)
Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Sleepover (2004)
Switchback (1997)
Trading Mom (1994)
Ulee’s Gold (1997)
W. (2008)
Wayne’s World (1992)
Available starting June 2
Poltergeist III (1988)
The Program (2016)
Available starting June 3
The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Available starting June 4
Love & Mercy (2015)
Available starting June 5
The Cokeville Miracle (2015)
Lamb (2015)
Available starting June 8
12 Rounds 3 Lockdown (2015)
Remember (2015)
Available starting June 14
The Adderall Diaries (2015)
Available starting June 15
No Stone Unturned: The Loughinsland Story (2015)
Available starting June 16

Trumbo (2015)
Available starting June 20
Pup 2 (1999)
Southbound (2015)
Available starting June 22
Stand Up Guys (2012)
Available starting June 25
Open Grave (2013)

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Double Life of Veronique Turns 25

The Double Life of Veronique (1991) is a stupefying visual poem, filled with parallels and paradoxes, reflections and refractions. doppelgängers and deities. Director Krzysztof Kieslowski attempts to use the language of cinema to build a bridge between the spiritual and the physical, making the unseen and the unknown as important to his film as its flesh and blood characters. This approach gives the film an air of mystical alienation that’s both constant and unsettling. It also raises important questions that challenge conventional notions of the true nature of existence. And, in typical Kieslowski fashion, the answers are left up to the viewer.


Appropriately, The Double Life of Veronique is actually two films in one. The first act deals with a young woman in Poland (Irene Jacob) who has just gotten a big break in her fledgling career as a classical singer. One day on the cobblestone streets of Krakow, she spots a French tourist (Jacob in a double role) who could be her identical twin, setting off a chain of heartbreaking events. The remainder of the film is devoted to the story of this tourist, who returns to Paris and becomes involved with a mysterious marionette (Philippe Volter) who’s not only talented at manipulating puppets, but people’s lives as well.

From these scant elements, Kieslowski creates an enigmatic atmosphere that suggests the boundaries between the individual and the divine pressed to the breaking point. It’s an idea that Kieslowski would advance further in his next collaboration with Jacob, 1994’s Three Colors: Red. In these films, Kieslowski took the notion of God’s silence - a recurring theme of his idol Ingmar Bergman - and turned it upside down. His thesis is God - perhaps not Yahweh but some type of supreme entity - is in constant contact with us, but not always with benign intent. This realization has an unnerving effect on Kieslowski’s characters, who find their identity, and their individual sovereignty, threatened by their cosmic insignificance.

In 1991, Irene Jacob may have been the most beautiful woman to ever walk the earth. And if she wasn’t, she was close enough. Her unique combination of the ethereal and the vulnerable serves as a perfect vessel - the missing link as it were - between the current version of humanity and the lofty peaks to which we might evolve, provided we don’t destroy ourselves first. Irene Jacob won the best actress award at Cannes for The Double Life of Veronique, and at the time it seemed her horizons were limitless. But with Kieslowski’s untimely death in 1996, Jacob’s career has floundered, as no other director has figured out how to capitalize on her rare and remarkable presence. Just like the young Veroniques, Irene Jacob’s career could use a little divine intervention.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

News and Notes: Cannes 2016

The screenings are underway! Use this handy Critics' Panel to stay up to date with the films in competition.

 Cranes Are Flying has all the latest red carpet photos and news links. Check it out!

The Film Stage has the first clips from Asghar Fahadi's The Salesman, and it looks really good.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Today in Bunched History: Revolutionary Road (2008) ✭✭✭

Originally posted May 11, 2010

Revolutionary Road is everything you’ve heard about it and more; a harrowing tale of one couple's rebellion against the numbing material conformity that shaped American life in the 1950s. Kate Winslet and Leonard DiCaprio star as the pair in question, Frank and April Wheeler. We know the names of their characters quite well because they call each other by name in virtually every line of dialogue, whether in brief moments of tenderness or, as is usually the case, during the loud and vicious screaming matches that plague their marriage.

The film is best appraised by looking at it as two levels. The first tier is the macro (and I do mean macro) featuring Winslet and DiCaprio who, despite their impressive cinematic history together, have a surprising lack of chemistry in this outing. Their interpretations of the battling Wheelers ring false and they seem to spur each other ever closer to the brink of overacting. Their relationship has two speeds: smug superiority or full out garment-rending warfare, and over the course of two hours the wailing and gnashing of teeth wears wafer thin.

But the background layer offers the film’s richest textures and most vivid characters. Kathy Bates, as the Wheeler’s nosey neighbor Helen, at first seems the most minor of characters, but she grows during the film to represent everything that Winslet and DiCaprio blame for their despair. Bates’s character would have been born in the late 1800s, and lived through economic upheaval, two World Wars and the profound changes wrought by electricity and the automobile. Helen’s generation was marked by rigid formality and unflinching etiquette, and they found the placid 1950s a welcome respite from social turmoil. As usual, Bates has clearly researched and internalized her character and draws us in with just a few broad strokes.

Zoe Kazan, as DiCaprio’s sexual plaything Maureen, is in many ways the anti-Winslet, a woman so devoid of expectations she’s deeply appreciative of any crumb life tosses her way. But the most interesting and striking performance is by Michael Shannon, who plays Bates’s schizophrenic son John with a courageous, but well controlled abandon. His scenes crackle with energy and intensity and, through his mental ailment, is the only character who dares to speak truth to the Wheelers, and dismiss their foolish schemes. Shannon rescues this film in moments of direst need, and is really the most compelling argument to see it.

Director Sam Mendes, an expert at Suburban Noir, sets an excellent stage for Winslet and DiCaprio, but ultimately the leads fail to deliver. Perhaps the Oscar pressure was too strong, or maybe they were worried about Shannon stealing the film (which he does); whatever the reason, Revolutionary Road features two major talents working way too hard. Even the attempt at foreshadowing is labored and inorganic – the Wheeler’s muted decision to have scrambled eggs seems like Ibsen at his worst – but at least it’s a relief from the constant screaming.

In all, the film is more admirable than it is likable. And frankly, this sort of story is dealt with much more convincingly every week on Mad Men.


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Sunday, May 8, 2016

New on TV: May 2016

Marseille (2016) ✭✭✭✭

This French-language Netflix original stars Gerard Depardieu as the coked up, stressed out mayor of the rough and tumble Mediterranean port city. He's trying to get an elaborate casino project built, while fighting the mafia and corrupt council members every step of the way.  To make matters worse, his protege and hand picked successor (Benoît Magimel) has betrayed him in a critical vote. I'm two episodes in and the story hasn't really hooked me yet, but complicated plots like this can take a while to find their groove. Production, acting and editing are superb.

Happy Valley
Season One (2014) ✭✭✭✭

The story has more holes than a cheese grater, but is this series addictive! Great acting and generally well paced, although the middle episodes have a bit of padding. Just watch it and be transported.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt 
Season 2 (2016) ✭✭✭✭

The unbreakable one is back and funnier than ever. This show works on sheer momentum and adrenaline, Tina Fey is a genius. But you already knew that.

Call the Midwife
Season 5 (2015) ✭✭✭✭

It's 1961 and those diligent British nurses are back. The personnel on this show have changed a lot over the years, but the writing and execution have remained top notch. This season you can even feel a sense of coming social change; perhaps the lovable Liverpool mop-tops will be along soon.