Didn’t Reek

Something in the Air (the English-language title of the French film Après mai, begging for an olfactory review) is Olivier Assayas’s tale of 1971 high-schoolers launching into life. Specifically, a group of friends in Paris find themselves at the fading end of revolutionary times. Try as they might to hang on to the thrill of righteousness in the face of the Establishment (in particular, some thuggish police), their adult lives are a-callin’.

Gilles (Clément Métayer), artistic and willing to draw his own conclusions–he reads an exposé of Mao’s horrors while trafficking with Maoists–is presumably the one following closest to Assayas’s own life trajectory. After an accident that seriously injures a security officer, Gilles and friends scatter to various European spots (thanks to their parents’ well-padded pocketbooks) and Experience Life.

This is an intelligent and honest film; Assayas doesn’t emphasize his subjects’ privilege, but he doesn’t hide it either. But as a result, the kids seem less sympathetic than they might in the hands of a more manipulative filmmaker; this is The Minute Charm of the Boomer-sie. And so when Gilles ends up at (spoiler!) Pinewood Studios and his adult life clicks into place, we aren’t (I’m not) as moved as might be.

Still worthwhile, though.

Something in the Air (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Olivier Assayas
Language: French, with some English and Italian
Running time: 122 minutes
DVD release date: September 24, 2013

* * *

The Good Guy is another not-terrible film, but in the end I found myself turning against it. Tommy (Scott Porter) narrates. He is a Wall Street trader and seems to be a cut above most of his co-workers, integrity-wise. He has a girlfriend Beth (Alexis Bledel) who … I forget what she does for a living. At the office he is mentoring Daniel (Bryan Greenberg), a military veteran. Daniel is standoffish, but he hits it off with Beth and her circle of friends because he actually reads books. Check that; he reads literature!

So this is a sort of romantic triangle comedy, with a fair amount of dialogue that is smart-but-not-Sorkinesque (not that there’s anything wrong with Sorkinesque). But the characters, particularly Daniel, end up bland or a bit murky, partly by design; for the film also features a sort of time-sensitive quiz, where you get fewer points the longer it takes you to solve the puzzle. The first time The Good Soldier is mentioned (in the context of a book club), you may think, Ford Madox Ford! Good to hear a worthy writer’s work mentioned in the movies! But then the title keeps coming back, with broader and broader hints, and if you’re like me, you don’t solve the puzzle–you don’t realize there is a puzzle–until the needle is pointing to Muttonhead. I was not pleased.

Gondry’s Playhouse

Mood Indigo begins which such rapid-fire whimsy that the viewer may want to duck, rewind, and play the opening back in slow motion. Colin (Romain Duris) lives in a Paris apartment with his cook Nicolas (Omar Sy), along with a clever mouse (Sacha Bourdo, wearing a mouse costume and cinematically miniaturized) and any number of animated gadgets that move in rat-a-tat stop-motion (the unquestioned star of which is a doorbell that skitters about like a giant cockroach). When his friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) acquires a girlfriend, Colin attends a party seeking same and meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou), and soon the two of them are touring Paris in a crane-operated cloudola. Did I mention this film was whimsical? But after a blissful period the story turns worrisome, as Chloé accidentally inhales a seed and a water lily sprouts in her lung.

It’s a frenetic and cute movie, until it turns sad, and people will either like it or dislike it. I liked it.

Mood Indigo (reviews)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Luc Bossi and Michel Gondry, based on a 1947 novel by Boris Vian
Language: French
Running time: 131 minutes in an extended cut (the U.S. theatrical version was chopped down to 94 minutes)
DVD release date: November 11, 2014

Fast Awake and Wide Asleep

Twixt starts briskly, as a narrator (Tom Waits) introduces us to a small town with dark secrets and a visiting writer in seedy decline, Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer). Baltimore is promoting his latest novel, possibly the last of a series on witch hunting, and he meets Sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), a fan and amateur novelist in his own right. The Sheriff wants Valentine to come by the morgue and see the latest victim of a local serial killer. That circumstance, plus a local connection to Edgar Allan Poe, inspires Valentine to start a new novel about the town. The story takes shape in Valentine’s dreams, where he meets Poe (Ben Chaplin) and a ghostly teenager (Elle Fanning), who may be a vampire. And then the border between dream and reality begins to crumble….

These are the trappings of a gothic horror story, but the whole affair is hardly frightening at all. What the film does have is an infectious delight in stories and storytelling, and a confident visual style. The snappy momentum of the opening carries through the whole film, and the stylization of the dream sequences–mostly black and white with isolated bits of vivid color–reminds one of other work Coppola has done, without neurotically needing to top it. This is a fun yarn.

Twixt (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Francis Ford Coppola
Running time: 88 minutes
DVD release date: July 23, 2013

That Girl

Lila Says, which came out a decade ago, is worth a look. It centers on Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), a nineteen-year-old living in an Arab neighborhood of Marseille, a few years after 9-11. (The film is based on a pre-9-11 novel.) He shows some creative talent; a teacher wants to send him to a free-of-charge writer-development program in Paris.

Chimo and his friends support themselves with small-time burglaries–that is, until their fence stops taking their business. One day Chimo meets Lila (Vahina Giocante), a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, a few years younger, new to the neighborhood and living with her aunt. Lila likes his gentle eyes. She becomes his muse and his tease, (mostly) talking up all sorts of sexual possibilities, which Chimo (mostly) declines, due to shyness or gallantry or both. The film tells the story of the growth of their relationship, as Chimo’s friends also become aware of the new girl and contemplate rougher treatment for her.

So, is this a parable about the perils of cultural mixing? Maybe, but any moralizing is done with a light touch (which is not to say that the story is all hearts and flowers). The lead performances are solid.

Lila Says (reviews)
Directed and written by Ziad Doueiri, based on a novel by Chimo
Language: French, with a little Arabic
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: November 29, 2005

* * *

Resolution is an indie low-budget horror film that didn’t quite do it for me. Chris (Vinny Curran) is a meth addict on a bender in a cabin in the woods, and Michael (Peter Cilella) is his friend who arrives to dry him out. Visiting the cabin are other addicts, a creepy woman who taps on the window, and a tribal official who claims they are trespassing on a reservation. There’s a lot of mumblecore yakking between buds as the two of them realize they may be caught up in a story being spun by someone (or something) else, outside their own control. It’s pretty mind gamey, and those who buy into the film should love the ending. I thought it was clever but not quite engaging.

The Last Five Years is a geometer’s musical, more schematic than soulful. Trouble starts at the beginning, when Cathy (Anna Kendrick) sings a despairing break-up song, shedding a tear at the end, and we the audience have been given nothing to help us sympathize. Maybe the song will be reprised at the end, to much greater impact? No, that’s not part of the Plan. It has been decided: We will watch Cathy’s side of the relationship from end to beginning, while simultaneously following Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) from beginning to end. And the Chart also decreeth that we shall only get a duet between our two principals smack in the center of the film, where their timelines cross (plus a short ironic duet at the end, in a daring transgression of the Rules). And so we get alternating solos most of the way, with very little two-way communication, and it’s hard to give a rip about the whole relationship.

As to the music: It’s pleasing at first, with lots of nice melodic leaps and modulations and dissonance. But maybe the emptiness of the story leaches into the music, because gradually the songs feel full of tricks, broadwayed up to a fare-thee-well.

Sunday Brunch–What Could Go Wrong? (Everything)

It’s a Disaster begins with Glen and Tracy (David Cross and Julia Stiles) arriving at her sister’s suburban home for a couples’ brunch, to be shared by five couples. One pair are habitually late to such events, but the others have arrived. Glen is new to the group (he and Tracy are newly dating), but the others know one another well. There are greetings and good wishes, but also bickering (some of it comical) and dismay as the Internet and cable seem to be out. Then a neighbor in a hazmat suit arrives with news of dirty bombs being exploded in the city. Has some terrible catastrophe befallen civilization?

This is where the comedy darkens, as each responds in his or her own way to the crisis: catatonia, disbelief, paranoia–or indulging in end-of-the-world drug experimentation or sex. The fewer details divulged, the better, except to say that the ending of the film is splendid.

It’s a Disaster (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Todd Berger
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: June 4, 2013

* * *

Faults is an interesting little film, but it has its … difficulties. Ansel (Leland Orser) is an expert on cults, but his star is on a steep decline. After a disastrous sales presentation of his self-published book, he is approached by a couple who want him to rescue their adult daughter, who is beholden to a cult called Faults. When he points out that he is on his last dollar and will only take on the task to make money to pay off his manager, the couple stick with him. They find the daughter, Claire (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and hustle her off to a motel room for deprogramming.

Up to now this has played as comedy, with pathetic Ansel beset by one problem after another. But now things turn serious, as it quickly becomes apparent who would win a battle of wills between Ansel and Claire. There are twists, most of which can be anticipated by the audience. The change in tone can be accepted, and the obvious plot turns tolerated, if the overall story feels real (or at least entertaining). Unfortunately, the more secrets are revealed, the sillier the whole business becomes, and no one in the film can distract us from that.

Bang Bang Kiss Kiss

The indie drama Concussion starts with Abby (Robin Weigert) bleeding from a blow to the head, struck by a baseball thrown by her son. She seems to recover, but something is a little off-kilter; despite a good life with her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) and their two kids, as well as independent work buying, renovating, and reselling apartments in New York, Abby is restless. She secretly sets up a date with a sex worker. After an awkward introduction, they proceed to the bedroom (off-camera; this is not a salacious film). Post-coitus, the escort compliments Abby’s lovemaking skills and suggests she join the profession. After a few days’ thought, Abby decides to give it a try. She uses an apartment she is decorating for her assignations (with women only). Then one day she gets a client whom she knows socially…. Discovery is inevitable.

A nice little film. The domestic picture of two women and two kids feels comfortable and true, and Abby’s friends, a group of ladies who lunch, entertain. The drama of Abby’s side business is played sympathetically, neither comic nor camp.

Concussion (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Stacie Passon
Running time: 96 minutes
DVD release date: January 28, 2014

Scarred Pup

As Starred Up begins, Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) is being checked into an unnamed U.K. prison. He has proved to be too violent to be held in juvenile facilities, so he has been “starred up” to the adult prison. In his new cell, Eric’s first activity is to matter-of-factly fashion his toothbrush into a weapon.

Eric is a hard case. Soon he gets into scrapes with other inmates, and for a while it’s hard to sympathize; he is sullen and angry and seems unreachable.

One of Eric’s fellow prisoners is his father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), and eventually we learn that Eric had a brutal life after his father was incarcerated, back when Eric was five. Nev comes around to the idea of helping his son stay alive, though his fathering skills are limited.

Eric’s other ally is Oliver (Rupert Friend), a group therapist who works with violent prisoners. Oliver’s insight is that violent acts almost always arise out of shame and a sense of disrespect; he helps the inmates learn nonviolent ways to cope with these feelings.

Working against Eric are a prison bureaucracy not entirely on Oliver’s side; a vicious pecking order among the prison population; and corrupt guards who allow the thugs inside to rule.

It’s a tribute to O’Connell’s acting chops and the script’s subtlety that we go from wanting to see Eric locked up away from everyone to rooting for him to survive and rehabilitate. The film is naturalistic (as opposed to, say, Nicolas Winding Refn’s deeply stylized direction of Bronson). The language is sometimes indecipherable, with no subtitles offered on the DVD. That’s all right; you can’t miss the gist of the story.

Starred Up (reviews) (official site)
Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Jonathan Asser
Running time: 105 minutes
DVD release date: February 3, 2015

* * *

The Scottish accents of God Help the Girl are much easier to understand than the regional mutterings of Starred Up. The film, a musical, tells the story of a troubled young woman traveling to Glasgow and trying to launch her career as a singer/songwriter. The movie’s writer/director, Stuart Murdoch, is leader of the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian, and perhaps one’s affection for the band will track with one’s enjoyment of the picture. I don’t know the music and found the film to be unrelentingly pleasant; brutally pleasant; inexplicably pleasant (featuring one of the most pleasant suicide attempts I’ve seen depicted on film).