Can You Forgive Him?

Yvan Attal starts his film Happily Ever After with a hackneyed twist. Gabrielle (Charlotte Gainsbourg) flirts with a few men at a bar, giving her phone number to one but eventually leaving the bar with another, Vincent (Attal). They warm to one another and get downright passionate on the elevator up to her apartment. When they enter the flat, there’s … a babysitter, who says all’s fine with their son, and departs. We’ve been pranked! And this is the sort of cinematic gamesmanship that can put a viewer off a film from the start.

But Attal wins us back–some of us, anyway–by deconstructing that opening gambit, which is built on the idea that the couple know themselves much better than the audience knows them. Well, no: Although he loves his wife and son, Vincent is also having an affair. This being a story rather than a situation, the affair must be exposed. The people involved react in credible, complex ways.

To give the story breathing room, there are other lives rotating around our central couple: a single man, embracing the uncommitted life; and another couple whose relationship is a series of angry skirmishes. There is a lot of philosophical conversation about love and its variations–pleasing, if not quite at the level of a Rohmer film. And that elevator ride from the start of the film? Let’s just say the idea is revisited, to pleasing effect.

Happily Ever After (reviews)
Directed and written by Yvan Attal
Language: French
Running time: 104 minutes
DVD release date: October 11, 2005

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Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira from a screenplay by Damien Chazelle, also challenges itself. The plot centers on a classical music concert threatened by a hidden sniper. I suppose you could say Mira isn’t really looking to be compared to Hitchcock, unless he makes the film a second time. All right, never mind that; the convoluted plot falls apart on its own. I feel duty-bound to ridicule and spoil it.

When Norman Reisinger (Don McManus), a musical entrepreneur, died, he left no trace of his vast fortune. That fortune is of the finders-keepers variety, because it apparently belongs to whoever holds a certain magic key. That key is hidden in Reisinger’s prize piano, which will release it with a clink-clink-rattle-thump if a particularly difficult musical passage is played correctly. Only Reisinger’s locksmith, Clem (John Cusack), knows about the key. Reisinger found Clem by looking in the Yellow Pages under Locksmiths, Evil.

The magic piano has been hustled out of storage to be played by Tom (Elijah Wood) in a concert. Tom is the only pianist skilled enough to play the difficult musical passage, and Clem has snuck the piece containing that passage into the program for the concert. Tom doesn’t know this until the show starts, and he finds instructions scrawled on his score. (Thank goodness Tom isn’t one of those fancy pianists who perform without a score.) Tom knows that Clem is in hiding, pointing a rifle at him, because of the red laser dot that shows up on his desk, his keyboard, and his person. Plus, Tom’s glam Hollywood actress wife (Kerry Bishé) is attending the concert, in case the shooter needs an additional target.

You may remember that in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the assassin’s shot was timed to take place when there was a crash of cymbals, to cover up the sound. That’s not a problem in Grand Piano; Clem’s rifle (in case Tom fails to deliver) is, how shall I put it, pianississimo. But with luck there will be no shooting. If all goes well, Tom will execute the difficult passage, the piano will go clink-clink-rattle-thump and drop the key to the stage floor, Clem will put down his rifle, make his way to the stage, pick up the key in view of the entire audience, say something like, “Ah, there’s my key! I wondered where I left it,” and exit a rich, rich man.

Everything does not go as planned, but can you blame me for not caring?

Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake of a 1975 horror film, Ganja & Hess, which I have not seen. An anthropologist is stabbed with an ancient dagger from a blood-addicted African kingdom, and he develops a vampire-like bloodlust. He finds a lover, with whom he shares his addiction. There are various killings and resurrections, and the whole thing is performed in a stilted, unnatural style. I didn’t take to it, but if we have to get one of these for every splendid film like Chi-Raq, I say amen.

The Son Rises

The Son Rises

In Sangre de Me Sangre, a father discovers that a revisit to his ex-wife, involving sex that may have not been consensual, produced a son. Diego (Jesús Ochoa) washes dishes at a New York restaurant; his ex lives in Mexico. When a teenager (Armando Hernández) shows up at his door, carrying a letter from his ex and claiming to be his son Pedro, Diego is suspicious. But the boy persists, and soon Diego has accepted him as his son.

We know different. The boy is actually Juan, who robbed the real Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espindola) on the truck ride up from Mexico. Real Pedro has also reached New York but is having a rough time on the streets, sometimes aided, sometimes impeded by Magda (Paola Mendoza), a hustler/drug addict. They are trying to find Diego, who they believe runs a New York-area restaurant.

The A-story–the developing relationship between Diego and false Pedro–is the most rewarding, with Juan scheming to relieve Diego of the cash he has presumably hoarded, but starting to feel a bit of compassion toward his prospective victim. Diego, meanwhile, surprises his coworkers by switching from surly food service grunt to proud papa.

All in all, an entertaining story. Spoiler: The film finishes as open-ended and uncertain as, well, the ongoing life of an undocumented worker.

Sangre de Mi Sangre (reviews)
Directed and written by Christopher Zalla
Language: Spanish
Running time: 111 minutes
Awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic, at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival
DVD release date: December 16, 2008

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Li’l Quinquin was certainly loved by Cahiers du cinéma (their favorite film of 2014); perhaps this satire, punching down at rural villagers, appeals to critics of a particular intellectual stripe. In a town along the northern French coast, a chopped up woman has been found inside the body of a dead cow. A twitchy, incompetent police captain has been assigned to investigate, accompanied by a dog-like officer. The men of the town seem to be of limited intelligence or burdened with actual disabilities.

The title character is a sort of cross between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn–he leads a small group of kids around town, and one of his niftiest possessions is a dead mouse on a string. But he also delights in tossing firecrackers at tourists and throwing racial taunts at African immigrants. A future Le Pen voter, for sure.

Despite all this human ugliness, the film does offer some quirky amusement, as when Quinquin uses ceremonial bells to discombobulate a memorial service. I don’t really regret the 206 minutes I spent watching it (in France it was a 4-part mini-series), but I’m not ready to endorse it to others.

Balcones Grifter

Two Step is a dandy little blood thriller set in Austin. Webb (1 part charming, 9 parts frightening as played by James Landry Hébert) is a violence-prone con artist, cooling off for a few months in the Travis County jail after beating his girlfriend. He calls random elderly people from jail, posing as their grandson and asking for money. James (a portrait in aimlessness by Skyy Moore) has flunked out of Baylor and arrives to visit his grandmother, who falls ill. Dot (a lively Beth Broderick) is a sympathetic neighbor, fiftyish and divorced. When Webb gets out of jail needing money and calls at the grandmother’s house, his predator eyes lock on James.

A few other characters fill out the story, and there are some nice moments between James and Dot, who teaches dance at the Broken Spoke; and between Webb and Duane (Jason Douglas), his bullying boss. Ultimately, it’s Webb’s story: Will he be stopped by his own stupidity before he destroys everyone else?

Two Step (reviews)
Directed and written by Alex R. Johnson
Running time: 95 minutes

Surrender Ruthie

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore provides us with a protagonist whom the world has surrounded with assholes. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is a depressed nurse’s assistant; she has to put up with vulgar hospital patients, people who cut in line at the grocery store, and people who let their dog poop on her lawn. Then her home is burglarized. Her laptop and silverware are gone. The world is telling her to give up.

But then the world goes an asshole too far. The police detective assigned to her case blames her for the burglary (she may have left her back door unlocked), and he makes it clear he will be expending little effort on her case. So when the tracker on her laptop goes off and police help is unavailable, Ruth goes after the computer herself. She takes along a new friend–the dog-poop guy, Tony (Elijah Wood), who turns out to have been absent-minded rather than hostile while walking his dog. The rest of the film has the duo reclaiming Ruth’s belongings and tracking down the burglars, who prove to be both dangerous and inept.

The movie has its antecedents. Writer/director Macon Blair previously starred in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, another film about someone avenging a wrong. This film is considerably lighter in tone. At one point Ruth steals a random lawn sculpture from one of her antagonists, and one is reminded of The Dude appropriating a rug from the home of millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. Homespun justice.

Humor and suspense are not easy to get right, and combining them adds a challenge. Blair’s film is up to it.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (reviews)
Directed and written by Macon Blair
Running time: 96 minutes
Awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Streaming on Netflix

The Image and the Idea

In 1943, an elderly sculptor lives with his wife outside a village in the south of France. One day the wife spots a young woman sleeping in a doorway, and she invites her to model for her husband, in return for lodging and pay. Thus begins a subdued tale, told on crisp black-and-white film in The Artist and the Model. Sculptor, wife, and model are played by Jean Rochefort, Claudia Cardinale, and Aida Folch, respectively.

The young woman poses, and the sculptor sketches, and he shapes some perfectly fine figures, but he awaits the flash of inspiration that produces exceptional art. In a memorable scene, he shows his model an example of what he is looking for: a Rembrandt drawing of a group of people gathered around a small child. The sketch has captured an idea–the child’s first step–which animates the whole scene brilliantly. The model’s poses have been all right as poses, but so far there has been no idea, no deeper reality, behind them. And that reality cannot be imposed by the artist; it has to arise organically.

Other characters enliven the film and eventually provide that artistic spark: a housekeeper, village boys curious to see a naked woman, an admirer of the artist, and a Resistance fighter.

Good film.

The Artist and the Model (reviews)
Directed by Fernando Trueba
Written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Fernando Trueba
Running time: 105 minutes
Languages: French, Spanish, and Castilian
DVD release date: February 11, 2014

Free-Range, um, Learning

Approaching the Elephant takes us through a year of a newly-opened free school in New Jersey. It’s … a rough time. Elementary-age kids decide on what classes they want to take and participate democratically in the governance of the school. They do not always act wisely, and the adults at the school show amazing commitment and restraint. It’s a delicate experiment, likely to fall apart if subjected to any students with serious behavioral problems. And guess what….

The film is black-and-white and strictly observational. Audience members must draw their own conclusions, possibly after several drinks.

Approaching the Elephant (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Amanda Wilder
Running time: 90 minutes

The Animators’ Studio

Fans of Studio Ghibli should enjoy The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, which shadows Hayao Miyazaki and his co-workers during the development of The Wind Rises. A highlight is the search for an actor to voice the main character, which starts off with an “absurd” suggestion and ends surprisingly well.

Besides the contemporary eavesdropping, the film reviews Miyazaki’s career from its start, including his relationship with the other giant of Japanese animation, Isao Takahata. A nice bit of history packed into a two-hour film.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (reviews)
Directed and written by Mami Sunada
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
DVD release date: January 27, 2015