Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rendez-vous' César winners: SERAPHINE and THE BEACHES OF AGNES

As it happens, I knew nothing at all about SERAPHINE prior to seeing this remarkable film that just yesterday walked away with seven of the nine César awards for which it had been nominated: Best Picture, Actress, Screenplay, Costumes, Score, Photography and Décor. I do not read the Rendez-vous with French Cinema press notes, nor even the FSLC's program notes, before I watch the film at hand. (I do check the running time to make sure my schedule fits, but that's it.) Because I know in advance that I am going to see all the films in the fest, it's a lot more fun to simply take my seat, ingest a coffee fix to ensure alertness, and then just watch and listen.

As impractical as this route would be for most people, I wish you all could experience a film in this way occasionally, because arriving as a kind of tabula rasa enables you to dispense somewhat with prejudice and perceived opinion and makes the occasion much more of an adventure -- which Séraphine certainly proved to be. I did not know that the title character had indeed lived as a noted "outsider" artist in early 20th Century France, but this in no way impacted my enjoyment and understanding of the film. Fictional character or real, this Séraphine came to enormous life via the great talent of leading actress Yolande Moreau (When the Sea Rises) and the writer/director Martin Provost.

I find it rare in any historical film when every detail seems correct. That's the case here. Taking the bare bones of what is known about this woman, Provost creates a rich, real world in which Séraphine labors (as a maid), sings, prays and paints, and in the process gives us one of the great movies about an artist. Granted this artist is atypical in her lack of the glamor and melodrama we generally expect from artists-on-film, but in this case that’s all for the best. Ms Moreau offers such dedication and commitment to the role that her performance will probably live in high regard as long as film (or the DVD transfer process) exists. Provost fills in some of this woman's history but wisely leaves out much of the explanation. Viewers can piece together their own reasons for what, why and how without disturbing the very real sense of time and place that the filmmaker, his cast and crew have created.

Music Box Films, which smartly picked up the movie that became the year's most popular foreign language film, Tell No One, will distribute Séraphine in the US. So don't despair if the Rendez-vous screenings are sold out: at the Walter Reade on Friday, March 6, at 8:45, and Sunday, March 8, at 12:30 and at the IFC Center on Saturday, March 7, at 4.

It has been 55 years since the 26-year-old Agnès Varda made her first film, La Pointe- courte, in the process helping to set off France's cinematic "new wave." That film holds up surprisingly well today, and you'll find parts of it featured in this 80-year-old woman's newest work -- THE BEACHES OF AGNES -- one of the supreme delights of this year's Rendez-vous fest. If you have any special feeling for the work of Varda and/or her late husband, director Jacques Demy, I can't imagine you'll miss her latest documentary, which is a kind of biography of her life, work, marriage -- and her interesting and unusual ideas about all this.

Much of the film takes place at the seashore, and the beginning, with its array of mirrors, clues us to the reflections that are bound to follow. Early on, the filmmaker (shown right, perhaps a decade or two ago) refers to herself as a plump old granny, which is indeed how she now appears. Then we see her as a sprightly young thing, and along the way meet many of the people -- a diverse lot -- who are/were important in her life, including M. Demy, whose story and meaning to Varda provides the most moving segments. These even include a bit of whimsical, charming hard-core (I know, but I can't describe it any other way) unlike anything you've encountered and which ought to be seen by whole families, after which questions and conversations about love and sex could so easily and beautifully be fielded.

Film is important to Varda, but so is family. You'll meet hers here, and her friends', as well, as you move from France to Belgium to Los Angeles and back. As interesting as was Varda's The Gleaners and I, this new one -- which picked up the Best Documentary prize at last night's César ceremony -- is ten times so. At the end of her movie, the director graces us with an entirely new use for film that I warrant you'll not have encountered. The film in question is one that initially flopped, but Varda has discovered an original way to honor it. What a woman this is -- and what a movie!

Cinema Guild, that earlier this year gave us Ellen Kuras' wonderful The Betrayal: Nerhakhoon will be releasing The Beaches of Agnes in the US. During Rendez-vous, you can catch it, should seats remain, at the Walter Reade on Saturday, March 7, at 1:30 and Monday, March 9, at 8:45.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Director/co-writer Anne Fontaine (right) likes to push the envelope, but subtly, regarding human psychology, sexuality, needs and desires. At her best -- Dry Cleaning and now her new THE GIRL FROM MONACO -- she tosses together characters of wide divergence, then watches them connect in ways that can seem rich and wonderful, as well as frightening and destructive. In her latest, set on the French Riviera, she links a pricey, high-class lawyer (Fabrice Luchini, below right) defending

a client (Stéphane Audran) accused of murder in a case involving the Russian mob; the lawyer's bodyguard of Algerian descent (Roschdy Zem); and an ambitious weather girl (newcomer Louise Bourgoin, above left).

From the first scene, which appears quite romantic, with its classy people and gorgeous location, the rug is pulled from under us with simplicity and style. By film's end, forget the rug; we’re no longer even sure of the walls, floor or ceiling, because, morally speaking, these characters -- whom we've now seen from so many angles and odd situations -- have gone through such major changes that we --and they -- may have arrived somewhere close to their core.

All the while, however, we're here on the Riviera, luxuriating in the sun and sights, the posh hotel rooms, the surf and sand. In many ways -- cast, location, events -- this is Fontaine's most "mainstream" movie and yet it will leave you considering anew things like class, morality, men, women, guilt, justice and even -- maybe particularly -- feminism.

The Girl from Monaco screens at the Walter Reade Theater Friday, March 6, at 1pm and Saturday, March 7, at 6:35 -- and at the IFC Center Sunday, March 8, at 1:30. Good news for future viewings: Fontaine's film will be distributed theatrically in the US by Magnolia Pictures this coming July.

Guillaume Depardieu, left, with Max Baissette de Malglaive, in Versailles

There's a scene in Pierre Schöller's VERSAILLES that I believe will stay with me forever: it combines the past and present with the haves and have-nots so spectacularly and simply that it becomes indelible. The movie itself has its ups and down, with the former far outweighing the latter. One of its stars, Guillaume Depardieu, who died from pneumonia last fall, has one of his best roles here -- in a film that matters, rather than in some artsy, pretentious train wreck like Pola X.

Schöller's film is about family, both blood and found; the meaning of caring; and the widening gulf between classes in today's France. It tells a strange and often sad story, with a lot of elipses, some working better than others. But because of the commitment of the writer/director and the rich, finely observed performances from his entire cast, the movie holds together and leaves you thoughtful and satisfied, even if you might like a little more information. What Schöller chooses to provide, however, is always pertinent to his themes. For the rest, I suppose what's missing might appeal more to our usual sense of back-story and sentiment than to the ideas that the writer/director wants us to consider. He may have misjudged how to best balance this equation, but only slightly.

In his very young leading man, Max Baissette de Malglaive (pictured above, and with Depardieu, further above), Schöller has brought to the screen a remarkable face and presence. This is a child performance for the ages. Young Master de Malglaive has been cast in Richard Berry's upcoming adaptation of Franz-Olivier Giesbert's L'Immortel. We'll be interested in seeing the results.

Versailles screens at the Walter Reade Theater Friday, March 6, at 3:30 and Sunday, March 8, at 6. If the IFC Center it will be shown Saturday, March 7, at 1:30. There's no US distributor attached as yet, so catch it while you can.

Left to right: Marina Fois, Patrick Bruel, Karin Viard
Christopher Thompson in Change of Plans

Danièle Thompson's exquisitely funny, charming and moving ensemble pieces have brightened Rendez-vous twice before (Avenue Montaigne, La Bûche). Her third directorial effort CHANGE OF PLANS does so again, this time with perhaps a bit more melancholy than usual. But then, we're all getting older and, we'd like to think, wiser. In this outing, Thompson offers as her centerpiece a dinner party but she moves her time frame before, during and after the event, as the mood strikes her (and her characters). This group of people, who initially appear rather shallow and easy to anger, slowly grow into complex and likable characters, their fallibilities not withstanding.

As usual, this writer/director has coaxed together a sterling cast: eight top stars (plus several other enjoyable actors, including Christopher Thompson, the director's son and co-writer): the always interesting Karin Viard, Patrick Bruel (so different in this role from last year's Un Secret), Marina Fois (you won't recognize her here as the same actress from The Joy of Singing), the hugely popular Dany Boon, Marina Hands (from Lady Chatterly and Tell No One), Emmanuelle Seigner (a little weightier here, but warmer than usual and even more alluring), and old hands Patrick Chesnais (below center, with Blanca Li) and Pierre Arditi, whose initial scene together is the funniest in the film. All these actors perform like gangbusters, and Thompson has given them a lot to work with.

Interestingly, the arc of the film is almost the exact opposite as that described in the FSLC program notes ; one wonders if its writer had actually seen the film. The connections involving time frame, characters and events that Thompson is able to make among her people finally gives her movie the weight it needs to be something more than an entertainingly brittle, lightweight comedy. You'll laugh, of course, but you'll feel more than that: the kind of melancholic understanding that only aging in a long-term relationship can provide.

Change of Plans screen at the Walter Reade Friday, March 6, at 6:20; Sunday, March 8, at 8:45; and Monday, March 9, at 3;30; at the IFC Center it screens Saturday, March 7, at 7. No US distributor as yet, but surely the starry cast, the comedy, and Thompson's past record will change this?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

PARIS 36 Opens FSLC's French Rendez-vous series: Good Choice!

Early March is the time of year that French film buffs in the tri-state area probably cherish more than any other, thanks to the annual Rendez-vous with French Cinema presented jointly by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance. This year should only add to the anticipation and laurels, as 18 new films make their U.S., North American, and in one case (The Girl on the Train from André Téchiné) world premier at this festival -- the consistently best-attended program in the FSLC's annual repertoire.

The opening night event features, as usual, a film that proves a popular, rather than an "arty," choice. Last year saw Claude Lelouche's Roman de Gare open the fest and go on to have a successful run in art houses across the country; in 2007 La Vie en Rose made its first NYC appearance at the fest prior to relatively boffo box-office and a Academy Award for Best Actress to its star Marion Cotillard; and 2006 saw Palais Royal! do the opening night duties -- never to be heard from again (well, you can't win 'em all…)

This year, I predict, will not remind us of 2006 because opening night will see Faubourg 36, already smartly snapped up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, make its U.S. premiere. Idiotically re-titled Paris 36 (for whom? Art house/foreign-language audiences would have had no trouble figuring out the Faubourg angle), this throwback to classic soap-opera cinema offers just about everything that a two-hour French film taking place in 1936 can contain. Suicide, murder and vaudeville; nasty French Nazis, good-hearted Socialists, a child custody battle and unrequited love; song and dance -- including a variation on Busby Berkeley and that understudy-gets-her-break chestnut -- comedic impersonations, and a very funny fashion sense. The result? A crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking, music-loving bundle of cinematic joy.

In other hands, all this could easily come off as tired and second-rate but director/co-writer (with Julien Rappeneau and Pierre Philippe) Christophe Barratier approaches his material, on one level, as though it were something new. Consequently, it seems fresher than it has any right to be. On another level, however, the director is very canny. He allows each scene, and all the moments in it, to last not a beat too long, so that the movie, while not charging lickity-split ahead with lots of fast-paced editing, still moves quickly enough that we have no time to waste. "You've seen this before," Barratier seems to be saying, "so let me elide here and open up there and make it all appear new." He does. One of his elisions -- at the very end -- manages to do away with WWII entirely and instead of giving us the expected resolution, allows the audience to use its imagination to fully savor what it knows will come. This leaves us in something approaching an enormously satisfied state of grace. (Unless, of course, you hate the movie -- which has its share of detractors. A film like this, that harks so defiantly to the old-fashioned, always does.)

Barratier has so far made only one short film and the full-length, award-winning (The Chorus). He uses many of the same actors: Gerard Jugnot (below, right), Kad Merad (below, left) and especially Maxence Perrin (son of actor/producer Jacques Perrin). How wonderful, too, to see again Pierre Richard (The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, The Toy), who is sublime here. Clovis Cornillac (below, center, from Gille's Wife and this Rendez-vous' Bellamy) -- he of the mug's face and the Schwarzenegger (well, in his early years) body -- is not an actor you'd expect to see in a semi-musical, yet Cornillac acquits himself admirably as a fighter, lover and dancer. The discovery of the film is its leading lady Nora Arnezeder (above, right), who brings to her role of Douce an irresistible combination of beauty, sweetness and strength -- not to mention, if it is truly her singing that we hear, a knockout voice. The whole ensemble, in fact, is aces. And don't worry if Rendez-vous' Opening Night is inevitably sold out or its $20 price too steep. This movie will have its theatrical release, draw art house crowds aplenty and appear -- eventually -- on DVD.

The complete schedule for this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema, including dates, times, prices and ticket-0rdering, can be found here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

FSLC's Rendez-vous with French Cinema -- selling fast, get' em while you can

Tickets have been on sale for only one week, and already many of the films in the upcoming Rendez-vous with French Cinema series sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UNIFRANCE are unavailable. This does not mean that a later set of tickets will not be released for purchase, though you can't always count on this. A number of seats will become available to some of those people waiting on the stand-by line, pre-performance, but as this line is often long, it's a risk. Print press will probably not cover this popular festival until next week, and by then few tickets will remain. Having just seen the entire series at press screenings, here's a quick run-down of the movies and what to expect. Longer reviews will appear for each film in the days to come. For now, consider this your heads-up:

Opening Night: PARIS 36 (originally titled FAUBOURG 36)
I predict this crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking, music-loving bundle of cinematic joy will be a big arthouse/foreign film hit. If you can't get a $20 opening night ticket (FSLC members pay $15), don't despair. Sony Pictures Classics is distributing it in the US.

35 SHOTS OF RUM Claire Denis is usually a hot ticket, and as this is one of her better films of late, get one now or be disappointed. The cinematography by the great Agnès Godard (Golden Door) is special indeed. No distributor yet!

THE APPRENTICE A sweet, true "take" regarding life on a small French farm. A very good movie, though probably not a sellout, but since there's no US distributor attached, a ticket might be advisable....

THE BEACHES OF AGNES Agnès Varda, still one of the New Wave greats, retains a large fan base, and this utterly charming, funny and moving self-documentary is a gem. Expect difficulty ticket-wise. But Cinema Guild has picked it up for distribution, so there's hope for seeing it later.

BELLAMY Chabrol, Depardieu, Marie Bunuel and Clovis Cornillac should mean good business. No distributor yet, and truthfully, though not a bad film, it is also not one of Chabrol's better endeavors.

CHANGE OF PLANS Danièle Thompson (Avenue Montaigne, La Bûche, Jet Lag) does wonderful ensemble dram-coms, and this is yet another, though more melancholy than her previous. Probably a hard ticket but, as yet, no US distributor.

EDEN IS WEST Costa-Gavras, here working in a mode different from anything else he's done. This ocean/road movie about an illegal immigrant in western Europe stars Riccardo Scamarcio, the hottie from My Brother Is an Only Child. A lot of fun and a lot of sadness, but the fun wins out, barely. The Costa-Gavras name may sell this one out, though no US distributor has come aboard just yet.

THE GIRL FROM MONACO Anne Fontaine's mainstream bid succeeds -- but in a very odd fashion. Wonderful performances from Fabrice Luchini, Roschdy Zem and Louise Bourgoin -- plus you get Stephane Audran and the Riviera. Priceless was a foreign language hit last year, so the location and the stars may help do the same for this one. Either way, Magnolia Pictures has it for US distribution.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN André Téchiné does not spell out his themes or connections, so you have to work to piece them together. It’s usually worthwhile, however, and this film is no exception: class, prejudice, attraction, guilt and more rear their heads. With French greats Catherine Deneuve and Michel Blanc and lesser-known but also great Émilie Dequenne. No US distributor yet.

THE JOY OF SINGING Not a doc, this weird little trifle is a mystery thriller/comedy-cum-music/sexual romp with beaucoup full frontal and a very hot young actor, Julien Baumgartner, to provide it. Jeanne Balibar is as delightful as you've ever seen her --which is saying a lot -- and the rest of the cast is quite game. Once word gets out, this movie should sell, even though, stylistically, it could be a lot better. No US distributor yet: Where are you Strand, Wolfe or TLA?

MESRINE, Parts One and Two (each sold separately). One of the two major contenders for the year's César awards, this cliché-ridden gangster opus is the major disappointment of the festival. It will probably pack 'em in, however, because violence (offered by a starry cast) -- particularly when you can hang it from the coattails of a real-life guy -- sells well. See for yourself, and if you miss it here, a company called Senator Entertainment has picked it up for US Distribution.

THE OTHER ONE A very French take on Fatal Attraction, in which the loony gal philosophizes in addition to wreaking a little havoc. Dominique Blanc is wonderful in the lead role; she goes a long way toward making the movie worth seeing. Seats will probably be available for this one, which has no US distribution so far.

STELLA One of the best films I've seen to take on the adolescent girl from both an inside and outside view. The film rings true from every angle, including its marvelously recreated 1970s time frame and the lead performance by Léora Barbara is simply wonderful. No US distribution yet; surely someone will step forward...?

SERAPHINE The other movie honored with a pack of César nominations deserves everyone of 'em, especially for Yolande Moreau in the title role: I can't remember seeing a more committed, dedicated performance. This one's the must-see of the fest. Thankfully, Music Box Films has grabbed it for U.S. distribution.

VERSAILLES Watching the splendid work of Guillaume Depardieu in this strange and lovely movie will make you miss the recently deceased actor tenfold. (He's also in Stella, but this one marks his major appearance at this fest.) The film offers a surprising look at the have-nots of France and features another remarkable performance from a child actor, Max Baissette de Malglaive. No US distribution yet.

VILLA AMALIA Another must-see, especially for Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Jacquot fans, with the director firmly back into his "substance" rather than his "throw-away" mode. Gorgeous in so many ways, the movie tracks the seismic change that takes place in the character played by Ms Huppert when she confronts something rather unpleasant. Distributor wanted, big-time.

WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF Félicité Wouassi won best actress at last year's Toronto fest, and you'll know why when you see her in this black (in so many ways) comedy. Quite a change of pace and style for director François Dupeyron, this one's a treat I think you'll want to see. Claude Rich co-stars. No distribution yet, but the movie is so entertaining and full of life, surely this will be remedied.

(The program of TOUT COURT: New French shorts did not get a press screening, so I'll have to see that one during the fest itself.)

More, and in more detail on each film, to come...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Astra Taylor's EXAMINED LIFE opens at the IFC Center

EXAMINED LIFE examines life. Pretty inclusive topic, that, yet Astra Taylor's elegant (those classy "embossed" credits!) and witty compilation of the ideas of various present-day philosophers manages this better than you might imagine. And in just 88 minutes (including credits). It is highly unusual to have one's brain engaged so thoroughly by any movie, but here you must consistently use all your powers of

concentration, as Taylor, right, takes you into the mind and ideas of nine of the world's leading philosophers. Of course, you could read their works separately (and may want to do so after seeing this film), but by gathering them together, the filmmaker allows us to listen to such a breadth of ideas and subjects that we are able to make a number of interesting connections we might not otherwise have managed.

Beginning -- and ending, too -- with Cornell West (above), who brings history, music and color to the fore, Taylor moves to a stroll in what looks like Madison Square Park with Avital Ronell (right), whose ideas of deconstruction seem to quietly contradict, or at least call into question, much of what West has just said.

A walk and a talk is evidently what Taylor wants from each of her men and women. So Peter Singer (above) takes us to the glitzy Las Vegas-looking Times Square and the chic shops that dot Fifth Avenue to prod us into thinking about the morality of our consumption.

New to me and perhaps now my favorite of Taylor's bunch is Kwame Anthony Appiah (shown left), London-born of a Ghanian father, whose humane words and ideas fall gracefully and thoughtfully as he and Taylor move from one part of an airport to another.
On her particular walk, Martha Nussbaum (right) talks about the Social Contract, its applications (or lack of them) in western society. This is a subject I'm rather keen on, having just spent some time thinking and writing about this, in terms of Italian film and the current "mob" movie Gomorrah.

Philosopher Michael Hardt would evidently rather row than walk, and so we spend our time with him and Taylor in a rowboat on the Central Park lake, as he talks sensibly and encompassingly of revolution and responsibility.
Slavoj Zizek, for a change, is not interested in movies. No: He meets us in a garbage recycling center, a place he claims is perfect for our current time, and then proceeds to explain exactly why.

Our final philosophers make a charming couple, as they walk/ride us around San Francisco and even do a little shopping in a thrift shop. Disabled due to pollution by the U.S. military, Sunaura Taylor wheelchairs it about with Judith Butler, below right, as the two of them talk about everything from the words "handicapped" and "disabled" to queer theory and what it means to ask for help.

Examined Life has proven one of my most enjoyable movie experiences in a long time -- as well as one of the most surprising. I left the screening in a revved-up state, my mind racing about, trying to connect and then store all that I had heard and seen. It took awhile to come back to normal, and now, of course, two weeks after the screening, I have lost a good deal of what I gained. (I should probably purchase the DVD, once it's available, and watch it weekly.) Taylor's film actually made me feel more positive about our world situation -- which I found odd, considering the state we're in. Yet hearing these nine philosophers speak so intelligently and insightfully about humanity proved a peculiarly bracing experience that compares to little else I've encountered in a documentary.

Astra Taylor's EXAMINED LIFE, distributed via the small-but-wonderful Zeitgeist Films, opens Wednesday, February 25, at NYC's IFC Center. It's a "don't miss" for moviegoers who welcome a little thinking with their visuals and who care about where the world is headed and how we might alter that direction.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

GREG KINNEAR, an appreciation, and FLASH OF GENIUS, a review

Who'd have thought back in 1991, that the pretty boy with the sly mouth hosting a small cable show -- TALK SOUP -- that everyone seemed to be watching and laughing with would eventually have the kind of movie career and reputation that many actors would give their left noogie to possess? I certainly didn't. As much as I enjoyed the program -- and its unusual star GREG KINNEAR, who made such clever, pointed fun of the current talk shows and their

far-too-fake hosts and guests -- to me, Kinnear seemed perfectly cast as the bright, handsome fellow who could get away with the nastiest jibes because of his seemingly non-judgmental appearance and a delivery that exquisitely impaled his prey by using against them the tools of their very own, and very sleazy, trade. Who else could possibly manage this so well?

Kinnear, right, with Rita Wilson, in Auto Focus.

No one, as it turned out. The Talk Soup hosts who followed (John Henson, Hal Sparks and Aisha Tyler) were variously cute and clever while barely holding a candle to Kinnear. Did this fellow invent "snark," or does it only seem so in retrospect because he delivered it with more class and finesse than anyone since (except perhaps Jon Stewart, who may have received his early training from watching our Greg and his non-comittal pause coupled to a sudden tiny change in vocal inflection or eyebrow raise that says so very much).

With that wide-open, midwestern face (Kinnear hails from Indiana), he's as American as apple pie (as the love object in Nurse Betty, above) and just as able to turn tart (last year's Ghost Town) or rancid (playing TV star Bob Crane in Auto Focus: photo, top left). His good looks and affability easily disguised his versatility. Even as his audience remained entranced by his soupy talk, Kinnear was simultaneously making a few television appearances in dramatic roles, playing a Talk Show host in Mike Binder's and Damon Wayan's foolish Blankman, then finally breaking into extreme mainstream by snagging the role originally played by William Holden in the late Sydney Pollack's remake of Sabrina. That movie pretty much tanked but Kinnear (seen in the photo from Sabrina, below) proved he could hold the screen equally as well as box-office star Harrison Ford or find-of-the-moment Julia Ormond in the title role. He hasn't stopped holding it since.

With his innate gift for comedy and a face that can look -- from moment to moment -- alert, foolish, sad, smart or surprisingly crass/sleazy (considering how handsome the guy is), Kinnear has had some juicy roles all right, but none, save his Academy-Award-nominated stint in As Good as It Gets, have as nearly catapulted him to the kind of fame in which an actor this good could be basking. But perhaps this guy doesn't want to bask.

If the 39 roles he's now taken indicate anything about his choices (though its generally our superstars who seem most able to truly "choose" their roles), he's as likely to appear in ensemble pieces such as like The Gift (photo top right), Loser, the HBO Emmy-nomated Dinner with Friends (in which he appears above, center right, with Toni Collette, Dennis Quaid and Andie MacDowell) or Little Miss Sunshine as in a lead role in films such as Auto Focus or the just-out-on-DVD Flash of Genius. Considering how many small independent films he's agreed to grace, I suspect he has deliberately chosen many of these roles. His star power and name associated with the project would certainly have helped raise some of the financing.

Flash of Genius offers a true star turn that, as you'd expect from Kinnear, is non-showy even as it gives the actor (shown left with Lauren Graham, who plays his wife) his best opportunity in a long while to command the screen. He's in just about every scene and -- again, as usual -- never makes a wrong move or offers a false emotion. His character is a stubborn one who stays his course, and on that course, loses much of what he loves. This film is about a man -- Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper (if you drive a car, you'll understand how important this little contribution was to easier driving and better road safety) -- who, when ripped off of his creation by the Ford Moror Company, demands a kind of justice not measured in money. (What? Why, everything can be measure in money, of course, so better start counting it out.) Kearn's refusal to accept what amounted to a bribe -- first in the thousands, eventually in the millions -- takes the film into troubling waters and probably accounts, as much as anything else, for critics' and audiences' rejection of it. Most people today, as then (certainly Kearns' own friends and family) would have taken the money and run, but this obsessive inventor did not. And so a long, but quite interesting, story unfolds.

There is certainly little wrong with Flash of Genius as movie biographies go (except perhaps its title, which, though we learn from where it comes, still strikes us as both clichéd and pretentious). The screenplay (Philip Railsback) and direction (Marc Abraham) are smartly competent, as are all the performances. And because the film is set back in the 1960s and takes us through the early 90s, there is the nostalgia factor on view, along with the usual amount of elision and compression necessary for this genre. Yet the moviemakers stay their course, showing us the difficulties inherent not only in the Ford people but in Kearns himself, so that, by the time we arrive at the finish, we are as exhausted and elated as the protagonists. Kinnear's contribution to the success of the film cannot be oversold. He makes use of his entire acting arsenal, and in the provess creates a full-bodied character whom we care for, grow angry at, and finally understand the driving force behind.

The auto show scene from Flash of Genius

The movie offers something more, too: As our automotive companies continue to slide into bankruptcy, due as much to their own practices over the past fifty years as to our current economy, Flash of Genius cannot help ring bells and rub sores about how much trust should be placed with these industry behemoths (according to Wikipedia, Kearns sued all three, plus Mercedes Benz, with varying results, which the movie -- even with its informative title cards prior to the end credit roll -- manages to skirt).

If I were to pick a favorite Kinnear movie it would have to be Richard Shepard's wonderful 2005 film The Matador, in which the actor stars with Pierce Brosnan (with whom he's shown above) and Hope Davis. If you have not seen it, do. Not only does it give Greg his best role, it offers something close to that for Davis and definitely for Brosnan, whose mid-to-late-life career it helped re-start. As good as he is in other films, Kinnear here is moment-to-moment amazing, such a joy to watch that it's hard to take your eyes off him and onto the two, as fine as they are. The actor takes his character through change after change, pulling you along with him. The story, too -- the entire film, in fact -- will take you places you have not been and leave you confused, delighted and saddened. How much more can you ask of a film these days?

Some other under-sung gems includes the Farrelly Brothers' Stuck on You, in which the actor (above right, with Matt Damon) plays a Siamese twin (here's a chance to see Kinnear's goofy side); the mostly unknown Unknown, a dark, jolting puzzle movie that will take you its entire length to figure out, in which Kinnear (below) is again part of a good ensemble that includes Jim Caviezel, Bridget Moynahan, Jeremy Sisto, Barry Pepper and many more; and a cute, little-seen love story/comedy with Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman titled Someone Like You. Sure, some of Kinnear's movies are second-rate or worse (one of the shabbiest is A Smile Like Yours) but even in these, you can't fault the actor's work.

So Mr. Kinnear will probably go on doing a yeoman's job, film to film, yet may never hit that magic combo of role-in-hit that wins awards and puts one permanently on the map. That's no reason that smart, caring audiences need do without this terrific actor, who keeps on keeping on with spirit and talent aplenty.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dinner and a movie: NINO's 208 and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

On one of my rare excursions out to an actual movie theater for a non-press screening, some friends and I celebrated our birthdays by heading for that sure-to-be-a-classic-of-"happiness" film, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The three of us found it much better than The New York Times critics did, though less good than the raves of certain others. Everything is fine, as far as the film goes -- which is not quite far enough: the acting from all concerned, leads to support, and the on-target dialog (one of us, who had recently read the Yates novel on which the film is based, gave the movie high marks for fidelity). Where the film falls down, though not disastrously, is that it does not allow us to understand why these two people fell in love. There is so little of the good times (one tiny scene and a bit of remembrance) and so very much of the bad (the film seems to be almost literally one nasty argument after another) that it ends up too heavily weighted toward the negative. While it is true that many relationships begin from a false premise/perspective, they generally require more positive feedback on the part of both parties to take hold. Movies about these relationships need some of this, too.

Yet Revolutionary Road is not, as it has been accused, a screed against the terrors of the suburbs: You could find the same repressive attitudes in the Manhattan (or any urban center) of that day. Nor does it come out against either or both of its protagonists: You may not feel at the finale any of the (perhaps cheap) emotions that other films would have induced. Yet you do feel something for these two people who, it turns out, never understood themselves very well, let alone each other. They seem to feel that they are extraordinary people when, in fact, they are rather ordinary -- if quite attractive. Maybe what's most lacking in western culture is the ability of its citizens to delve deeply into who they are and what they want and need -- a point made very well by Arnaud Desplechin's current A Christmas Tale. Surface wants and desires (as well as surface servicing by surface shrinks) are still the name of the game -- the results of which have come home to roost in our economy, politics and culture. And the movie, to its credit, makes this clear, while remaining true to its time.

Certain questions arise, like where the hell are this couple's children most of the time? They are trotted out now and again, but a truer picture of "family" in the 50s ought to have included more of the kids. Yet what we do see is still pretty riveting and sad: the longings of the neighbor husband, the two scenes with the realtor's family (Michael Shannon (above) and Kathy Bates just keep knocking one performance after another out of the park), and the way of the workplace for men and women of the day. Don't miss Revolutionary Road. Just don't raise those expectations too high.

About the restaurant we found ourselves at, post-movie, I suspect that you can raise those expectations as high as you like and still not be disappointed. Though we headed out to Mia Dona (on 58th Street between Second and Third), that restaurant (where we have dined decently several times), proved far too crowded and noisy. We were surprised at this, since so many NYC restaurants seem nearly empty during this "down" economic time, as was the case right next door at NINO'S 208, which has been open only for a few months and offers a menu that, on paper, seems tasty and features enough variation of food and price that we could manage to dine affordably. The staff greeted us warmly, seated us within the classy and comfortable quarters, and we chose the cheapest red wine on the menu to begin (Nino's 208 has a full bar): a $24 bottle of Italian Sangiovese that proved rich and delicious with no cutting after-taste.

The Parmigiano butter and roasted eggplant spreads for the bread were tasty, too, as were our entrees: a calves' liver special ("Best ever," my companion stated), while the gnocchi in pesto sauce I ordered (sans the shrimp, to which I am allergic) was simple and elegant. Our salad featured mozzarella, tomato and beet, and sampling all three -- one keen, fresh taste after another -- proved a delight. Desert was a chocolate mousse cake: creamy heaven atop a crisp wafer. And the final coffee made a dark, rich and mellow end to what seemed a nearly perfect meal. The service was fine and the noise level approaching zero. We chatted for two hours without ever once having to lean across the table and say, "Excuse me?" I had the $35, three-course Prix Fixe dinner, my companion a $25 entree and $11 salad, and our guest, who does not generally eat out, had a $10 Harvey's Bristol Cream and tea. The bill, including liquor, tax and tip, came to $135. An increasingly rare occasion when this much money is spent at a single outing, the meal nonetheless remains one of the best I've had in a long while. I suggest that the New Yorkers reading this blog put Nino's 208 on your "must eat" list ASAP. (Location: 208 E. 58th Street, between Second and Third Avenues, phone 212-750-7766).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

FILM COMMENT SELECTS -- once again -- at New York City's Walter Reade Theater

The annual Film Society of Lincoln Center series that I suspect provokes the most "What?!" comments debuts tomorrow, 2/20, at the Walter Reade Theater, and as usual, there'll be plenty to delight -- and confound -- us all. While this year's Film Comment Selects roster offers nothing as Rohmer-esque (I'm joking) as last year's inclusion of Inside and Frontier, it may be that, internationally, the slasher film is taking a well-deserved siesta. (Over here, of course, our youngins are being introduced (again!) to "Jason" and even a 3-D version of Valentine splatter.)
One of my fondest FCS memories will always be that of a matinee audience of mostly senior citizens being confronted by the two French films noted above and simply guffawing our way through the blood and guts. What else could we do with these odes to over-the-top gore? This years FCS will offer some fine "action" (South Korea's popular The Chaser (shown above), a new take on an old noir (Germany's Jerichow), as well as Lake Tahoe (shown below), the new film from Mexico's Fernando Eimbcke, plus new work from Götz Spielmann, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Philippe Garrel and others.

FCS is always a grab-bag, but since the hands that have placed the prizes into the bag come from the boys and girls at Film Comment, you can expect diversity, quality and exasperation -- plus lots of argument regarding to which films that middle word should be applied. Also screening are special retrospectives of five perhaps unjustly overlooked movies and another devoted to the work of French thinker/filmmaker Guy Debord (photo, top left -- more on whom appears farther below).

The only three films I had time to see in advance were the usual FCS mixed bag, though I am glad to have viewed them all. The most interesting hails from Argentina: El Asaltante (The Mugger), which marks its writer/director Pablo Fendrik as a moviemaker to watch. In just 67 minutes, he tracks a man who commits two assaults, very cleverly planned by the culprit and executed by the filmmaker with maximum suspense and surprise. The surprise continues right up until the movie's end. Fendrik films in a documentary, hand-held style that is riveting. He keeps you close to the action and characters in a cinema verité manner but doesn't jiggle his camera to the point of distraction. In his lead actor Arturo Goetz (shown above), he's got a major -- and thus far rather unsung -- talent. You may recall Señor Goetz from The Holy Girl, Live-in Maid and especially Daniel Burman's lovely Family Law. This guy clearly deserves leading roles; here, he's got one for the ages. Onscreen nearly every moment, his performance, coupled with the writer/director's abilities, puts us in the character's shoes so thoroughly that we find ourselves rooting for the guy, despite what he is doing. In the course of what happens, there is a bit of hard-to-swallow coincidence, and by the finale you may feel a tad manipulated. But I think you'll have been more than rewarded by Goetz' fine work and Fendrick's very real skills.

I've long been fond of (some of) the films of Michael Almereyda. I think his Hamlet is one of the best filmed versions of the play ever. I am generally not a fan of "updating" Shakespeare, but Almereyda handled it surprisingly well (and cast it very well, too: Bill Murray as Polonius!). His new one, Paradise, harks back to his earlier Happy Here and Now, in both title and theme -- at least so far as I understand his titles/themes. While the new one is not in narrative form, as was HH&N, it plays with the idea of appreciating life as we are living it: the moment, the journey, and so forth. Paradise (a still from which is shown above) offers a kind of video diary, with all the homemade look and feel you'd expect from this. Yet, when it is Almereyda doing the looking and feeling, this is likely to be more interesting and thought-provoking than what you or I (or certain other filmmakers) might come up with. My quibble is that it's not quite interesting or thought-provoking enough for its 82 minute running time. Almereyda shows us a number of people and locations -- U.S.-based and international, and these tend to be what we might call "just ordinary." But that's his point. HH&N ended in a rush of music, ideas and film edited so spectacularly well that I was transported. Paradise simply ends, leaving us to consider what we've just seen. If you already enjoy the work of this filmmaker, you'll certainly want to see it. If you're new to Almereyda, I am not sure whether to recommend the film or not. Still, my advice is, as usual: Take the chance.

Several films by Guy Debord -- a name much better known to French intellectuals than to Americans (all seven of them) of similar proclivities -- are showing in the FCS roster. Even to many film buffs, bells will not ring at the sound of "Debord." For this reason alone, I was interested to find out more: why, in particular, a filmmaker like Olivier Assayas would be so taken with the man's work. The only film screened in advance for the press was Debord's 1973 The Society of the Spectacle (La Société du Spectacle). To call this fellow's work "dense" is to put it mildly indeed. His combination of constant narration (the sort of verbiage that, were I reading it, I would have to go back a time or two per page to make sure I understood what he was saying -- and even then, maybe not) is here coupled to some very interesting visuals: of famous and not-so men and women (the women often nude). All of the above might make reading intensely intelligent and lengthy sub-titles a tad difficult, right? Add to this the fact that the subtitles were not within the movie, as is done with all foreign films. Instead these were projected onto the screen and moved along "by hand" as the narration progressed, sometimes moving slowly enough to be read, sometimes so quickly that even speed-readers would fumble.

All this made the Debord screening a kind of marathon from which this reader/viewer, at least, emerged daunted. And yet I certainly liked some of what I saw and read. The Society of the Spectacle is a kind of primer in Debord's particular philosophy of detournement, which, if you click the link and start reading, you may find yourself disagreeing with almost immediately -- while still wanting to read on. Example: "Every reasonably aware person of our time is aware of the obvious fact that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or even as a compensatory activity to which one might honorably devote oneself." No longer? Hello: could it ever be justified so? Probably not. Individual works, yes, but art in general (paintings, novels, music, and now film), considered as a whole? Not likely. Debord is given to a style of proclamation that I would call the "We see that X leads to Y but in reality Y is leading to X" mode. We hear this sort of thing over and over in various ways and situations, and while I often agreed with Debord, he began to sound like an example of an early, highly literate "snark."

Debord's point (one of them, anyway) is that capitalism and the powers that be continually give us spectacle in place of any sustenance. And this spectacle subverts meaning and takes us away from reality and the ability to see what we really need. I think this is true. And many of us know it. But we often love the spectacle anyway. (The filmmaker gives us plenty of his own spectacle via the copious nudity.) He combines economics, politics and class into visuals and verbiage that... well, I wouldn't say they sparkle but at least they're relatively light on their feet. The movie actually put me in mind of V for Vendetta (wonder what Debord might have thought of that film?). In any case, if you feel a need to be challenged -- physically and mentally -- go for it and take in one of the Debord screenings.

Film Comment Selects plays February 20 through March 5.

Photo Credits, top to bottom:
Guy Debord from Wikipedia
The Chaser: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / IFC
Lake Tahoe: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Film Movement
The Mugger: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Latinofusion
Paradise: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / Michael Almereyda
The Society of the Spectacle stills: The Film Society of Lincoln Center / agnès b.