Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Claude & Nathan Miller's exploration of family ties, I'M GLAD MY MOTHER IS ALIVE Interview with the co-filmmaker

I'M GLAD MY MOTHER IS ALIVE is a collaborative first for Claude Miller, who has brought in his son Nathan as co-director/
writer. It is also yet another Miller movie (Class Trip, Alias Betty, La Petite Lili, A Secret) that gets just about every-
thing right and yet seems bereft of any highly noticeable directorial stamp (this is a compliment, by the way). Instead the story is simply told in the most appropriate manner possible so that its meaning and applications to our world can be seen.

What I love about Miller's movies is that, while they don't over-explain or make their characters and situations too simple, they always open up the world to us in new and different ways (often rather cracked ways), making us piece together the shards as best we can.  In this latest endeavor, a based-on-truth tale of an adopted boy who, as a young man, at last reconnects with his birth mom, the Millers (at left: père above and fils below) give us the facts of the matter, melding past and present to create full characters and a rich story easily followed yet fraught with possibilities.

Miller and his son tackle these possibilities with the director's brand of tacit skill, making us aware that, though the human condition is vast and unknowable, its exploration is always worth our trouble.  I find Miller to be a non-judgmental director in the best way:  He lays it all out and lets you make your own call, which, by the end of his films, is no simple matter. Miller always makes it clear that in real life blame and approbation are not so easily or evenly bestowed.

One of those torn-from-the-headlines tales that have you asking, "How can people do such things?" even as the news media blares its hasty judgement,  in the Millers' hands, the movie refrains from giving you any sensationalism early on, and instead tracks the story beginning-to-end -- thus answering some of our emotional and psychological questions, as well as the simple one of What happened next? As in so many off Miller's movies, the connections are many and vital, but how difficult they often are to untangle.

In the lead role, young Vincent Rottiers (above, also seen to fine effect another film that really should be released here, Xavier Gianolli's In the Beginning) gives the kind of performance that deservedly wins awards. Full of subtle, quicksilver changes as he searches for identity, mother, companionship and love, this actor never makes a false step and should have a long and full career.

As his birth mother, Sophie Cattani is also excellent -- warm, slutty, selfish and finally as surprising as her son.  In the roles of the adoptive parents, Christine Citti (below, right) and Yves Verhoeven (below, left) make us feel their situation and pain as something not just unfortunate but terribly unfair.
I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive (90 minutes, from Strand Releasing) opens in New York City on Friday, September 2, at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center -- followed by a national roll out.


TrustMovies met with the film's co-writer and co-director Nathan Miller during the 2010 Rendez-vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center -- where the film made its U.S. debut.  At the time isi film had no U.S. distribution secured, but after in the year and a half since, it has found an outlet and can be seen at last. In the following exchange, Nathan's words appear in standard type, and TM's in boldface

So you acted in your father's film, The Best Way?  That's the first time I guess I saw you.

(Nathan laughs heartily)   Yes. I was six years old.

How old are you now?


No.. Really? It was that long ago?

Don't tell me.

I just saw it for the first time on DVD. A friend of mind said, 'You've got to see this!"

That was my father's first film. His first long film.

Really? It holds up very well.

Yes-- it does not age badly.

You worked on the camera for The Petite Lili...

Yes, and for The Secret, and also Betty Fisher and Other Stories.

For me, your father's films --and now I can start to say your films -- I don't think that Claude Miller has any terribly pronouced visual style, yet for me his films get at the truth in a way that the films of not very many other directors can do. Truth is what everybody wants -- or claims to want -- to get at in film, whether it's a documentary or narrative. Directors want to get at it, but it is hard to do. But that's what  I think your father, and maybe you....

No judgment.  You have to have no judgment on your characters to find the truth of them.

Yes! And so you see things from various angles.  From various people. So it is hard to be judgmental.  That is so true of this film.

Yes, and that is funny. Becasue we love all the characters. We have no evil characters.

Even in Class Trip-- which is awful, what happens.  My companion was so disturbed by that movie. And he stopped watching Alias Betty Fisher for that reason, too. Your films are disturbing in ways we usually don't get close to.

(Nathan nods. And then he and the translator confer)

For formal resons, this movie was not by Claude. This is because I was the only director on the set. Every decision, every camera direction, was only by me. Claude would sit behind the video monitor and he would look at everything I had done on it. And sometimes he would see something wrong for him, and we would discuss together. But nobody --  and I mean nobody -- heard his voice during this shoot.

So this then is your movie?

No. It is like -- you know you've got a big, big and fat car, but you never drive. And your father give you the key. But he...

Is sitting in the backseat?

Yes,  and you drive...

When he had questions about something you did, did he win sometimes and you other times?

It was not a winning matter. We wrote the script together, and so we did not care of the formality of the camera -- the aesthetic. You don't care about the camera-- where to put it, how it moves. The only thing now Claude is interested for movies is the script, the actors and the editing. He don't care about the camera. He don't care about the movement. Of course: He do it. But he was so happy that I had done it!  He never ask me, whay did you shoot like this?  Why like that?  The problem sometime is with the direction of acting, the feeling of seconds. (Ed's note: Perhaps he means the pacing. We should have asked.)

Has this always been true -- even in other movies?

Yes, always true.  He don't want to know what I do with the second camera. He want me to do what I think is the best for him. He has his own camera.  I am the master of the second camera.

This is something I didn't know about. Is the second camera there as a back-up?

No.  As a compliment.  Because I know him a lot. I work with him since I am 16 years old. For 24 years now. I know him, his taste. I know what he wants. We discover on the first movie we made together a video movie.  Simple camera. No problem with lighting.  The film was a success critically and it was popular, too: The Magicians's Room. Like a Dogma movie. A very strange movie. Claude loved the way he discovered during the editing what he didn't know: Look at the this shot -- look at that one! We discovered that the film finally was 50 % and 50%  from both of us.  So he never stopped this collaboration with me. The next job was Betty Fisher. And for that, I knew nothing. Never knew 35 millimeter  Had to learn everything. Never had a 35 M camera on my shoulder. I do exactly the same thing.  But I got into big problem with the lighting operator....

So maybe it is better to have no winning between us. I am now involved with the camera, and I just do the best I can. And I do it like I remember he do it.  It is with two cameras every time. And I then I do it.  This one (I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive) is a simple movie. No traveling, no movement. With two cameras, everything. So I make the shoot as I used to see it done by him.  And I do this with the acting, too. But as you know, he was there. He was sitting in thre back seat. When you've got someone like that who is sititing in the back seat, you can take risks, you can drive faster. Because he has got his hand on the hand brake. But yet he never use that hand brake.

When you cast Vincent Rottiers, had the actor already done A la Origine?

He was just then coming off that shoot, which was running late on the shoot. So we wait for him.

He is going to be a very big star, I think.

I am sure. Yes, he is incredible! He start at age 13 and has already made 20 movies. And he is but 22 years old. But he is not famous at all and is a very quiet person. Very modest, discrete.

He fits well within your movie.

More than you can imagine!  We had an incredible meeting.  He is not a close friend of me.  Maybe, during the shoot,  we speak maybe 10 words.  But duriing the shoot, he gives it all. I never had to ask him anything, you just look at him and he give you everything. Maybe twenty thousand times more than you can imagine.

So you leave that alone, and just let him work?

Yes. With Vincent it was always one shot. Maybe we make two, but the first one was always right.

How was the movie received in France?

Badly. Terribly.

How? Why?

The critical response was very good.  But on the Wednesday, when it open...

Nobody came?

Nobody.  Perhaps they thought it was too harsh, too hard. A very cerebral intellectual French movie. Maybe if I was not the director of it....

Maybe this is your Iraq movie?! 

(He explodes with laughter, but then turns to the translator, who explains. The translator tells him what this means -- how nearly every American film about the middle east post 9/11 has done poorly at the Box-office. Then we talk about The Hurt Locker and all the critical response and Academy Awards-- and still no box-office.)

Well, perhaps we were not honest about what this movie was. You see the poster, right?

Yes. People don't go to the movies for the truth, do they?

The saddest thing was speaking to people after who loved the film, but they tell us: We did not know the movie was about this!  Maybe we made a mistake about how we explained what the movie was?

Maybe the film will be better received where they don't know the story. 

I agree with you but the press always want to tell the story and to talk a little bit too much.

I think so, too. In fact, if I could change anything about movie criticism in this country, it would be stop talking about the plot!  

Oh, yes, but they always want the plot.

Even the trailers they make today --

They tell you everything!


Fortunately this was a small little movie....

That didn't cost too much to make?

But it was hard for me.

I'll bet. What's next for you?

Ah, a strange story.  Pascale Ferran:  He is a writer but he also directed Lady Chatterley a few years ago, with the writer Pierre Trividic.  He came to me with a very strange story about Chateaubriand, a famous French writer during the beginning of the 19th Century. It is something completely different.

In the case of I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive, this was also something different for us. In this universe, the producer had asked us to direct it. So it is not a film that originated with me or Claude. It was brought to us, but it was not the kind of movie we would make at all.  It is usually Claude who chooses the story.  But this time, it was the producer. Jacques Audiard did not want to do it anymore, so it was brought to us. And that is why you see Jacques Audiard's name on the credit as producer.

When your father was here a few years ago with Class Trip or maybe Alias Betty, I asked a question from the audience, When are we going to get a Claude Miller retrospective? Richard Peña was on stage with Claude at the time, and Claude very subtly pointed to Richard and said, 'Ask him!'  Maybe it is time.

There will be a retrospective of my father's work but it will be in Los Angeles, and it will include almost all of his movies. Maybe not all -- but many.

That's great; a real retrospective of his work.  But in L.A.  Not here.

But there should be no problem to arrange something here, too?

Well then, ask Richard Peña about this. Tell him there has been a second request for that retrospective!
(He laughs.)
Listen, Nathan, this has been a real pleasure, and what you have told me has been so interesting. I thank you so much for your time -- and for your movie!

All images above are from the film itself -- except the first below the poster of the two writers/directors.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Blue Serge: Joann Sfar's GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE opens at Film Forum

In the press notes for his movie GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE, writer/director/
cartoonist Joann Sfar tells us, "I obviously know Gainsbourg's 'real life' like the back of my hand. But I did not want to make a 'realistic' or 'documentary-like' film." Europeans and British -- of a certain age, at least -- will probably know the life of Serge Gainsbourg, the famous French singer, songwriter and provacateur of the 1960s and 70s, like the back of their hand, too. But Americans? Not so much.

TrustMovies, for instance, had heard and enjoyed a number of Gainsbourg's songs (many of them provocative, and in ways not only sexual, though that was a very large component of their and his success), and he knew of his relationship with British actress/model Jane Birkin and the offspring of that union, the fine actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. So he was prepared to have M. Sfar, shown at right, fill in a lot of blank spaces.

Immediately post-viewing, and for the week or two since spent mulling over the movie, most of those spaces remain open. I do, however, have a much stronger sense of the single thing that, according to the filmmaker, set Serge's life on its exhaustive course: the poor fellow's "ugly" mug face.

In a whirlwind of fact, fantasy and memory, Sfar juggles live action with some very smart animation, culminating in the creation of the single thing that most sets the movie apart, Gainsbourg's alter ego consisting of a puppet-like face atop a real body. This "double" (played well by the versatile Doug Jones of  the Hellboy movies) follows our hero, acts as his sidekick, comments on his doings, and always manages to undercut him at prime moments.

As important as this character is to the film, you might think there would be an image of him somewhere in all the press materials or even the many sources for online photos (of which this movie has about as many as I have ever seen: one source offers you 63 photos from which to choose!).  But, no. The powers-that-be are keeping Mr. Alter Ego a big secret visually. To get a gander at him, you'll have to see the movie.

(Update: I just finally found this photo, above, of  Serge's double -- "The Mug" -- on GreenCine, along with an interesting review of the film by Vadim Rizov.) I wish the shot were taken at more distance, so you could see at a glance how well it combines the sense of animation with live action in a singe character.)

Meanwhile, here are a few other things you'll catch, as Gainsbourg meanders through its two-hour-two-minute running time. Sfar explores Serge's childhood as a Jew in pre/during/post WWII France. If the movie is to be believed -- and what the hell: we might as well! -- as a child, Gainsbourg was even more provocative: The scene in which he gets his Jewish "star" is a kind of Holocaust "classic" (above), while his meeting with the then-famous Fréhel (played and sung by Yolande Moreau, below, center) is cute and pungent.

The singer's relations with hot entertainers of the time, from Birkin (a wan Lucy Gordon) and Bardot (Laetitia Casta, below) to Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis) are presented with occasional choice detail (Gréco's talking cat) and lots of camera caresses (Bardot), so we get a sense of glamour, fame and the spark between each pair but little more. It's all whirlwind visuals, impressive but shallow.
In the role of Gainsbourg, journeyman actor Eric Elmosnino, shown below, with 39 credits behind him, comes into his own in this role, giving a performance that stays within the somewhat narrow, psychologically-based range the director clearly wanted and yet manages to be memorable on its own. Elmosnino has the look, the charisma and even manages the sound of his real-life counterpart.

Clearly, M. Sfar did not want the kind of "this happened and then that happened" standard-form bio-pic, of which Olivier Dahan's La Vie en  Rose is one of the finer examples. But has he managed to expand and better the form with his own style?  I am not so sure. Via the character of "The Mug," he's created an alternative reality without much reality in it. His outdoor scenes, maybe due to budgetary reasons, feature few extras or traffic, thus calling attention to this lack, rather than to the lead characters on screen. And all the visual panache on display finally has the effect of giildng the lily, or in this case, the hothouse orchid.

As with so many movies devoted to musical celebrities, Gainsbourg, too, peaks in interest with the protagonist's early rise to fame, and then grows somewhat tiresome as our "hero," as usual, abuses himself, his family and his talent. Once we're over the charming, funny and -- as it's Serge -- provocative childhood years, we get to the main section devoted to -- surprise! -- the Gainsbourg variation on the usual musical biopic theme: sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. This is inevitable, of course. Yet despite Sfar's stylish surface and his use of the mug-faced "double" for psychological ballast, the movie is hollow.

The last section, featuring his work in the reggae realm (above), using the French National Anthem (a nice touch of completion, as La Marseillaise is also used to interesting effect in the early part of the film) turns out to annoy the French right wing. "Serge Gainsbourg stirs up antisemitism to keep the royalties rolling in," notes one angry critic. Ever the provocateur, in his last years, the fellow was still expanding his musical range, while sounding like a French Dylan, and looking a lot like Jean-Pierre Cassel.

As to the sub-title "A Heroic Life," after experiencing the movie, you may question the meaning of "hero." And yet -- if fighting one's own demons makes one heroic, why not? In that case, ladies and gentlemen, consider yourselves heroes. If this review sounds like a pan, I don't mean it to be. Serge Gainsbourg is simply too interesting a character whose life and times are bound to engage us -- if the film is at all well-done. While I wish this film were better, deeper, I am still pleased to have seen it. So may you be, if you have any interest in the man, his music and his life. If not, you might enjoy it purely for its look at and sound of France a half-century past.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, from Music Box Films, opens this Wednesday, August 31, at Film Forum in New York, and in Los Angeles (at the NuArt) and Irvine,California (at Edwards' University Town Center). A national rollout will follow, and you can check all the cities, dates and theaters here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Hillbilly hellions prove heavenly source of fun in Eli Craig's TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL

Movie clichés -- especially those in the slasher/horror/
hillbillies-in-the-woods genre -- get a delightful drumming from director, writer and sometimes actor (he plays the cameraman in this film) Eli Craig. In his first full-lenth venture as writer/director, he has gifted us with one of the funnier examples -- so much better than, say, Hobo with a Shotgun -- of a movie that wants to turn its genre on its head in some way; kick it in the pants, goose it into overdrive. With TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL, after a slow set-up, Mr. Craig succeeds surprisingly well.

The filmmaker, right, knows his genres and can thus make fun even as he gives his film what fans most want: blood, guts and kids in trouble. His ace-in-the-hole is the fact that he's simply made the usual villains into the heroes, while taking the ever present set of high-school or college kids from the nitwits they often are, into full-out certifiable bad-guy nut cases -- even if this is more accidental than not.

Though the movie, at 90 minutes, is still a bit too long, Craig has saved many of the best bits for the lengthy finale and denouement, so the laughs and fun do continue to build.

As usual among the lesser characters, characterization is minimal and the roles quickly dispensed with.  But in his four leads, the filmmaker has cast well and drawn some very good performances, starting with that of Tyler Labine (above, left, as Dave), who, along with Alan Tudyk (above, right, as the titular Tucker) make great hillbilly fun (rather than simply making fun of hillbillies)

The inevitable lone girl who must go up against the bad guy(s) is here played by Katrina Bowden (above, center), and much of the film's sweetness and fun are provided by the very unusual relationship spawned between Bowden and Labine, who make a damned nice couple despite, well, you'll see (but you'll have to sit through the end credits to do it).

The real villain is given a nice spin by Jesse Moss (above, right, with Ms Bowden), who plays Chad, a fellow whose lineage provides the film with its single best laugh. Oh, yes, there's plenty of blood and guts along the way, as befits the genre, but most of it is done with humor, surprise and invention.

Opening theatrically via Magnet Releasing on September 30 (you can check the listing of theaters -- a lot of 'em -- across the country during October and November here), it is also available via VOD now. In fact, unless I am mistaken, this is the first film from Magnet/Magnolia that we critics have been asked to review during the week of its VOD release, rather than waiting a month until the theatrical release. So, whether you watch it at home now or in a theater later, you're hearing about it somewhat earlier than usual. Click the link above or consult your local TV reception-provider for the how-to-get-it-On-Demand details.

Maryam Keshavarz's CIRCUMSTANCE: the Iranian "entitled" want some "freedom"

The wealthy family at the center of Maryam Keshavarz's quivering, queasy-making movie, CIRCUMSTANCE, would probably protest my use of the word entitled in the headline.And that's all right. (The entitled, after all, are those welfare queens and sick old seniors burying the U.S. deeper in debt, right?) The filmmaker herself, pictured below, might take umbrage, too, although I suspect she knows very well that her movie is mostly about Iran's entitled young people -- and their "friends" -- as they explore the limits of freedom in a fascist state enveloped by the burka.

How come our girls are not often seen in that partcular item of clothing? That's part of the entitlement. This is mostly all they know, and  you can't blame a novice filmmaker for showing us what she knows -- particularly when it is this exotic to foreign eyes.

Once  you get past the exoticism, however -- and this may be hard for some Americans and Western Europeans because it deals in forbidden sexuality (lesbianism!) in a Muslim country, and is handled with a good deal of artful flair -- you are left with a tale of youth under the thumb: of parent, brother, and government.

We've seen that tale told countless times on-screen, but because the Arab spring -- real or hyphed -- is so with us of late, the film often takes on an immediacy that is difficult to shake. Plus, the beautiful leading ladies (Nikohl Boosheri, above, left, and Sarah Kazemy, above, right), as well as the talented and broodingly hot young actor (Reza Sixo Safai, below), who essays the role of the brother, are all so visual-friendly, we could look at them till the cows come home.

Ms Keshavaz tell her small tale circumspectly and ripely. An exquisitely realized scene in the music room of a grand house sets the pace and place of the film quite beautifully. There is a visual rapture that the filmmaker brings to her treatment of, in particular, memory and attraction that makes her movie unusually vivid. Her camera lingers on the girls and their skin, at all angles, that is nearly soft, soft-core.
An interesting cultural/political conversation takes place among the kids in a videoroom in back of a barbershop, and later we see them "relaxing" at a rave. (Compare these kids with those Bahman Ghobadi's No One Knows about Persian Cats.) The filmmaker allows us to see what repression does to the male of this culture, too, as the line "Give me you foot!" resonates on a level you would not have imagined possible.

At times the film seems to be asking the viewer, not to mention the culture here, to rethink what is sacred and what is profane. Brother Mehran, a kind of sick, avenging angel will no doubt stand in for what is "sacred" in fundamentalist mind but what is most profane in that of the humanist/feminist. In any case, the filmmaker clearly means him to be the villain of the year, and the actor more than rises to the occasion.

In both Mehran and his sister Atafeh (Ms Boosheri), the film finds its explicit critique of the entitled. Neither is good for anything much. Mehran, who might have made an acccomplished musician, moves from drug rehab into a sick, violent religious fervor, while Atafeh, fiery and disobedient,can do no more than finally subject her best friend and great love to a life of living hell.

Circumstance, from Roadside Attractions (running time 108 minutes) opened thus past Friday in the Los Angeles and New York City areas.  Click here to see complete city and theater listings..

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Isabelle Huppert stuns in Jeanne Labrune's witty, thoughtful SPECIAL TREATMENT

"You've got good taste, for a hooker," notes an attitude-prone antiques dealer to the prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert in the unusual new film SPECIAL TREATMENT (Sans queue ni tête), which opened theatrically yesterday in Manhattan. Well, Ms Huppert would. She plays Alice Bergerac, a high-level hooker in a Paris seemingly filled with whores and shrinks -- in a movie that finds a surprising amount of common ground between the two professions, a fact that put The NY Times critic Stephen Holden's nose slightly out of joint. (The very idea, disparaging the work of the acolytes of Herr Freud!)

Well, more power to writer/director Jeanne Lebrune (shown at right) and co-writer Richard Debuisne for exploring the similarities between these pay-for-my-time-and-I'll-give-you-what-you-want/need professions. Their movie alternates scenes of shrinks (together or solo) with and without their "patients" and scenes of prostitutes with theirs. At one wittily filmed social gathering, the analysts compare rates, time periods (one bored fellow suggests five-minute sessions for much less money and -- he advises -- equal results.

What? Do these filmmakers imply that not every shrink has humanity's best interests at heart? Makes sense to me. Since we already know that not every whore has a heart of gold, why not look at the monetary, social and sexual interests of analysts?

The Times critic also takes Huppert to task for being, as  fine an actress as she is,  too old for the role. He ungenerously tells her her age, while neglecting to mention that she does not look it -- which, in this case, is the whole point. For her clients, she is role-playing, and doing a damned good job of it. (If TM were a fellow inclined to pay for sex, he's have no trouble dishing out the Euros to Huppert's Alice)

In the course of the movie, the actress gets the opportunity to don a number of fun outfits, wigs and (sort of) personalities, though -- as is often the case with this actress -- she remains aloof and almost obsessively self-composed. Which, of course, adds to her allure.

One shrink whom we meet, Xavier, seems particularly at wit's end, his marriage to his analyst wife imploding. Played by the wonderful actor Bouli Lanners (above, with Ms Huppert), of the under-seen El Dorado, this character manages to give Huppert's a run for the money in terms of sheer interest. By a dose of luck and circumstance, he connects with Alice, but the relationship does not offer either what they need.

Here the movie turns into something  stronger and more edifying than we had expected, involving an analyst who actually knows what he is doing (played quite well with an intriguing reticence and humility by the co-screenwriter, M. Debuisne, below, left ,with M. Lanners).

What comes through most strongly in this very interesting and engaging movie is E.M. Forster's plea/suggestion: Only connect!  Forster meant this on the emotional levvel, and this, of course, is what neither analysts nor prostitutes are able to do -- and supposedly should not do. And yet without this emotional connection to underpin what they are "giving," what worth are they? With it, however, they -- and their clients -- might, who knows, take on their share of the job of changing this sodden, hypocriticial world.

The great strength of Special Treatment is how wittily and subversively it upends what we think we know. The movie, from the wonderfully reliable First Run Feautres, opened yesterday in New York City at the Cinema Village. Click here then scroll down for other playdates, cities and theaters.