Category Archives: Road Movie

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

Tamar Tal’s gentle, low-key documentary follows three Jewish octogenarian brothers, as they return to the Tuscan countryside of their youth in an attempt to locate the make-shift forest cave that their family and grandparents called “home” for the duration of WW2 (for obvious reasons…as these gentlemen are still with us). It’s best described as The Trip to Bountiful…with more eating and complaining. A bit slow in spots (and repetitive), but the denouement is quite moving.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

Blu-ray reissue: Wim Wenders-The Road Triliogy

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set

Few names have become as synonymous with the “road movie” as German film maker Wim Wenders. Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World are the most well-known examples of his mastery in capturing not only the lure of the open road, but in laying bare the disparate human emotions that spark wanderlust. But fairly early in his career, between 1974 and 1976, he made a three-film cycle (all starring his favorite leading man Rudiger Vogler) that, while much lesser-known, easily stands with the best of the genre. Criterion has reissued all three of these previously hard to find titles in a wonderful box set.

Alice in the Cities  (***1/2) stars Vogler as a journalist who is reluctantly saddled into temporary stewardship of a precocious 9 year-old girl. His mission to get her to her grandmother’s house turns into quite the European travelogue (the relationship that develops is reminiscent of Paper Moon). It’s my personal favorite of the three.

In Wrong Move (**), Vogler is a writer in existential crisis, who hooks up with several other travelers who also carry mental baggage. It’s the darkest of the trilogy; Wenders based it on a Goethe novel.

Kings of the Road (***) is a Boudu Saved from Drowning-type tale with Vogler as a traveling film projector repairman who happens to be in the right place at the right time when a depressed psychologist (Hanns Zischler) decides to end it all by driving his VW into a river. The two traveling companions are slow to warm up to each other, but they have plenty of time to develop a bond at 2 hours and 55 minutes (i.e., the film may try the patience of some viewers). If you can stick with it, though, you’ll find it rewarding…it kind of  grows on you.

All three films have been given the usual meticulous Criterion restoration, showcasing Robby Muller’s beautiful cinematography.

Tour de France: Microbe and Gasoline ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2016)

I guess I’m mellowing with age. The first sign was when I saw a Wes Anderson film…and actually liked it. As I wrote in my 2014 review of The Grand Budapest Hotel:

I have been somewhat immune to the charms of Wes Anderson. I have also developed a complex of sorts over my apparent inability to comprehend why the phrase “a Wes Anderson film” has become catnip to legions of hipster-garbed fanboys and swooning film critics […] Maybe there’s something wrong with me? Am I like the uptight brother-in-law in Field of Dreams who can’t see the baseball players? […] To me, “a Wes Anderson film” is the cinematic equivalent to Wonder Bread…bland product, whimsically wrapped.

Mr. Anderson isn’t the only director I’ve had this “problem” with. Enter Michel Gondry, who I’ve always viewed as Anderson’s French cousin (i.e. a purveyor of bland product, whimsically wrapped). As I lamented in my 2014 review of Gondry’s Mood Indigo:

Not that I haven’t come to expect a discombobulating mishmash of twee narrative and wanton obfuscation from the director of similarly baffling “Romcoms From the Id” like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, but…enough, already.

I seriously doubt that Gondry literally read my silly little review and took it to heart, but I’ll be damned if he hasn’t dropped the twee narrative and wanton obfuscation for once, and made a film that I really enjoyed (hey wait…when did those ball players get here?!).

Microbe and Gasoline is a straightforward coming-of-age/road dramedy about two nerdy 14 year-old school chums who embark on a decidedly offbeat summer adventure. With its socially awkward protagonists and gentle comedic observations on the emotional (and hormonal) turbulence of young adolescence, the film is a mélange of Small Change, Gregory’s Girl, My Bodyguard, and Breaking Away, with a just a hint of Weird Science.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a daydreamer and budding artist who sketches portraits of his classroom crush Laura (Diane Besnier) in lieu of paying attention to the teacher. Small for his age and slightly built (hence the nickname “Microbe”), he is frequently mistaken for a girl. This makes him a natural target for bullies. Theo (Theophile Baquet) is the new kid at school, which automatically makes him an outsider. Theo (dubbed “Gasoline”, because he helps out in his dad’s auto repair shop) is more boisterous than Daniel, but generally shunned by the other kids because of his caustic wit, which he uses as a shield.

Bonded by their shared insecurities and outsider status, Daniel and Theo become fast friends. Theo mentors Daniel on strategies to get Laura’s attention (although he’s obviously not speaking from experience) and how to handle the bullying (of which he undoubtedly does speak from experience). “Remember,” he sagely tells Daniel, “today’s bullies are tomorrow’s victims.” When school’s out for summer, the two decide to split Versailles and hit the road, Jacques. The only problem with that plan is that they are too young to hold driver’s licenses. So, combining Theo’s mechanical savvy with Daniel’s vivid imagination, they design and build their own vehicle…a wooden shack on wheels.

Best described as an outhouse set atop a go-cart (or perhaps a mini-version of Howl’s Moving Castle), the theory is that if they encounter any gendarmes on their journey, they simply pull over to the side of the road and, voila! It’s just a shack on the side of the road. This element of the narrative is Gondry’s sole acquiescence to his innate twee tendencies.

This is the director’s most accessible film, with great performances all around (although Audrey Tautou seems underutilized in her relatively small part as Daniel’s mom). Parents should be advised that the film has an ‘R’ rating (one scene in particular, in which Daniel wanders into a massage parlor for a haircut, assures that this one will never pop up on The Disney Channel). It’s a simple tale; but if you hit the right notes (as Gondry does here) there’s eloquence in simplicity. It may not win a prize for originality, but in the midst of a summer movie roster rife with murder and mayhem, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Goin’ mobile: Top 10 road movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 28, 2016)

Since Memorial Day weekend signals the warm-up to the summer travel season, I thought I would address those stirrings of wanderlust by sharing my picks for the Top 10 road movies. As usual, the list is in alphabetical order. So…fill ‘er up and check the oil!

 Five Easy Pieces – “You see this sign?” Thanks to sharp direction from Bob Rafaelson, a memorable screenplay by Carole Eastman (billed in the credits as Adrien Joyce) and an outstanding, iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, this remains one of the defining American road movies of the 1970s. Nicholson was born to play the protagonist in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained pianist from a moneyed family, working at soulless blue-collar jobs and teetering on the edge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black gives one of her better performances as his long-suffering girlfriend. The late great DP Laszlo Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked Pacific Northwest milieu. And remember where to hold the chicken salad…

Genevieve-A marvelous entry from Britain’s golden age of screen comedies, this gentle and good-natured 1953 film centers on the travails of an endearing young couple (Dinah Sheridan and John Gregson) as they join their bachelor friend (Kenneth Moore) and his latest flame (Kay Kendall) on their annual road trip from London to Brighton as participants in an antique car rally. After the two men have a bit of a verbal spat in Brighton, they decide to convert the return trip to London into a “friendly” race, with a 100 pound wager to be awarded to whoever is the first to reach and cross Westminster Bridge. Colorful, drolly amusing and engaging throughout, especially thanks to Sheridan and Gregson’s charming onscreen chemistry. Oh, in case you were wondering-“Genevieve” is the name of the couple’s antique car! Director Henry Cornelius’ next project was I Am a Camera, the 1955 film that was reincarnated as the musical Cabaret.

Lost in America – Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and go Kerouac in order to “find themselves”; they’ll “touch Indians” (with a “nest egg” of $145,000). Actually, Brooks’ character fancies their new elective lifestyle choice to be closer in spirit to the protagonists in Easy Rider (except that Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper didn’t hit the road in an RV that featured a microwave with a built-in browning element for making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich). Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and they now find themselves on the receiving end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like all of Brooks’ best movies, it is at once painfully funny and so very, very painful to watch.

Motorama – This blackly comic 1991 road movie/Orphic journey nearly defies description. A rather odd 10-year old boy (Jordan Michael Christopher) flees his feuding parents to hit the road in search of his version of the American Dream-to win the grand prize in a gas station-sponsored scratch card game called “Motorama”. As he zips through fictional states with in-jokey names like South Lyndon, Bergen, Tristana and Essex, he has increasingly bizarre and absurd encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of cult filmdom, including John Diehl, John Nance, Susan Tyrell, Michael J. Pollard, Mary Woronov, Meatloaf and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. What I find particularly amusing is that none of the adults seem to question why a 10 year old (who curses like a sailor and sports a curious bit of stubble by film’s end) is driving a Mustang on a solo cross-country trip. Not for all tastes-definitely not one for the kids (especially since the venerable parental admonishment of “You’ll poke your eye out!” becomes fully realized). Director Barry Shils has only made one other film, the 1995 doc, Wigstock: The Movie.

Powwow Highway – A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha. He has decided that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz keep it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That being said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because it contains one of those episodic, virtually plotless “road trip” narratives that may cause drowsiness for some viewers after about 15 minutes. Yet, I feel compelled to revisit this one at least once a year. Go figure. A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, a sociopathic British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs. But the “plot” doesn’t matter. As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema is capable of capturing and preserving the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

Sideways – Not unlike the fine wines coveted by one of its main protagonists, this 2004 dramedy from director/co-writer Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) is destined to become richer and more fully appreciated over time (and repeated viewings, as I have discovered). Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church really shine as a divorced, unpublished writer and a soon-to-be-married, middling TV actor (respectively), two middle-aged pals who embark on a road trip through California’s wine country. For the writer, it’s to be a leisurely cruise through the lovely environs, teaching his friend how to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of the grape, and its subtle variances from vineyard to vineyard. For his less refined pal, it’s one last shot at a boning and grogging debauch before he ties the knot. When the two hook up with Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, things get interesting (cue the midlife meltdowns). Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor picked up a deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar (based on Rex Pickett’s novel).

Sullivan’s Travels – A unique and amazingly deft mash-up of romantic screwball comedy, Hollywood satire, road movie and hard-hitting social drama that probably would not have worked so beautifully had not the great Preston Sturges been at the helm. Joel McCrea is pitch-perfect as a director of goofy populist comedies who yearns to make a “meaningful” film. Racked with guilt about the comfortable bubble that his Hollywood success has afforded him and determined to learn firsthand how the other half lives, he decides to hit the road with no money in his pocket and “embed” himself as a railroad tramp (much to the chagrin of his handlers). He is joined along the way by an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake, in one of her best comic performances). His voluntary crash-course in “social realism” turns into much more than he had originally bargained for. Lake and McCrea have wonderful chemistry. Many decades later, the Coen Brothers co-opted the title of the fictional “film within the film” here: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Trip – Pared down into feature length from the 2011 BBC TV series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of the 6 episodes; which is not to denigrate it, because it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in years. The levity is due in no small part to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves. Coogan is commissioned by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and write reviews. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since they’re going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him. This simple narrative setup is basically an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it feels improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s unexpected poignancy as well-but for the most part, it’s comedy gold. The director and both stars reunited for their equally enjoyable 2014 sequel, The Trip to Italy.

Vanishing Point – I don’t know if anyone has ever done a study to see if there was spike in sales for Dodge Challengers in 1971, but it would not surprise me, since every car nut I have ever known who throws around phrases like “cherry” or “big block” usually gets a dreamy, faraway look in their eyes when I mention this cult classic, directed by Richard C. Sarafian. It’s best described as an existential car chase movie. Barry Newman stars as Kowalski (there’s never a mention of a first name), a car delivery driver who is assigned to get a Challenger from Colorado to San Francisco. When someone wagers he can’t make the trip in less than 15 hours, he accepts the challenge. Naturally, someone in a muscle car pushing 100 mph across several states is going to eventually get the attention of law enforcement-and the chase is on. Not much of a plot, but curiously riveting nonetheless. Episodic; one memorable vignette involves a hippie chick riding around the desert on a chopper a la Lady Godiva, to the strains of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” (riveting!). Cleavon Little plays Supersoul-a blind radio DJ who becomes Kowalski’s guardian angel and provides a sort of Greek Chorus. The enigmatic ending still mystifies.

SIFF 2016: The Curve ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

It’s tempting to describe Rifqi Assaf’s road movie as “Little Miss Sunshine in the Arabian Desert” but that would be shortchanging this humanistic, warmly compassionate study of life in the modern Arab world. It’s essentially a three-character chamber piece, set in a VW van as it traverses desolate stretches of Jordan. Fate and circumstance unite a taciturn Palestinian who has been living in his van, with a chatty Palestinian divorcee returning to a Syrian refugee camp and an exiled Lebanese TV director. A beautifully directed and acted treatise on the commonalities that defy borders.

Alter cocker rocker: Danny Collins ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 4, 2015)

Al Pacino may be one of the finest actors of his generation, but he cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Now, if you can live with that, his new vehicle Danny Collins is likely to leave you with a smile on your face, and a song in your…well, erm…with a smile on your face.

Now picture Pacino as geriatric rock star Danny Collins. Danny, whose heyday was in the 1970s, still indulges in the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle (though he’s beginning to look a bit peaked). He makes his grand entrance in a manner akin to the protagonist of the 2013 Italian film The Great Beauty (my review), feted by well-wishers and hangers-on at a wild and decadent birthday bash thrown in his honor. There is ample evidence that Danny has done well; judging by his opulent mansion, and his hot young trophy fiancée (currently shitfaced and passed out on the edge of the pool).

Yet, there is Something Missing. These nifty trappings came at a steep price…his Integrity (oh, the humanity). When Danny burst onto the scene back in the day, he was a gifted young singer-songwriter. But “gifted” doesn’t pay the bills. Eventually, he had a breakthrough hit, but it was a Neil Diamond-ish singalong he didn’t compose. So he went the way of Elvis; becoming more of a “showman” than an “artist”. He’s about to get the icing on this bittersweet cake. His longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) gifts him with a handwritten letter from John Lennon, praising Danny’s work and offering to mentor him. Here’s the rub: the 40 year-old note, sent c/o Danny’s first management, was never passed on to him; it was sold to a collector.

And so Danny’s game of “what if?” is afoot, and he hits the road sans the usual entourage (to the chagrin of his manager, who is anxious about Danny’s upcoming string of tour dates), in search of his long-lost Muse (ah, the luxuries of the creative class) What ensues is like Searching for Sugarman…in reverse. In that 2013 documentary, a film maker tracks down a talented American singer-songwriter who released two obscure LPs in the 70s, then dropped out of the biz. Unbeknownst to the artist, he had become a superstar in South America over the decades, based solely on the two LPs (with ignorance being bliss, he kept his integrity). Danny, on the other hand, knows he is a superstar, yet yearns to “find” and restore his integrity.

This is the directorial debut for Dan Fogelman, who also scripted. Despite some jarring tonal shifts,  affable supporting performances from Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner and Bobby Cannavale, coupled with one of Pacino’s better turns of recent years, wins the day. It doesn’t hurt to have a bevy of great Lennon tunes on the soundtrack. And as long as Al doesn’t quit his day job, our ears remain safe.

Involuntary simplicity: The Discoverers **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  21, 2014)

Writer-director Justin Schwarz is the love child of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne. Actually, this is pure speculation, based upon viewing his dramedy, The Discoverers. It’s the oft-told, indie-flavored tale of a quirky, screwed-up family who embark upon an arduous trek, only to discover that all roads eventually lead back to Dysfunction Junction. However, as the rules of this film genre dictate, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Griffin Dunne stars as Lewis, a man in crisis. In the midst of a divorce and nearly broke, he barely scrapes by as a part-time history teacher at a Chicago community college. The only light on the horizon is that he may have finally found a publisher for his 6,000 page magnum opus about an obscure historical figure named York, a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their trek to the Pacific (his obsession with this decades-long research and writing project has essentially destroyed his marriage). When he is invited to present a paper in Oregon, he decides to make it a “family road trip”, dropping by his estranged wife’s house to scoop up son Jack (Devon Graye) and daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin).

Soon after they hit the road, they encounter their first detour. Lewis gets a frantic phone call from his smarmy yuppie brother (John C. McGinley), who asks him to check on their parents in Idaho. Lewis is reticent at first, as he has been estranged from his father (Stuart Margolin) for a number of years; but dutifully complies. What he discovers is not good; his mother lying dead on the bathroom floor (from natural causes), and his grief-stricken father, who remains silent and glowering while Lewis tends to the funeral arrangements.

His father only breaks his silence once, to insist that Lewis’ brother read the eulogy at the service (even though Lewis wrote it). After the burial, Lewis’ busy brother simply must dash, dumping their traumatized father into his charge. The next morning, Lewis’ dad pulls a disappearing act, but is located with a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors off on an annual “Discovery Trek” that recreates the pair’s epic journey. In an attempt to snap his father back to reality, Lewis talks his reluctant teenagers into tagging along, (not an easy sell, as all  are required to eschew modern amenities).

If you’re thinking this all sounds like Little Miss Sunshine meets Moonrise Kingdom by way of Nebraska, you would be correct. And as in those aforementioned films, the literal journey undertaken by the protagonists becomes a figurative journey of self-discovery; a mapping out and circumnavigation of roadblocks in their lives that are inevitably attributable to family dysfunction. These are the types of characters that make you wish you could reach through the screen, grab them by their lapels, and let them have it with that classic exhortation from Tootsie…”I BEGGED you to get therapy!”

The film would not have worked as well without Dunne; his penchant for projecting wryness in the face of existential despair (which made him the “go-to” guy in the 80s to play the Hapless Urban Everyman) remains intact. This is also a comeback for the 74 year-old Margolin, most recognizable for his TV role as the sidekick on The Rockford Files. He gives a touching, resonant performance.  And Schwarz earns extra points for injecting overly-familiar material with enough freshness and heart to make it quaffable.

Swinging 60-ish: On My Way *** & Le Week-End ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 12, 2014)

Grandmere du jour: On My Way

So if you have been staying away from theaters because you’re one of those folks who feels the majority of Hollywood product these days is just big, dumb, loud (in 3-D IMAX) and targeting sub-literate 12 year-olds, I have good news for you. Two (count ’em, two) eminently watchable flicks for grownups. Two films featuring fully fleshed out characters over 60…who are neither senile nor terminally ill (!).

(First up). I think smoking is a disgusting habit. But there’s something about a beautiful French woman puffing on a Gitane that makes it seem…how do you say? SoDamSexy. Consider Catherine Deneuve, who maintains her ageless allure even while taking up a chunk of screen time in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way bumming cigarettes, scrounging for money to buy cigarettes, desperately seeking any place that sells cigarettes, and of course, chain-smoking cigarettes.

Deneuve is Bettie, an ex-beauty queen (Miss Brittany 1969!) turned restaurateur, who has actually been on the cigarette wagon, at the encouragement of her cashier (Claude Gensac) who also happens to be her mom. But Bettie is about to fall off the wagon. She has reluctantly inherited her family-owned eatery, which is operating barely above water. Living with her overly-protective elderly mom further elevates Bettie’s stress level, and now she hears it through the grapevine that her lover has dumped her for someone else (“Some 25 year-old slut,” her mom informs her, unhelpfully adding, “…a beautician.”). Say…anybody got a smoke?

Suddenly overwhelmed by life in general, Bettie impetuously hops into her car Thelma and Louise-style and hits the road, with (as Chuck Berry once sang) no particular place to go. When she calls one of her employees a day or two later to assure everyone that she hasn’t gone missing, she finds out that her estranged daughter Muriel (Camille) has been desperately trying to reach her. Muriel has had a last-minute shot at an internship in Brussels, but can’t find anyone else available to take her precocious son (Nemo Schiffman, real-life son of the director) to his grandfather’s house in the country. To the surprise of both her daughter and herself, Bettie agrees to do her the solid (despite the awkwardness of barely knowing her grandson and having never even met her daughter’s father-in-law). And so they are off on their adventures through pastoral provincial France.

While Bercot’s script (co-written with Jerome Tonnerre) doesn’t venture too far from the traditional road movie tropes (unexpected detours, episodic meet-ups with quirky characters, etc.) the film is buoyed by her intelligent direction and the ever-radiant Deneuve’s engaging performance. Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, The Artist) nicely captures the sun-dappled beauty of central France for a pleasing backdrop.

It’s interesting, I finally got around to seeing Alexander Payne’s Nebraska recently; and I found On My Way to be strikingly similar. Both films examine an aging parent and an adult child coming to grips with an estranged relationship. Granted, Deneuve’s sixty-something character is relatively “younger” and more sound of mind than Bruce Dern’s dementia-suffering octogenarian, but both of these protagonists need to embark on a meandering road trip before ultimately coming home (both literally and figuratively) to the realization that what they were really looking for was tucked away in the bosom of their family all along…unconditional love.

Just another happy couple: Duncan and Broadbent in Le Week-End

Among the Boomers, who are now finding themselves irrevocably “turning into their parents” and thereby forced to commit previously unthinkable acts (e.g., sheepishly flashing an AARP membership card for a senior discount, or maybe going out for dinner at 4pm) those who are married with children arguably face the most dreaded crossroads of all: The Empty Nest Years. Personally, I wouldn’t know, being a barren bachelor, but you know…this is what I’ve heard. The kids all have moved away, and now here we are, staring at each other across the table thinking: “So…now what do we do for excitement?”

If taking a young lover or a new sports car is off the table, how about a weekend in Paris? That’s what English couple Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) are banking on to spice things up for their anniversary. That is the setup for Le Week-End, an uneven yet absorbing effort from Notting Hill director Roger Michell and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid screenwriter Hanif Kureishi.

Meg and Nick, both academics, don’t appear overtly affectionate, but they seem comfortable with…whatever “it” is that they do have (like a well-worn yet cozy pair of slippers you won’t toss). However, once they run into an old colleague (Jeff Goldblum, playing the Ugly American to the hilt) and he invites them to a soiree at his upscale Parisian digs (swarming with French hipsters), the facade crumbles.

The film is marketed as a comedy, but Kureishi’s literate screenplay is darker in tone; closer to Harold Pinter or Edward Albee (at times, Nick and Meg are like a benign George and Martha). Still, Paris is gorgeous, Duncan and Broadbent give great performances, no shots are fired…and there isn’t even one car chase.

Voices leaking from a sad cafe: Inside Llewyn Davis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2014)

Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?

A: Homeless.

 -an old joke (author unknown)

 Some years back, while working as a morning radio host in Fairbanks, I was once scheduled to do an on-air interview with a popular Alaskan folk singer named Hobo Jim, who was slated to perform that evening. Unfortunately, he missed the interview window. The exasperated promoter called me after my show, explaining Jim was still on the road. While transportation had been offered, Jim had declined, preferring instead to hitchhike the 360 miles from the previous night’s gig in Anchorage. Oh well…I figured there had to be some reason they called this fellow “Hobo” Jim.

Then of course you’ve got your Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, your Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Steve Martin’s “Ramblin’ Guy”…and now, thanks to the fertile imaginations of the Coen Brothers, your couch-surfin’ Llewyn Davis. “Rambling” and “freewheeling” could describe the tone of Inside Llewyn Davis, a loose (very loose) narrative depicting several days in the life of the eponymous character, a sad sack folk singer (Oscar Isaac). The year is 1961, and the percolating Greenwich Village coffeehouse music scene provides the backdrop. That Zimmerman kid and some of his contemporaries are starting to make a bit of a splash; Llewyn Davis, not so much. Llewyn is one of those struggling artists perennially mired at the crossroads of “The Big Time” and “Bus Ride Back to Obscurity”.

Llewyn has tons of down time, in between spotty gigs and waiting for (any) news from his comically ineffectual manager, Mel Novikoff (the late Jerry Grayson). He spends most of that time brooding. He has a lot of things to brood over. Like why nearly all the pressings of his first solo album (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) have been returned by the record company and are sitting in unopened boxes in Mel’s office. Or why his former musical partner decided to throw himself off the George Washington Bridge soon after the duo released their only album. Or why Jean (Carey Mulligan) the girlfriend and singing partner of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and with whom he has had a brief fling, is blaming him for a surprise pregnancy and pressing him to pay for an abortion. And then there is the matter of a lost cat, that he finds, but then loses again (don’t ask).

I suppose it wouldn’t be a proper folk singer’s yarn if there wasn’t a bit of that ramblin’, and it arrives in the form of Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago with a misanthropic jazz musician (Coen stalwart John Goodman), a pithy beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and the aforementioned cat (who says nothing). This is the centerpiece of the film, as well as the most recognizably “Coen-esque” sequence (you could say it’s where the rubber meets the road, literally and metaphorically). In fact, how you respond to what transpires therein will determine whether you come away loving or hating the film.

If that sounds nebulous, you don’t know the half of it. Especially once you try to digest the metaphysical conundrum at the end that makes you question how much of what you’ve just seen is, erm, what you’ve just seen. Aw, screw it. It’s the Coens-deal with it. That whole “don’t expect a cohesive narrative” thing aside, the Coens have succeeded in making another one of those films that you find yourself digesting for a couple days afterward. While I wouldn’t put it up there with one of their certified classics like Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country for Old Men, it fits in comfortably with chin-stroking character studies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. And there are quotable lines; not as numerous as in, let’s say, The Big Lebowski…but I enjoyed genuine belly laughs amid the angst.

As usual, the Coens have assembled a sterling ensemble (F. Murray Abraham is a particular delight in his cameo as a jaded impresario). The musical performances by the actors (produced by T-Bone Burnett) are heartfelt and impressive; especially when stacked against ringers like Timberlake. Attention to period detail adds to the verisimilitude. Inside Llewyn Davis may not answer all the important questions (I still don’t know how many roads a man must walk down, before they call him a man) but it hits all the right notes.