Tag Archives: 2014 Reviews

Goodnight, Saigon: The Last Days of Vietnam ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

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Call this an intervention, but someone has to say it. America has an ongoing co-dependent relationship with the Vietnam war. Oh, I know, it’s been nearly 40 years since we were “involved”. And to be sure, as soon as the last Marine split, we wasted no time giving the war its ring back. We put our fingers in our ears, started chanting “la-la-la-la can’t hear you” and moved on with our lives, pretending like the whole tragic misfire never happened. But here’s the funny thing. Every time we find ourselves teetering on the edge of another quagmire, we stack it up against our old flame. We can’t help ourselves. “We don’t want another Vietnam,” we worry, or “Well…at least this doesn’t seem likely to turn into another Vietnam,” we fib to ourselves as we get all dressed up for our third date.

But do all who use that meme truly understand why it’s so important that we don’t have another Vietnam? For many (particularly those too young to have grown up watching it go sideways on Walter Cronkite), the passage of time has rendered the war little more than an abstract reference. It’s too easy to forget the human factor. Even for many old enough to remember, dredging up the human factor reopens old wounds (personal or political). But you know what “they” say…those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Which is why I would encourage you to catch Rory Kennedy’s documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, precisely because she dares to dredge up the “human factor”.

Kennedy focuses on a specific period of time; literally the “last days” of American involvement in Vietnam, detailing the drama that unfolded at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon in April of 1975, as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. The city defenses were virtually nil; U.S. troops had withdrawn (save a small contingent of Marines assigned to protecting the embassy grounds). The South Vietnamese soldiers who remained were sorely under-equipped and in disarray. No word had arrived from Washington as to any official contingency plans for evacuating any of the South Vietnamese from the city (Congress was gridlocked on the subject…imagine that). It began to dawn on some of the embassy workers that time was running out for their South Vietnamese co-workers and friends. With no time to lose, they decided to go a bit…rogue.

Blending archival footage with recollections by participants (American and Vietnamese), Kennedy reconstructs the extraordinary events of those final days and hours that ultimately resulted in the successful extraction of 77,000 men, women and children (which is about, oh, 77,000 more than would have been able to escape had everyone just sat around and waited for an act of Congress…sometimes, you’ve got to break a few protocols in the name of basic human decency). And as you watch the film you realize what a tremendous act of courage and compassion this was on the part of those who spearheaded this makeshift exodus (it’s reminiscent of Dunkirk). For some participants, who refuse to accept any laurels, memories remain bittersweet at best; obviously they did not have the time or the resources to get everyone out, and that hits them hard to this day.

Of course, there’s that big question that remains: Why were we there in the first place? “The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm,” one of the interviewees quietly observes as he wells up with emotion, “Promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt, because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam war is a story that kind of sounds like that.” Sadly, as we now find ourselves chasing ISIS down the rabbit hole, this is starting to sound like a story without an ending.

Swimming to Soulsville: Take Me To the River ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 27, 2014)

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Maybe I’m just jaded, but there’s a sub genre of music doc that is becoming somewhat formulaic. “(Insert director and film title here) is the story of (insert name of venerable American recording studio here), located near the banks of (insert name of venerable American river here), which has given host to the likes of (insert impressive roll call of venerable American musicians here), frequently backed up by (insert aggregate nickname for venerable American session players) who have collectively given us the soundtrack of our lives.”

There’s no other way to say it: Martin Shore’s Take Me to the River is the story of the Stax recording studios, near the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis Tennessee, which has given host to the likes of Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Isaac Hayes, Otis Clay and William Bell, frequently backed by house band Booker T. & the MGs, who have collectively given us the, erm, soundtrack of our lives.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a damn good soundtrack, especially for those of (ahem) a certain age, who grew up digging classic Stax A-sides like “Green Onions” by Booker T., “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas, “Walk on By” by Isaac Hayes, “Private Number” by William Bell and Judy Clay, “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd, “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, “Respect Yourself” by The Staple Singers, and…well, you get the gist.

Using archival footage and recollections by seminal Stax artists and producers, Shore traces the history of the label, from its founding in the early 60’s, through its occasionally stormy partnership with Atlantic Records, to its heyday as an independent label from 1968 to 1972 (he doesn’t dwell on the rough patches from the mid-70s through the early 1980s, which included bankruptcy and internal strife).

The good news is that Stax has enjoyed a second wind over the last decade (mostly as a reissue label). It is in the spirit of this revival that the director decided to frame the film by documenting the making of an inter-generational “duets” album that pairs up hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg, Lil P-Nut, Al Kapone and Yo Gotti with Stax veterans.

This leads to some interesting moments; in my favorite scene, the great Bobby “Blue” Bland offers some grandfatherly advice about the music biz to the 11 year-old Lil P-Nut, as well as a “tough love” tutorial on how to inject his vocal phrasing with real soul. Mavis Staples really lights up the room with her wonderful spirit and “that” voice. Another music highlight is an impromptu jam session featuring the soft-spoken blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, proving age is not a factor when it comes to blowing a mean harp.

The best part about Shore’s film is that it admirably aspires to connect the dots between the R&B “Memphis sound” and the contemporary sub genres that have evolved from it (like hip-hop and neo-soul). In this sense, the older artists who appear in the film (vital and soulful as ever) are literally “living history”.

One also gets the poignant sense of a legacy passing on, especially in a segment showing students from an associated music school working with veteran Stax artists on one of the sessions. An important element of that legacy is the colorblind factor; from its earliest days to the present, this has been a music scene (based in the Deep South, mind you) that remained happily oblivious to the very concept of a color barrier. All that mattered was the music that came out of the box.

The need to preserve that legacy of spirit holds more import once it’s revealed that several of the older performers have passed since principal filming. One of those late legends, guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts (who provided those iconic wah-wah licks on “Shaft”) embodies this gracious spirit when we see him praise a young student drummer. “Watch this fellow,” Pitts gushes like a proud dad, “He’s already plugged in. Nobody had to tell him how to do nothing.” He gives the teenager a fist bump, adding “Love you, man. Hope you like what I did…I tried to put a little some-somethin’ on it.” Hey, that’s the best any of us can aim for before we shuffle off this mortal coil…puttin’ a little some-somethin’ on it.

Days of whine and neuroses: My Old Lady **1/2 & A Master Builder ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 20, 2014)

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Drunken boor(s): Kevin Kline hams it up in My Old Lady

What am I, a theater critic now? The truthful answer would be “no”, but through some luck of the draw, I find myself reviewing two films rooted in the boards. Quiet in the wings, please. First up is My Old Lady, adapted for the screen by long-time playwright/first-time film director Israel Horovitz from his own original stage production.

As I am wholly ignorant regarding Mr. Horovitz’s oeuvre (save for the film version of his Author! Author!), I may be talking out of school, but the setup in his film feels straight outta Neil Simon, in the vein of The Goodbye Girl or The Odd Couple. Kevin Kline stars as a self-absorbed New Yorker (is that redundant?) who inherits a spacious Parisian apartment from his late father. It’s a pretty sweet deal, with just two minor drawbacks: 1) A stalwart nonagenarian (Dame Maggie Smith) and her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas) are already in residence, and 2) An obscure French law that not only forbids the chagrined (and strapped for cash) heir from selling “his” apartment until the old lady kicks…but requires him to pay her a monthly stipend, under penalty of losing ownership.

While the setup promises a lightweight Simonesque romp, the ensuing tonal shift makes for more of a Pinteresque pity party; its punch bowl brimming with lies, bitterness and a Family Secret (which you’ll see coming a mile away). Still, if you have to be stuck in a dusty old Parisian apartment for 107 minutes with three actors hogging the screen time, you could do worse than Kevin Kline, Dame Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas (with a  peep from the wonderful Dominique Pinon). I only wish Horovitz had given his formidable trio of stars more interesting things to do and say.

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Joy and pane: A Master Builder

Moving now from an overcrowded Parisian apartment to a sprawling mansion, the mood oddly turns more claustrophobic. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder is derived from an Ibsen play (rarely a romp in the fields). Wallace Shawn (who adapted the screenplay from a new translation) stars as a well-to-do architect named Solness, the man who designed that mansion, and a good many others in the small (New England?) town he lives in with his long-suffering wife (Julie Hagerty). Long suffering for many reasons; not the least being the fact that her husband is a manipulative asshole (I’m not sure if that’s the literal translation from the original Norwegian, so pardon my French, and my bad English, if it ain’t).

However, this may all soon become moot, because we find the soulless Solness bedridden with some kind of indeterminate (but obviously terminal) illness, being fussed over by his wife, his doctor (Larry Pine) and his bookkeeper/mistress (Emily McDonnell). Here’s where you need to start paying attention. Solness’ mistress is also the fiancée of his most promising protégé (Jeff Biehl), whom he has nonetheless been keeping down (remember, he’s an asshole), much to the chagrin of the gifted young architect’s sickly father (Andre Gregory), who pleads with his long-time frenemy to promote his son and let him prove his mettle. Solness refuses to comply. Enter the Free Spirited Other (Lisa Joyce), a vivacious young woman who appears out of the blue on his doorstep (or does she…hmm). All the poisons that lurk in the mud are about to hatch out.

It’s a little bit A Christmas Carol, a little bit Tempest, a little bit All That Jazz (sans dancing), and a whole lot of angst. But again, we must consider the source material (Pop quiz: How many famous Scandinavian comedians can you name, off the top of your head? I rest my case). Still, the script crackles with seriocomic intelligence, the cast is excellent (the radiant and charismatic Joyce is a particular standout and a great discovery) and it’s a kick to see Shawn reunited (albeit briefly) with his My Dinner With Andre co-star Gregory. At first, Demme (Melvin and Howard, The Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob, Something Wild) seemed to me to be an odd choice for helming such a stagey talk fest, but refreshing myself on his resume, I realize he’s no stranger to filmed stage performance (Stop Making Sense, Swimming to Cambodia, Storefront Hitchcock). His direction here is subtle; at once coolly omniscient and warmly intimate.

The twee of life: God Help the Girl ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2014)

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I love Scottish pop: God Help the Girl

As far as plot-less yet pleasingly pastoral Scottish musicals centering on mentally unstable young female protagonists yearning to become pop stars go, you could do worse than God Help the Girl.  An oddball cross between Alan Moyle’s manic-depressive 1980 music biz drama Times Square and Gillian Armstrong’s kooky, sunny-side-up 1982 new wave musical, Starstruck, the film (written, directed and scored by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch) stars Emily Browning as Eve, a clinically depressed young Glaswegian with musical inclinations…and the soul of a poet. Oh, and a cool beret.

When we first meet her, Eve is in hospital for psychiatric counseling and treatment for an eating disorder. She has a habit of sneaking out to hit the live music clubs when no one is looking. During one of these excursions, Eve Meets Cute with a bespectacled, nebbish-y singer-guitarist named James (Olly Alexander), but not before witnessing the onstage dissolution of his band (an argument over volume levels results in show-stopping fisticuffs with his drummer during their opening number). James quickly intuits that Eve has a decent voice, a unique charisma and a natural gift for songwriting. He introduces Eve to his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray), an aspiring singer. Guess what happens next…

There’s not much of a “story” to speak of, but Murdoch does sustain a kind of baroque mood throughout; an impressionistic rendering of a bittersweet, youthful summer idyll informed by Browning and Murray’s dreamy, airy, vocal performances and Murdoch’s lovely chamber pop-influenced melodies (and he’s not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve…in one of the music sequences, he has Browning hold up a 45 RPM copy of “Pretty Ballerina” by the Left Banke). I found the baroque vibe a  pleasant invocation of Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street (yes, I’m one of those contrarians who actually dug Sir Paul’s dreaded “vanity film”). While the jury is still out on whether this is a rock ’n’ roll fable aspiring to be a musical, or a musical aspiring to be a rock ’n’ roll fable, if you accept it as a construct of endearing music videos,  linked by a loose narrative, you just might get away with calling it entertaining.

No, seriously. I really do love Scottish pop:

I hope God has a sense of humor: R.I.P. Robin Williams

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If there’s a comedy heaven, its headliner finally showed. But he won’t shut the fuck up.

In the introduction to my review of Where the Wild Things Are a few years ago, I wrote:

Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of the “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble)…“stay in touch with your Inner Child”.

Earlier today, as I am sure you’ve heard, Robin Williams lost touch with his inner child. As Smokey sang, “…there’s some sad things known to man/But ain’t too much sadder than/ The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” As someone who used to work in stand-up comedy, I can attest that there’s something to that. A lot of comics are sad people. Humor is a self-defense mechanism for depressives. I can’t explain why, it just is.

There was a certainly lot of that manic quality on display in Williams’ stand-up work…in fact, we came to expect it from him; he was loved, lauded and lavished with lucre for acting out in public like an absolute fucking loon. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It was his genius. It’s just that we rarely stop to think that some of these comic prodigies (like Williams’ idol Jonathan Winters) really do have a screw loose sometimes. For those like Jonathan and Robin, it may be their curse…but they made it our blessing.

But back to the funny “ha-ha” part of this whole thing…the legacy. Can you imagine, if you added up all the people who ever fell out of their chairs watching him perform on stage, from the tiniest little comedy holes like The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco (where it sticks in my craw to this day that I would somehow keep “missing” him when I lived there in the early 80s… “Oh, man, you left at 10:30 last night? Shit, man, Robin dropped by and did a surprise set at 11!”) to the prestigious concert halls, and then throw in all the people who sat in their living rooms laughing their asses off at Mork and Mindy (and still do, in syndication), and then top it off with the millions who flocked to his movies (good or bad)…how much endorphin release would that add up to in megatons?

We’ll let the psychologists worry about why he did what he ended up doing to himself (if that is indeed the case; the whys and the wherefores are not definitive as of this writing). A close friend emailed me about it this evening, and he offered an insightful corollary with another cultural icon of note, beginning with this classic Hunter S. Thompson quote:

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…

He went on to point out that “…that high that made (Robin and Hunter) feel that anything was possible has since rolled back…and the sad reality of our corporate controlled existence almost demands them stepping off…leaving the future to another generation to resolve.” (h/t to JBF). And they were both in their 60s. Jesus, I think I just got even more depressed. Let’s get back to the work. I will leave you with my favorite Williams scene. It’s from Terry Gilliam’s film, The Fisher King. It’s a perfect 4 minute showcase of everything Robin excelled at as an actor and comic. RIP.

Move over, Smaug: Ragnarok **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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According to my exhaustive research on Norse mythology (OK…one-clicking to Wikipedia), “Ragnarok” was the Viking version of Armageddon; warning of an apocalypse that culminates in a worldwide flood, after which all begins anew (not to be confused with “Raga-rock”, which was a sub-genre of wild, far-out hippie music that Grandpa used to zone out to after a hit of Windowpane).

In the context of Norwegian director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s eponymous new film, it’s a major concern to a harried, recently defunded archaeologist widower (Pal Sverre Hagen) who specializes in Viking artifacts. He’s been attempting to translate mysterious runes found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck.

When he and a fellow researcher (Nicolai Cleve Broch) become convinced that Ragnarok may 1) not in fact be a myth, and 2) be imminent, he grabs his teen daughter and young son and heads north to an uninhabited part of Finnmark, where he and his colleague hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. After adding a sexy-tough love interest…I mean, assistant researcher (Sofia Helin) and a crusty yet benign guide to the team, the expedition is afoot.

While what ensues in Sandemose’s film can be called out as a shamelessly derivative mash-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, it’s still kind of fun, in a contentedly mindless way. Actually, amid all of the typically big, dumb, loud and over-produced action-adventure summer fare currently flooding the multiplexes, it stands out as a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn. The story clips along without unnecessary padding, most of the violence is (thankfully) off-screen, and it says everything it needs to say in 94 minutes.

Prisoners of love: The Dog ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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And all he got was this stupid T-shirt: The Dog

On a sultry August afternoon back in 1972, a botched Brooklyn bank robbery morphed into a tense hostage drama that played out on live TV; and once rumors began to circulate that the ringleader, a Vietnam vet named John Wojtowicz, had engineered the heist in a desperate attempt to raise funds for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery, it became a full-blown media circus.

Wojtowicz’s accomplice didn’t survive the day (he was shot dead by FBI agents) and he earned a 5 year-long stretch in the pen for his troubles. The incident inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Al Pacino’s iconic turn as Wojtowicz added shelf life to the robber-turned folk hero’s initial 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, Hollywood rarely gets it 100% right, even with stories purported to be “ripped from the headlines”. In a new documentary from co-directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren called The Dog, none other than John Wojtowicz himself appears onscreen to set the record straight. The first thing he wants us to know is that he’s “a pervert.” Okay then. But it’s also important for us to understand that he is “a lover” as well, because after all, in his lifetime he has had “4 wives, and 23 girlfriends.” Are we supposed to be taking notes?

Many unexpected twists and turns ensue. While it’s well established from the get-go that Wojtowicz (who died in 2006) was a riotously profane, unexpectedly engaging (if deeply weird) raconteur…he is not the only star of this show. The scene stealer? His dear (late) mother, who insists that “half of what (John) says is bullshit.”

Nonetheless, this is an absorbing film (a decade in the making) that works on multiple levels. It can be viewed as a “true crime” documentary, a social history (there are surprising tie-ins with NYC’s early 70s gay activist scene), a meditation on America’s peculiar fetish with fame whores, or (on a purely popcorn level) as a perversely compelling family freak show along the lines of Grey Gardens or Crumb. I’m giving it a three and a half out of four “Atticas!” rating:

Attica! Attica! Attica!”

All good soldiers crack like boulders: The Kill Team ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 16, 2014)

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If you ladies leave my island, if you survive recruit training, you will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death, praying for war.”

 – Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. As long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing. So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not. And according to a documentary called The Kill Team, there is an insidious culture of lizard-brain savagery within the U.S. military not far evolved from the old days with all the hitting, the stoning and the clubbing.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently sociopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Gibbs is alleged to have encouraged his men to score as many “kills” as they could get away with, devising a system based on windows of opportunity and keeping “drop” weapons on hand to implicate victims as combatants. As if that weren’t evil enough, participants memorialized the kills with photographs and videos depicting the cheerful perpetrators clowning around with the bodies. It gets worse…victim’s fingers were cut off as trophies.

Krauss puts his primary focus on Specialist Adam Winfield, a soft-spoken, slightly-built young man. While Winfield admits participating in one of the killings (he maintains that he was bullied into involvement, and purposefully aimed high and away from the victim) he was the de facto “conscience” of the squad. Krauss suggests this through a recreation of Facebook chats between Adam and his ex-Marine dad, in which he expresses shock and dismay over the troubling culture of inhumanity within the platoon, and his growing personal disillusionment with the overall mission. “The army really let me down here…I find out it’s all a lie,” he notes, later offering this ominous assessment: “There are no good men here.”

The full implications of Adam’s moral dilemma obviously did not sink in right away with his father, who asks during one exchange, “Can’t you just ask for a transfer?” to which Adam replies that the infantry doesn’t work that way-especially when you’re on a deployment (eventually, his father did try to reach out to authorities…but was stonewalled). Winfield alleges that once word reached Staff Sgt. Gibbs that he had been expressing concerns to fellow soldiers, there were strong indications that Gibbs and his co-conspirators began entertaining scenarios on how they might take him out….if need be.

While the director does seem to be taking pains to put him in the most sympathetic light possible, it should be noted that Specialist Winfield was not the “official” whistle blower. That was Specialist Justin Stoner (who also appears in the film). Ironically, while he was well aware of the Kill Team’s murderous behavior (he was not directly involved in any of the incidents), Stoner’s initial complaint to superiors involved the squad’s insistence on repeatedly crashing his room to get baked on hash (despite his surname, he did not partake, but worried that the lingering smell would unfairly get him into trouble). When Staff Sgt. Gibbs found out Stoner was the nark, he gathered up his goon squad and gave him a late night beat down in his room (as Stoner philosophically offers with a shrug, “Snitches get stitches.”). It was only during a subsequent inquiry regarding his injuries that Stoner spilled the beans about the murders.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. At the time of filming, Specialist Winfield was involved in his trial (he was charged with involuntary manslaughter). Krauss lets us quietly observe the emotional toll on Winfield and his loving parents.

Granted, the nature of the actions that took place begs larger questions, regarding ultimate accountability. Were these men aberrations, as the military’s official line would have us believe? Or is there indeed a culture of barbarism built in to the military psyche? After all, infantry soldiers are trained to kill, armed to the teeth, and generally thrown into combat situations at a biological stage of life where testosterone levels are running rampant…so what do we expect, right? Then there’s that time-honored military tradition of scapegoating. As someone brings up in the film, why is it that no one above the rank of Staff Sergeant went to trial in this case? And historically, (aside from Lt. Calley in the My Lai Massacre case) when have any brass ever been held accountable? I guess it’ll always be with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing…

Too surreal, with love: Mood Indigo **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 2, 2014)

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Drowning in a sea of schmaltz: Mood Indigo

I know “love is strange” (as the song goes), but as posited in Michel Gondry’s new film, Mood Indigo, it’s downright weird (and frankly, borderline creepy). 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.

Set in some kind of alternative universe version of Paris, and sporadically annotated by a choreographed typing pool straight outta Busby Berkeley, Gondry’s story centers on a self-styled trustafarian hipster named Colin (Romain Duris), who fills his days tinkering with Rube Goldberg-type inventions like a “pianocktail” (you know, a piano that makes mixed drinks…what are you, new?).

In the meantime, his personal chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) prides himself on concocting offbeat entrees like “trickled eel with lithinated cream, and juniper in tansy leaf pouches…for the pleasure of Sir and his guest” (gee, I wonder how the other half lives?). Then there’s the tiny little dancing man in a mouse costume, who scuttles about on the floor of Colin’s Pee Wee’s Playhouse-ish apartment (don’t ask).

Colin is entertaining his BFF Chick (Gad Elmelah), who is pontificating about his favorite philosopher, “Jean-Sol Partre” (in case we don’t get the Bizarro World joke). Chick is also very excited to share the news about his new American girlfriend Alise (Aissa Maiga), and Colin is jealous and sulky over the fact that he didn’t discover her first; especially since she is Chef Nicolas’ sister.

Not to worry. Enter Chloe (Audrey Tautou), an eccentric young woman with whom Colin Meets Cute at a friend’s soirée. One thing leads to another, next thing you know, bada bing bada boom, they’re playing house. But you know what they say. It’s all fun and games, until someone accidentally swallows some kind of mutant plant spore while gasping in the throes of passion, causing a flower to sprout in her lung (wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that narrative).

The result is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Street of Crocodiles; or imagine characters stuck inside of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” video for 90 minutes. The two leads are charming, but Gondry’s tendency to favor form over content keeps shoving them to the side, rendering them moot to their own story. I can see where he’s going with all the surreal accouterments; in fact it’s a school of film making that has become synonymous with his fellow countrymen Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Amelie, Delicatessen, City of Lost Children). But at least Jeunet and Caro seem to know when to rein it in enough to let the narrative breathe. A door bell falling off the wall and turning into a mechanical cockroach that needs to be swatted to stop ringing is amusing once; but Gondry assumes it will be just as amusing the third, fourth or fifth time. It’s not.

Love the one you’re with: A Summer’s Tale ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2014)

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I’m about to lose any (infinitesimal) amount of street cred that I may have accidentally accrued thus far in my “career” as a movie critic with the following admission. I was originally introduced to the work of Eric Rohmer in a roundabout and pedestrian manner. In Arthur Penn’s brilliant 1975 neo-noir, Night Moves (one of my all-time favorites), there’s a throwaway line by cynical  P.I. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman). After his wife says she’s off to catch a Rohmer film, Harry scoffs (mostly to himself), “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Since I was hitherto unaware of this Rohmer fellow, I was intrigued to explore his oeuvre (glad I did).

This is why I had to chuckle when I checked the time stamp and realized that it’s nearly 8 minutes into the Rohmer film A Summer’s Tale before anyone utters a line of dialog; and it’s a man calling a waitress over so he can order a chocolate crepe. As for the “action” that precedes…a young man arrives in sunny Dinard, unpacks his clothes, and heads to the beach. He has a sandwich. He kicks around the boardwalk until dark. He has dinner. He gazes out his window and strums a nondescript melody on his guitar. The next day, he strolls on the boardwalk, then decides to grab a crepe and some coffee. As Harry might say, it’s kind of like watching paint dry.

But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud) will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets the bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending the summer waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. The taciturn Gaspard is initially discombobulated by Margo’s forwardness and chatty effervescence; he cautiously tells her that he’s expecting his “sort of” girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) to join him on holiday any time now (she was a little vague as to when she would arrive).

No pressure, Margo assures him, she has a boyfriend (currently overseas) and just wants to pal around (can men and women ‘just be friends’?) So they pal around; days pass with no sign of Lena. Margo is having serious doubts about this ‘Lena’, so without compunction she sets Gaspar up with her friend Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), who, she tells him, is looking for a “summer romance”. Sparks fly between Solene and Gaspar…right about the time Lena finally arrives.

A Summer’s Tale could very well prove to be this summer’s best (and smartest) romantic comedy, which is unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, this film was made in 1996. Released in France that year as Conte d’ete, it is only just now making its official U.S. theatrical debut. And then there is the awkward fact that the film’s writer-director has been dead since 2010 (oh well…nobody’s perfect). This was my first opportunity to see it, and I would rate it among Rohmer’s best work (most strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, wonderful as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with the director, this is as good a place as any to start.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. Don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry; even neophytes will glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will sheepishly recognize his or herself at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being, after all, only human.