Category Archives: Road Movie

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SJFF 2017: Shalom Italia **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

SIFF 2016: The Curve ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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.

Celebrating Independence: Top 10 Indie Films

By Dennis Hartley

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

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With Independence Day upon us, I thought I’d share my top ten favorite indie films. You’ll notice that I went ahead and used “favorite” as a qualifier (instead of “greatest”) because I realized going in that there are as many differing views of what constitutes an “indie” as there are fingerprints (“What?! Not one Cassavetes on your list? No Altman?! Hartley, your critic’s license is revoked!”)

The most obvious explanation for the lack of a consensus would the simple fact that independent productions have been around for as long as cinema itself. Citizen Kane was an indie…as was Plan 9 from Outer Space; one is considered by many as the greatest film ever made, the other is considered by many as the worst (I rest my case). Is a film “independent” because it is made outside the system, or because it feels outside the box? We now live in an age when major studios have an “independent” division, churning out self-consciously “quirky” formula product like so much hipster catnip. Who’s to say?

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 Badlands– With only 6 feature-length projects over 40 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Killer’s Kiss– It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time. Hence, the dialog is a bit stilted. But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; somehow it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (perhaps indicating how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as a time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

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Last Night– A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright and a rare acting appearance by director David Cronenberg. Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!). The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop.

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Pink Flamingos– “Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of “bad taste” John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man) Divine was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her skuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his truly indie “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of his oeuvre.

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Pow Wow 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.

Philbert decides 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 deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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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.

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She’s Gotta Have It– “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men (who are all quite aware of each other’s existence). Lee steals his own movie by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a hilarious trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish.

Lee milks maximum laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as they each jockey for the alpha position (and makes keen observations about sexist machismo and male vanity along the way). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. Despite being a little rough around the edges (due to low budget constraints) it was still a groundbreaking film in the context of modern independent cinema, and an empowering milestone for an exciting new wave of talented African-American filmmakers who followed in its wake.

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Sherman’s March– Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth your time as well.

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Stranger than Paradise – With his 1984 debut, Jim Jarmusch established his formula of long takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of human beings. John Lurie stars as Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging and bickering with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson).

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who appears at his door. Eddie is intrigued, but misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, so Eva decides to move in with Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland. Sometime later, Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Ohio might help break the monotony. Willie grumpily agrees, and they’re off to visit Aunt Lotte and cousin Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future director Tom DiCillo did the fine black and white photography, evoking a strange beauty in the stark and wintry industrial flatness of Cleveland and its Lake Erie environs.

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Word, Sound and Power– This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour, but is about the best film anyone is ever likely to make about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of prolific studio players who were sort of the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew (they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert, to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Alter cocker rocker: Danny Collins ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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.