Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Film Round-Up for November 2011

In this edition of The Film Round-Up, it's a writer-director battle royale! Who emerges victorious? The French comic book god! The Danish auteur! The scrappy youngster from the Midwest!

And, because it's my site, here's a photo of the late Charles Napier, one of the finest character actors of my generation: "Silence of the Lambs," "The Blues Brothers," "UHF," "The Critic." That's a resume, Jack!

These reviews previously appeared in "ICON" and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Melancholia (Dir: Lars von Trier). Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård, John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård. Surreal drama from Danish rabble-rouser von Trier consists of two parts. The first takes place at a lavish wedding that quickly becomes a disaster. The bride, Justine (Dunst), lapses into a deep depression as she discovers that no one can make her happy—not her dim-witted groom (Alexander Skarsgård), not her curt, cynical mother (Rampling), and not her sister (Gainsbourg), whose wealthy husband (Sutherland) can't stop reminding everyone of his generosity. The second part has Justine returning to her sister's estate as a mysterious planet named Melancholia moves uncomfortably close to Earth. In exploring the fallacy of a beloved custom (weddings) and the irrefutable (science) in an unforgiving modern world, von Trier has created an unsettling, sobering film. And he gets excellent performances from his cast, especially Dunst (see R. Kurt Osenlund's story on page TK). But the writer-director spends so much time establishing atmosphere that he forgets to rattle our senses. Melancholia, unfortunately, is little more than an intriguing, anticlimactic disappointment. ** [R]

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Dir: Joann Sfar). Starring: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Sara Forestier, Doug Jones. French-born Sfar has been infatuated with Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) since childhood. "He made it cool to be rebellious," Sfar says of the legendary French singer-songwriter and hedonist. In Sfar's vision of Gainsbourg's life—which he insists is based on fact—an id-based creature (Jones) steers the young musician (played with grizzled cool by Elmosnino) toward commercial success and epic philandering. Certainly not a conventional biopic, writer-director Sfar's dazzling visual style (influenced by Pan's Labyrinth) and his narrative bluntness—without the reckless lifestyle, Sfar suggests that Gainsbourg wouldn't have mattered—produces a memorable homage to a cultural institution, a one-man Rat Pack who straddled musical genres and Brigitte Bardot. "I'm fed up with mainstream heroes teaching me how to behave," says Sfar, who's perhaps best known as a comic book artist. His award-winning debut, a most unusual love letter, provides a refreshing alternative. ***1/2 [NR]

Mozart's Sister (Dir: René Féret). Starring: Marie Féret, Marce Barbé, Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau, Clovis Fouin. This "re-imagined account" covers the not-so wonder years of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart (Marie Féret, the director's daughter) who spent her childhood thanklessly backing up her legendary younger brother. Nannerl, now 15, is chafing under the arrangement, especially since her tyrannical father (Barbé) refuses to nurture her aspiration to compose music. The young lady seems locked into a subservient, unrewarding life until a trip to France, where she falls for the recently widowed Dauphin (Fouin), who appreciates her beauty and her talents. Potentially ripe coming-of-age story loses juice way too soon. René Féret, who also wrote and produced, doesn't showcase Nannerl's struggle: does she fulfill her ambitious music dreams or follow her domestic destiny? Conflicts continually get buried or brushed aside in favor of a utilitarian, just-the-facts approach that is as baffling as it is sleep inducing. If the director can barely maintain an interest in the title character, what hope do we have? ** [NR]

Take Shelter (Dir: Jeff Nichols): Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Kathy Baker, Shea Whigham. Here's the movie you should see instead of Melancholia, a leaner, far more compelling look at the uncertainty that lies beneath our measured facades. Working-class family man Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is suddenly plagued by weird, frightening visions: Birds form into angry swarms, violently stormy skies appear before his eyes. At night, his sleep is interrupted by awful dreams of life run amok. Everybody else sees nothing. Considering his options and swallowing his feelings, a slowly unraveling Curtis decides to renovate the back yard's storm shelter and fill it with supplies, an endeavor that isolates him from his family and raises questions among his neighbors. Moody, uneasy drama sticks with you, and is greatly aided by the perfect casting of Shannon (Revolutionary Road), whose squirrelly intensity summons the best memories of Christopher Walken. Chastain (The Help), who is everywhere these days, is excellent as Shannon's incredulous wife. Nichols also wrote the script. ***1/2 [R]

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