Bottom line: Brilliantly nuanced French drama about a family in transition

Grade (on a 1-10 scale): 9.5

“Of course YOU should see it,” said my friend Nicholas when I asked about the forthcoming French drama Summer Hours. Nicholas, an erstwhile Parisian cinephile of exacting tastes, and I had together seen one of Olivier Assayas’ previous films and been rather underwhelmed. When I asked him about this new one, which he’d caught in France, his response was tailored to his interlocutor: “YOU” meant “you, of all people.”

I soon learned why. Summer Hours concerns a storied old house and a family’s grown children trying to deal with their inheritance, which involves dilemmas that are at once emotional, cultural and financial. My documentary Moving Midway deals with the same subjects. Though one film is fiction and the other nonfiction, the parallels between them are so numerous that I could spend the rest of this review writing just about them.

But there are other reasons for my fascination with the film. Like me, Assayas was a film critic before turning to filmmaking. We share a longstanding interest in Taiwanese cinema and were both friends with the late director Edward Yang. Spending time with Assayas on a couple of occasions in the ‘90s, I found him smart and charming – he’s often compared to François Truffaut, another polemical Cahiers du Cinema editor turned celebrated auteur – yet Summer Hours is the first of his films that impresses me as much artistically as the man himself does personally and as a critic.

I’m tempted to say that, putting aside these various personal reasons for being attracted to Summer Hours, I find it the best foreign film released so far this year. But of course I can’t put aside those reasons or deny their influence, so I will offer that superlative with all subjective factors admitted, and give the film my highest possible recommendation.

The lovely house at the center of Summer Hours sits outside of Paris. It belongs to 75-year-old Hélène (Edith Scob), but it is more than just a family home; it is also something of a shrine to her uncle, Paul Berthier, a famous artist of the mid-20th century.

In the film’s first scene, a birthday gathering, we meet the whole family, including Hélène’s three children, all in their 40s. Frédéric (Charles Berling), the eldest, is an economist and teacher who lives in Paris; he’s married with two teenage kids. Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), who is single, is a designer based in New York. Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a businessman, works in China and has a wife and three young children.

As we get to know Hélène in that initial scene, she tries to discuss with Frédéric what will happen to the house and its artistic treasures once she’s gone. “Change the subject,” he says, uncomfortable at the intimation of mortality. But her foresight is well-placed. Within a few months, she dies suddenly and her children are left having to decide how to deal with their inheritance.

Believe it or not, this is a French movie dealing with highly charged family issues and yet no one at any time screams, loses their temper or throws a wine glass! (In this, Assayas commendably bests his countryman Arnaud Desplechin, whose ridiculously overrated A Christmas Tale was full of such overheated histrionics.) In fact, the film is a model of subtlety and understatement, which makes it all the more believable and emotionally compelling.

It turns out the three siblings have two views of what should be done with their mother’s bequest. Frédéric assumes that they all will want to keep the house, use it for family gatherings in summer, and pass it on to their children. But Adrienne and Jérémie have to break it to him that they see things differently. They live too far away to visit the house much, and both could use the money. They are for selling.

The crux here is not that one viewpoint is right and the other not, but that time inevitably brings the dissolution of family bonds and ties to tradition, no matter what is decided. Before she dies, Hélène remarks that when she passes, various things will be unavoidably be lost: memories, secrets and so forth. The film’s lyrical, gently elegiac yet ultimately clear-eyed approach perfectly captures the bittersweet truth of her comment.

Much of this story’s emotional content attaches to the house itself, and the film effectively gives us two “tours” in scenes which ingeniously and evocatively mirror each other. The first is the opening scene mentioned above. Brushing away Frédéric’s suggestion that she change the subject, his mother leads him through the house, commenting on its valuable furniture and artworks. Just as the light filtering in from outside has a summery glow, Hélène’s remarks about these object are full of the warmth of love and familiarity.

The second scene comes months later, when Frédéric and Adrienne are showing appraisers around the house. It is now winter, the light seems cold and stark, and there’s a similar coldness to the way the artworks and household objects are now scrutinized for their monetary value alone.

Besides their dramatic content, these scenes are notable for the expressive elegance of Assayas’ visual style. He has always been a devotee of camera movement, but nothing here is frenetic or showy. Rather, in ways that suggest a combination of Jean Renoir and Robert Altman, the camera elegantly surveys the house and its contents with constant, understated movements and re-framings that continually unfold new perspectives on the emotional dimensions of the home and its contents.

Assayas is similarly adept with his cast. Berling, Binoche and Renier are all terrific actors and their performances here are among the most finely shaded and engaging that I’ve seen in any recent movie.

Late in the film, Frédéric sees some of Hélène’s cherished artworks on display in a museum. He remarks that they now seem “disenchanted.” The whole movie is contained in that one word: This tale is about the disenchantment that time’s inexorable progress brings. Yet there is no anger or bitterness in the way Summer Hours evokes this process; the film is simply too wise for that.

Like Moving Midway, Summer Hours has evoked comparisons to The Cherry Orchard. Its themes and stylistic nuance also suggest the influence of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu and Assayas’ Taiwanese friend Hou Hsiao-hsien. Yet the film finally is a wonderful, hugely impressive original, proof of the confident mastery that Olivier Assayas has attained.




Bottom line: A stylish, expertly made transnational thriller with a provocatively timely theme.

Grade (on a 1-10 scale: 7.5

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich wrote of a tsunami of “populist rage” over the economy sweeping toward a seemingly under-prepared Pres. Obama. I found his argument simplistic and overstated. But that was five days ago.

In every news cycle since, the economic storm clouds have grown only darker. As the administration’s bail-out plan sent stocks into another swoon and eight leading bankers faced an angry Congressional interrogators, I saw a new thriller that left me sensing we’re on the edge of a new era of popular culture in which collective rage – as well as anxiety, paranoia, suspicion and the like – may well become prominent currents.

A movie like Tom Tykwer’s The International – a dark, propulsive drama in which the primary evildoers are international bankers – takes a couple of years to mount and a release that’s planned months in advance. So the fact that it seems so in sync with this week’s headlines is surely coincidental. Yet, that shouldn’t detract from its status as the first 2009 movie strongly resonating with our current difficulties, nor should it undercut our appreciation of how the zeitgeist super-charges the film’s meanings.

Tykwer’s film is one of those serious-minded suspensers that owes an obvious visual debt to Antonioni. The director’s unblinking camera-eye almost pays less attention to human figures than to the architectures that contain them, an endless succession of sleek modern edifices characterized by ingenious angles and pristine glassed-in spaces and cool silvery or silver-gray-blue colors. These places, the film whispers, are the chilly visual correlatives of a world dangerously abstracted from real values and human warmth.

Like capital in a globalized economy, the story jumps easily - and fitfully - from continent to continent. The protagonist, Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen), witnesses the mysterious death of a fellow agent in front of Berlin’s train station. He soon contacts Manhattan DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), who’s working on the same case. The trail they pursue eventually reaches from Germany to Milan to New York to Istanbul.

The investigation that sets the whole thing in motion targets a large European bank suspected of dealings in the international arms market. Why, Salinger wonders, would a bank take such risks, and even intervene in African civil wars, when the profit margins are so small? The answer: they’re not interested in profits. They’re out to gain control of the national debts of the countries involved. “The essence of the banking industry,” Salinger hears, is to make nations and people “slaves of debt.”

Though pungent and timely, that pithy description appears in a film that’s no angry tract but a well-tooled transnational thriller. Unlike Tony Gilroy’s similarly-themed Michael Clayton, in which the mayhem was restrained in order to emphasize character shadings, The International doesn’t stint on action. As the conspiracy widens, murders, shoot-outs, assassinations and breathless chases ensue.

The violence reaches a spectacular climax when a taut but subdued pursuit through New York streets leads inside the Guggenheim Museum where the prospect of a simple arrest sparks a gun battle that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Woo movie. With its sudden, unexpected ferocity, this eye-popping set-piece (shot on a sound stage in Germany) is one of the movie’s attributes that renders it at least a notch or two above many similar films.

It is a genre movie, finally, one that doesn’t color outside the lines, apart from hinting that its hero’s actions won’t be able set the world aright at the final fade. Yet Tykwer, who got his start with the witty, kinetically stylish Run Lola Run, handles his duties here with a cool, confident expertise, and he gets smart turns from Owen and Watts in roles that don’t attempt any real depth of characterization.

Simplistic by their nature, genre movies may not offer complex analysis, yet they can sum up the spirit of a moment. In its world of bankers run amok, with dreadful consequences that spill across the world, The International gives us a concise, potent symbol of an economically beleaguered planet and its mood of foreboding.




Bottom line: Mickey Rourke's spectacular comeback performance supercharges a conventional sports tale

Grade (on a 1-10 scale): 7.5

In most movies, even a superlative performance by an actor is secondary; it exists to support the greater whole. In a few movies, though, a brilliant performance is primary – the rest of the film depends on its catalytic revelations.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler belongs to the latter group. In it, the incorrigible Mickey Rourke plays an over-the-hill professional wrestler with the kind of fierce, gutsy, mesmerizing incandescence that bears comparison to celebrated performances such as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

The normally ridiculous Golden Globes charade redeemed itself momentarily this year in giving Rourke its Best Actor trophy. I’m rooting for him to cop the same prize at the upcoming Oscars, where his performance is easily the most stunning of the several excellent actors nominated.

The one downside in all of this is that Rourke’s work unquestionably outshines everything around it. Though directed with great fluency and texture by Aronofsky, The Wrestler is an earnest, unsurprising sports drama distinguished mainly by the fact that it depicts a “sport” that many people (like yours truly) would forever put in skeptical quotes, one that’s received precious little screen treatment previously.

Admittedly, I was not always skeptical about “Championship Wrestling” (as our local variety was called). At age 10 or 11, I was completely delighted and entranced by the antics of figures like Ric Flair and Haystack Calhoun, their straight-into-the-camera tirades and promises of mayhem, their almost supernatural leaps though the air and ability to withstand blows that seemingly could obliterate Samson himself.

“Professional” (or better: theatrical) wrestling seems to exist to animate the imaginations of 10-year-old boys everywhere with fantasies of heroic brawn and unshakable moral absolutes. That many adult fans apparently don’t question its ruses lends dismaying support to P.T. Barnum’s estimation of American credulousness. Even for those (including former fans) who do see through the travesty, wrestling exercises an inevitable fascination as the place where showbiz tawdriness conclusively trumps the ideals of athleticism - and where a subculture of simulation feeds off of our own childish dreams. Who hasn’t wondered about the off-camera lives of these snarling behemoths?

Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Rourke), the title character in Aronofsky’s film, is 20 years past his prime. You can tell he was once a star because he still carries himself like one, and when he runs across a fan who recalls his 80s glory, his face lights up with a champ’s indomitable grin. But Randy’s time in the ring is fast running out, and so are his options. He tries to keep up appearances, rocking out to speed metal in his van to get his spirits pumped. But when he gets home, his trailer is locked for non-payment of rent.

This is a great character for a movie, but what do you do with him? In the genre The Wrestler inhabits – the washed-up sports hero movie – there are precious few narrative paradigms, and Robert Siegel’s screenplay, though pleasingly idiomatic, isn’t up to reinventing the generic wheel. It offers a gritty, mutedly sentimental account of Randy’s hardships and relationships with two women, an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood), and naturally, it shows him trying to mount a comeback of sorts. You expected him to fight space aliens?

Still, in most movies about craftsmen, the most interesting thing is the guy practicing his craft, and so it is here. Considered as a pseudo-documentary that’s not trying to debunk, discredit or expose the wrestler’s craft - simply showing it as the difficult job it is - The Wrestler shines: Its best scenes are the ones in or near the ring. Trailed by a handheld camera, Randy joshes and calmly works out routines with his collegial colleagues, then plunges into the fray aiming to put on the most spectacular show he can.

The matches in The Wrestler are truly riveting, and in some cases astonishing. For anyone who thinks that boxing is a dangerous sport and “fake” wrestling essentially safe, here’s an instant corrective. The wrestlers go at it expecting, even courting and choreographing, bloody injury – using everything from hidden razor to staplers.

The reason all this remains dramatically compelling is, quite simply, Mickey Rourke. As if hungry to revive his own long-flagging career – the autobiographical subtext never disappears for long – the actor has transformed himself entirely, pumping his body up with steroids and weights - peroxiding his long, permed locks till he locks like a refugee from Spinal Tap. The fight scenes he enters are staged using long takes and, obviously, no doubles or stunt men. The punishment Randy takes is inflicted on a very real Mickey Rourke. It may be “fake,” but it plays like art.

And Randy finally is not simply a mass of muscle and stimulants. Although the script puts the character through fairly conventional paces, Rourke opens a window into his soul. You may not come away caring deeply about him, but you believe him through and through. It is a magnificent performance.




Bottom line: The early days of blues and rock’n’roll, a rather run-of-the-mill music film spruced up by some terrific performances.

Grade (on a 1-10 scale): 6.5.

The movie is called Cadillac Records. You’ve never heard of the label? Well, the film is based on a real-life company of considerable renown in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But would you rush out to see a movie titled Chess Records?

If the answer to that question is an unstinting yes, then you should see Darnell Martin’s musical drama without hesitation. If you have any doubts, read on.

Actually, there’s a persuasive reason for the film’s title. Several decades ago, well before Detroit began its present disastrous decline, Cadillacs were unparalleled symbols of wealth and prestige, perhaps especially to folks too poor to afford decent housing.

That’s why, when any of Chess Records’ artists achieved their first hit, they would be awarded a brand-new Caddy by label head Leonard Chess. Think of it: Cadillacs were driven by bank presidents and the heads of movie studios. That idea that an indigent former sharecropper could, in segregated America, earn, own and drive one simply for belting a tune he learned in the Delta into a microphone in Chicago – why, that must’ve seemed like a revolution. A revolution with white sidewalls.

And so it was. While most of the well-known movies in this crowded genre deal with the early days of rock’n’roll -- roughly the mid-‘50s to the late ‘60s -- Cadillac Records takes an original tack by starting out a decade earlier. It chronicles how blues music by Southern blacks, recorded and marketed by Northern whites, laid the groundwork for both the sophisticated R&B/soul and the white rock’n’roll that dominated charts and defined American (and British) pop in the subsequent era.

Martin begins her tale the late ‘40s, inter-cutting blues guitarist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) leaving the farms of Mississippi for the streets of Chicago with Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), an immigrant from Poland, trying his hand at running a music club, then sidling into the record business. When the two meet up, musical history is in the making. One of Muddy’s first recordings, “Rolling Stone,” earns him his Cadillac, and Chess Records is off and running.

We subsequently see the label’s musical family expand to include important artists such as Howlin’ Wolf (Eammon Walker) and Little Walter (Columbus Short) and, later, Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). About halfway into the movie, however, a new kind of performer comes along. Looking for a crossover artist, Chess - at the behest of Muddy - signs Chuck Berry (Mos Def), a duck-walking, wise-cracking, womanizing character who many people consider a country musician. Berry’s “Maybelline” does more than earn him a Cadillac; it signals the end of “race records” and the advent of the country/R&B fusion that would be rock’n’roll.

I wish I could say Darnell’s film lived up to its title by being a Cadillac of music movies, but it’s more like a Dodge. Several notches below the likes of The Buddy Holly Story, Ray and Walk the Line, it perhaps should have debuted on pay cable rather than in theaters. The main problem is the script: The story has a lot of juice in its early sections, but gradually comes to feel repetitious and meandering in its chronicle of its subjects’ travails with fame, money, drugs, booze, infidelity, and so on. For my money, it also misses some of the menace and allure of early race music, and the searing racial tensions that formed its milieu. Finally, there are some absurd anachronisms, such as Elvis Presley appearing on the scene sometime after we’ve met the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys!

Still, the film has several huge assets in the performances at its center. Jeffrey Wright, one of my favorite actors, is solid and compelling as Muddy Waters. His excellence is matched by the goofy, electric charm of Mos Def as Chuck Berry and searing, poignant Beyoncé as Etta James, while the lesser known Eammon Walker and Columbus Short are terrific as Little Walter, respectively.




Bottom line: An expansive romantic epic of the Outback, ravishingly mounted in the style of classic Hollywood.

Grade (on a 1-10 scale): 8.5

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to have been thoroughly won over by Baz Luhrmann’s sweeping, three-hour romantic epic Australia, but the skepticism I took into the theater had solid reasons behind it.

First, how could anyone title a movie Australia? Wasn’t that an automatic promise of James Michener-style boring portentousness? Second, while I liked the cheeky ingenuity of Luhrmann’s breakthrough, Strictly Ballroom, I found the post-modern grandiosity of his Romeo & Juliet (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and Moulin Rouge brittle and uneven. Third, in the little universe I inhabit, advance word on the film was dismal. “Terrible” was one critic-friend’s blunt assessment.

Given all that, I was reflexively suspicious when the movie started out by announcing its concern with the “stolen generations” of aboriginal children taken from their parents by the Australian government for reeducation, then plunged straight into a lush, almost cartoonish romantic drama in which porcelain-skinned Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a tightly wound Brit who, as WWII approaches, comes to the Outback to force her husband to sell his ranch and return to England, but finds hubby dead and herself in the decidedly roughhewn care of one of his drovers, the aptly named Drover (Hugh Jackman).

Not only did the premise seemed contrived and clichéd, but Luhrmann’s style, as before, was spectacularly, insistently florid, the camera panning and swooping ceaselessly, the lighting unstintingly baroque, gorgeously scenic landscapes giving jarring against luminous close-ups of the stars, every impressive composition rushed toward the next by the film’s breathless editing rhythms.

I began to get over my suspicions when the story’s power began to assert itself, and I realized something: Luhrmann wasn’t kidding. This wasn’t some giddy stylistic exercise or self-regarding stunt. The director (who’s also credited with the story) believes in what he’s doing, both in terms of creating a grand romantic myth about Australia and in using his own updated version of a classic cinematic vernacular to do so.

Given both the novelty and the expansiveness of all this, it’s no wonder it takes a while for its peculiar magic to take hold. But I remember when I knew I was hooked. Lady Sarah ends up on her husband’s desolate (or rather, gorgeously primeval) ranch and the chill between her and Drover begins to thaw when they have to pull together a ragtag set of aborigine and female cowhands to attempt driving her herd of cattle across the desert to the territorial port in order to foil the local cattle baron’s designs on her land.

Yes, it’s the stuff of a thousand old westerns, not to mention The African Queen and other chestnuts that involve a sparring couple facing seemingly insurmountable physical odds. But in this case, the conceit overpowers all objections due not so much to its inherent mythic power as to Lurhmann’s skill and deliberate emotional conviction in mounting it, and to the steadily growing chemistry of Kidman and Jackman, who are both in top form. (The story’s third main character is a half-caste boy, nicely played by newcomer Brandon Walters.)

It’s a fitting coincidence that the tale begins in 1939, the fabled annis mirabilis for Hollywood that saw the release of Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach and other legendary classics, including one that Australia repeatedly references: The Wizard of Oz. Like Pedro Almodovar in Spain, Aussie Luhrmann comes from a background of adoring classic Hollywood moviemaking yet simultaneously mistrusting it. His whole career seems to revolve around a question regarding its influence: Can he adapt its seductive thematic and stylistic tropes without surrendering to its frequent banality and evasiveness?

His earlier movies, in their different ways, deconstructed the old formulas yet kept them tightly bound by tethers of knowing irony. In Australia, he replaces the irony with a sincerity that’s no less knowing and, in my view, is even more daring and mature.

I found Australia entirely persuasive, at once stylistically ravishing and emotionally satisfying. It is, more than any film Luhrmann’s made, a mass-market not an art film, much like the Hollywood classics it emulates. No doubt, various folks who’ve followed the director till now won’t cotton to its unapologetic romantic effusiveness. But maybe some will. Coming out of the theater, I heard a middle-aged woman behind me say, “Well, it wasn’t horrible.” Among the hipster set, that equals high praise, I would say.




Bottom line: The new Bond falls far short of the last one, though star Daniel Craig is still riveting.

Grade (on a 1-10 scale): 6

It’s fitting that my first online film review for Metro concerns the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, because the movies’ master spy was among my first cinematic obsessions. I was 12 years old when I encountered From Russia With Love (1963), the second 007 outing, but I became an instant convert. Goldfinger, the next Bond film, sealed the deal, combining action, eros and wry British drollery in virtually the same moment that brought us the pop panache of the Beatles and Swinging London.

Flash forward more than four decades. The Bond cycle has grown bloated and hoary. But then comes the most unlikely and galvanic of resurrections. The family of longtime producer Albert R. Broccoli rethinks the brand and retools it from the ground up. The result, in Casino Royale, is stunningly smart and successful. The script hews more closely to Ian Fleming’s gritty fiction than any Bond film has in ages. The direction, by journeyman veteran Martin Campbell, welds breathtaking action to a new concern with character and mood. A welcome measure of visceral realism and emotional force replaces the former emphasis on giddy, hi-tech fantasy, while many of the old Bond stand-bys (martinis, gambling, cars, exotic locales
) are persuasively updated.

Best of all, the new agent 007, feral and muscular Daniel Craig, is the most persuasive and charismatic Bond since Sean Connery’s original, a tough customer who’s as believable is brutal smackdowns as he is in a tux at the casino’s gaming tables.

I wish I could report that Quantum of Solace equaled or came close to its predecessor’s strengths, but it doesn’t. Expansive and energetic, it’s by no means a washout, or a return to the fanciful, fantastical Bonds of yore. The producers, thankfully, continue many of the changes made in the last film. Indeed, a curious facet is that this is the first 007 movie that’s premised as a sequel to the one that came before it. Our Bond this time is still reeling from the terrific personal loss he suffered at the end of Casino Royale. Unfortunately, if you missed that film or don’t recall its specifics, you may find the references to Vesper Lynn (Bond’s tragic love) just plain baffling.
There are several problems with the new film, most bespeaking a failure to build on the lessons of the previous movie. First, rather than returning to Fleming’s fiction (though the film’s title comes from one of his short stories), the screenplay comprises a mishmash of action-movie clichés and topical references. Much of it, alas, is murky and clotted to the point of incomprehensibility. The scene shifts from Italy to England to Haiti to South America to Austria and so on, but the plotting grows more opaque at every turn. If you come out of the movie knowing who the main baddies were working for, you’re a more astute observer than I. (Speaking of baddies, the chief one here, played by goofy French actor Mathieu Amalric, may be the weakest Bond villain ever.)

The film’s second big weakness is director Marc Forster, a craftsman known for art films (Monsters’ Ball, The Kite Runner) who’s demonstrably inferior to Campbell at the combination of visual brio and emotional nuance that made Casino Royale such a stunner. Granted, Forster mounts a full complement of action set pieces that, since they arrive like clockwork every ten minutes or so, keep the movie rattling along at a good clip and assure that most viewers won’t fall asleep (and may even feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth). But these scenes have a mechanical, by-the-Jason-Bourne-playbook feel, and they don’t substitute for the dramatic and emotional textures that distinguished the last Bond.

As our favorite maverick superspy, Daniel Craig remains compelling and constantly watchable, the best single addition to the franchise in ages. But this film’s script fails him. In Casino Royale, Craig rode an emotional rollercoaster that brought out his tremendous gifts as an actor and thereby expanded and enriched Bond as a character. Here, he’s just put through the paces as an action hero, and we learn nothing more about the man. Given the lukewarm to chilly reviews the film seems headed for, let’s hope its producers find Craig a better script and director next time out.