A Christmas Tale (Un conte de Noel)


A Christmas Tale

Even now, most red-blooded men wouldn't mind having Catherine Deneuve under their tree.

(IFC) Catherine Deneuve, Matthieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Emmanuelle Devos, Emile Berling, Laurent Capelluto. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Christmas is a time for families to gather, no matter the distance. Sometimes the distance isn’t just physical and geographical, it’s emotional as well.

Junon (Deneuve) and Abel (Roussillon) Vuillard are the parents of three adult children: Elizabeth (Consigny), a neurotic playwright, Henri (Amalric) the charming but destructive black sheep and Ivan (Poupaud), the peacemaker between the children. After a disastrous business venture five years prior, Henri who had misappropriated funds from the theater he co-owned was bailed out by Elizabeth on the condition that she never have anything to do with him again and that he be banished from any family event that she was also attending.

Junon and Abel also had a fourth child, Joseph, who would have been the eldest but had died in childhood of leukemia. Now, Junon has developed it and the children and grandchildren (including Paul (Berling), son of Elizabeth who has mental problems) are being tested for compatibility to donate bone marrow for a transfusion.

Because it is Christmas, the decision is for the children to come to the Paris home they grew up in and so they do, families in tow; Henri’s flamboyant girlfriend Faunia (Devos), Ivan’s beautiful wife Sylvia (Mastroianni), Elizabeth’s mathematician husband Claude (Girardot) and cousin Simon (Capelluto), a lovesick tortured artist (sounds like the name of a band to me).

Spending time in closed quarters begins to force the family to deal with the tensions and feelings that have been dormant due to distance. The family dynamics begin to distend, change and convulse under the weight of Junon’s illness, the always-present specter of Joseph hovering sorrowfully above the family table and the family politics that create enemies out of brother and sister.

I’m deliberately trying to reveal as little of the plot as I can. One of the things that works about the film is the little subplots and interrelationships that are only seen as threads of the tapestry, but in the final couple of scenes it’s as if the camera pulls back and the tapestry is finally seen as a whole.

None of these characters are perfect and few of them are even likable. Junon is not the best of mothers, playing favorites with her children but loving none of them as much as she loves herself. Deneuve is still radiantly beautiful at age 66 and as elegant as she has ever been. Her Junon seems an improbable match with the more gnome-like Abel, but there is a certain amount of affection between them.

Amalric is one of my favorite French actors today, and anyone who saw him in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is likely to agree (he also played the villain in Quantum of Solace and was one of the best things about it). His Henri is fully aware of his familial role as an absolute jerk and has embraced it, but not without cost. Few actors in France can hold their own with Deneuve but Amalric is one of them and he does here.

One of the more interesting asides of the movie is the casting of Mastroianni as Sylvia. If the name sounds familiar, it should be; she’s the daughter of Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni and…Catherine Deneuve. The facial resemblance to her mother is marked; I think the casting is meant to imply that Ivan married a girl who not only was much like his mother emotionally but also facially as well which is a little bit creepy but there is a certain delicious irony to it.

At times the squabbling and some of the family skeletons seem a little bit too forced and that takes away from the film’s realism. What I like about the movie is that the characters are very human and far from perfect; this is a family that has issues, a whole lot of them as a matter of fact. As I said earlier, some of the main characters aren’t even that likable but every last one of them is compelling. Other critics have said that they have uncovered further subtleties upon repeated viewing of the movie; I haven’t had a chance to do that yet but I suspect I’ll have the same reaction.

If you’re expecting a Hollywood feel-good family Christmas movie, you’re going to open up a big box of disappointment. If you want to feel good without being manipulated, this is going to be more your speed. I wound up with a warm, Christmas feeling that was so genuine that I didn’t let go of it for days. Christmas isn’t about the perfect family; it’s about the family we actually do have, warts and all. The Vuillards aren’t always lovable but there is love and it is real. That’s the Christmas we may not generally wish for but it’s the one we usually get and to be honest, the one we usually remember with the most fondness.

WHY RENT THIS: The themes of redemption and forgiveness are particularly heartwarming given the seasonal tale. Deneuve is captivating and still absolutely gorgeous.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The squabbling and family dynamics sometimes seem a little bit more over the top than real.

FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality, foul language and lots and lots of smoking – hey, they’re French.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Desplechin has been nominated for eight Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and four Golden Palms (a prestigious award handed out at the Cannes Film Festival) but has yet to win either.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray are available as a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. They contain a copy of Desplechin’s one hour documentary L’Aimee which is about the selling of his childhood home and directly prefaces the tone of A Christmas Tale. There is also a booklet containing an essay from critic Phillip Lopate about the film and its impact.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

Everybody’s Fine


Everybody's Fine

Are you looking at me?

(Miramax) Robert De Niro, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Lucian Maisel, Damian Young, James Frain, Katherine Moenning, Brendan Sexton III, James Murtaugh, Austin Lysy. Directed by Kirk Jones

Family dynamics can be a very complicated thing. Often, the relationship between the parents and the children is channeled through the mom. When that’s the case, what happens to that relationship when the mom passes away?

In the case of Frank Goode (De Niro), the relationship deteriorates. Frank was responsible for putting the protective coating on telephone cable, millions of miles of it. He’s retired now, with a nice house and bad lungs from years of inhaling toxic chemicals. He is also mourning the loss of his wife some eight months prior.

Growing up, he always pushed his kids to be achievers and he is proud that they have done just that. Amy (Beckinsale) owns a successful advertising agency and has a great marriage and a son of her own. Rosie (Barrymore) is a dancer in a successful Las Vegas show. Robert (Rockwell) is the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Then there’s David (Lysy), the youngest whom Frank pushed the hardest. David is an artist living in New York City.

He’s invited them all over to the house for the weekend. It is an ambition of his to have all of his children eating a meal at the same table. He goes to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for a memorable steak dinner; he even buys a new state-of-the-art barbecue grill just for the occasion. Then, one by one, they call and cancel.

Frank decides to visit them all, one by one and see what is going on. His doctor advises against it and forbids him to fly – the pressurized environment could cause problems for his lungs. So, he takes the train and the bus. With him he brings his medication and an envelope for each of his kids. When he gets to New York, to his surprise David isn’t at home. He slips David’s envelope under the door and heads west.

He will find that his ideas about his children has been mistaken and that in fact far from being fine, they have been hiding things from him and in some cases outright lying to him. The secrets of his children at last come out, as does the contents of those mysterious envelopes he has been giving to his adult kids.

This is based on the 1990 Italian movie Stanno Tutti Bene. I haven’t seen that one so I can’t really compare the two, but on its own I can say that director Jones has assembled an impressive cast. What can you say about De Niro that hasn’t already been said? Even when he is at his worst, he is still always an interesting presence. Heck, I’d go see one of the Twilight movies if De Niro was in it.

Rockwell is no De Niro but he is still a superb actor who seems to get better with each role. Here he is much more in a supporting role but he plays Robert note-perfectly. Barrymore is truly America’s sweetheart if Julia Roberts is not (and certainly Barrymore is heir to that throne if she is). Beckinsale, after years of being considered more of a genre star for the Underworld series has proven herself a capable actress in movies like Snow Angel and this one.

There are some unexpected twists to the movie – the contents of the envelopes, for one. One of the problems however, is that the overall structure is a bit cliché – you know the kids aren’t telling him everything. You know that Frank isn’t telling his kids everything. You know there is going to be a great emotional upheaval. You know that everything happens for a reason and that the filmmakers take great pains to make sure that what appears to be throwaway bits of business or characters will turn out to be significant in the end. And quite frankly, the metaphor of the telephone lines for inter-familial communications is shoved down our throats overly much, and doesn’t work quite as well in a cellular phone world. It worked quite well the first couple of times but after that it was more of “Okay we get it we get it!” type of thing.  For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I strongly recommend you don’t read the last paragraph – it may alter your enjoyment of the film.

One of the things that I found to work well for me is that the movie is being promoted as a heart-warming holiday film and it truly is not. The more cathartic moments worked for me because I wasn’t expecting them quite frankly. So in that sense, that’s the great strength of the movie. That and another opportunity to watch one of the greatest film actors in history work his craft.

REASONS TO GO: Hey, it’s De Niro – he’s always interesting, even at his worst. The supporting cast is superb. The storyline goes to some unexpected destinations.

REASONS TO STAY: It gets a bit maudlin in places. While there are some interesting twists and turns, there are also some stretches that are cliché-ridden.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some strong language and some of the subject matter is not for the young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rockwell played Barrymore’s lover in Charlies Angels and Beckinsale’s ex-husband in Snow Angels.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate film and perfectly good on a small screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover

The Blind Side


The Blind Side

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock air out their dirty laundry.

(Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Kim Dickens, Adriane Lenox, Catherine Dyer, Andy Stahl, Tom Nowicki, Libby Whitmore, Brian Hollan, Ray McKinnon. Directed by John Lee Hancock

Accidents happen. There are no accidents. Accidentally on purpose. Is anything really random chance, or is there a destiny for all of us?

Michael Oher (Aaron) has very little going for him other than he’s big and athletic. He can barely read and write his own name, his mother is a crack addict and his father is God knows where. The father of a friend of his works as a janitor at an exclusive private school in Memphis and gets the idea to bring the two of them before the football coach to see if he can get them into Wingate one way or another. Salivating at the chance to get the raw talent onto his team, the coach (McKinnon), almost salivating, convinces the school’s trustees to admit the disadvantaged boy.

However his presence on his friend’s couch has put a strain on them, so Michael is left to his own devices. He moves from place to place, silent and sad, a big sorrowful man-child without any hope or any joy. He doesn’t fit in at his new school, and his old neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous.

One cold night he is walking on the side of the road, trying to get into the school gym before it is locked so that he can have a warm place to sit for awhile when by chance the Tuohy family drives by. Its matriarch, Leigh Anne (Bullock) orders her husband Sean (McGraw) to stop the car and in her typically abrupt and no-nonsense manner interrogates the boy. Do you have a place to go? Don’t you dare lie to me! Oher admits he has nowhere to sleep and on the spur of the moment, Leigh Anne decides to bring the boy home and put him up for the night.

Her children SJ (Head) and Collins (Collins) range from enthusiastic (SJ) to not so much (Collins) about the new houseguest as one night stretches into several and then into weeks and at last, months. Leigh Anne drives Michael to his old home to pick up some clothes but they find that his mother has been evicted and nobody knows where she is. Instead, Leigh Anne drives Michael to the nearest Big and Tall store where Michael shows signs of life when offered a rugby shirt in his size.

As the days go by, Oher begins to respond to his academic environment although he is unable to learn in the traditional way. Instead, he picks up on what is told to him verbally. Leigh Ann hires a tutor (Bates) to help him get his grades up and soon he gets his average to the point where he can try out for the football team. The coach’s joy turns to disappointment when Oher turns out to be far too soft and unskilled to be much of a force. It is only when Leigh Anne, to whom Michael has become very attatched to, gives him a pep talk that Michael begins to show what he’s capable of and that is becoming an All-American offensive tackle. However, when he makes a choice for his future, the motivations of his family are called into question and the relationship between Michael and his new family becomes imperiled.

Director Hancock is something of a true sports movie expert, with The Rookie to his credit and again he pulls out all the stops with this one. His best move was casting Bullock in the lead role and she nails the role of Leigh Anne who could intimidate Kimbo Slice if she had half a mind to. She’s tough as nails, suffers no fools but is fiercely loyal to her family with a soft spot for underdogs. There are a surprising number of women like her in the South and if the region has any greatness at all to it, it’s because of them.

McGraw, whose easygoing charm translates nicely to the screen, is solid as the dad, a role he has begun to be attractive to casting agents in. While Head is a bit over-the-top in places as SJ the spirited son, he at least has a great smile and a good sense of comic timing for an actor his age. In fact, all of the actors who play the Tuohy family do a good job of creating a believable onscreen family.

If there’s a problem with The Blind Side it has to do with the script. True sports stories have tended to follow a very similar format in recent movies; an underdog gets inspired in the pursuit of a goal and that inspiration leads to overachievement. When the goal is in reach, something happens to jeopardize the achievement of the goal but in the end the team/individual pulls it together at the last minute to triumph over adversity.

Some of the adversity that is shown here feels scripted and not terribly authentic. Just because a movie says it’s based on a true story does it mean that everything in it is true. Something tells me that some incidents were embellished to create dramatic tension and normally I don’t have a problem with that, but in this case it didn’t feel organic. I think it’s possible that we’ve overdosed on the genre since it felt like I’ve seen it all before and in fact I have.

And that’s not to denigrate Michael Oher or his story in any way. I think it could have been handled a bit differently and written better is all I’m saying. Still in all despite my quibbling this is still a solid movie that I can recommend without hesitation. It gets you in all the right places and makes for a fine cathartic afternoon. Still, the best reason to see this is to watch Bullock at her very best.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock does some of the best work of her career. The family dynamic is believable even if S.J. is too cute to be believed.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit formula and some of the elements feel scripted instead of true-to-life. Aaron as Oher gives us little insight into his character.

FAMILY VALUES: Some language and some minor violence but otherwise okay for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are cameos from several Southeastern college football colleges playing themselves, including Phil Fullmer, Nick Saban, Lou Holtz and Tommy Tuberville.

HOME OR THEATER: This can easily fit on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Terminator Salvation