In the interests of getting back on track, putting up at least capsule reviews at regular intervals....
The Angel's Share - 10/15 - A comic heist picture from Ken Loach, which not be the first thing I would expect either, but here it is. Not bad, actually - starts with a bunch of kids sentenced to community service for various stupidities, like trespassing onto a train tracks, or climbing a statue, or beating up someone who attacked him... The last one turns out to be the main character, Robbie, a hard case who is trying to change, has a girl, who's having a baby, but the world is against him. The girl's family hates him, he has enemies on the streets, the law has just about given up on him - he has no hope - but he is somewhat taken in my Harry, the man in charge of the community service. Harry toasts him with whiskey, a fine single malt, when Robbie's son is born - and starts Robbie thinking about whiskey. He takes the kids on a tour of a distillery, and Robbie starts to develop a nose for it - he studies it - he goes to tastings - he impresses professionals and meets a collector... And then conceives a plan for stealing a few bottles of a very rare cask of the stuff, likely to sell for a million dollars or so. Well, after that - just say the film's sympathies are with the people likeliest to enjoy the whiskey and least likely to pay $100,000 for a bottle of it. It's all charming, with the steel of the streets in it, though very slight, in the end.
Mud - 11/15 - Jeff Nichols' follow up to Take Shelter. Matthew McConaughey is Mud, hiding on a island, where he's found by two kids who are looking at a boat in a tree. They start helping him, and his story slowly comes out - he loves a girl, they've had trouble all their lives, she probably doesn't love him as much as he loves her - he's ended up shooting a man in Texas. The law is after him, and so is the man's family, who are a hard lot. Well - there's plenty running along wise this - one of the kids, the main one, Ellis, is having trouble at home - his parents are breaking up, they will lose their houseboat - he meets a girl, flirts with her, but she dumps him - he suffers. But he keeps helping Mud, and Mud helps him too, in the end, until things sort of explode.... It is, in any case, a superb film - not as powerful as Take Shelter, but very fine - handsome looking, with an ace cast - Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the kids, McConaughey augmented by Sam Shepherd, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker - all of them among the elite American character actors, and Shannon one of the best actors in the business. Even Reese Witherspoon fits in perfectly, as though she were one of AMerica's elite character actors... And McConaughey these days is becoming almost as sure a guarantee of quality as Shannon.
Renoir - 7/15 - film by Gilles Bourdos about the Renoir family - set in 1915 or so, the old man getting along in years - Jean off to war, Claude wandering around moping.... starts with the old man hiring a model; Jean comes home with a war wound and hangs around. He screws the model, then goes back to war, over the protests of dad and lover - he promises to come back and all - and since we already know he does come back, well, all right. He did come back, he married the girl, they made movies together and (a little poking around tells us), they broke up when he started casting other women in his films, so she disappeared and he stayed Jean Renoir. I guess it's a happy ending anyway. There are a couple flickers of things that might figure in Jean's films (some business with maids and hunters and such), but mostly, it's more interested in the father than the son. Certainly, as a film, it's more attuned to father than son - it is gorgeous, lush and rich and brilliantly lit, a moving painting, shot, as it is, by Mark Ping-bin Lee. Unfortunately, there's not much in the filmmaking to recommend. Not put together with much life, certainly with none of the sense of space and movement Jean Renoir's films had. Nor is there much of a story - it tries to play the part of a straightforward dramatic biopic, but there's not a lot of drama, and they don't tell us all that much about the characters on display - flat and drab. But lovely to look at!
In the House - 10/15 - another French film, from Francois Ozon - tres French indeed. He's back to making subtle metafictional psychodramas, like Swimming Pool - this time, there's a bored high school teacher married to Kristin Scott Thomas who runs a gallery for a pair of twins. The teacher has a student, who starts turning in assignments describing his efforts to infiltrate the house of his friend. The teacher is intrigued and inspired - he starts offering private lessons in plotting and characterization, and the boy keeps going with the story. He has a crush on the woman, the man is in trouble at work, the boy is dull, but with the teacher's encouragement, things get a little more lively. The boy turns out to have a crush on the writer; the kid beds the wife and so on... It does tend to rather swallow itself in the end - though Ozon isn't exactly apologetic about it: the teacher and writer end up sitting on a bench looking into people's windows making up stories about them... It is all very clever, but is, really, Swimming Pool lite.
Something in the Air - 13/15 - Olivier Assayas' latest, on the other hand, is the real deal. Set in 1971, based roughly on his own teenaged years, starting in high school, where the main character, Gilles, is part of a group of high school radicals. The film proceeds in episodes - first, their adventures at the school - they make plans, protest and so on - then cover the school in graffiti, but are chased by guards, and one of them is identified. They then firebomb the guards in retaliation, not really trying to hurt them, though - but one of them is hurt. The first kid is accused, though he was not there - the rest of them get out of town to let things cool down. Some of them go to Italy, then start splitting up - Gilles comes back to Paris to take exams; his girlfriend Christine joins a collective of radical filmmakers; another friend Alain heads off with some American hippies; Jean-Pierre, the kid accused of the attack, radicalizes. And Gilles' other girlfriend, Laure, goes to London with her parents, hanging around rock stars, and taking up older men and drugs. It tends, as it goes, to unravel - from the tight opening, focused on the protests and politics, it starts to diffuse, as characters move away, as the political groups splinter and recombine, as everyone, really, starts to define themselves. All of them do, in some ways - Jean-Pierre in politics, Gilles in film (he works for his father, a TV producer; he goes to London to work at Pinewood), Alain as a painter, even Christine, whose foray into political filmmaking ends up with her serving as housewife to a bunch of ineffectual filmmakers, but who ends it by riding away on her own... All this is made in what is perhaps Assayas' most identifiable style - fast, mobile, everyone always on the run, the camera moving along with them, music everywhere - propulsive, restless filmmaking that is a thrill to watch. This probably, in the end, is not quite as good as Carlos or Cold Water - or for that matter, Philippe Garrel's similarly retrospective Regular Lovers - but it is in their league. Superb film, rivaling Beyond the Hills for best film in theaters this year.