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‘The Movie Teller’ Review: Berenice Bejo and Daniel Bruhl in Lone Scherfig’s Graceful but Slight Drama About Film Love

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‘The Movie Teller’ Review: Berenice Bejo and Daniel Bruhl in Lone Scherfig’s Graceful but Slight Drama About Film Love

Movies about movies tend to be as sentimental as Cinema Paradiso, the all-time tearjerker in the genre, or as caustic as the recent Babylon. But Lone Scherfig finds a fine balance between love of movies and the harsh wider world in The Movie Teller, a beautifully made coming-of-age film about Maria Margarita, who acts out the Hollywood movies she has seen at the local cinema in her small mining town. Set in the Chilean desert in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the drama benefits greatly from the sure hand and clear eye Scherfig has brought to her best films, other period pieces including An Education (2009) and Their Finest (2016). All that can’t quite make up for the rocky screenplay, though.

The story is adapted from the Chilean writer Hernan Rivera Letelier’s 2009 novel. The first version of the screenplay was tackled years ago by the Brazilian director Walter Salles, and more recently reworked by the Spanish writer-directors Isabel Coixet and Rafa Russo. The film has the cobbled-together feel of a literary adaptation that is too pared-down at the start and overstuffed toward the end.

The Movie Teller

The Bottom Line

A sweet but minor addition to the movies-about-movies genre.

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Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Daniel Bruhl, Berenice Bejo, Antonio de la Torre, Sara Becker, Alondra Valenzuela
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Isabel Coixet, Rafa Russo, Walter Salles


1 hour 56 minutes

We follow Maria Margarita as she grows from a girl, played by Alondra Valenzuela in a dynamic performance, to a young woman, played by Sara Becker, who makes her affecting. Becker’s opening voiceover, used sparingly, says, “I grew up in the driest place on Earth,” the Atacama Desert, site of a town for workers in the saltpeter mine. Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) plays her mother, Maria Magnolia, straining against the limits of her life as the mother of four and wife of a miner, Medardo (a solid Antonio de la Torre). In the smaller role of Hauser, the German manager of the mining company, Daniel Bruhl doesn’t have much more to do than give knowing, sympathetic looks, but he does that effectively. With its Danish director and international mix of writers and cast, the Spanish-language film is a virtual United Nations, but that part at least works seamlessly.

True to her lucid, no-frills style, Scherfig often keeps the camera on a face in the middle of the screen, holding just long enough for us to see what no one says: Maria Magnolia’s desperation, the haggard Medardo’s awareness of it. We observe what their young daughter might see without completely comprehending: the way Hauser brushes her mother’s hand.

The one bright spot in this family’s life is the cinema. On Sunday afternoon, they dress in their best and go to see Paths of Glory, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence or Some Like It Hot.  We see very brief glimpses of these movies along with the inevitable shots of the audience looking rapt, which Scherfig thankfully keeps to a minimum.

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When Medardo loses the use of his legs in a mining accident, the family can’t afford more than one movie ticket, and in turn each of the children is sent to watch and tell the film to the others. In episodes that briefly add a comic tone, one brother can’t finish telling Breakfast at Tiffany’s because “Who can understand women?” When another tells about the lovers parting on a railway platform in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg it turns into a detailed description of the train.

But Maria Margarita is a natural, acting out films with dramatic flair. One day she is Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, the next she is Spartacus (well, who isn’t?). The specific movies are never the point. The soothing, magical escape they offer is. Bracingly, The Movie Teller recognizes that illusion can’t last.

The film was shot in the actual Atacama Desert, and Daniel Aranyo’s cinematography brings clear, cool light to the dusty landscape and beige palette. That look is punctuated by the bright pastels of Maria Magnolia’s wardrobe, a sign that she doesn’t belong in this drab life, and soon she runs off for good.

The story takes a leap in time and begins racing through events. Becker takes over the role, and the adult is now a vibrant, cheerful woman who works as a cleaner and also earns money telling movies to the town, and for individual clients. From then on the film shortchanges too many tragic turns, including a traumatic incident that Maria Margarita signals has happened by acting out Johnny Belinda.

The film is set during a turbulent period in Chile, and the slightest political undercurrent runs through most of it, including a brief scene of workers trying to organize against the capitalist mine owners. Those scenes don’t amount to much. But very near the end, it is 1970 and suddenly we hear news reports that the socialist Salvador Allende has been elected president, swiftly followed three years later by Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, events that result in violence and the closing of the mine. Despite a few scenes of Maria Margarita’s brother’s political activism, the news lands abruptly, like an intrusion of the real world on the hermetic town.

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That isn’t necessarily a wrong-headed choice; the social changes might have hit the characters in just that blind-siding way. But like too many other dramatic plot turns here, it lands too jarringly to be convincing. Graceful but slight, in the end The Movie Teller tries to do too much and accomplishes too little to fulfill its big ambitions. 

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Movie Reviews

‘It’s Not Me’ Review: Leos Carax’s Cinema Collage Mixes Movies, History and Real Life into a Personal Manifesto

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‘It’s Not Me’ Review: Leos Carax’s Cinema Collage Mixes Movies, History and Real Life into a Personal Manifesto

After Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax is probably the French filmmaker most associated with the term enfant terrible. In some ways, he’s been even more terrible than Godard ever was, adopting a pseudonym (he was born Alex Dupont) as a teenager and bursting onto the scene at age 24 with Boy Meets Girl — Godard made Breathless when he was 30 — which immediately turned him into a major young auteur to be reckoned with.

He followed that up with the powerful, AIDS-inspired Mauvais Sang, and then made The Lovers on the Bridge, a film infamous for being a French Heaven’s Gate that went way over budget and flopped (it’s still a fantastic movie). After that Carax disappeared for a while, then reemerged to make a few shorts, compose pop songs and shoot a new feature every decade, the last one being the Adam Driver-Marion Cotillard starrer, Annette.

It’s Not Me

The Bottom Line

A short and dense film autobiography suited for the auteur’s fans.

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Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Première)
Cast: Denis Lavant, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Anna-Isabel Siefken, Bianca Maddaluno, Kateryna Yuspina, Loreta Juodkaite, Peter Anevskii
Director, screenwriter, editor: Leos Carax

40 minutes

His latest work, the medium-length, autobiographical collage It’s Not Me (C’est pas moi), is both that of an enfant terrible and a true-blooded Godard disciple. It mimics, or pays homage to, the late Franco-Swiss director’s montage films like Histoire(s) du cinéma and The Image Book, using the same colorful on-screen titles that JLG once used to comment on footage both old and new.

That footage was assembled by Carax for an exhibition meant to happen at the Pompidou Center a few years ago, but still yet to take place. (Back in 2006, Godard was asked to do his own show at the same museum, then abandoned it due to “artistic, financial and technical difficulties,” only to replace it several months later with what was best described as a “non-exhibition.)

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In preparation for the show, the organizers ask Carax a simple question: Who are you? The answer, according to It’s Not Me, it that he’s everything from silent movies to Hollywood Golden Age classics to scenes from his own work. He’s also the music of Nina Simone and David Bowie and The Fall, as well as Ravel and Beethoven. He’s Monsieur Merde (Mister Shit), a raving alter-ego played by Denis Lavant, who’s starred in nearly all of his films. And he’s above all a person who defines himself through the cinema, whether it’s the movies he loves or those he’s made throughout his turbulent career.

People unfamiliar with Carax’s oeuvre will likely be lost here, while fans and cinephiles will find a hearty meal to feast on. It’s Not Me is chock-full of references and influences, from F.W. Murnau to Jean Vigo to Godard himself, whose trembling voice is heard on a voice message he once left the director.

There are also scenes featuring Carax’s real family, including his daughter, the actress Nastya Golubeva Carax, whom we see skipping along the Seine in old cell phone footage, then marvelously playing piano in a scene illuminated by candles. The auteur himself appears a few times as well: at the very start, where he’s lying on something like his deathbed, and later walking through the Buttes-Chaumont park accompanied by Monsieur Merde, who gleefully runs down a hill and defecates in a bush.

The film jumps around so quickly that it’s sometimes hard to follow the director’s lead. At other moments Carax more succinctly expresses his views, such as in a rapid-fire montage of world leaders that groups together Putin, Trump, Kim Jong-il and Benjamin Netanyahu. Another scene provides a brief history of Roman Polanski’s tumultuous and controversial life, in what seems like a plea for his defense.

While Carax’s movies have never been overtly political or historical, this one makes several references to Hitler and the Nazis. In one sequence, the director cuts in footage of Isadore Greenbaum, the Jewish plumber who tried to interrupt a pro-Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden in 1939. In a later scene staged by Carax — and shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier, the DP of Holy Motors — a mother sits beside her children in bed, eerily reading a bedtime story that describes the Final Solution.

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Again, it’s a hearty meal, and also a condensed one at only 40 minutes. The auteur seems to be squeezing everything he can into a personal manifesto in which cinema, history and real life become interchangeable, and in which he tries to situate his work within film’s larger trajectory. The most telling evidence of this is a sequence which cuts from Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering photos of a horse in movement to a tracking shot of Lavant gloriously running and dancing down a Paris street in Mauvais Sang.

At such moments, it’s clear that Carax has not only reserved his own place in cinema’s trajectory, but that his films remain instantly recognizable through their romantic exuberance and visual splendor, their dark humor and existential gloom. These traits may not describe who Carax is or wants to be — if one is to believe that his latest movie is not, in fact, him (c’est pas moi). But they’re what we know and love about a great filmmaker, and still very much an enfant terrible at age 63, who’s always put the whole of himself into his work.

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Movie Reviews

Black Dog: Chinese director Guan Hu makes Cannes debut

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Black Dog: Chinese director Guan Hu makes Cannes debut

2.5/5 stars

Black Dog begins with all the trappings of a revenge Western. Set in a godforsaken town where bad guys roam around with impunity, it revolves around a reticent man returning home after a decade-long absence to confront his sworn enemies.

It also seems to have everything in place for a political allegory. Juxtaposing images of crumbling tenements with incessant radio news bulletins about the Beijing Olympics, the story, set in 2008, could offer commentary about the clash of reality and dreams in 21st century China.

As it turns out, Guan Hu’s film is neither. From the big bang of its first half-hour, Black Dog is slowly reduced to a whimper, as what was set up to be a hard-boiled genre film turns into a sentimental relationship drama about a wayward man’s attempt to connect with his family, friends, foes and his new four-legged buddy.

Having transformed himself from a Sixth Generation indie filmmaker to a master of battle-heavy blockbusters like The Eight Hundred and The Sacrifice, Guan begins Black Dog with what is arguably the most stunning set piece in mainland Chinese cinema so far this year.
Somewhere amid the tumbleweed-filled steppes of northwest China, hundreds of dogs run down a mountain towards a remote road, causing a travelling bus to flip over. Among those who crawl from the debris is Lang (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), a mysterious, taciturn ex-convict returning home after a decade away.

Settling into his long-abandoned home, his past returns to haunt him in the form of the local butcher, who accused Lang of having caused his nephew’s death.

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A still from Black Dog.

But the bad guy in town is Yao (Jia Zhangke), the chain-smoking leader of a bunch of “dog management officers” who capture strays and steal pets in order to resell them elsewhere for a profit.

Lang joins Yao to earn some hard cash, only to find his humanity flickering back to life when he forms a bond with a raging, rabies-stricken hound. This inspires him to reconcile with his adversaries, his ailing zoo-master father and his younger self.

While there’s nothing wrong with Guan’s decision to steer a fatalistic tale towards a happy ending, the change of tone does Peng few favours, as he is forced to reprise the kind of gawky man-child role he has been typecast in for just too long.

A still from Black Dog, set in the steppes of northwest China.

Meanwhile, the flood of positive energy in the second half of the film renders its remarkable set design evoking doom and gloom irrelevant. The same can be said even of apparently important characters: Dong Liya’s circus acrobat, for example, is left with nothing to do as the prospect of forming a relationship with Lang evaporates.

The canines are cute, though – and for some, perhaps, that is Black Dog’s main draw.

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Movie Reviews

Kinds of Kindness: Poor Things director at his most elusive

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Kinds of Kindness: Poor Things director at his most elusive

In the first, “The Death of R.M.F.”, Jesse Plemons plays Robert, a man who appears in thrall to Raymond (Willem Dafoe), who sets Robert’s agenda, from his diet to his sexual encounters.

In the second, “R.M.F. Is Flying”, Plemons plays Daniel, a cop whose wife Liz (Emma Stone) has gone missing; when she returns, he is convinced she is an imposter.

Finally, in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich”, Stone plays Emily, a woman who seeks out a cult leader (Dafoe) for a spiritual and sexual awakening.

Hong Chau in a still from Kinds of Kindness. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima

Inevitably, as is the case with most portmanteau films, one episode stands out – in this case “The Death of R.M.F.”, which has an unnerving quality to it.

The second instalment is the most shocking, featuring Liz and Daniel sitting around with friends (Mamoudou Athie and Margaret Qualley) watching a highly explicit sex tape the four of them made.

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Bringing up the rear is the final short, which rather drags with its depictions of sweat lodges, bodily contamination, and Stone skidding around in her cool-looking Dodge Challenger.

With Hong Chau (The Whale) and Joe Alwyn (who featured in Lanthimos’ The Favourite) also appearing, it is undoubtedly a fine cast, one led by Plemons, who truly understands how to perform in the Lanthimos style.

Stone, now on her third movie with the Greek director, seems to relish the extremes she gets to go to.

(From left) Willem Dafoe, Jesse Plemons and Hong Chau in a still from Kinds of Kindness. Photo: Atsushi Nishijima

Quite what it all means, however, is another thing entirely. The characters seem to be in states of crisis, with miscarriage a common theme.

Looking at humanity in all its weirdness, Kinds of Kindness is a baffling film to take in, as abrasive as its musical score from Jerskin Fendrix, who performed similar tricks on Poor Things.

Certainly, compared to his more accessible films, such as The Favourite and Poor Things, this feels like Lanthimos at his most elusive and frustrating.

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