New reviews – ‘A Christmas Tale,’ ‘JCVD,’ ‘Days and Clouds’ and ‘Fuel’

Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) (dir: Arnaud Desplechin)

Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel) is my favorite film of the year to date and perhaps the popular breakthrough this French director deserves.  It’s the story of a family coming together for Christmas and the conflicts the erupt, but that’s as close as this film gets to the familiar comedies of dysfunctional families reluctantly gathering for the holidays and colliding in slapstick scenes. This is a film of delirious details, great and small, that layer in the complicated relations and complex emotional histories of siblings and parents and cousins and loved ones. Explanations only offer a surface understanding. It’s the way in which these folks act and react and interact that tells us who they are. The why is left to us to ponder.

Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve
Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve

It’s a lively and dynamic drama played out under the shadow of death: in the untimely death of a first-born (played out in flashback via shadow puppets, an odd device that brings a touching sadness to the memory), in the cancer that is killing family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve), in the odd sibling dynamics that has caused eldest Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance), in the fragility of Elizabeth’s teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling).

I review the film at Parallax View:

This is neither a farce of dysfunctional collisions nor a family drama where dredging up past sins and misunderstandings leads to teary reconciliations. It’s about the messy space inhabited by loved ones who will never know or understand everything about each other (or, for that matter, themselves) and may never overcome their own impulses (rational or irrational) and emotional reflexes. For all the prickly relations, Desplechin’s mix of joy and sadness and generosity and selfishness and forgiveness and blame is beautiful and celebratory.

I also review the film at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Days and Clouds (dir: Silvio Soldini)

Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese are an upper-middle-class couple whose entire world is turned upside down when the husband loses his job and struggles with his sense of shame and impotence, finding so much of his identity defined by his career and his ability to support his family.

Soldini doesn’t play the ordeal for melodrama. His sensitivity to depression and pride is nicely measured, and the performers bring a subtlety to the complicated emotions. But his awareness doesn’t probe much beneath the surface of a married couple whose aspirations are subsumed by their desperation to hold on to the status quo.

I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.

Fuel (dir: Josh Tickell)

So many documentaries, many of them excellent and provocative pieces of filmmaking, are like pieces of investigative journalism to uncover malfeasance, criminality, corruption and cover-ups. They find the bad guys and the bad policies and bring it to our attention, and we get righteously angry. Josh Tickell does his due diligence on the costs of an oil-dependent economy and lifestyle and on the machinery in place to keep the country dependent on oil, but he’s more concerned with the solutions. Not just potential and possibilities, but the practical solutions that individuals and communities are currently using. He also turns out to be almost as good a filmmaker as he is a cheerleader and an inspirational leader. Fuel is energetic and informative, and it challenges us not to simply accept what we are told about energy policy by industry or the government, but to research things for ourselves. And that’s why I love this film. I didn’t leave the theater thinking, “What a great film.” I left thinking, “How can we make this happen now?”

I review the film in the Seattle P-I here and on my blog here.

JCVD (dir: Mabrouk El Mechri)

JCVD gets serious
JCVD gets serious

JCVD is not a biography, though Belgian-born Jean-Claude Van Damme does in fact play a martial arts champion and aging action movie star who returns home to Belgium while he’s embroiled in a brutal custody battle over his daughter and struggling with a film career sliding into cheap international flicks and direct-to-DVD productions.

It’s not exactly an action thriller, though there is a heist-turned-hostage situation a la Dog Day Afternoon, with JCVD smack in the middle and a growing crowd shouting their support for their favorite son (the cops assume that he’s the leader of the gang).

And it’s not quite a satire, though Van Damme allows director Mabrouk El Mechri to lay waste to his film career in sardonic comments and his life in self-lacerating scenes.

JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy and Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a self-pitying monologue dropped into the middle of the movie. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky as he recasts his life story as the naive innocent corrupted by sudden fame and decadence. It’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.

I review the film elsewhere on my blog and also for the Seattle P-I here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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