I’ve been traveling a lot lately and posting less—paying assignments get top priority for my time at home—so I’m a little behind. And this week at my MSN column I left the Hollywood new releases to the blue-star panel of MSN film critics (you can find their reviews quoted in my coverage of Date Night (Fox), Death at a Funeral (Sony) and The Joneses (Fox)) and gave cursory coverage to the painfully self-indulgent self-produced comedy of midlife crisis and career ennui Multiple Sarcasms (Image). I finally caught up with the newly restored Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Kino) and put down a few words on the recent box set releases spotlighting directors Sacha Guitry and Akira Kurosawa, stars Errol Flynn and Kim Novak, and the King himself, Elvis Presley.
What does that leave for this column? How about Michel Gondry’s The Thorn in the Heart (Oscilloscope), an intimate portrait of his Aunt Suzette Gondry, the strong-willed patriarch of the Gondry family, and her thorny relationship with her son Jean-Yves.
Michel obviously adores Suzette and he invites her to tell her story as schoolteacher who served all over Southern France, from a single-classroom rural school heated by a wood stove to a community where she also taught the adult “Harkis,” the Algerian soldiers who fought with the French and were settled in France after the war. But he is also concerned for his older cousin Jean-Yves, a single gay man who even as an adult is cowed by his mother, who came down hard on him when he was her student and never seems to have let up. There is love but not much understanding or communication (“We never understood each other,” confesses Jean-Yves) and all these years later, as she dotes on former students and coos over successful filmmaker Michel, she’s just as judgmental when it comes to Jean-Yves, who she at one point describes as “weak” and admits that “He is really a thorn in my heart.” This of a son who came to terms with his sexuality only after he was married, got a divorce and had a nervous breakdown. Even when she explains that she doesn’t have any problem with his homosexuality, it sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself of it.
Michel tries to bridge the gap even as he explores it through his interviews and discussions, but it only frames her stubborn pride: even as he gets her to admit to a mistake, of sorts (she grudgingly agrees that children shouldn’t have their parents as schoolteachers), she lays into her son for his failures while he bites his tongue with a heartbreakingly pained smile. Michel’s personality comes through in little touches along the way: toy trains mark the chapters of her life (they are in fact Jean-Yves’ hobby), an outdoor movie theater is reconstructed on the ruins of an old schoolhouse where she showed French films to the Algerian community, a “dramatic recreation” of a minor mishap involving a drying rack and a bathroom door, and the “invisible suits” sequence at a schoolhouse where young kids dress in colors that Michel can render invisible through simple green-screen techniques. That playfulness keeps the film buoyant even as it delves into the thickets of emotional complications of family lives.
The Oscilloscope release comes in their distinctive four-leaf paperboard sleeve and features a number of Gondry-directed supplements. “A Brief History of the Harkis” is a 15 minute featurette on the Algerian soldiers repatriated in France when the French pulled out of Algeria, “Techno Suzette” turns 8mm footage shot by his aunt into a techno video, “Charlotte Gainsbourg: Little Monsters” is a music video created out of the “invisible suit” footage and “Animations by Valerie Pirson” features almost two minutes of animated segments created for the film. Only a few seconds were used in the film, so Gondry collects all of for this montage. Also includes to Q&A sessions with GOndry from the film’s premiere at SXSW: the 11-minute “Post Screening Q&A with Michel Gondry at SXSW” moderated by John Pierson and the 23-minute “In Conversation,” an on-stage interview with Michel Gondry hosted by Eugene Hernandez.
I finally found the time to sit down with Rolling Stones: Stones in Exile (Eagle Vision), the 61-minute documentary on the making of the landmark double-album “Exile on Main Street” from Stephen Kijak (of Scott Walker: 30th Century Man fame). More than your basic behind-the-music production, this is superb production, perhaps not as probing and revealing as it could have been, thanks to the intimate involvement of the Rolling Stones, but that trade-off gave him unprecedented access to the Stones vaults. It was a notorious moment in the life of the band: they fled England as tax exiles (they were broke, thanks to the management practices of their previous management, the unnamed Allan B. Klein), landed in the South of France and began on a six month jam-session and drug-fueled party in Nellcote, a mansion leased by Keith Richards and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg. Unhappy with the local recording studios on the French coast, they turned the acoustically iffy basement into a rehearsal space turned recording studio and rolled in a recording van, while sidemen, friends, family members and other hangers on (including drug dealers) moved in. It got them booted out of the country but it resulted in the band’s last masterpiece, which they completed and mixed in Los Angeles.
The documentary isn’t shy about the drugs (actor Jake Weber, who was then the young son of one of Keith Richards’ drug suppliers, recalls rolling joints for the adults and enjoying the energy and music, at least until it started to get scary) but the Stones are shy about details. Piano player Nicky Hopkins is left out of the piece but for a single mention, Brian Jones (who was kicked out of the band in 1969 and died in 1971) is never mentioned at all, and Mick’s wedding to Bianca is glimpsed but completely ignored afterwards. But the portrait that Kijak creates is incredibly vivid thanks to his access to rare home movies footage, a wealth of stills (a tremendous photographic record by French photojournalist Dominique Tarle, who arrived to snap some photos and stayed for the party) and audio outtakes from the sessions. Only a few minutes of the production are taken up with talking head interviews and new footage of the Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts revisiting the recording locations. The rest is created with still and archival footage, including concert films and scenes from Robert Frank’s Stones films, while new interviews fill in details on the soundtrack.
Features 33-minutes of bonus interviews with Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts, Anita Pallenberg (Richards’ then girlfriend) and Ronnie Wood, the short featurette “Return to Stargroves and Olympic Studios” with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts and the 40-minute “Exile Fans” featuring extended interviews with celebrities briefly seen in the open and close of the documentary (from Jack White and Sheryl Crow to Benicio Del Toro and Martin Scorsese).
And I draw attention to a pair of animated anthologies from the new “Looney Tunes Superstars” line: Bug Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire (Warner) and Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl (Warner). The single-disc releases offer the DVD debut of 15 animated shorts apiece. One could argue that the greatest Looney Tunes shorts featuring the signature characters of the Warner Bros. animation unit have already been released. My answer is: sure, but that still leaves a lot of near great, very good and just plain fun cartoons still out there. These sets take care of a couple dozen of them right off.
I review Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray release of Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary Crumb (Criterion) at MSN, and his 1985 feature debut Louie Bluie (Criterion) is also released on DVD.
Also new this week is Helen (E1) with Ashley Judd, Triage (E1/NEM) with Colin Farrell and Paz Vega, the sci-fi drama Canary (E1), Welcome (Film Movement) and the documentary Tapped (Disinformation).