Monday, January 31, 2022

My Dinner With Andre


(“My Dinner With Andre” recently celebrated its 40th anniversary of release, prompting me to watch it once more. The first time I saw the film I was fairly young and both characters seemed to have much more mature “adult” concerns than I could quite connect with at the time. The second time I watched it, I was about Wally's age, and Andre still seemed so old, practically in his twilight years. On this revisit, I'm somehow older than Andre and I gotta say I find these two kids absolutely adorable! Here is a slightly re-edited version of the review I posted for the film's 2009 Criterion release on DVD. Criterion later provided a Blu-ray upgrade in 2015 and that's probably you best bet if you're looking to add “Andrew” to your collection.)

Criterion is releasing three of the most iconic art-house films of all-time this month. Ingmar Bergman's “The Seventh Seal” (1957) helped to establish the art-house exhibition circuit in America and its imagery has been parodied in films like Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” (1975) and, perhaps most famously for American audiences, in Pete Hewitt’s “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991). A hit. You have sunk my battleship.

This month's other releases define two of the extremes of the perceived tendencies of art-house cinema. Alain Resnais' “Last Year at Marienbad” is, for some, the very definition of the impenetrable, hyper-intellectualized puzzle box pitched at self-styled intellectuals who pretend to glean meaning from a flurry of pretentious signifiers. Which is to say, it's just one of those “weird ass” movies that only movie geeks would watch (Ed. Note: It's in my personal Top 10, of course).

“My Dinner with Andre” (1981) represents a different art-house extreme, the quotidian movie in which nothing happens. Two men sit at a table and talk. That’s the whole damn movie, or almost all of it. No Marienbad mysteries here, it's all easy to understand: just soup, a plate of quail, and a lot of jabber. Which is to say it's one of those “boring ass” movies that only movie geeks would watch.

All three movies have carved out a place in popular culture, though “Marienbad” in a more roundabout route through fashion advertisements. For the sheer audacity (or absurdity, depending on your perspective) of its structure and its title, “My Dinner with Andre” has spawned its share of jokes. In “The Simpsons,” nerdy Martin Prince plays an arcade game based on the film, and in “Waiting for Guffman,”Christopher Guest’s character shows off his “My Dinner with Andre” action figures.

The joke in both cases in based on the contrast between “action” and the inertia of the film. But “My Dinner with Andre” is a pretty lively affair with dramatic ebbs and flows like most narrative films. Wally (Wallace Shawn, playing a fictional version of himself) is a playwright who is on his way to visit old friend Andre (Andre Gregory, also playing a fictional version of himself.) On the bus ride to the restaurant, Wally worries about his girlfriend and his career but mostly worries about Andre. He hasn’t seen Andre, also a playwright, in years, and the rumor is that Andre has gone totally crazy.

Once dinner begins, Andre doesn’t do much to dispel the rumors. He speaks of wild adventures in what can only be called “extreme improvisation,” acting workshops in the woods somewhere in Europe that evolve into sub-cultures centered around pagan rituals like ceremonial burials, communing with spirits, and related gibberish.

“My Dinner With Andre” is a downright transgressive film because it brazenly allows its characters to just talk. Actually it allows Andre to talk and, just as importantly, for Wally to listen. For the first hour or so, Wally does almost nothing but say “So what else happened?” as Andre rambles from one silly anecdote to another. Few actors would be willing to just sit there and do nothing but listen, but then again Shawn and Gregory did conceive and write the play, only bringing Louis Malle in to direct at a later stage of the project.

Watching the movie again, I realized that Wally is a genuine hero. As Andre blathers about one spiritual, transcendent experience after another, he becomes increasingly annoying, his mind so “open” to possibilities that he has abandoned all skeptical rigor. Finally Wally, fortified by the first few dinner courses (fish pate and roasted quail), can’t take it anymore: “Do you want to know my actual response?” Yes, Wally, we do! Slay that New Age dragon with your sword of reason!

Wally defends his bourgeois existence with gusto. Andre, to his credit, is a good sport about it. Deep down, he knows he’s peddling snake oil and it becomes clear that he really does value Wally’s friendship. It would have been too easy for the final act to end acrimoniously, providing a traditionally dramatic denouement. But they do what respectful friends do. They talk out their differences and get to know each other a little better in the process.

One of the pleasures of “My Dinner With Andre” is the opportunity to see things not normally considered important enough to depict on screen. As mundane as it seems, we rarely get to watch other people have a simple dinner conversation. Of course, this is a rehearsed, highly polished conversation between two performers riffing on their real life personas, but still the film’s explicit argument is that a mundane event like this is worthy of being put on film (directed by a genuine celebrated auteur, no less!) and subsequently being viewed by others. And the fact that it remains a popular draw even today is proof that the film’s argument is a valid one.


The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. “Andre” was filmed in 16mm and blown up to 35mm, so the image is grainy and the resolution is not as sharp as we’ve become accustomed to from Criterion but that’s because of the source material, not the transfer. It’s a very solid effort.


The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Dialogue is clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.


Both extras are on Disc Two of this 2-disc set.

Director Noah Baumbach records separate interviews with Andre Gregory and Wallace Shaw, each about a half hour long. They’re included in the same feature and can be watched either separately or an hour long program. They were recorded recently for the Criterion Collection.

“My Dinner with Louis” (42 min.) is a 1982 episode of the BBC program “Arena.” Wallace Shawn meets with Louis Malle in Atlantic City to discuss Malle’s career. Directed by Tristram Powell.

The insert booklet includes an essay by Amy Taubin and the prefaces written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory to their published screenplay.

Final Thoughts:

Watching “My Dinner with Andre” on DVD gives viewers the chance to pay attention to the lesser-discussed aspects of the movie.While Louis Malle shoots in a fairly straightforward matter, shifting between close-ups and two-shots, the strategic placement of a mirror behind the dinner companions gives the longer shots more energy and keeps Andre’s face in view even when he’s turned away from the camera. And then of course there’s the marvelous waiter, played by non-professional actor Jean Lenauer, who likes like he might have snuck in from a French B-horror movie.

If you’ve only heard of “My Dinner with Andre” by way of its pop culture parodies, you may have some preconceptions about the film. Place them aside and watch the movie with a fresh eye because it’s a lot more vibrant and flat-out entertaining than you might think. It’s not just a “boring ass” movie for movie geeks. It’s lots of fun.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Favorite Films of 2021


Petite Maman

The focus of this blog has always been on coverage of DVD and Blu-ray titles. It's right there in the name of the site. A few years ago my supply of screeners, once a raging torrent that flooded my mailbox each month, slowed to a trickle, and now appears to have shut off completely, a rough match for the trajectory of DVD sales over the past decade. I believe physical media is as important as ever – who wants to be dependent on the vicissitudes of the array of mercurial streaming channels we've all cobbled together to form our personal archives – but I can't escape the fact that it's mighty difficult to review releases that I don't have.

Do I now have to resort to reviewing new theatrical releases? What a depressing thought. Not that there aren't worthwhile films produced every year, but I've always been mildly embarrassed that the bulk of film criticism ignores 125 years of film history to focus on whatever happens to be in a theater (or its streaming proxy) this month. Just imagine only reading new books. Bo-ring!

Anyway, speaking of those worthwhile films released every year, it's time to talk about my favorite movies of 2021. As always, I'm sure I've missed seeing plenty of quality contenders: Tsai Ming-Liang's “Days,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi's “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” Joanna Hogg's “The Souvenir, Part II” and more.

My Top 10 of 2021:

Petite Maman (Sciamma)

Pig (Sarnoski)

Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts)

Summer of Soul (Questlove)

Memoria (Apichatpong)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (J Coen)

Bad Luck Banging or Looney Porn (Jude)

The Card Counter (Schrader)

Passing (Hall)

Flee (Rasmussen)

And Six More That I Liked A Lot:

The Worst Person in the World (Trier)


About Endlessness (Andersson)

Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (Cretton)

Nightmare Alley (Del Toro)

Bergman Island (Hansen-Love)

If you don't count the end credits, Celine Sciamma's “Petite Maman” clocks in under 70 minutes, but that's not the only reason this little gem is one of the year's best movies. Eight-year-old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has just had to say goodbye to her beloved maternal grandmother. While grieving, Nelly helps to clean out the old family home and meets a very special new friend. The film spends almost all of its compact running time following young Nelly closely, relishing in the opportunity to show little girls at play, and providing a fresh, intimate perspective on the mother-daughter relationship. The film subtly and methodically builds up to an ending that's both surprising and deeply affecting. I'm still thinking about it a month later.

“Pig” has been creatively marketed as “John Wick, but with Nicolas Cage and a pig” which sounds freaking awesome and also promises some bonkers thrills. Cage plays Rob, a bearded recluse holed up in a shack in the woods with only his truffle-hunting pig for companionship. When his best friend is pignapped, Cage reluctantly treks back to the seedy urban jungle (Portland, OR to be precise) for either rescue or revenge. As you watch Cage get beaten half to death in one of those infamous underground fight clubs run exclusively by off-duty restaurant workers, you're expecting the gonzo fury to fully erupt, but screenwriter/director Michael Sarnoski provides the biggest shock by steering the film in a much more serene, contemplative direction. “Pig” winds up being a surprisingly moving portrait of grief and an impassioned testament to the value of artistic integrity in an increasingly homogenized commercial world. Cook what you want to cook – your very soul may depend on it.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is packed to the gills with shameless fan service and constructed by an established crowd-pleasing formula, but just as the Egg McMuffin is designed in the lab to be the tastiest damn sandwich in the world, this new MCU entry sure goes down smooth. I think what I love best about this goofy plot is that all of its multiverse-spanning mayhem stems entirely from the fact that Peter Parker just can't shut the hell up for a minute. Talk about respect for the source material! From the instant I first saw Tom Holland in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), I thought he fully embodied the Peter Parker of the comic book pages, and he still owns the role, even while sharing the screen with his worthy predecessors. This movie is pure Marvel joy from start to finish. After a bit of a lull, the MCU finished the year very strong with both “No Way Home” and the immensely entertaining “Hawkeye” series.

Speaking of pure joy from start to finish, “Summer of Soul,” Questlove's jawn/documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, is an absolute blast. Held over six weeks in the summer, the “Black Woodstock” featured an all-universe lineup, ranging from newcomers like a teenager named Stevie Wonder to veteran stars like Mahalia Jackson, with Gladys Knight and the Pips, The 5th Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, and Nina Simone sprinkled in just to keep everyone entertained. I admit that I knew nothing about this concert and I suspect the same will be true for many viewers, which is one of the primary reasons Questlove decided to edit together this long-unseen footage into the most electrifying music documentary to come along in years.

In Apichatpong Weerasethakul's “Memoria,” Jessica (Tilda Swinton) hunts down a sound that has been haunting her (waking?) dreams. It's a bounce, a thump, kind of earthy. Are we even hearing the same noise Jessica does? When an audio technician who helps her pinpoint the elusive sound suddenly disappears, “Memoria” begins to feel like a detective story or perhaps psychological horror, and it might be both of those things, but to pigeonhole it as anything other than “the new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul” seems inadequate. As with the Thai master's earlier films, perhaps it's best to just immerse yourself in the sensory experience, turn off your cognitive filters, and just dream along with it.

The Scottish Film

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is easily the most visually seductive film I saw this year, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel deserves to win every award for his black-and-white photography that somehow looks both sleek and archaic at the same time. Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand deserve all the praise they've received for this primal scream of a staging, but I have to give a shout out to Kathryn Hunter for bringing an intense physicality to the Weird Sisters that I've never seen in any other adaptation of the Scottish Play.

Romanian director Radu Jude's “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” may be the first great feature film set in the pandemic year(s). Emi (Katia Pascariu) wanders through a Bucharest populated by people wearing masks, face shields, animal costumes, and billowing cloaks of incoherent rage. But lest you think the film suggests a year-plus of lockdown has made everyone crazy, it ticks off a methodical checklist of historical lunacy proving that the crazy has always been there, just bubbling to the surface now in a different form. For a film that starts with a four-minute hardcore sex tape, “Bad Luck” covers a dizzying range of subjects with a radical flair that makes it feel like a forgotten film of the late '60s. It must have been part of some kind of New Wave, right? Its final act also demonstrates how exhausting it must be to be a rational, educated person calmly making an informed argument in an environment where the most meticulously researched facts can be dismissed by someone blowing you a raspberry and calling you a bitch. I also appreciate that Jude chose a title guaranteeing that the film will only be seen by film critics and other perverts.

I still don't understand what card counting has to do with playing poker, but that's no hindrance to appreciating Paul Schrader's latest take on God's Lonely Man by way of Robert Bresson. In “The Card Counter,” Oscar Isaac (delivering one of the best lead performances of the year) plays a man recently released from military prison, though not released from his blighted past. While atoning for his sins (to be identified later), he scrapes together a peripatetic living as a low-stakes gambler, content to bet small and stay off everyone's radar – maybe even God's? Backed by an investor (Tiffany Haddish, in a sparkling supporting turn), he's willing to play for higher stakes in order to save the soul of a very angry young man (Tye Sheridan) he meets on the road. Anyone familiar with Schrader's work can call out the Bresson influences along the way (we start with “A Man Escaped,” yep that's “Diary of a Country Priest” right there, and you better believe we're gonna end with “Pickpocket”) but Schrader has long since synthesized the Bressonian sensibility into his own purified vision. As a follow up to the indelible “First Reformed” (2017), this film is clear evidence that Schrader is doing the very best work of his career right now.

Rebecca Hall's adaptation of Nella Larsen's novel “Passing” is so assured and focused it's hard to believe it's her directorial debut. Hall also adapted the screenplay which doesn't waste a scene, hurtling forward through a series of itnense moments in the developing friendship/rivalry between Claire (Ruth Negga), a light-skinned black woman passing as white in prohibition-era New York, and her old high-school friend Irene (Tessa Thompson). The slight resentments and affections each feels toward the other propel the narrative to its powerful and seemingly inevitable conclusion, all bolstered by luminous black-and-white cinematography by Eduard Grau. Thompson and Negga are both sensational.

“Flee” is simultaneously one of the best animated films of the year as well and one of the best documentaries. Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells the story of his friend Amin (name and animated likeness changed to protect his identity), an Afghan refugee who immigrated to Copenhagen as a teenager. Amin's harrowing refugee tale is paired with his story of coming-of-age in Kabul while realizing he is homosexual, a journey that quite charmingly involves an obsession with the films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Muscles from Brussels. Amin's voice is the star and organizing principle of this riveting story.