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by Mark Jenkins,
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MAY 22, 2009

The Home and the World

Back home at last, Olivier Assayas takes a gentler look at the fractured modern world in Summer Hours. Also, two veteran rockers learn nothing in Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and Tom Hanks saves the Church in Angels and Demons, a conclave of horror-movie tropes.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, two films I reviewed for NPR: THE BROTHERS BLOOM and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.

AT 54, OLIVIER ASSAYAS MAY BE YOUNG for a career summation, but that's what he's made with Summer Hours, his quietly moving and quite wonderful new film. At first, the movie seems simple and offhand, as loose as Eric Gautier's gliding handheld camerawork. But that camera is in fact carefully controlled, and so is Assayas's script. Every piece fits together in a beautifully constructed meditation on themes that might seem impossible to align: art, family, youth, age, globalization, and France itself.

The action begins in a woods, where children rush on a treasure hunt. The questers are the grandchildren of Helene (Edith Scob), and the nearest treasures are not outside but in her house. At 75, Helene seems healthy, but she's concerned about what will happen to the collection of her late uncle, a painter who collected his peers's canvases, as well as museum-worthy decorative arts. The museum that's interested, of course, is the Musee D'Orsay, which sponsored a series of films to celebrate its 20th anniversary. That project, which yielded Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, was abandoned before Summer Hours could be made, but inspired its scenario.

Helene's oldest child, economist Frederic (Charles Berling), reassures his mother that the residence and its contents will be preserved for his generation and future ones. After all, the country house is only "50 minutes from Gare du Nord," convenient to the Paris home of Frederic, his wife, and adolescent children. But Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) is a designer in New York who visits Tokyo more often than Paris, and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) runs Puma factories in China and lives in Shanghai. (Vacation in France? He's promised the kids Bali.) When Helene dies, beginning the story's second act, the younger siblings don't want to keep the place or the stuff — just as their mother had expected.

And so the house is listed for sale, and its contents sold or given away. The Musee D'Orsay, which loaned some of the pieces used in the movie, gets many of the valuables. (Taxes as much as civic virtue guide this decision.) In a droll moment, Frederic asks his mother's longtime housekeeper to take something she likes, a gesture that goes entirely wrong. Meanwhile, Helene's children consider buried family scandals, and Frederic's teenage daughter causes a little controversy of her own.

In the epilogue, Frederic's children and some friends use the house and grounds for one last party before the property no longer belongs to the family. European classical music is replaced by hip-hop and pop-punk, as Assayas spins back to his breakthrough film, 1994's Cold Water. (That movie also began as a commission, part of a coming-of-age series bankrolled by a French music company.) But where Cold Water had an edge of desperation — embodied by late-'60s acid-rock, a frenzied midnight party, and Virginie Ledoyen as an emotionally unstable runaway — Summer Hours ends on a gentle note, with two teens heading back into the opening scene's woods as a song by the cosmic-folk Incredible String Band begins. The circle is unbroken.

Long fascinated by Asian cinema — he made a TV documentary about Hou Hsiao-hsien — Assayas enlisted some of its energy by building 1996's Irma Vep around Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung. (They later wed, but the marriage didn't last.) Most of the director's subsequent films have featured Asian elements, and both Demonlover and Boarding Gate offered nightmare visions of globalization as a mix of gangster capitalism and ocean-hopper's alienation. Summer Hours is no less concerned with the blurring of international boundaries, but it addresses the subject eloquently without ever traveling beyond Paris's exurbs. In spirit, the film is closer to Chekhov and Jean Renoir than Tsui Hark.

Among Assayas's previous movies, the one Summer Hours most resembles is Late August, Early September. Although it's about a group of literary-minded friends, that film is in essence a family saga. In both, connections are broken and relationships are redefined, but the disorder is offset by the narrative's grace and an assured yet unshowy ensemble cast. In part a tribute to art, Summer Hours observes disruption and loss with warmth and artfulness that conveys enduring verities.

SUMMER HOURS — 2008, 102 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE between late-'70s punk and early-'80s metal? No, not that one is rock'n'roll, while the other is closer to Wagner and Gilbert & Sullivan. The real disparity, as demonstrated by Anvil! The Story of Anvil, is that punk was "Do it yourself," while metal was "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up."

A textbook example of an insight-free documentary that's credited with perception, Anvil! is the Hoop Dreams of heavy metal. Both films waste viewers's time demonstrating what everyone already knew: that most high school athletes will not make the pros, or — in this case — that over-50 headbangers who never had a hit will not be welcomed back by a fast-declining music industry.

So why is Anvil! receiving such good notices? In part, because it's the tale of genuine losers, which looks like some kind of truth next to all the Hollywood flicks about phony winners. Also, because most movie critics know zilch about popular music (even though the movies they review are full of the stuff). And because Anvil! has a distant kinship to This Is Spinal Tap, a movie whose lampoonery of dim-witted fictional British rockers can glibly be transferred to dim-witted actual Canadian rockers.

Anvil's history is simple enough. The quartet was present — well, nearby — at the creation of '80s heavy metal, aka "thrash." According to various members of Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer who appear on screen, Anvil should have been huge, or at least bigger. But that was then, and these days the quartet is lucky to get a gig in the Toronto suburbs. The two founding members, singer-guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner — yeah, that's kinda funny — work grunt jobs and bicker like they've been married for 30 years, which they sorta have.

During the period in which the film follows the band, Anvil travels a bit further. A loyal fan who turns out to be an inept manager arranges a European tour — all the way to Zagreb — that ranges from disappointing to disastrous. Later, they get a somewhat better gig in Tokyo, and take their first trip to Japan in almost 25 years, In between, the band goes into debt to record a new album that no label will release.

Although the film doesn't mention it, director Sacha Gervasi is a longtime fan. That may explain why he doesn't challenge his subjects, or include outside voices that might offer perspective on the band's plight. We often see Lips in a snit, which must be drama, right?. (Look how many bogus tantrums Hollywood injected into The Soloist.) Yet Lips's outbursts never lead to a moment of recognition, either of his own self-defeating disposition or of his band's haplessness.

Here's the story that Anvil! utterly misses: A rock band can make a living — not get rich, or conquer the world — by touring regionally, selling T-shirts and self-pressed CDs, and not throwing its money at producers whose clout faded around the time Nevermind was released. (For the record, that was 1991.) Work hard, keep your bearings, and the Japanese rock-festival gig will be a bonus, not a desperate lunge at validation. Anvil keeps gazing jealously at Metallica, when it should be taking notes on Fugazi.

ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL — 2008, 90 min; at Landmark E Street.

A LITERARY FORERUNNER THAT BECAME A CINEMATIC SEQUEL, Angels and Demons has to be compared to The Da Vinci Code. Both are derived from the same author, Dan Brown, by the same director, Ron Howard, and feature the same central character, Robert Langdon, played by the same actor, Tom Hanks. Plus, both riff on dark secrets, real and imagined, of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet watching Angels and Demons, which is much livelier tripe than its predecessor, I didn't think of The Da Vinci Code so much as The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's devotional horror flick. The Catholics may not be the authors of the conspiracies that Brown imagines, but they certainly are the auteurs of Hollywood heebie-jeebies.

Angels and Demons flaunts all sort of claptrap, from a vial of stolen antimatter to a crucial clue (in English!) torn from a Galileo notebook. Fundamentally, though, the movie is a ticking-timebomb mystery: Langdon is flown in from Harvard because four cardinals have been kidnapped, supposedly by the Illuminati, a scientific sect reborn to avenge a 17th-century Catholic purge of four of its members. The bigwigs will be ritually killed, one by one, in locations Brown seems to have taken from his Frommer's guide to Rome's top five tourist destinations. Langdon solves riddles to follow the killers's path, usually arriving just in time to watch a cardinal die by means of one of the classic four elements: earth, fire, air, and water.

Despite its supposed provocations, Angels and Demons could hardly be more deferential to the Church. "Faith is a gift that has not been granted me," Langdon meekly tells one priest, and during most of the film he wears a cleric's shirt (without the collar). As in The Da Vinci Code, diabolical Catholic intrigue is far from epidemic; the elaborate slayings of the cardinals are committed essentially by one man. Ultimately, Langdon is told that he's done God's work, and sent away with a benediction — not from the Bible, but from well-meaning 1950s melodrama Tea and Sympathy.

Before that concluding gag, Langdon must determine which of three international stars — Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard, and Ewan McGregor, all playing Vatican potentates of various kinds — is the most devious. But the movie is essentially over once its dramatic sacrificial killings are concluded. Among the gory delights of the scenario (significantly altered from the book) are an eye plucked from a murdered physicist, rats chewing on a corpse, and a burning man whose attempted rescue merely causes him to plunge further into the flames. Roman Polanski — or Mel Gibson — couldn't have staged it better.

ANGELS & DEMONS — 2009, 139 min; at multiplexes from here to purgatory.