7/3/12: My Afternoons with Margueritte, The Hedgehog, Planeat, A Necessary Death, God Bless America

My Afternoons with Margueritte (NR, 2010, Cohen Media Group)
Every occasional afternoon or so, Illiterate fiftysomething Germain (Gérard Depardieu) goes to the park to visit a pigeon named Margueritte and the 18 other pigeons who flock to his bench and have since received names as well. But it’s during a random afternoon when he meets a Margueritte of a different sort — human, 95 years old, in love with life and literature, and happy to immediately flatter Germain by calling him a young man. The two become fast friends, and in the afternoons that follow, their bench becomes a meeting ground where Margueritte (Gisèle Casadesus) reads to Germain while he shares the details of his rocky past and present. And gosh, doesn’t that just sound ever so quaint?Surprise: It really isn’t. Because while Germain is something of a sympathetic figure, he’s also a mischief-making manchild and the king goofball amongst a magnificent kingdom of idiots who flock to the local pub. He has no time for self-pity. Behind Margueritte’s sweet old lady exterior, meanwhile, lies a woman with a penchant for dark fiction and the capacity to laugh at the misfortune of others if the story is funny enough. “My Afternoons with Margueritte” follows its characters’ leads: It’s unapologetically heartfelt, but too slyly good at slipping in and out of other dispositions — bitter, hilarious, silly, crazy, underhanded — to allow someone to trap and pigeonhole it as some schmaltzy fable with a manufactured soul. Don’t let the “Tuesdays with Morrie”-esque name fool you into dismissing it outright. But absolutely do let it lure you into a false sense of quaintness, because it might result in one of the more delightful rude awakenings you’ve experienced while watching a movie. In French with English subtitles. No extras.

The Hedgehog (NR, 2009, NeoClassics Films)
On her 12th birthday, exactly 165 days from now, Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) plans to kill herself with the antidepressants she steals a pill at a time from her mother. Until then, Paloma is using an old camcorder and the time she has left to make a film about all the dreary measures adults take to convince themselves they’re happy rather than actually just be happy. The project goes depressingly swimmingly until she makes acquaintance with Renée (Josiane Balasko), her apartment building’s antisocial superintendent. Renée, too, is unhappy, but she makes no pretense about being so, and that — along with her self-assessment as a “short, ugly, overweight” woman with “monster breath” — is all our suicidal 11-year-old philosopher needs to be completely smitten. If you peg “The Hedgehog” as an odd movie based on that setup, guess what? Of course it is. Just don’t dismiss it as being depressing because nearly everyone in it has some strain of depression going on. “The Hedgehog” isn’t so much about the strain as the spark — that little glint that pushes a middle-aged shut-in to open her door to a weirdly inquisitive kid, and the crumb of hope that inspires the kid to create some art and give the world 165 days to change her mind about leaving it. Tallied up, it’s effectively compartmentalization-proof — too thoughtful to let the glum premise hijack the story, too darkly funny to let it get buried, and too loaded with tonal and philosophical curveballs to allow classification as anything other than a wholly refreshing direction for some themes we’ve seen numerous times before. In French with English subtitles.
Extras: Deleted scenes, photo gallery.

Planeat (NR, 2010, True Mind)
Most documentaries about food and the environment are in the problem business. They hypothesize why our diet is killing us and the Earth, they drop some sobering numbers and facts, and then they toss us a couple vague suggestions of solutions before throwing up the credits, turning tail and validating why most of us just avoid watching these things in the first place. So three cheers for “Planeat,” which emphatically sets up shop in the solution business instead. Yes, it discusses the problem, the difficulty of enacting large-scale changes and everything else you’ve heard before and don’t need to hear again. But “Planeat,” perhaps realizing it’s speaking to a crowd already familiar with the obvious, devotes the lion’s share of its time to a handful of people who either have researched and produced clear, simple connections between diet and quality of life or have applied the findings of others to their lives. The discoveries are interesting, the applications inspiring. But “Planeat’s” ace has nothing to do with nutrition and everything to do with presenting food that looks insanely delicious and fun to make regardless of its health quotient. For its first order of business, “Planeat” opens with a lasagna dish that would make Garfield go wild. And though its 71 minutes are full of potential takeaways, the amazing looking cupcakes that appear 15 minutes in — and the prospect of nutritious food looking like that — may resonate most of all. If healthy eating is this much fun, why are so many documentaries about it so reluctant to just come out and say so?
Extras: Condensed 35-minute version of film, deleted scenes, interview, filmmaker introduction, some starter recipes. (More recipes are available on the film’s website, planeat.tv.)

A Necessary Death (NR, 2008, FilmBuff)
Never mind getting funding from school: Film student Gilbert (G.J. Echternkamp) can’t even keep his documentary pitch from getting flagged and deleted from free classified ad websites. But no one said making a documentary about suicide — and centering it around a subject who plans to end his or her life and lay the process bare for the camera — would be easy. If anything, once Gilbert and his friends (Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor) find their subject — Matt (Matthew Tilley), a reasonably well-adjusted man diagnosed with terminal cancer and uninterested in prolonging his suffering — it only gets harder. Shot mockumentary style, “A Necessary Death” plays like two documentaries in one, with Matt’s story carrying half the load while the process of making a film about suicide comprises the other half. As an exploration of a project that’s very obviously invasive (and pretty sneakily personal once the documentarians and their subject get comfortable with each other), “Death” is interesting but rarely surprising with its insights. If you made a list of potential issues with documenting a suicidal person for 90 days, chances are decent the conflicts “Death” encounters would be on your list as well. Smartly, though, “Death” pays as much mind to its characters as it does the scenario. Matt’s the guest of honor, but Gilbert is the star around which everything, inside and beyond the film, revolves. The longer “Death” goes, the more it becomes about its characters instead of its ideas, and the further that tilt goes, the more engrossing and surprising it becomes.
Extras: Director commentary, cast commentary,  alternate ending, deleted scenes.

God Bless America (R, 2011, Magnet)
Frank (Joel Murray) — divorced, fired, shackled by blood to a brat daughter, plagued by migraines and loud neighbors, and tortured by the culture of rude behavior and bad reality TV — is fed up. And in the first mission of a holy war against all he loathes, he kills a spoiled teenager in broad daylight after she berated her parents on television for buying her the wrong kind of car. A teenager who witnesses the killing (Tara Lynne Barr as Roxy) begs to join his crusade, and one conversation later, Frank and Roxy are waging war against the waves of stupid, vapid, rude people who drive them crazy. For those of us who share Frank’s contempt, the appeal of “God Bless America’s” premise is obvious. But that’s the movie’s problem: It acknowledges the obvious by doing the obvious in return. “America’s” first death, which takes place only in Frank’s mind, is unarguably devised to establish that any taboo goes — including, probably unintentionally, disliking the guy we’re supposed to root for. The subsequent string of on-the-nose rants and attacks don’t really change that, and if you stop and think about what’s happening —  that Frank and Roxy just impulsively kill people without concern for getting caught, or that their behavior sometimes contradicts their mission — the whole thing collapses. “America” likely would argue we’re not supposed to think that hard and should instead lighten up and enjoy the circus of violence and revenge. And you’re welcome to do that … until you realize all that does is make “America” the very same vapid thing against which it so angrily rages.
Extras: Murray/Barr/director commentary, two behind-the-scenes features, interviews, deleted television spoofs, bloopers, music video.