Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spies of Warsaw: The Intrigue Before the War

In the early 1930’s, Poland was in a tight spot geographically.  It was sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union.  We know what that will mean come 1939.  A French military attaché also has a pretty good idea, but his superiors are not so keen to hear it in Spies of Warsaw (promo here), a two-night miniseries based on Alan Furst’s novel, premiering this Wednesday on BBC America.

Jean-Francois Mercier saw more than enough combat in World War I.  Initially, the decorated aristocrat was not enthusiastic about his posting to the Warsaw embassy.  However, as the Polish people start to grow on him, he becomes increasingly concerned about their vulnerability to foreign invasion.  Indeed, he fully understands the implications for France should Poland fall.  Warsaw has also become considerably more charming for Mercier after the arrival of Anna Skarbek, a sophisticated employee of the League of Nations.  Frustratingly though, she is determined to remain faithful to her lover, Maxim Mostov, a boozy Russian journalist exiled by the Bolsheviks.

While the first installment of Spies is a bit slow out of the blocks, it nicely sets the scene and establishes the geopolitical context.  The cloak-and-daggering that eventually takes center-stage is fascinating fact-based stuff, involving the oft-overlooked leftwing of the National Socialist Party (a vestige of its trade unionist roots) and the German upper-class’s resentment of the Nazis, mostly for being uncouth and reaching above their proper stations. 

Mercier is also rather clear-headed when it comes to appraising the Communists.  In fact, he agrees to facilitate the defection of a pair of his Soviet counterparts.  As a bargaining chip, they offer clues to the identity of a former NKVD mole highly placed in the German government, who became inactive when his handler was purged.  Yet, Mercier’s ultimate mission, inspired by a true historical operation, will be revealed late in the third act.

Spies might have been condensed into feature length, but the extra time allows it to more fully explore the details (we) espionage junkies so enjoy.  Even though it presents Warsaw as a city rife with spycraft and skullduggery, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais’s tele-adaptation is clearly sympathetic to the Polish people.  Prominent Polish actor Marcin Dorociński even has a major supporting role, nearly stealing the show as Mercier’s old wartime colleague, Antoni Pakulski, now serving in the Warsaw constabulary with vaguely defined counter-espionage responsibilities.  Unlike his gritty turns in Rose and Manhunt, Dorociński has a smooth Errol Flynn-ish thing going on that works so well he could easily carry a Pakulski-focused sequel.

Of course, to BBC America and most of its viewers, the star of Spies is unquestionably David Tennant, the tenth Doctor Who.  As Mercier, he supposedly cuts quite the dashing figure.  Really?  If you say so.  Still, he projects a sense of intelligence and a distinct impatience with bureaucracy, both of which are more important for his character’s super-spy credibility.

Veteran British television director Coky Giedroyc (whose credits notably include The Hour) maintains an appropriately noir mood, emphasizing atmosphere and intrigue more than action.  It might seem hard to believe one of the year’s smartest miniseries with a pronounced respect for freedom and a healthy skepticism of ideology would feature a French blue blood and a League of Nations do-gooder as its primary POV characters, but here it is.  Highly recommended for fans of cerebral spy fiction in the Le Carré tradition, Spies of Warsaw begins this Wednesday (4/3) and concludes the following week (4/10) on BBC America.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

FFF ’13: Record/Play (short)

People find it counter-intuitive, but VHS tapes are far better for classroom presentations than DVDs, because you can pop them in and out already cued-up to the exact scene you need.  Analog audio and video tapes were also far more durable.  One could manually fast forward and rewind past damaged sections, but there is not much you can do with a malfunctioning disc.  That analog resiliency is sort of the underlying principle of Jesse Atlas’s time-bending short film Record/Play (trailer here), a selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, which soon screens at the upcoming Florida Film Festival.

Record/Play is the sort of genre outing that uses the trappings of science fiction, but operates as a fantasy.  More than anything, it is a love story.  A grieving man listens obsessively to the final tape recorded by his lover, a peacekeeper killed while serving in the Balkans.  When his Walkman goes on the blink, he replaces a part from a bit of NASA hardware lying about his lab.  As if by magic, when he now listens to her tape, he is transported across time and space to that fateful moment.  Naturally, he tries to change destiny.  When violently interrupted, he and the tape return to the present day, much worse for the wear.  Fortunately, those old school cassettes were darn near indestructible.

In terms of tone, Record/Play is not unlike the Richard Matheson of Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come.  Fair warning, the ending just might get to you.  For a short film (just over ten minutes) that is definitely saying something.  It is a strong calling card for Atlas, who skillfully controls what viewers see and when.  As the man, Mustafa Shakir also really seals the deal with his final scene.

Impressive both technically and dramatically, Record/Play was the best short at Sundance.  Highly recommended for mainstream audiences, it screens as part of Shorts Program 2: The Weight next Sunday (4/7) and the following Tuesday (4/9) at the 2013 Florida Film Festival.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Wrong: Quentin Dupieux Gives Reality What-For

It is the story of a man and his dog, but do not expect Lassie from provocateur Quentin Dupieux, a.k.a. Mr. Oizo.  He cast off all logic-based constraints and was creatively liberated for it, to judge by the distinctively strange results in Wrong (trailer here), which opened today in New York.

Dolph Springer’s dog Paul has mysteriously vanished.  His neighbor is less than sympathetic, because he is too busy going mad.  He is not the only one.  Eventually, it seems Paul was kidnapped by Master Chang, a tripped out New Age guru, for reasons that defy conventional reason, but make perfect sense in this world.  Springer’s gardener, a pizzeria girl, and a detective also careen in and out of the film, in ways that cannot be explained in a lucid thumbnail description.

In his somewhat notorious Rubber (the killer tire movie), Dupieux came up with an eccentric premise and a clever twist, but seemed too hemmed in by the circumstances he created.  In contrast, throughout Wrong he allows anything to happen, whether it makes objective sense or not.  The resulting absurdity is quite entertaining to behold.

Jack Plotnick is a heck of a good sport.  For Wrong to work, he has to play it all relatively straight, while everyone else acts insane.  In fact, he brings an earnest sincerity to Springer that is rather endearing.  Prison Break’s William Fichtner clearly enjoys hamming up Master Chang’s wacked out Zen, while Alexis Dziena plays Emma from the pizza shop appropriately over-the-top, like a sweetly innocent version of Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest.

Wrong is stylistically surreal and subversive, but rather gentle in tone, which is why it works so well.  Unlike David Lynch’s Lost Highway, it never leaves viewers bereft of faith or hope.  Indeed, Springer is sort of an everyman model of stick-to-itiveness that is actually sort of refreshing.

Rife with postmodern gamesmanship and goofy sight gags, Wrong is definitely aimed at a hipster audience, but it goes down way easier than one might expect.  It is a funny, good natured film, recommended for the only somewhat adventurous as well as their more surreally inclined brethren.  It is now playing in New York at the Cinema Village.

Detour: There Will Be Mud

As if the taxes and wildfires were not bad enough, here is yet another reason to avoid California.  Trapped in his SUV, an ambitious advertising exec asks how the Golden State can have mudslides when there isn’t any water.  It is a fair question, but it is obviously rhetorical in William Dickerson’s claustrophobic survival drama, Detour (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Jackson was on his way to a pitch meeting (sort of like that three hour cruise) when the picturesque stretch of coastal highway suddenly turned to mud.  Buried underneath who knows how much gunk, he has no cell service and a limited supply of food and water.  For temporary distractions (and exposition purposes) he can play videos on his smart phone, allowing viewers to meet his wife.  Evidently she is pregnant, but he did not receive the news with spectacular good cheer.

As the mud presses in on his vehicle’s structural integrity, Jackson improvises reinforcements.  He is actually pretty handy for an ad man.  In fact, Dickerson and co-writer Dwight Moody are quite faithful observing the constraints they impose on their hapless protagonist.  However, their flashbacks and delusional interludes are nakedly manipulative.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the one-man-against-the-elements genre (in the tradition of 127 Hours) is hard to pull off.  Staginess is obviously an inherent pitfall.  Still, Neil Hopkins soldiers through reasonably well.  While he is forced to mutter to himself quite a bit, he largely sells the messages he leaves on his iPhone, perhaps for posterity.  Unfortunately, the sequences outside the mud-trap are flat and awkward.  Odder still, it is difficult to tell whether the final scene is meant to be inspiring, ironic, or ambiguous, which is clearly an execution problem.

Detour is far from classic, but it is certainly presentable by b-movie standards.  Nonetheless, it is tough to justify at full Manhattan ticket prices, particularly with Aftershock, the Eli Roth-penned Chilean disaster smack-down, waiting in the wings.  At least worth falling into eventually on cable, Detour opens today (3/29) in New York at the Cinema Village (and is now available on VOD platforms).

Schenectady Blues: The Place Beyond the Pines

If you shoot a movie in Schenectady, you surely qualify for those New York State tax credits.  However, if you just move there looking for regular work, you are likely to get frustrated, especially if your primary skill is motorcycle stunt riding.  As a result, drifter Luke Glanton turns to crime, setting in motion a wave of bad karma that will outlive him in Derek Cianfrance’s lumbering family saga, The Place Beyond the Pines (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Once a year, Glanton blows through town with the carny, performing his steel cage act.  Ryan Gosling obvious spent hours in the gym and having a barrelful of temporary tattoos applied so we will buy him as a steely bad cat.  Of course, it fails, putting the film in a credibility hole right from the start.  Still, we can believe he is rather thick-headed.  That is important, because Glanton will make some very bad decisions.

Romina, his hook-up from the previous year, turns up after his show, but she is acting weird, giving him the Heisman.  Dropping by her place to take another shot, Glanton learns she had his baby, but is now engaged to a responsible adult.  Much to her surprise, he quits the carnival, intending to settle down and be a father in Schenectady.  The only straight gig he finds is low paying mechanic work with the grizzled Robin Van Der Zee.  His drinking buddy-boss has other ideas though.

The idea to start holding up banks involves Glanton’s skill as a driver and Van Der Zee’s cargo truck waiting to whisk him away.  Frankly, Beyond’s heist scenes are surprisingly well staged.  Regrettably, from this point on, Cianfrance vividly illustrates the principle of diminishing returns with the subsequent story arcs.  In the second act, we follow law school grad-police officer Avery Cross, whose path fatefully crossed that of Glanton.

Guilt-ridden and gun-shy, Cross finds his career at a standstill, despite his questionable hero status.  He is also uncomfortable with the Schenectady force’s systemic corruption.  This is fairly standard stuff, somewhat enlivened by Ray Liotta’s dependable crooked copper turn.  However, Bradley Cooper never feels right as Cross, looking too old and reserved for a rookie patrolman and too young and bland for a seasoned Attorney General candidate in the third act.

Indeed, the final segment is largely a disaster, aside from the intriguing reappearance of Ben Mendelsohn’s Van Der Zee.  Cianfrance drives his “sins of the father” theme into ground when Cross and Glanton’s sons become high school frienemies.  Dane DeHaan is cringingly sensitive and damaged as the son Glanton never knew, while Emory Cohen’s inarticulate AJ Cross would be more convincing as the spawn of Cro-Magnons rather than a reasonably educated couple like the Crosses.  Forget boarding school, he ought to be kept chained in the attic.

Hardly a subtle stylist, Cianfrance beats on the paternal issue like a rented mule.  A talented editor could probably rescue a respectable short from the Glanton section, but with its taxing one hundred and forty minute running time, Beyond is simply far too long and overly melodramatic.  Not recommended (unless viewers are intrigued to see the Schenectady experience on the big screen), The Place Beyond the Pines opens today (3/29) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Loews Lincoln Square.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Somebody Up There Likes Me: Sorry, No Paul Newman in this One

Pizza and ice cream are a good combination.  Slacker man-children and family responsibility—not so much.  There is your take-away from Bob Byington’s emotionally frozen comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at BAM.

Max carries his father’s legacy in a suitcase.  Whenever he peeks inside it glows.  Whether or not it is Marsellus Wallace’s soul, it seems to keep him looking youthful.  Unfortunately, he is not exactly young in spirit, having largely disengaged from the world around him.  He makes a stab at patching things up with his ex-wife, but her rejection hardly fazes him.  For the next thirty-five years, his life will revolve around people he knows from his crummy steakhouse job, including his best (and only) friend Sal, and Lyla, the “breadstick girl” whom he will eventually marry.

Time flashes forward in chunks.  Max has a son he is not interested in and passively watches his fortunes rise and fall (including the establishment of a chain of pizza and ice cream restaurants).  Fundamentally a jerkheel, he will even start carrying on with the nanny, which would be something of a cliché if he were not so indifferent to everything and everyone.

Essentially, Somebody is like the indie version of Adam Sandler’s Click, except Max really wants to fast forward through family life.  It is also mordantly witty at times.  Not surprisingly, Parks & Recreation’s Nick Offerman scores most (if not all) of the laughs as the sardonic Sal.  Jess Weixler adds a rather odd texture, portraying Lyla in an apparent state of arrested development.  Character actor Marshall Bell does his thing, glowering and growling as Lyla’s corrupt copper father.  However, as Max, Keith Poulson is only required to hit one note—extreme detachment—and hold it from start to finish.

It seems bizarre that Somebody would chose to re-use a title with such strong associations.  After all, Robert Wise’s 1956 Oscar winning film was the original Rocky.  Regardless, there are some wryly amusing lines sprinkled throughout Somebody, particularly those delivered by co-producer Offerman and Kevin Corrigan (making the most of an early but memorable cameo).  Yet, the consistently cold, cynical tone will leave most viewers scratching their heads, wondering just what exactly was the point of all that.  Still, nobody can accuse Somebody of falling into the indie sentimental quirkiness trap. Deliberately distancing, Somebody Up There Likes Me will only satisfy hardcore hipsters when it opens tomorrow (3/29) in Brooklyn at the BAM Cinematek.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Orphan Black: Dead Ringers

Technically, she is the doppelganger taking over someone else's life.  When Sarah sees her exact double commit suicide, she lifts the woman’s purse and wallet.  The very recently deceased is much better dressed, after all.  However, when she temporarily assumes the dead woman’s identity, she gets considerably more than she bargained for in the opening episode of BBC America’s Orphan Black (promo here), which premieres this coming Saturday evening.

Angry and irresponsible, Sarah carries the baggage of a childhood spent entirely in the foster-care system.  She wants to begin a new life with Felix, her foster-brother, and her daughter Kira, whom she has not had custody of in some time (and for good reason).  Her dubious idea of a fresh start involves stealing some inferior grade cocaine from her pseudo-psycho-boyfriend for Felix to sell.  Then she sees Beth throw herself in front of a train.

Making her way to Beth’s pad, Sarah finds out where her accounts are.  She only intends to stay long enough to clean them out.  Naturally, things do not go according to plan.  It turns out Beth was a cop, facing a disciplinary hearing for a questionable shooting.  Of course, Sarah has no inkling what really went down.  She is also somewhat at a loss for words when Beth’s romantic interest returns early from a business trip.  It seems rather obvious, but Felix has to remind her she and Beth are probably connected in some way that could give her clues to her own past.  Gee, you don’t suppose any more apparent twins might show up?

Essentially, Orphan is like a combination of Cinemax’s Banshee and Fox’s late but not terribly lamented John Doe.  If the latter doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.  At least, Orphan starts with a jolt.  It is not exactly Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, but the tightly staged and edited train station sequence is undeniably grabby.  The first episode also has a promising grittiness.  Viewers can readily accept Tatiana Maslany’s Sarah and Jordan Gavaris’s Felix are damaged people long accustomed to operating on the fringes of polite society.

Unfortunately, by the time the first episode’s mystery guest shows up, a familiar pattern begins to emerge.  It is all too easy to foresee a covert government laboratory and a parade of sketchy informers in Orphan’s future.  Frankly, we have been down that road many times in the past and it almost invariably leads nowhere.

It is impossible to render a final critical judgment on the basis of only one episode, but viewers do just that all the time.  Orphan assembles a reasonably strong cast, but in service of a so-so premise.  It might be a passable distraction, but it is nowhere near as entertaining as Banshee, with which it apparently shares some superficial cop-impersonating plot elements.  Perhaps it will grow on genre fans when it takes its place in BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturday” (3/30) this weekend.

ND/NF ’13: The Interval

In Naples, the Camorra doesn’t make offers you can’t refuse, they just tell you what to do and you do it.  Therefore, when a hard working but socially awkward teenager is instructed to detain one of his more popular peers for a local crime boss, he reluctantly complies.  The two spend an emotionally taxing day together in Leonardo Di Costanzo’s The Interval (trailer here), which screens as a selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Salvatore is a husky kid who dropped out of school to help his father sell Italian ices on the streets of Naples.  Veronica is also fifteen years old, but she dresses like an adult of dubious character.  For reasons she fully understands but is reluctant to share, Veronica has run afoul of Bernardino, the local head of his Camorra clan.  Eventually, Bernardino will arrive to have it out with her, but until then Salvatore is to keep her in an abandoned building near where his father stores their carts.

Essentially, Interval is like the Gomorrah version of The Breakfast Club, with the Camorra filling the role of Assistant Principal Dick Vernon.  At first, Veronica is snobbish and condescendingly, while Salvatore is sullen and resentful.  Yet, they inevitably start to understand and empathize with each other.  Lessons will be learned and bonds will be forged, if perhaps fleetingly.

Filmed almost entirely on location at long deserted mental hospital, Interval has a terrific sense of place.  One could easily imagine an Italian remake of Grave Encounters being shot there.  Ambling through the labyrinthine structure and the surrounding grounds helps pass the time for viewers and characters alike, which is something.  Unfortunately, though they are perhaps only too true to life, Salvatore is so thick-witted and inarticulate, while Veronica is so sexually precocious it is difficult to heavily invest in their fates.

Products of a local youth acting workshop, co-leads Francesca Riso and Alessio Gallo are quite professional and convincing, at least given development of their respective characters.  Still, we have certainly seen their likes before.  Indeed, they are staples of John Hughes films, minus the Camorra connections.

Interval is rather predictable, but for the most part, its execution ranks above average.  Nonetheless, it falls short of the closing profundity it so clearly reaches for.  An okay exercise in Italian Realism (with a strong Neapolitan accent), The Interval screens this Friday (3/29) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/31) at MoMA, as part of ND/NF 2013.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dangerous Edge: Graham Greene’s Intrigue and Depression

During his tenure with British intelligence, Graham Greene reported directly to the notorious Soviet mole Kim Philby.  It was rather fitting the espionage novelist and chronic adulterer would be so closely associated with such a significant betrayer.  Yet, Greene consistently offered tortured defenses of his friend.  He was “complicated” that way.  Thomas P. O’Connor surveys the writer’s work and ironic life in Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene (promo here), which airs this Friday night on most PBS outlets.

Greene was never awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was nominated for an Oscar.  Indeed, with so many Greene's books and screenplays produced for the big screen, O’Connor has a wealth of cinematic imagery available to illustrate Greene’s oeuvre, without ever scraping the bottom of the barrel.  In fact, at least two of Greene’s scripts became outright masterpieces: The Third Man and Fallen Idol, both directed by Carol Reed.

Essentially, O’Connor focuses on three sides of Greene’s persona: the writer, the adventurer, and the adulterous, spiritually doubting manic depressive.  Much is made of Greene’s persistent “boredom,” his euphemism for depression, as well as his conversion to a decidedly flawed but earnest brand of Catholicism.  Greene’s biographers point to Greene’s reluctant status as the preeminent “Catholic novelist” of his time, while rather openly carrying-on with a woman who was not his wife, as one of the many great contradictions defining his life.  Fair enough.

O’Connor incorporates talking head interviews with some top shelf literary figures, including Sir John Mortimer, Paul Theroux, David Lodge, and John Le Carré, who (quite surprisingly) blasts Philby for coldly and deliberately causing the deaths of numerous colleagues.  Again, O’Connor was fortunate to have considerable audio recordings Greene, sounding like quite the acidic raconteur.  Bill Nighy also serves as the supplemental voice of the author, reading his letters and documents when the archival Greene is not available.  It is a rather classy package, narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi.

Aside from Le Carré, Edge’s participants largely give Greene a pass on Philby and related Cold War issues.  Great pains are taken to portray him as an equal opportunity geopolitical gadfly, but it is far from convincing.  Nonetheless, the complexity of Greene’s relationship to his Catholic faith should interest readers and viewers across the spectrum.  A well paced examination of a flawed but fascinating figure, Dangerous Edge follows Philip Roth: Unmasked (another unsuccessful Nobel contender, thus far), this Friday (3/29) on PBS stations nationwide.

Alois Nebel: Czech Rotoscoped Noir

He will be one of the last “patients” to witness the business end of a Communist era mental hospital.  Ironically, the provincial train dispatcher could benefit from professional psychiatric treatment, but he will have to exorcise the ghosts from his past on his own in Tomáš Luňák’s Alois Nebel (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.

Based on the first Czech graphic novel published after the Velvet Revolution, AN begins during the waning days of Communism.  A fugitive Mute has been captured at Alois Nebel’s sleepy station in Bílý Potok, much to the satisfaction of his scheming co-worker, Wachek.  A black marketer and snitch, Wachek and his old sinister man are unnerved by news of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  However, they still have extensive contacts with the local officials and the nearby Soviet garrison, which they intend to exploit while they still can.

Coveting Nebel’s position, it is rather easy for Wachek to have him institutionalized, especially since the dispatcher is legitimately disturbed.  As a child, Nebel witnessed the forced post-war deportations of ethnic Germans from the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, including very personal atrocities that continue to trouble his mind as dreams and hallucinations.  Frankly, his deliriums are becoming more frequent and intense, but he will get little treatment in the sanitarium beyond some mind-numbing drugs.  Yet, he will find himself compulsively drawn to the mysterious Mute also incarcerated there.

Eventually, Communism will fall and Nebel will be released, but without the security of his former position.  The lifelong railroad employee will spend months in the veritable wilderness, living amongst the homeless in Prague’s grand Central Station.  Of course, all roads lead back to Bílý Potok for a reckoning of Biblical dimensions.

Rendered in the rotoscoping style notably employed by Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, the live action conversion technique is not universally embraced by animation fans.  However, Luňák and head animator Pavla Dudová’s striking black-and-white application perfectly suits AN’s moral ambiguities and noir sensibilities.  Every frame of this film looks absolutely beautiful, in a moody, atmospheric sort of way.

Indeed, this is a dark film in every conceivable manner.  The railroad motif is no accident, representing a wide array of Twentieth Century horrors, including the Holocaust, troop transportation to the front, and the post-war vengeance taking.  The rather militarist look of Nebel’s railroad uniform is also hard to miss, especially in light of his German surname (meaning “fog” or “life” spelled backwards).

Given the rotoscope method, real performances went into the making AN beyond mere voice-overs.  Although modeled after the graphic novel character, Miroslav Krobot invests the animated Nebel with profoundly heavy world-weariness and guilt.  Likewise, Karel Roden helps create a haunted and haunting portrait of the Mute.

Although Alois Nebel presents a decidedly pessimistic vision of human nature, it is not cynical.  In fact, one could argue it is ultimately quite humanistic.  Nonetheless, it is definitely an animated feature for connoisseurs who prefer their film noirs served straight, no chaser.  Visually arresting with an unusually sophisticated narrative, Alois Nebel is highly recommended for fans of ambitious adult animation and Czech cinema.  It is now available for home viewing as part of the Kimstim collection from Zeitgeist Films, along with Eric Khoo’s richly rewarding Tatsumi.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Renoir: Artists and Models, Fathers and Sons

The Renoirs were no ordinary family.  Yet, not even they were spared the horrors of WWI.  At least the great painter’s middle son could convalesce amid the splendor of his family’s Riviera home.  The future French auteur will meet his father’s last great model during his fateful homecoming in Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Referred to Renoir for potential modeling work, Andrée “Dédée” Heuschling finds an estate frozen in a state of near paradise, staffed by a veritable harem of her predecessors, doting on the arthritic artist.  However, old man Renoir does not rest easy.  He still mourns his late wife, while he waits for word of his two eldest sons injured on the battlefront.  Yet, Heuschling has the perfect Renoir look, inspiring him to begin painting outdoor nude studies once again.  She also makes quite the impression on the Impressionist’s son Jean when he returns home on medical leave.

Based on the narrative biography of Jacques Renoir (Pierre-Auguste’s great-grandson and Jean’s great-nephew), Boudros’s film initially appears to be about the artist in his twilight years, but steadily shifts its focus to Jean, the future cinematic artist as a young man.  Of course, Heuschling links father and son, eventually serving as muse to both.

Throughout Renoir, Boudros elevates fine art and evocative atmosphere high above messy dramatics.  The resulting experience is quite a bit like taking an afternoon nap in the French countryside.  It is quite luxurious, but there is not much to tell afterward.  Nonetheless, Boudros crafts an elegant period production, even enlisting Guy Ribes, a convicted forger fresh out the big house, to recreate Renoir’s style and method.

While Heuschling’s coquettish character deliberately remains something of cipher throughout Renoir, cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee’s lens absolutely loves Christa Théret, as do Ribes’ canvasses. Audiences will certainly understand the “Renoir look” from her photogenic turn.  Vincent Rottiers largely carries the dramatic load as Jean Renoir, creating a convincing portrait of a somewhat confused young man trying to find his way in the world.  Yet, Michel Bouquet, the crafty old veteran thesp, eventually steals the film back for Pierre-Auguste with some wonderfully subtle but touching scenes of a father coming to terms with his sons.  However, Thomas Doret (from the Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid with a Bike) never really gets to stretch beyond the surly wild child as Renoir’s youngest son, Claude (a.k.a. Coco).

Renoir is the sort of quiet but impeccably graceful film French cinema lovers swoon over.  The combination of Renoir’s art, the lush natural beauty, Théret’s figure, and even a spot of hot jazz are wonderfully seductive.  Recommended for Francophiles and admirers of Impressionism, Renoir opens this Friday (3/29) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

ND/NF ’13: Viola

Chris Dodd probably will not be blurbing this film, considering two of the major characters run a business illegally downloading music and movies for clients.  It might not exactly run to Harold Bloom’s tastes either, even though it is sort-of kind-of uses Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a jumping off point.  Unfortunately, the Bard’s language is more prominent than the spirit of his classic comedy in Matías Piñeiro’s postmodern riff Viola (trailer here), which screens as a selection of this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Frankly, it is hard to imagine a bad production of Twelfth Night.  Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film adaptation is an underappreciated jewel.  New Yorkers have also been blessed with many memorable stage productions, including Julia Stiles’ luminous turn in the 2002 season of Shakespeare in the Park and the Pearl Theatre’s characteristically elegant 2009 staging.  Considering it boasts separated twins, mistaken identity, cross-dressing, star-crossed love triumphant, and the humbling of authority, if Twelfth Night doesn’t work for you, you’re on your own.  Yet, Piñeiro incorporates almost none of this rich but frothy material into his contemporary collection of intersecting Altmanesque characters.

There is indeed a Shakespeare production being mounted here, but instead of Twelfth Night it is sort of a greatest hits compendium.  At least, we will hear Viola carrying Duke Orsino’s message of love to Lady Olivia, in the guise of his trusted page boy.  In fact, we will hear the scene over and over. For contemporary audiences, the gender-bending aspects of Twelfth Night take on added significance and this is largely what Piñeiro latches onto.  After witnessing the performance, we then watch the actress playing Olivia helping a prospective new Viola rehearse her lines.  However, this new Viola gets a bit carried away by Shakespeare’s words of amour.

As she bids a hasty retreat, Piñeiro shifts his attention to the real title character.  Although not yet part of the ensemble, several associations link Viola to their circle.  While making her bootleg deliveries, she encounters two cast-members who recruit her for the production, even as they belittle her passive approach to life.  Arguably, Viola the modern day Buenos Aires Bohemian is more like her Shakespearean namesake’s twin brother Sebastian, who essentially has wedded bliss with a high-born lady handed to him on a silver platter.  Piñeiro’s Viola has even fallen in with a pirate, so to speak.

Viola the film ends with a jam, which is cool.  Unfortunately, the sixty some minutes it takes to get there are a bit of chore.  Piñeiro’s variations on his theme quickly become repetitive and provide little to emotionally engage viewers.  Cerebral and maddeningly self-conscious, Viola is more like the anti-Twelfth Night.  It screens this Wednesday (3/27) and the Walter Reade Theater and this Friday (3/29) at MoMA.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

ND/NF ’13: Rengaine

Technically, Sabrina and Dorcy’s families both came from the same continent.  Yet, for all practical purposes, they are a universe apart.  The couple intends to marry just the same, whether or not their families approve in Rachid Djaïdani’s surprisingly witty Rengaine (a.k.a. Hold Back, trailer here), which screens tomorrow during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The son of Christian Africans, Dorcy is a struggling actor.  Frankly, he does not seem to be very good at it, but at least he is trying.  Sabrina has fallen in love with him nonetheless, but her forty—that’s right four-zero—Algerian immigrant brothers do not approve. At least that is true of the eldest, Slimane, who presumes to speak for the rest of his siblings. 

Alarmed by Sabrina’s romantic transgression, Slimane proceeds to mobilize his brothers, but to their credit, some think he is just being a controlling jerk.  However, probably a good two thirds are either inclined to agree with him or can be easily cowed by the self-appointed guardian of traditional Muslim values.  Frankly, most of the latter are rather sketchy characters who might have stepped out of Le Pen’s campaign commercials.  In contrast, the brothers who are more integrated into French society argue Slimane should mind his own business—and he has plenty to mind.  Ironically the elder brother is engaged in his own romantic relationship with an alternative cabaret singer, who happens to be Jewish.

Filmed over a nine year stretch, the not quite eighty minute Rengaine was definitely a labor of for French Algerian-Sudanese novelist Djaïdani, who clearly identifies with his lead characters and their various situations.  The film has a whole lot of rough edges, yet that really is a large part of its charm.  While some bits amount to little more than false starts, other scenes are wickedly droll and resound with the ring of truth.

As Dorcy, Stéphane Soo Mongo (whose credits include an episode of The Sopranos) is quite convincing as a terrible actor, which actually constitutes a nice bit of acting.  He also gets most of the film’s laughs with his satirical misadventures in Parisian hipsterdom.  Sabrina Hamida effectively expresses her namesake’s frustrations and outrages, but it is not as meaty a role as that of her two primary male co-stars.  Indeed, Slimane Dazi (another of the cast’s few established professionals, recognizable from films like Free Men and A Prophet) really lowers the boom as Brother Slimane.  Memorably world weary and conflicted, he takes the film to some dark places, including a riveting confrontation with the final brother.

Rengaine is short and messy, but unusually energetic.  It is also unflinchingly honest depicting the various forms of racism and intolerance within the immigrant Algerian Muslim community.  Djaiani does not let Dorcy’s family off the hook either, but the Slimane’s hypocritical freakout is the film’s dramatic driver.  Featuring a knock-out performance from Dazi and a stylish and stylistically diverse soundtrack, Rengaine is adventurous but well satisfying art cinema.  Recommended for French film patrons, it screens this Sunday (3/24) at MoMA.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Starbuck: French Canadian Family Values

David Wozniak was only ever good at one job.  It was more of a calling than a form of employment.  When he really needed money twenty-some years ago, he made regular deposits at a sperm bank.  Now 142 of his 533 previously unknown offspring are suing to learn his identity in Ken Scott’s Starbuck (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Wozniak’s donor kids only know him by his confidential alias, Starbuck.  American audiences will presume he is a fan of Melville, Battlestar Galactica, or coffee, but evidently there was a famous stud bull by this name up north—evidently an obvious reference for most Canadians.  This probably says a lot about the national psyche.  Scott is already in production on his American remake, wisely re-titled Delivery Man.  That is Wozniak’s current job, which he does poorly.

Wozniak has also just impregnated Valérie, his copper ex-girlfriend, who is dead set against having a loser like him as the father of her child.  He is trying to make his case as a prospective dad, despite being $80,000 in debt to loan sharks, when he learns of the suit against.  His slightly disbarred attorney buddy assures him this is actually good news, providing grounds for a counter suit against the clinic.  Yet, against his better judgment, Wozniak starts checking out his grown kids, becoming a sort of a big brother-guardian angel.  Some comedy ensues and lessons will be learned.

Starbuck has a major case of niceness that accelerates into full scale sentimentality during the third act.  Frankly, it is perfect material for Hollywood.  Nonetheless, it is not so terrible to build a film around the manboy’s late embrace of responsibility.  Patrick Huard’s shaggy dogness nicely fits the role and wears easily on viewers.  In contrast, Vince Vaughn’s sarcastic persona seems at odds with the gentle spirit of the Canadian original, but perhaps Scott can rein him in for Delivery Man.

Huard is indeed a likable sad sack and Julie LeBreton brings some maturity as Valérie.  Unfortunately, Wozniak’s brood essentially amount to a parade of stock characters, aside from the institutionalized son (kind of a gutsy choice there).  Yet, Antoine Bertrand’s wince-inducing shtick as Wozniak’s dubious lawyer will consistently set viewers’ teeth on edge.

Starbuck addresses similar themes as the Indy Lens doc Donor Unknown, but despite his myriad shortcomings, Wozniak is a much more appealing pseudo-father figure than the real life hippy serial depositor profiled in Jerry Rothwell’s film.  Frankly, Scott clearly likes all his characters too much to over-burden them with uncomfortable reality.  Mildly pleasant to watch, but only amounting to empty cinematic calories, Starbuck opens today (3/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Brother the Devil: Fraternal Ties that Bind

Rashid engages in all sorts of activities at odds with his Islamic faith.  He drinks, deals drugs, and beds girls in his housing estate.  Yet, his younger brother Mo idolizes him for it all.  However, when “Rash” finally gets in touch with his true nature, his sibling turns against him hard in Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Rash is a small time Hackney gangster with a growing rep.  To Mo, that is very cool.  To his credit though, Rash is dead set against his little brother following in his footsteps.  On this much he agrees with their traditional Egyptian immigrant parents.  When Rash takes over the route of his late running mate, he starts making regular deliveries to Sayyid, a successful hipster photographer. Feeling a connection, Sayyid makes a pass at Rash, who initially reacts rather badly.  However, he soon returns.

Naturally, there is a lot of outside drama going on just as Rash starts wrestling with his sexuality.  His gang is dead-set on retribution and they want Rash to do the dirty work.  Yet, when Mo discovers Rash’s secret, matters really come to a head.

A trenchant social observer, El Hosaini attributes Mo’s homophobic freak-out both to his Muslim upbringing and the macho prejudices of the thug life he aspires to join.  It is chillingly telling when he finds it easier to claim Rash has become a terrorist than admit to his friends his brother might be gay.

El Hosaini coaxes some completely natural feeling performances from her mostly neophyte cast.  James Floyd is particularly dynamic and forceful as Rash.  Yet, one wishes she had been a bit more adventurous in her approach to the material.  One can hear echoes of Boyz n the Hood and subsequent urban dramas throughout the film, most definitely including the omnipresent rap soundtrack.  Granted, the British import is coming from a similar socio-economic place, but there is still a formulaic predictability to her fraternal morality play.

Nonetheless, El Hosaini’s consistent honesty is commendable.  Devil never alibis or walks back the prejudice it depicts, implying these are deeply held sentiments in Rash’s community, rather than the manifestation of inadequate youth programs.

Yes, viewers will probably know where Devil is headed each step of the way.  Yet, the unromanticized portrait of urban violence and intolerance is relatively fresh and forthright.  Bolstered by Floyd’s bold performance, My Brother the Devil is worth considering for those whose tastes run towards gritty social issue dramas.  It opens tomorrow (3/22) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.

Sidike Conde Does His Thing: You Don’t Need Feet to Dance

In 1985, Guinea was still a notoriously oppressive Socialist dictatorship.  It was a terrible time and place to contract polio, but such was the fate that befell Sidike Conde.  Nonetheless, he became a world class performer as a drummer and yes, a dancer.  Alan Govenar captures him in performance and going about his day-to-day business on the streets of Manhattan in You Don’t Need Feet to Dance (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Under the tutelage of his grandfather, Conde built up his arms and torso to the degree he could get about on his hands.  He was even able to dance in an important rite-of-passage ceremony using his arms instead of legs.  That would actually be the start of an incredible career.

Conde has indeed performed with the likes of Youssou N’Dour and Salifa Keita.  He has led his own ensembles and toured internationally.  Yet, like most musicians, he essentially scrapes by living in New York.  Apparently, his bread-and-butter work comes from school assemblies and private workshops.  Govenar documents one of the latter such apartment gigs—a whole lot of it, in fact.

There is no question Conde is a laudable figure and a talented artist, who makes the world around him a better place with his music and enthusiasm.  However, with respect to Governar’s doc, that regard only extends so far.  Strictly observational in his approach, Govenar spends far too much time at each stop on Conde’s itinerary.  After ten minutes at a workshop, viewers are entitled to feel a tad antsy.  We get it already.

Granted, N’Dour is probably the busiest performer on the planet, but some commentary from someone of his stature would have really helped open the film up.  Perhaps even more frustrating, the performance footage, though ample, is never presented in a manner that allows the audience to truly get caught up in the music.  Still, jazz fans might be interested to know Oz Noy performs on several of the tracks from Conde’s CD heard throughout the film.

Govenar certainly convinces us Conde is a great guy, which is admittedly one measure of success.  Yet on purely cinematic terms, You Don’t Need Feet to Dance is not so remarkable.  Recommended primarily for rabid world music fans and Conde admirers, it opens tomorrow (3/22) at the Quad Cinema.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Everybody has a Plan, Especially Twins

You would think paranoia would run deep amongst identical twins.  That whole doppelganger possibility is just unnerving.  One existentially morose pediatrician does indeed assume his twin’s life under suitably shady circumstances in Ana Piterbarg’s Everybody has a Plan (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Frankly, Agustín has no reason to be so miserable.  He has a thriving practice in Buenos Aires and an intelligent professional wife.  They are on the brink of adopting an infant, but it is safe to say she is far more enthusiastic than he.  In fact, he rather precipitously puts the kibosh on their plans, falling into a depressive stupor shortly thereafter.  However, relief arrives in the unlikeliest form when his prodigal twin Pedro unexpectedly pays a visit.  Terminally ill, the deadbeat brother wants a final favor from Agustín.

Following the grass-is-greener line of reasoning, Agustín takes Pedro’s place in the hardscrabble Tigre Delta, but he did not exactly do his due diligence.  Before long, Agustín learns in addition to beekeeping, he is also now a part-time member of a ruthless gang of kidnappers.  Still, it is not all bad.  In fact, he quickly develops a relationship with Rosa, the young woman who helps tend his hives.

Piterbarg really puts the “slow” in “slow burner.”  She drenches the noir-ish morality tale in swampy atmosphere, but her pacing would generously be described as languid.  Daniel Fanego provides a genuine sense of menace as the sociopathic ringleader, Adrián, but our anti-hero is far more inclined to rumination than action.  Fortunately, brooding and seething are definitely well within Viggo Mortensen’s power zone.  He keeps audiences vested and focused, despite the film’s determination to takes its sweet time.  However, the question remains, does his morally problematic Agustín qualify as an “evil twin?”

Having lived in Argentina and Venezuela during his early years, co-producer Mortensen is clearly comfortable with the language and setting.  Presumably, Piterbarg was aiming for a rustic suspense vibe somewhat in the tradition of Night of the Hunter, but the result is closer to contemporary Latin American art cinema, deeply rooted in its environment, but elevating character and tone above plot and dialogue.  Stylish but often maddeningly reserved, Everybody has a Plan is recommended mostly for diehard fans of Mortensen and Argentine cinema when it opens this Friday (3/22) in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire.

ND/NF ’13: Les Coquillettes

It is like the women’s version of Entourage for the art-house set, except it is way more neurotic and uncomfortable.  A director will hit the festival party circuit hard with her man-hungry friends, in hopes of scoring with the leading lights of French cinema and occasionally even watching a movie.  The resulting in-jokiness does not travel much better than the high maintenance characters of Sophie Letourneur’s Les Coquillettes (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Sophie (no last names for the lead actresses’ namesakes) has a film at Locarno, but even she hardly seems interested.  Instead, hooking up with Louis Garrel (who barely seems to know of her existence) is her primary concern.  Likewise, Camille is preoccupied with the metrosexual Martin, whereas Carole is out to bag any man with a pulse (but preferably a certain uncharacteristically aloof Italian actor).  To console themselves, they periodically indulge in a spot of macaroni and cheese (the titular comfort food).  Much alcohol is also consumed and ugly scenes are held without advancing the story much beyond that.

Earning credit as good sports, Garrel and the director of Locarno briefly (particularly in the case of the former) appear as themselves, interacting (or not) with Sophie and her entourage.  Despite one awkward moment after another, the same people keep getting hammered with them, repeating the nightly cycle of embarrassment.  This might be true to life, but it is all quite maddening in Coquillettes.

Of the ensemble, Carole Le Page easily comes off the best, turning some pleasant scenes of Dolce Vita style sexuality.  Not that it matters, but Letourneur and cinematographer Antoine Parouty clearly were not playing to anyone’s vanity, apparently setting out to cast the cast (herself included) in as unflattering as light as possible.

Perhaps there are wickedly funny subtleties in Coquillettes lost on those who are not Locarno regulars.  It does not ring true for Sundance, though.  Sure, there are parties on top of parties in Park City, but everyone talks about the films, almost exclusively, rather than Sex in the City nothingness.  Still, it has the virtue of being relatively short, clocking in just shy of seventy-five minutes.  Except for viewers jonesing for a French mumblecorish chick flick, Les Cooquillettes can be safely skipped when it screens this coming Monday (3/25) at the Walter Reade and Tuesday (3/26) at MoMA.  For something completely different, adventurous viewers might consider checking out the existential absurdity of Emil Christov’s The Color of the Chameleon when it screens tomorrow (3/21) on FSLC’s turf and Saturday (3/23) cross town.

Hunky Dory: Shakespeare Glammed-Up

Remember those high school teachers so desperate to be popular they insisted everyone call them by their first name?  Viv is not quite that bad, but she is obviously uncomfortable serving as an authority figure.  Although she has given up on her acting career, the new drama teacher still has not quite worked the show business out of her system.  As a result, she plans an ambitious glam-rock production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in Marc Evans’ period high school musical, Hunky Dory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The 1970’s were not such a bad decade for music as people might recall—at least until white leisure suits and strobe lights hit the scene.  David Bowie is a prime example of the era’s good stuff and Hunky Dory might just be his best album.  Naturally, “The Man who Sold the World” shows up in Vivienne Mae’s production (familiar to many thanks to Nirvana’s Unplugged cover) and “Life on Mars?” (again, a popular choice).  It is a shame though that he did not offer “Kooks” because it would have been perfect thematically for this Welsh tale of teen love, angst and music.  On the other hand, several ELO tunes are along for the ride, which is cool.

The year is almost over, but “Viv” wants the seniors’ last big show to have special meaning for them.  Music will play a major role.  Bowie, ELO, and Beach Boys tunes will all factor into her musical version of The Tempest.  Unfortunately, her afterschool rehearsals have major competition from the local swimming pool (“the lido”) and general teenaged hook-ups.  One by one, cast members drop out, most notably her sensitive but disturbed Caliban.  Eventually, she is forced to recruit the headmaster to play Prospero.  Of course, the show always goes on, even when apparent disaster strikes.

We are honest-to-Betsy assured Evans and his producer were working on this concept well before Glee came around.  Fine, but comparisons will be inevitable.  In truth, Hunky stacks up rather well.  To its credit, it avoids preaching politics, except perhaps for the hammer & sickle clearly visible in the assembly hall mural.  Dude, what’s up with that?

As Viv, Minnie Driver is relentlessly likable and resilient in the face of life’s bummers.  She is pretty much right on target for a lightweight musical soap opera.  One of the film’s nice surprises is the sympathetic treatment of Bob Pugh’s headmaster, an old military veteran who turns out to be far more kind hearted and understanding than we initially expect.  His deepening professional relationship with Viv is one of the film’s more pleasant subplots.  However, the teen drama is pretty standard issue (the closeted Bowie fanatic, the sensitive working class kid spurned by the school princess, the garage band struggling to stay unified, etc, etc).

Evans (who previously helmed Patagonia, the UK’s best foreign language submission two Oscars ago) stylishly stages the climatic pageant.  The kids’ “Life on Mars?” is particularly cinematic.  Frankly, the Hunky Dory Orchestra consistently sounds full bodied and rather groovy.  The resulting cumulative impact is appropriately bittersweet and nostalgic.  Modest but endearingly earnest, Hunky Dory wears its niceness on its sleeve.  Moderately recommended for children of the 1970’s out for a trip down memory lane, Hunky Dory opens this Friday (3/22) in New York at the AMC Village VII.