24 March 2017

Video Rewind

We revisit some favorites from a couple of life cycles ago, one legendary (from the Coen brothers), one not so much:

IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (2005) (A-minus) - This obscurity was one of our favorites at the 2005 Santa Fe Film Festival, a rollicking ensemble comedy about the death of the patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional Hollywood family.

Christopher Jaymes' career never took off after he wrote and directed this spirited and stinging L.A. soap opera chronicling the debauchery among a bunch of entitled and spoiled adults. He assembles a fine cast, including a few actors who did go on to some renown. Jeremy Sisto would settle into a TV career that would include "Law & Order." Judy Greer became the go-to sitcom redhead.

Sisto plays Jeremy, one of three brothers, along with Jaymes' Chris and Matt Keesler as Matt who come together upon the news that their grizzled dad, a randy old movie producer in the mold of Robert Evans, has finally succumbed on his death bed. (In his only acting credit on IMDb, David Austin mostly plays a corpse, except for a few snippets from a video that Dad left behind.) An impromptu wake assembles, and it turns into more of a therapy session for the dearly beloved.

It turns out that Dad's brother, the boys' Uncle Aled (Tom Carroll) years ago ran off with their mother (Dad's wife), scarring them deeply. That union created Meadow (Meadow Sisto), their step sister/cousin, who, of course, is on hand, mainly as a device to torture Pat (Pat Healy), the boys' old chum who has been dumped by Meadow. Meantime, Jeremy is lamenting the recent behavior of his wife, Monet (Monet Mazur), who is suddenly going through a lesbian phase. (Jeremy finds a new pal to drop Ecstasy with, ratcheting up the weirdness.) Then there is Chris' 17-year-old gum-snapping girlfriend Christine (Christine Lakin, convincing despite being in her mid-20s), who wants to get high, make out and be boyfriend and girlfriend. Chris, though, still has a bit of a thing for Nicole (Nicholle Tom), who is among the videographers capturing the evening for posterity. (Chris was recruited to chronicle Dad's final days, with the promise of a financial reward from the old man's will.)

You can see where Chris gets his cradle-robbing tendencies. Judy (Greer) is Dad's 20-something girlfriend, several generations removed. Judy is pretty vacant (she likes to shop), and she spends most of the evening holed up with Dad's body, emptying her soul. At least until Matt, a pretty-boy type, pops into Dad's sarcophagal boudoir. That could only lead to trouble.

Jaymes creates a whirling, improvisational romp, letting some fine actors crank the dark comedy up to 11. It is loose and rambling, and it cuts deep into the male psyche. It perfectly captures the emotional arc of a party, where good-natured fun gives way to troubling truths. Jaymes produced an indie tour-de-force, one worth digging for.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) (A-minus) - In re-watching this early Coen brothers romp, I was struck by how much this is John Goodman's movie. In perhaps his best performance, he manages to run rings around every other member of this great cast as angry Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak.

The seventh Coen brothers feature, and the follow-up to "Fargo," their breakthrough (and their last solid hit for a decade), shows them mastering the technique of magical movie-making and having a ton of fun with storytelling. Their dialogue is rip-roaring; their camerawork is whimsical; the visuals are magical.

Jeff Bridges stamped his career as The Dude, the idiot philosopher whom thugs mistake for the big fat rich man also known as Jeff Lebowski. A damaged carpet puts in motion a rollicking fable, a delightful folly, in which the Dude manages to charm the rich man's trophy wife, bed the man's daughter, and avoid spilling his drink (a white Russian).

The film has become iconic, eminently quotable. And while The Dude abides, his pal Walter takes no prisoners. Everything is payback for the ill-fated war in Southeast Asia. He puts everything and everyone in its place. Nihilists? Fuck them. Even Nazis had an ethos! And Steve Buscemi's Donny wants to weigh in with his opinion? "Shut the fuck up, Donny." The Walter-Donny dynamic reaches it peak with this exchange:

Walter: Life does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit.
Donny: What's wrong with Walter, Dude?
It's Walter who schemes to cheat rich Lebowski out of a million dollars. It's Walter who is inexplicably faithful to the holy day of Shabbas. ("Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...") It's Walter who upholds the integrity of the game of bowling and its scoring system. ("Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?") It's Walter who dares The Dude to prove him wrong. ("You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole.")

And Goodman nails every line, every mood, every plot maneuver. By the end of the film, it's obvious that Walter is all talk and that his incessant nonsense leads to just about every bad thing that happens in the movie. Finally, The Dude -- exasperated -- lays it out for his buddy: "Everything's a fucking travesty with you!"

And this Coen brothers romp is not just a travesty, but an epic tragedy. It's Falstafian farce. It's weird and endlessly appealing. It's silly and passionate -- about the rules of society as well as the elegance of a bowling ball barreling down a lane. (One shot purports to be shot from the finger holes of the ball as it rolls along.) Colors pop. A cowboy sidles up at the bar to dispense pop philosophy. Heavy hitters like Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro sink their teeth into bit parts.

It sprawls, it shambles. It shoots for the moon. The Coen brothers were on a hot streak. And Goodman was shooting lights out.

The trailer for "In Memory of My Father":

The opening and closing tracks for "The Big Lebowski." First, Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" from "New Morning" (playing over Roger Deakins' great opening shots):

Finally, Townes Van Zandt with "Dead Flowers":

19 March 2017

New to the Queue

A fresh start ...

On its face, it's our worst nightmare -- a mopey post-WWI love story -- but it's made by the wonderful Francois Ozon, so we'll take a chance on "Frantz."

And it's with trepidation that we approach the reunion of childhood friends whose fates have diverged in adulthood, "Donald Cried."

Kristen Stewart and director Olivier Assayas re-team after "Clouds of Sils Maria" for another personal-assistant story, this one involving a spiritual medium hunting down the soul of her dead brother: "Personal Shopper."

Part of the latest genre dubbed Greek Weird Wave, director Argyris Papadimitripoulos imagines a middle-aged creep vacationing at a beach and trying to ingratiate himself into a group of hedonistic young adults and one 21-year-old woman in particular, "Suntan."

The latest from Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda about an author trying to bond with his son, "After the Storm."

A documentary about the Jon Stewart of Egypt, not an easy gig, "Tickling Giants."

A documentary about people facing a gloomy future in the title town of 94 people on the Texas-Louisiana border, the aptly titled "Uncertain."

18 March 2017

One-Liners: Mama Mia ...

Oh for two.

CATFIGHT (C+) - A writer-director approaching middle age -- a male one -- thought it would be a hoot to have two women -- Sandra Oh and Anne Heche -- play two former friends who meet up again and beat the shit out of each other. More than once.

Niche filmmaker Onur Tukel creates a cartoonish revenge flick without providing the motivation for the altercations between the women. He also tries to create a dystopian near future in which a Trump-like leader accelerates the decline of the United States by starting a war in the Middle East, reinstating the draft (and lowering the age to 16) and dismantling the health-care safety net. The disturbing events are presided over by a slapstick Greek chorus consisting of a smarmy talk-show host and a farting sidekick in a diaper.

If none of this is really believable on any level, what are we to make of it? Tukel comes across as a knock-off of Bobcat Goldthwait (especially "God Bless America") with even less subtlety. He posits Heche as Ashley, a struggling artist trying to conceive a baby with her wife, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), and Oh as Veronica, a controlling, wine-guzzling rich trophy wife who suffocates her teenage son. When Veronica shows up at an event catered by Ashley and Lisa, the old friends revive some vague old dispute from college, and the first round of fisticuffs ensues.

Veronica ends up in a coma, and Ashley's finds success with her hellish images, which find an audience in a time of war and unraveling of society. Veronica awakes from her coma broke and alone. With their roles reversed, Veronica will eventually seek out revenge. Round 2. Amazing coincidences ensue, as the fates of the women continue to mirror the other's (when each is down on their luck, they must turn to the assistants they'd been mean to when there's nowhere else to turn).

There will be a Round 3, but it is hoped that the women will make peace. Whether they do or not depends on your interpretation of happy endings. But Tukel is all over the map with this one. Nothing coheres. The presence of Tituss Burgess from "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" calls to mind that silly Netflix sitcom and serves to point out that Tukel has more of a basic-cable sensibility than a big-screen one.

Heche and Oh give it their best, but they are flailing with this material. A few supporting characters manage to amuse, including Dylan Baker as a coma doctor and Ariel Kavoussi as Ashley's baby-voiced assistant, Sally, whose simple drawings of happy blue bunnies contrast with Ashley's horrifying nightmares on canvas. You grasp for whatever you can find appealing in this relatively amusing trifle.

MIA MADRE (C) - Nothing manages to stick with this ponderous drama, again from the male mind, about a female filmmaker struggling through a rough patch in her life.

Nanni Moretti ("We Have a Pope") offers a muddy script and a sluggish pace to tell the story of Margherita (and understated turn by veteran Margherita Buy), whose mother is dying, whose relationship ending, and whose latest production is getting bogged down by a vain hack of an American actor, Barry (John Turturro). Moretti cycles through these cross-sections of Margherita's life, whether sitting loyally at her mother's bedside or squabbling with Barry on the movie set.

Margherita seems numbed by the idea of approaching middle age alone; and her mother's demise only drives home the point that we die alone. Buy is awfully glum throughout, and this does not make for compelling drama. Turturro is amusing as the bone-headed buffoon who threatens to derail Margherita's film.

But it's the moping that dominates. And with a running time that pushes two hours, this one is too much of a slog.

14 March 2017

Holy Crap! "The Lure"

A couple of mermaids slink out of the sea to dry land in order to fulfill their dreams of being lounge singers in what looks like 1980s Poland.

Newcomer Agnieszka Smoczynska unleashes a trippy fever dream, a nostalgic horror musical with a generous amount of young female flesh, albeit mostly "smooth down there." The director creates a claustrophobic atmosphere centered around a seedy nightclub run by an old sleazeball.

In the opening scene, the mermaid girls peer from the sea uttering incantations, vowing to be as normal as possible -- which means ditching those fins, singing for a living and refraining from eating men. They mostly succeed. They grow legs on dry land, if not a complete set of anatomical parts. They flash fangs whenever they get too close to a juicy neck.

Silver (Marta Mazurek) is the randier of the two. She has quite the mischievous look in her eye, and she has her eye on the cute, shaggy-haired Leif Garrett type, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), who plays bass in the house band. Silver so aches to partake in pure intimacy that she seeks out a bizarre bottom-half body transfer with another woman, which would make her whole.

Golden (Michalina Olszanska) is more wholesome (more of a gill-next-door type), with a Neve Campbell gleam in her eye. Her hunger for men is more of the literal type. Neither gal is shy. They frequently lounge around topless or completely naked, albeit with their genitals erased. The club owner and others don't bother to be discreet about ogling them. Some of them do pay a price, including one guy who gets a thumb bitten off.

Oddly, it is actually an old-fashioned romantic story being told here by Smoczynska. What lengths will we go for love? Or, in Golden's case, what will we sacrifice to achieve our dreams.

But "The Lure" is anything but ordinary. When the girls first appear onstage, they temporarily sprout their fins and are frolicking coquettishly in a giant replica of a champagne glass. As they shadow the lead singer with their backing vocals, they shimmy and smile like old pros. (The original title, "Corki Dancingu," translates to "The Daughter of a Dance.")

The music is pure cheese. The horror touches recall "Dark Shadows." The color palette is seductive. Mazurek and Olszanska are a dynamic duo. Smoczynska has a keen eye for detail and for period kitsch. This comes off like a screwball comedy, but it demands, improbably, to be taken seriously.


* - Holy Crap is an occasional series about unique films, cutting a wide swath from brilliant to awful. Check out previous entries here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

An early scene introduces the house band doing their version of the Donna Summer hit, "I Feel Love." Here's the original:

Here's a sample of the gals in their debut at the club. The look on Golden's face (she's on the right) is priceless:


11 March 2017


KEDI (B+) - It's an 80-minute cat video!

In the working-class neighborhoods of Istanbul skulks an army of stray cats that are an integral part of the fabric of the world's seventh largest city. Filmmaker Ceyda Torun focuses on seven cats that are treated like any other neighbor in a city of more than 14 million people.

Among them are ginger tabby Sari, a mom who hustles all over to find scraps of food to bring back to her kittens; black-masked, crazy Psikopat (it translates phonetically); and soft-grey Duman, who is too polite to enter the restaurant he hangs out at but, rather, adorably paws at the front window when he wants a snack. The various personalities shine through, as if they could speak at any moment.

Torun's camera often tags a few steps behind the adventurous cats, at ground level, as if the critters were characters in a Dardenne brothers movie. She shows great patience in chronicling the life of your average street cat, capturing lazy moments as well as misadventures, from rooftops to fish markets.

Various city dwellers provide a running commentary, mostly in the form of bromides and philosophical observations about the cats' contributions to the hum of the urban culture. We're supposed to see these creatures as zen-like gurus enriching the lives of these working stiffs who dote on their feline friends. (Two women cook up a huge pot of chicken fixins daily for their large brood and others walking the streets.) That theme never quite connects.

But Torun needs some sort of narrative hook -- lest she truly just patch together an 80-minute cat video -- and that one is as inoffensive as any. Another thing that might nag at the viewer is how the filmmakers pretty much ignore the issue of spay-and-neuter policies. This is an uplifting movie, and we're not supposed to sit there and wonder about all the kittens that die from the effects of overpopulation.

But let's not put too much thought into this one. There is charm to burn here. Kitties!

08 March 2017

One-Liners: Scavenging the Past

THE TENTH MAN (B+) - Ariel, a businessman working in New York, returns to Buenos Aires to reconnect with his father, Usher, who runs a charitable foundation in the heart of the city's teeming Jewish district.

This is the latest film from Daniel Burman, the Argentine writer-director who has explored similar father-son themes in his powerfully affecting previous films "Family Law" (2007) and "Lost Embrace" (2005). (I discovered him a couple of years before that when I swooned over his magical film "Every Stewardess Goes to Heaven" at the Santa Fe Film Festival.) Burman is a quiet storyteller, digging deep into his characters and letting his plots meander or slowly reveal themselves.

Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) is a bit of an aging shlub who is having some obvious relationship difficulties with his dancer girlfriend (unseen) and quite the history with his father that manifests itself in a lot of squabbling over the phone. An early flashback to Ariel's childhood establishes the fact that Usher (Usher Barilka), an otherwise attentive father, once skipped one of Ariel's flag-squad presentations at school in order to go off to complete a "minyan," i.e., serve as the tenth man required of certain Jewish ceremonies, such as a funeral.

Ariel, as a present-day adult, ends up spending his visit to the celebrated commercial district Once, helping out at the foundation's headquarters, doing the bidding of his father, who throughout the week never shows up but continually orders him around by phone. Thus, Ariel schleps about scavenging the apartments of dead people for cell phones, prescription drugs and other items that will be of use to the clientele of the charity, or heading up a diplomatic mission to the local butcher to make sure that there will be enough meat to feed the needy folks in the week leading up to Purim. Another mission involves bringing gifts and supplies to a gawky teenager who is in the hospital with a mysterious ailment.

Usher grows into this mythical figure who seems to be manipulating Ariel not only to press him into service but also to shake the son out of his mid-life stupor. Ariel hangs out a lot with Eva, a tall, quiet sad-sack who is in the midst of some sort of vow of silence. The unlikely pair slowly warm to each other as a possible romance takes shape while Ariel's long-distance relationship continues to crumble.

It is obvious that the son is still bending to the will of the domineering father, but the dredging of his past and the rediscovery of his roots seems to have a liberating effect on Ariel. Burman immerses him in that vibrant old-fashioned world, populated with non-actors, giving this an urgent documentary feel to complement the subtle, mature storytelling. It's a satisfying hero's journey.

CAMERAPERSON (B-minus) - Speaking of dredging up the past, noted documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson digs into her own archives and pieces together a collage of her greatest hits. As much as she tries to create a coherent theme from the bits, this too often comes off as an unsatisfying patchwork.

Johnson's resume as a globe-trotting camera for hire is impressive. Recent jobs include "Citizenfour," "1971" and "Very Semi-Serious." She worked with Michael Moore on "Fahrenheit 9/11" and tagged along for the philosophy profile "Derrida." But the bulk of the clips here come from more dire circumstances -- post-war Bosnia, the horrors of Darfur, midwives in Nigeria, a wounded boy in Afghanistan. She has contributed to such unsettling titles as "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," "Trapped," "Risk" and "The Invisible War."

Her theme is an obvious one: To live is to suffer. It is her duty, apparently, to expose this suffering, call attention to it, and somehow issue a call to action. But what effect does her camera's gaze have on her subjects? And on her?

She bonds with a Bosnian family, returning to visit them for the sake of this project. Johnson also adds a personal touch by including footage of her mother, who is disappearing from Alzheimer's. That family-album material feels self-indulgent here, especially existing in the same reel as scenes from a destitute hospital in Nigeria where a newborn struggles to survive its first minutes on Earth.

Stories cycle back through, and settings become familiar. But at times it feels like she is rambling. Clips of Golden Gloves boxers seem superfluous. Johnson is partial to setting up establishing shots through flowers and tall grass. Her camera is drawn to close-ups of people's hands as they speak. A scene of a woman going through her dead mom's belongings drags on, though we are finally rewarded with a cool visual punchline captured nimbly by Johnson. Her style brings to mind Chantal Akerman's epic swan song about her mother, last year's "No Home Movie."

But where is the focus? According to an interview in Variety, Johnson described "Cameraperson" as being about "representation and misrepresentation, about political, ethical questions, as much as it is about trauma, love and tenderness." She admits to being "haunted by how much I’ve seen and how much people affected me when I filmed them" and to struggling with that "ethical conflict." Repeated viewings might unlock some of those subtle messages. The first pass through was a bit of a struggle.

06 March 2017

Desert Noir

We spent a recent weekend in Tucson, claiming some R&R, and we scouted out the music scene on short notice.  We were fortunate to coincide with a show offering nostalgic nod to the '90s scene. The band Friends of Dean Martinez is doing a Sunday night residence these days at the Owl Club on South Scott downtown. Has it really been 20 years since we started buying that band's CDs?

The band shares DNA with Arizona legends Calexico and Giant Sand (notably founding members Joey Burns and John Convertino). They started out as Friends of Dean Martin, and we can imagine the cease-and-desist letter that prompted the name tweak. These days the band is led by lap-steel guitarist Bill Elm assisted by guitarist Mike Semple. They play moody Sonoran desert mood pieces, with hints of surf and a little Tony Mottola. In the dimly lit classy little joint, they played an enjoyable 45-minute set.

Friends of Dean Martinez are known for a couple of "hits" -- actually, a pair of standards, "Misty" and "Summertime":

I drove home from Tucson on Monday afternoon. I-10 was closed on both sides of the Arizona-New Mexico border (blowing dust), so we were forced into an hourlong detour -- up 191 north into Safford and then east on Route 70 to Lordsburg -- before reconnecting to the interstate. This provided the opportunity for some surfing of the radio dial.

First up was a classic R&B/dusties station -- 104.9 FM KWCX out of Willcox, Ariz. The DJ there spun a 1977 disco nugget, Joe Tex's "Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman). Groove:

And then there is one of our favorite state-border AM stations, 1250-KHIL, also out of Willcox. It plays country classics, but most of the voice-overs, IDs and commercials are delivered in Spanish. We were treated to another obscure hit, Tanya Tucker's "My Arms Stay Open All Night" from 1989:

FODM finished their set with a cover of the Hawaiian-tinged lap-steel workout "Sleepwalk." I remember a Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, using it as his playout music (but I could be wrong). Here's the 1959 original, performed on "American Bandstand" by Santo & Johnny:

03 March 2017

Daddy Dearest

TONI ERDMANN (A-minus) - German comedies tend to be rare, and what writer-director Maren Ade has crafted here is a rather profound study of a father-daughter relationship. If "Manchester by the Sea" was the funniest drama of 2016, then "Toni Erdmann" is the most dramatic comedy of the year.

Ines Conradi (Sandra Hueller), a high-powered consultant to the oil industry, currently posted in Romania. When she pops back home to Germany for a visit, she struggles to connect with her parents and friends, distracted by work calls and just, generally, seeming cold to the touch. In an echo of "Up in the Air," Ines' main task involves carrying out an outsourcing plan without making it look like the company intends to do such a thing.

Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischeck), aches to connect with his daughter. He is an inveterate prankster (lamely trying to scam a package-delivery person in the opening scene) who has a thing for alternate personalities. On a whim, he travels to Bucharest to surprise Ines and work on that bonding thing. She essentially shrugs him off, embarrassed in front of her colleagues. Winfried rises to the challenge, and he invents a new personality, Toni Erdmann, a brash businessman who finds some success in charming a few of those colleagues. Winfried/Toni wears an awful mop of a dark wig and a set of grotesque fake teeth that he always keeps at the ready in his breast pocket.

In this way, he weasels his way into his daughter's life, trying her patience and ratcheting up her anxiety levels during a critical phase in her career. Toni is like the well-meaning wacky uncle who is more of a nuisance than a source of enjoyment. (I was reminded of a William Steig New Yorker cartoon from decades ago -- I can't find it -- captioned "The Relentless Joker.") Simonischeck is alternatively amusing and heartbreaking in his portrayal of a man longing to feel his daughter's affection. He gets the same mischievous look in his eyes every time he reaches into that breast pocket for his comic prop. He's a hulking presence with the soul of a leprechaun. He has a charisma that draws people to him, something his daughter sorely lacks, even though she's the one who needs that trait the most.

Hueller, however, is the heart and soul of the film. Just like the 2015 film "Carol" could easily have been called "Therese" because Rooney Mara's character was the true core of that period drama, this title is a bit of a misdirection. This is Ines' film through and through. It is at-times the harrowing tale of a woman in her 30s striving to succeed in a cutthroat business world. Thankfully, there is little trite bleating about needing a man or a baby or trying to "have it all." Ines does have a romantic outlet -- if you can call it that -- which plays out more like a typical CEO power-tripping with an escort. (She is equally frustrated in her career and personal life.)

Hueller handles two scenes in particular masterfully. At one point, together on a business trip, father and daughter take a detour to a local woman's home where they are celebrating Easter. Toni spots a keyboard and coerces his daughter into singing Whitney's Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" (see below), and you get the sense that this is a callback to her youth, perhaps one of those elusive bonding moments from long ago. It's the only moment in which she gives in to her father's playfulness.

Eventually back at her flat, Ines has planned a brunch with co-workers to celebrate her birthday. Flustered by her outfit as party time nears, she fitfully strips out of her dress, just as the doorbell rings. She chooses to answer the door naked, surprising her assistant Anca (a delightful Ingrid Bisu) and improvising a surprise theme: a naked team-building exercise. Ines has become a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but writer-director Ade (basing it on experiences with her own father) is so deft at nuance -- and having built up these two scenes so gradually -- that we see many layers to Ines. It's tough to place her into any stereotypical category of a career go-getter.

This story unfolds over the course of more than two-and-a-half hours, but the film never drags. Like Kelly Reichardt did with "Certain Women," we come to know two characters that we can imagine existing beyond the running time and outside of the film's frames. We have a hunch about what makes Winfried/Toni tick; but Hueller teases us with idea of what Ines is going through and how her life might end up. She gives a brutal and tantalizing performance that resonates. It is the epitome of storytelling.

Ines singing "The Greatest Love of All":

01 March 2017

New to the Queue

Emerging ...

Jordan Peele ("Keanu") goes behind the camera for the first time with a genre mashup of comedy and suspense, "Get Out."

We are hopeless suckers for documentaries about comedians, so we'll come around eventually to screening the latest, "Dying Laughing."

Riley Keough ("American Honey") and Jena Malone (the "Hunger Games" series) team up for the story of an intense relationship between friends, "Lovesong."

A teenage girl in Ireland is determined to break her father out of a mental institution in the debut feature "My Name Is Emily."

A look at the online classifieds site that enables the trafficking in underage sex workers, "I Am Jane Doe."

28 February 2017

Soul Mates

MY KING (B+) - Emmanuelle Bercot shreds scene after scene in this relationship horror story about a woman using time away rehabbing her knee to analyze her strained marriage.

Bercot re-teams with Maiwenn, who was the writer, director and co-star of "Polisse" (our favorite film of 2012), and who stays behind the camera for this harrowing tale of love and psychological war. Bercot is Toni, an attorney (though her metier is really an afterthought here) who while skiing with her husband and son has an accident that tears up her knee. During the rehab process, she bonds with mostly younger co-horts but also flashes back over the years to the very start of her relationship with the restaurateur Georgio (a perfectly manic Vincent Cassel).

They meet cute at a disco and start a torrid affair that eventually morphs into a turbulent relationship and then a dysfunctional marriage, with Toni frequently becoming emotionally unhinged. Her brother and sister-in-law --- Solal (Louis Garrel, "Jealousy," "A Burning Hot Summer") and Babeth (Isild Le Besco "The New Girlfriend") -- provide a Greek chorus, with Solal in particular a detractor of Georgio's from the start. And Georgio is a handful -- a sarcastic, unfaithful brute who knows how to push Toni's buttons.

Bercot is a revelation throughout. The old-fashioned word "hysterical" comes to mind, as she bounces from crisis to crisis, especially post-partum, when she finds Georgio lazing in bed with a young woman. Early on, Georgio takes a separate flat down the street for an "office" and to give each spouse some space, but he's not fooling anyone.

But rather than giving us a depiction of a crazy woman, Bercot and Maiwenn collaborate on a complex portrait of a woman struggling with her demons. Rehab is being done on more than just that broken joint; she is taking inventory and gradually healing from the emotional scars that have left her a wreck. In one flashback, a drunken outburst at a backyard gathering of friends reveals Toni at her nastiest and most vulnerable.

Toni and Georgio can be a handful to deal with over the course of a full two hours. But Cassel ("Read My Lips," "Mesrine") brings an impish appeal to his character. And Bercot (a Cannes award winner for this rolein 2015) is never short of riveting, whether she's putting a hand through glass while pregnant or wincing while on the weight machine. Maiwenn jumbles the chronology just enough to make it interesting but not too much to make it confusing.

If you've never fallen in love with a woman like Toni, I pity you and envy you.

Maiwenn's debut short, "I'm an Actress" is featured as a bonus offering on the DVD. It's an unremarkable farce about an extreme stage mom (Maiwenn) pushing her tween daughter, Baba (Shanna Besson), too far and embarrassing her during an audition.

26 February 2017

Soundtrack of Your Life

An occasional feature in which we mark the songs of our relative youth as played over public muzak systems and beyond. 

Date: 25 February 2017, 6:36 p.m.
Place: I-10, just across New Mexico's border into Arizona, streaming randomly from my iTunes
Song:  "Burn Hollywood Burn"
Artist: Public Enemy
Irony Matrix: 1.6 out of 10

Comment: Oh, no reason ... Enjoy your Sunday evening.

24 February 2017

Attention Must Be Paid

THE SALESMAN (B+) - Iranian master Asghar Farhadi comes to Earth a bit -- just a bit -- and makes a very good movie after a string of great ones.

Farhadi made the best movie of 2011, "A Separation," his first mainstream success in America, the first of a series of harrowing relationship movies. He followed it up with "The Past," a slow-burn of a modern-family mystery starring Berenice Bejo and involving another take on divorce. Since then, two of his previous films have been released here, the gorgeous gone-girl saga "About Elly" in 2015, and the bird's-eye view of domestic squabbling, "Fireworks Wednesday" last year.  Both of the latter films starred Taraneh Aladoosti, who returns in this latest film to star as one half of a couple who are staging a production of "Death of a Salesman" while coping with makeshift housing that seems to be cursed.

"The Salesman" is another slow-simmering take on marriage, with Aladoosti's Rana struggling to find the connection with her husband, Emad (Shabab Hosseini, who also starred in "Elly"), both onstage -- as Willy and Linda Loman -- and off. The opening scene finds them fleeing their apartment complex, which is in danger of collapsing. Metaphor noted.

A fellow cast member does them a favor and puts them up in one of his empty apartment units in a rundown section of town. The place comes with not only a roomful of possessions left behind by the previous tenant, but the bad vibes she left behind, too. She apparently was a woman with a good deal of gentleman callers, and eventually one of them comes calling and disturbs Rana. Whether he assaulted her or merely startled her is not clear. What is obvious is that Iranian culture inhibits any rational avenue for redress through the criminal justice system -- and that Emad, an otherwise mild-mannered teacher, is intent on avenging the incident. (Farhadi's films can often be characterized as left-field procedurals.)

Farhadi takes his time with the setup, and the final third involves a showdown with the apparent offender, a figure more pathetic than menacing. When it seems that Emad may be going too far in his mission, the disappointment on Rana's face speaks volumes. That final confrontation is painfully drawn out, and Farhadi dabbles in haunted-house and Batman-villain tropes, cleverly subverting them.

What this has to do with Willy Loman is not wholly apparent, although another smart twist gives an unexpected character the pathetic qualities of the famous salesman. Rana, however, could not be less like Linda Loman, refusing to indulge or enable her macho husband.

Aladoosti is a beautiful woman, but her talent is more than skin deep; in every role, she communicates volumes with her eyes, and here, she brings incredible subtlety to a role that easily could have descended into caricature. Rana could easily overplay the victim card; but in Tehran, it wouldn't do her much good anyway.

21 February 2017

Punk Scene

One of Albuquerque's tightest bands scorched through a quick set tonight at Sister Bar downtown. Prison Bitch, now going by Prism Bitch, tore it up with their brand of Riot Grrrl rock. Lead singer Lauren Poole (the Burque Girl from the comedy scene and YouTube) has charisma to spare, and drummer Teresa Cruces holds it all together with powerful precision.

Here's the video for their hit song "Ya Ya," with the memorable line, "You know me, I'm from math class":

Here's a sense of them live, from a show in Santa Fe:

P-Bitch opened for the all-gal noise freaks from Memphis, Nots. They traffic in classic hardcore. Front woman Natalie Hoffmann knows her share of guitar tricks, in between screaming the same words over and over. Not for the timid:


13 February 2017

The New World

FIRE AT SEA (B) - This lethargic documentary has its moments. Its downfall is the filmmakers' misguided ambition.

Ostensibly about the plight of refugees who invariably need rescue near the Sicilian island Lampedusa, most of the movie follows a local boy, Samuele, 12, as he traipses around on his various Tom Sawyer missions. Samuele is a lively kid -- he has exaggerated adult mannerisms and the speaking style of a Tony Soprano underling -- but, being a kid, he's just not that interesting.

Samuele is the son and grandson of fishermen, and we slowly get to visit his father on the boat, and there are interludes with the boy's grandmother, who reminds me of my own Italian grandmother, constantly toddling around the kitchen. (She also makes up a bed better than a sailor can.) It is the grandmother who lends the movie its name, as she recalls her own father and uncles trawling in the waters during World War II, when the navy would light up the sky with during battles, creating a "fire at sea."

Samuele bums around with a pal trying to perfect his slingshot skills, terrorizing birds and cacti alike. He also ends up at the eye doctor, getting diagnosed with a lazy eye, which requires an eye patch to strengthen that eye. Another doctor tends to some of the migrants, including a mother lucky to be alive and with a viable fetus. Another random character is a local DJ who takes requests, including from the grandmother to her sickly husband.

The plight of the migrants comes off as both dehumanizing and demoralizing. They get herded like cattle and photographed like criminals. Sometimes all the coast guard workers can do is dredge and count the bodies. Foreboding and death haunt almost every scene. Even the mayday pleas can give you a shiver. Their voices drift through the night sky just like the DJ's tones do.

This is all assembled elegantly by Gianfranco Rosi, whose previous efforts all seem to have interesting premises. Here, he slows to the rhythms of the sleepy island, and his camera lingers over the faces of the migrants, faces that mostly communicate subtle fear and exhaustion.

Too much depiction of the refugees' travails might have been too much to take. But too little of it -- especially contrasted with the safe, traditional way of life of the locals -- comes off as a bit dismissive. Rosi needed a better balance to tell this important story.