Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon May 02, 2016 2:04 pm 
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THE TALE OF TALES/IL RACCONTO DEI RACCONTI (Matteo Garrone 2015). A shuffling around of parts of three stories from Giambattista Basile's fairy tale collection, from the 16th century. Writing from Cannes for the now sadly defunct The Dissolve last year Mike D'Angelo ably descried the structural shortcomings of Garrone's re-arrangement. The whole thing, which in each case circles around royalty, seems to have appealed to a taste for the grotesque and repulsive Garrone showed early in his career. The wrinkled old woman; Selma Hayek munching on the big bloody heart of a sea monster; a princess confined in a cave with a brutal ogre; Toby Jones raising a flea to be as big as a hippopotamus; one thing is more repulsive than the next. And yet, with its use of period setting, costume, and handsome cinematography, this is, ironically, an unusually pretty film to look at. Visual delight seems wasted though, because there is a lack of momentum or engagement. A sense of humor, which is lacking, could have helped leaven the grotesquerie and engage the viewer. At IFC Center 2 May 2016. US release date was 22 April 2016.

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SING STREET (John Carney 2016). Carney is the Irishman who makes movies about making music. He produced a real zinger with his achingly authentic 2007 Once about the duo of Dublin buskers who temporarily became a couple and recordng artists. His 2011 Begin Again switches to America and a team-up of a discredited producer (Mark Ruffalo) and disenchanted songwriter (Keira Knightley) and is a slicker effort but stil engaging. Now he goes back to roots with this one about a boy band formed at a low ranking Christian school in Dublin in the Eighties. This is almost as tough and cute and hilarious as Lucas Moodysson's "adorable trifle" We Are the Best. Not quite - why? It depends too much on the romance of band leader Cosmo (talented, cute Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and not as much on the personalities and dynamics of the band members. But it has its moments. And that's a great poster.

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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (Matt Brown 2016). This is the story of the short incredible life of the intuitive and astonishingly prolific mathematical genius from India Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), who became an F.R.S. and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge despite racism, suspicion, and WWI, collaborating with sponsor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Peter Bradshaw may be right to call this "well intentioned" and "treacly." It is conventional, and maybe could have been a posh British TV film. So I'm a sucker to have found it quite moving - but there are elements I simply can't resist. To begin with I love Dev Patel, and this is his fullest and most serious role yet. I love Jeremy Irons too, and he's very touching here as an atheistic, emotionally stifled don who says his brief five years working (and struggling) with Ramanujan became the great romance of his life. That simply slays me, and so does the unexpected and hitherto unknown story of intuitive mathematical genus so remarkable even the bitterest haters had to vote him highest academic honors. It was also shot actually at Cambridge and the dazzle of tradition adds to the experience. Dev Patel used to be a silly geek and that geekiness sings out here occasionally at odd moments, while he also gets to look handsome, even beautiful at times too - worthy of Ramanujan's strangeness, passion, and 'beautiful mind.' This is probably the most exciting and moving film ever made about mathematics. It debuted at Toronto and has played at other festivals including Tribeca and San Francisco. Watched 3 May 2016 at IFC Center where it opened 29 Apr.

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EVA HESSE (Marcie Begleiter 2016). Like S. Ramanujan, who died of TB at 32, the artist Eva Hese too led a remarkable short life, dying of cancer in 1970 at 34, leaving a rich and lastingly influential legacy of innovative and transitional work. It's post-abstract expressionism, post-pop, and beyond minimalism and not quite arte povera, more itself and the work of one of the most powerful female artists in America at the end of the Twentieth century. I knew the look of her most famous work and had seen some of it in person (apparently a lot of it, made of fiberglass or plexiglas or rubber, is disintegrating now, but it's being re-fabricated by assistants who're still alive); and at first I was disappointed that this was a conventional talking-heads documentary with period footage. But she was beautiful, soulful, and charismatic and her story is a meaty piece of modern art history, integral to the New York art scene of the Sixties. I didn't realize she was mainly an American artist - but was born Jewish in pre-Nazi Germany and just barely escaped with her sister, and they were later reclaimed in Holland by their parents while the rest of the family all died in the Holocaust. She and her then husband sculptor Tom Doyle (he was a drunk but they were a cute couple) - heard from here like later lover Sol Lewitt, and a sculptor assistant who lived with her, after Cooper Union and Yale and life in Lower Manhattan - got a grant to live in Germany, a profound experience for her, a fresh start. Once she got in the zone, she was enormously productive, up to the end. The director's debut; she has previously often been the art director for films. Watched 3 May 2016 at Film Forum, where it premiered 27 Apr.

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ALMOST HOLY/CROCODILE GENNADIY (Steve Hoover 2016). [A preview.] This film, handsomely shot by John Pope and co-produced by Terrence Malick, focuses on a morally complex hero of contemporary Ukraine, pastor Gennadiy Mokhnenko, who since early 2000's has taken the law into his own hands to rescue children from the streets and from abusive or neglectful parents. Gennadiy's heart is as big as his ego and he knows how to tweak the media to promote or excuse his projects, which include foster homes and his own 32 adopted children, mostly boys, often drug-addicted at a shockingly early age, who learn to box, read, and grow vegetables. (His wife obviously is in deep sympathy with the work.) We see ugly stuff, and we perceive a world so impoverished and chaotic -- the film ends with the Russia-Ukraine conflict at its height -- that strong measures seem understandable. Gennadiy's colorfully crude English dominates the soundtrack, and the film features gorgeous cinematography, idiosyncratic editing, a score partly by Atticus Ross (Gone Girl, The Social Network), and the metaphorical commentary of clips from a quirky animated TV series called "Crocodile Gennadiy" about doing good, with a nasty old lady who always objects. At the end Father Gennadiy, who attracts and repels us, lies on the sand like a beached whale, as if literally flattened by the deteriorated social and political situations. US theatrical release of this scrappy Tribeca film begins 20 May. Watched on a screener.

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A BIGGER SPLASH (Luca Guadagnino 2015. The Italian director, whose 2009 I Am Love was highly successful Stateside, is a little less ambitious in this new effort, a remake of Jacques Deray's 1969 La Piscine (screenplay co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière) that follows its basic outlines very closely, though it elaborates them and adds depth. La piscine, with Alain Delon and his real-life ex-wife Romy Schneider sun bathing at Tropez, Maurice Ronet as ex-squeeze and sexy daughter Jane Birkin arriving to complicate matters, was languid and Mediterranean. Here we have the volcanic offshore Italian island of Pantelleria, between Sicily and Tunisia and a current refugee stopping-off point. The sizzling Mattheas Schoenaerts and exotic Tilda Swinton are the couple, a manic Ralph Fiennes as the producer ex-squeeze, Dakota Johnson (a weak link) the putative underage daughter. Tilda is a rock star near-mute recovering from vocal cord surgery, as Mattheas, like Delon's character, is in recovery from addiction issues. Fiennes, with his giggles and F-words and anecdotes, is so annoying it's almost entertaining; his absurd dancing is a nutty tour-de-force: he must have been having fun, if we and Schoenaerts' character aren't. The outcome is the same as in the original, but everything is drawn out too much. Alain, Romy, Maurice and Jane may be more artificial than this new quartet, or something, but their iconic stature remains unchallenged. Deray paced his simpler version of the story better. Guadagnino has a penchant for making annoyingly overwrought movies that have smaller, better movies inside violently gesturing to be let out. Watched 8 May 2016 at Angelika Film Center, where it opened 4 May.

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VIVA (Paddy Breathnach 2015) . A wonderfully touching and authentic film about a young aspiring drag performer and his reconciliation with his crumbling long absent ex-boxer, ex-con dad in Havana. The two main actors - Héctor Medina, who plays the 18-year-old Jesus, and Jorge Perugorría, who plays his father Angel, are superb; so is Luis Alberto Garcia as "mother," the drag queen bar impresario and one of its lead performers. The images have a luminosity and intensity of feeling you can't fake. I will remember Héctor Medina's greatly expressive face, sometimes stoical, sometimes troubled and anguished, sometimes beautiful. The actors and the authentic settings - a sublimely patinaed Havana - flesh out the hidden meanings behind the tight-lipped dialogue. Surprisingly, it's an Irish production. The director made Blow Dry, the 2001 film about a hairdressing competition that starred Josh Hartnett. Hairdressing figures here too: it's what Jesus is doing when he gets bitten by the drag performer bug and finds his true calling and means of passionate self expression through doomed Cuban torch songs. This was written by Mark O'Halloran, the scenarist who penned the two fine Brendan Gleason vehicles The Guard and Calvary. He's good, but how this all came about I don't know. Watched at Angelika Film Center 9 May 2016; it opened 29 April. See the appreciative Guardian review.

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THOSE PEOPLE (Joey Kuhn 2015). I'll go with what the Voice writer Kenji Fujishima said: writer-director Kuhn "bathes his first feature in warm compassion." However, this is immediately recognizable as essentially "Gossip Girl" for gays. On the Upper East Side, young, cute Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), a rich Jewish graduate student who's a talented portrait painter, is torn between his gay WASP best friend Sebastian Buckworth (Jason Ralph), son of a jailed Bernie Madoff type, whom he's loved platonically for fifteen years, and the exciting older and really much nicer new Lebanese club keyboardist and classical pianist who falls for him, Tim (Haaz Sleiman, who speaks perfect English but really was born in Lebanon). The bath of warm compassion means everybody gets off a bit easier than they quite deserve or might do in an actual "Gossip Girl" episode. There isn't much depth in the secondary characters, and first-timer Kuhn spells everything out too much in the dialogue. But the actors really are engaging, good, and wholly committed. This has some of the standard features of a gay film - handsome young men kissing with their shirts off - but it has a context that if not original (for TV) is original for the genre. Watched at Cinema Village 9 May 2016; it opened there 6 May. (14 June 2016 it is out on DVD and VOD.)

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DESTINY (Fritz Lang 1921; 2K restoration, 2016). Bologina's L'Immagine retrovata and German collaborators have brought this rare film back to life with beautiful German titles, English translations, and a score that in the oriental part is very interesting. The fable-like plot describes a young bride whose husband is stolen by Death and is given three chances to get him back, staged in Persia, 15th-century Venice, and ancient China. The very strange and elaborate Chinese segment, full of elaborate, surreal staging, it the best. The wide-ranging influences of this, Lang's first big success, include Dreyer's Vampyr and Bergman's The Seventh Seal. “When I saw DESTINY, I suddenly knew that I wanted to make movies. Something about this film spoke to something deep in me; it clarified my life and my vision of the world.”
– Luis Buñuel. This is an official selection of the 2016 Berlinale. Watched at Film Forum at a preview screening. The US debut of the rerelease is there 20-26 May 2016.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo 2016). Ten superheroes in one movie is just too much. Actually there are more, because the spunky, junior grade new Spider Boy-Man Tom Holland makes an introductory appearance, without getting to develop a personal backstory. After two hours trying to figure out what the plot was, even what some of the superpowers were, I just gave up. "Civil War" I guess means superheroes against each other. But maybe it's just another word for "muddle." Despite the good reviews, this for me was not fun. It includes a lot of the tried and true stars of the franchises, notably Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. One immediately spots Anthony Mackie - reliably handsome; Jeremy Renner - reliably not; Don Cheadle, who takes a big hit; Black Widow Scarlett Johansson, sensual and tough. Elizabeth Olson is back, credited this time; Emily VanCamp, whose enunciation is poor. I'd forgotten Romanian actor Sebastian Starn, the Winter Soldier of the last episode, agreeably grubby-haired - because everyone is all too well-groomed here. And there are characters or actors brought in for "humor," like, I guess, Paul Rudd. Yes , there is humor; but not much time for Downey Jr.'s Iron Man wit, just his odd delivery. Chadwick Boseman of Get on Up and 42 is here, his impressive self-transformational skills reduced to merely doing a not particularly good fake African accent. I liked the look of this film, which is strangely warm and artificial at the same time, some new kind of digital CGI manipulation, no doubt. The battles are staged and edited too fast. It is all too much and, in consequence, not enough. Watched at Regal Union Square 10 May 2016; it opened the 6th.

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THE FALLEN IDOL (Carol Reed 1948). A classic revived at Film Forum viewed at a preview screening. Based on a short story by Graham Greene with the screen adaptation co-written by Greene, it's beautifully constructed and immaculately directed, with a sterling performance by Ralph Richardson as Baines, the unhappy butler at a London embassy - and an even better one by young Bobby Henrey as Philippe, the ambassador's seven-year-old French-speaking son who is over-protective of his idol Baines when Baines' shrewish wife (Sonia Dresdel) falls to her death in the entrance hall after an argument, and he thinks Baines pushed her. Baines is in love with Julie, an embassy secretary, as he well might be since she's played by Michèle Morgan. It's all about lies: Baines and Philippe both tell too many of them, Baines to cover his relation with Julie to Philippe, calling her his "niece," and to entertain Philippe with made-up stories of a colorful life in Africa when he's never been out of England; Philippe, to cover up what he thinks are Baines's crimes and misdemeanors. An odd domestic drama moves to a secret romance and then a police procedural and a psychological thriller, all seamlessly. When I first saw this I was very young myself and whenever I re-watch it I relive the intensity of my identification with the boy struggling to function in an adult world he doesn't understand, and to preserve his only nearby role model in the absence of parents. Reed uses interior and exterior spaces brilliantly. They're big and heavy, elegant, scary, weighed down by post-War gloom. All in all, it's sheer perfection. Watched at Film Forum 11 May 2016, where it will run 27 May to 2 June. It will run elsewhere such as Landmark Theaters in the Bay Area starting 2 June.

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THE FAMILY FANG (Jason Bateman 2016). Bateman has 84 credits as an actor but this is only his second time as director of a feature film. Bateman himself and Nicole Kidman costar as siblings and Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett as their parents, others as all four when younger. Caleb Fang (Walken) is a 70's-style performance artist who in the 80's and 90's used his two children as participants in radical performance art pieces designed to catch people off guard and shake them up, which has had a traumatic effect and destroyed the childhood of Annie (Kidman) and Baxter (Bateman), known to Caleb only as "Child A" and "Child B," respectively, as he credits them in the art pieces. A trauma to Baxter, a blocked writer, and a career crisis for Annie, a movie actress whose successful career is in a lull, bring the adult siblings, long estranged from their parents, back together. They decide to confront their parents and try to achieve resolution of their conflicts. Based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Wilson. The story is unusual and ingenious; but more background is required than the film can provide, the action meanders, and the central character of Caleb, who dominates everything, and is played by Walken with his usual total conviction, is repellant. Between David Lindsay-Abaire's adaptation and Bateman's direction Wilson's touted humor seems to have been largely lost. Watched at Angelika Film Center 11 May 2016. It opened wide 6 May.

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PRINCESS (Tali Shalom-Ezer 2014). [Preview; US release coming in several weeks.] This stylish, boldly erotic film that looks at boundary issues in a small Tel Aviv household hovers between serious exploration and mere titillation and contains at least one scene many may not want to see. We can guess what's going to happen from the opening scene, where a man and woman and 12-year-old girl are in bed together one morning and a steamy, erotic mood prevails. The guy turns out to be an unemployed boyfriend, the, girl a school dropout. The woman works hard and late at a hospital but while she reproaches her daughter, she lets it go and bathes in the sensuous, inappropriate mood at home. Later they adopt a longhaired androgynous street boy and the feel of kink grows. Where Princess excels is in the naturalness and spontaneity of the intimate ensemble acting. Much of the time the initial trio show humorous and playful as well as amorous feelings toward each other that seem improvisational and natural. But it's not so clear what the film is getting at, and gradually the hothouse intimacy becomes repetitious and a bit confusing. More sense of an outside context would have helped. The ending is too easy. Much awarded in festivals, this gets a US VOD release (which may be best) 24 May 2016 and theatrical (NYC, LA) 27 May. Watched on a screener 11 May.

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HOCKNEY (Randall Wright 2014). [Preview, though this was first released theatrically in NYC in late April.] The many delights of Randall Wright's BBC documentary Hockney, a nearly two-hour documentary on David Hockney, do not quite offset its shortcomings as a portrait of the famous and exceptionally prolific English artist's career. Wright has interviews with people who have known the man intimately including family members. He incorporates home movies that blend seamlessly into the paintings themselves. The outlines of the artist's creative passions, his rethinking of photography, his persistent exploration of the art of seeing, are delineated. His closeness to his parents, his wide circle of friends, his love of southern California, the tragedy of AIDS, his centrality to the new openness about being a gay artist that developed during the Sixties and Seventies are there. For the fan, many of the bases are touched. What Wright is unconcerned with is how Hockney became so successful and famous, what the critics think of his work, where he fits into art history, and how anyone hitherto unfamiliar with his work should view it and evaluate it. And these are important things. Yet this unsatisfying meal still provides much to chew on. Watched on a preview screener 12 May 2016. Wider US theatrical release (Landmark) coming 27 May.

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LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman 2016). A Jane Ausen adaptation by Whit Stillman might seem a bit redundant, since from the first scenes of his debut Metropolitan, Stillman's own contemporary dialogue was clearly the closest thing to Austen in American movies. But if there's almost a glut of Jane Austen on screen (her subtle ironies play best on the page), there has never been enough of Whit, and the marriage indeed turns out to be one made in heaven. There are some flaws. Regrettably, because I've always loved Chlöe Sevigny, and her period costumes seem her own, Mike D'Angelo is right that her American speech rhythms seem too modern. This of necessity lacks the complexity of Jane Austen's mature novels. But the satirical wit holds, and Stillman's dialogue has an exquisite clarity and precise rhythm you won't find in even the best of the other Austen film adaptations. Watched at Angelica Film Center on its opening day, 13 May 2016.

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MONEY MONSTER (Jodie Foster 2016). It opened at Cannes out of Competition and two days later opens everywhere. It has George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Dominic West and Jack O'Connell in the cast, Jodie Foster directing, and a thriller plot centered on trendy issues. A working stiff (O'Connell, doing his thing with a New York accent) has lost all his money following on air advice from an irresponsible, clownish TV investment expert (Clooney). He sneaks onto the set at show time, fits Clooney with a bomb vest, and demands not money but the truth: what went wrong? Guess what - the culprits aren't TV hacks, Russian hackers, or Korean algorithm designers, but the One Percent embodied in a crooked financial fund CEO (West) guilty of arbitrary and illegal foreign trading practices that lost his company, Ibis Clear Capital, $800 million in a single day. In 1975 Sidney Lumet directed Al Pacino in his prime in Dog Day Afternoon - an emotional and suspenseful hostage thriller before this kind of thing became routine. Its focus was the more human and then new issue of funding a lover's sex change operation. Crooked One Percenters and all TV turned into crude entertainment are important now, but the this new film lacks real passion or suspense. Watched at AMC Village 7 on opening day, 13 May 2016.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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