J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Survivor: Jovovich vs. Brosnan

Let’s face it, the terrorists are way more unified than we are. When there is an opportunity to strike a blow against the ever-tolerant West, they will put aside doctrinal differences to make it happen. In contrast, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies are much more concerned about politics, turf management, and general career CYA-ing. At least that is the timely picture that emerges in James McTeigue’s Survivor (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Kate Abbott has only been stationed in London for five months or so, but it is clear the Foreign Service security specialist is really good at her job—too good, in fact. When she discovers Bill Talbot, the head of the visa department has personally intervened to admit several dubious chemical specialists into the country, he quickly arranges to have her killed in a bombing, along with the rest of the visa section. Naturally fate dictates she will be away from the table at the critical moment. That means the assassin, a veteran terrorist known simply as “the Watchmaker” will have to finish her off personally, spy-versus-spy style.

Of course, suspicion immediately falls on Abbott, with the American ambassador and Inspector Paul Anderson, the Scotland Yard point man being especially obtuse about it all. Only Sam Parker, the senior political officer, believes in her glaringly obvious innocence. Unfortunately, as the Yanks and the Brits chase Abbott, the Watchmaker and his allies have an open field to finish the last stages of their grand WMD conspiracy.

Having helmed the radical favorite V for Vendetta, it is rather odd to see McTeigue associated with a film that considers the mass murder of innocent civilians a bad thing—one to be avoided if at all possible. The credit is probably due to screenwriter Philip Shelby, who co-wrote the second novel in Robert Ludlum’s Covert One series. There are some flashes of inspiration to be found within, particularly with respects to the disturbing but seemingly unrelated prologue, but the film soon settles into a by-the-numbers “Wrong Man” style thriller. It is also disappointing to see Survivor wimping out in terms of the ultimate villains, who are mere schemers hoping to make a fortune selling short.

However, as Abbott, Milla Jovovich is a surprisingly credible presence. After ten or twelve Resident Evil films, we know she has action chops, but she is also convincing playing a smart, reserved character. A Lindsay Lohan or a Megan Fox just couldn’t carry it off. Strangely though, the film does not fully capitalize on her hardnosed potential, forcing her to be a little damsel-in-distress-y at times.

Of course, Pierce Brosnan is no stranger to international intrigue, but he cruises through Survivor on auto-pilot. It is hard to forget how much better he was as a ruthless assassin opposite Michael Caine in The Fourth Protocol. Still, Robert Forster is reliable as ever humanizing the treasonous Talbot (he has his tragic reasons), but James D’Arcy’s unintuitive Inspector seems to be hinting at every repressed, twittish cliché about British public school civil servants.

To its credit, Shelby’s screenplay acknowledges some important realities, such as the events of September 11th, which were Abbott’s motivation for her current line of work. Survivor makes a strong case Jovovich has been grossly underemployed by Hollywood, but as a big picture thriller, it is rather routine. Perhaps worth a look streaming or on cable, Survivor opens tomorrow (5/29) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Panorama Europe’15: Bota

Juli Toma’s provincial town is desperately depressed, even by Albania’s standards. Of course, she is not really from there. She and her family were interned there during the Communist era and, one way or another, they have been stuck there ever since. The past is like a millstone holding down the present in Iris Elezi & Thomas Logoreci’s Bota (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Panorama Europe, at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Toma is a waitress at Bota (meaning the world), her cousin Beni’s coffee shop that draws a decent clientele, considering it is literally in the middle of nowhere. That is exactly why the old regime deposited its so-called “state enemies” there. Beni is an operator who has plenty of dodgy dealings with underworld types, but Toma is more-or-less resigned to a futureless future. At least, she will make no plans while caring for Noje, her beloved grandmother, who is increasingly succumbing to the ravages of age.

We soon learn Toma was done wrong by both the Communists and Beni. Her supposed best friend Nora knows it full well, but she keeps quiet hoping Beni, her illicit lover, will leave his unseen wife for her. Eventually, the truth will out, to an extent, but at a great cost for the Bota trio.

Frankly, Bota is so intrinsically bound up in the lingering corrosiveness of the Communist Party and the successive government’s problematic response, Elezi & Logoreci hardly bother to address politics directly. After all, the results are as plain as day. Instead, they focus like a laser-beam on Toma.

Fortunately, lead actress Flonja Kodheli survives and thrives under their potentially withering gaze. With quiet but forceful understatement, she personifies everyday resiliency. Artur Gorishti and Fioralba Kryemadhi are both fine and good as Beni and Nora, but we have seen their like before. However, there is something about how Kodheli’s Toma expresses both naivety and world-weariness that is quite moving.

As inviting and lived-in as the Bota café looks (with considerable credit due to the detailed work of art director Shpetim Baca), Bota the film hardly serves as a tourism commercial for Albania. In a way, it is like the dark flip side of the Central Perk coffee house in Friends. Although there are a few references that will be lost on non-Albanians (for instance, The General of the Dead Army, a celebrated Ismail Kadare novel about an Italian officer commissioned to locate war remains), the larger truths are easy to grasp. Well worth seeing for its discreet tragedy and the power of Kodheli’s work, Bota screens this Sunday (5/31) as part of Panorama Europe, at MoMI in Astoria, Queens.

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SIFF ’15: A Matter of Interpretation

This could be the Korean Rom-Com Sigmund Freud never had the chance to write. It’s all about dreams, suicide, and overbearing mothers. Yet, the vibe is feathery light and strangely sweet throughout Lee Kwang-kuk’s A Matter of Interpretation (trailer here), which screens at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

With not one single solitary ticket buyer ponying-up for the matinee performance, Choi Yeon-shin pulls a vintage diva move, storming out of the avant-garde play, after giving her fellow cast-members a good piece of her mind. Unable to convince her friends to come meet her, Choi starts pounding the Soju by herself, on a park bench. Detective Seo will start to roust her, but they wind up talking instead.

Not so good with CSI sort of stuff, Seo fancies himself an interpreter of dreams. Choi happened to have a rather baffling one the night before. Remember that crummy white compact car, because it will turn up in other people’s dreams and also in ostensibly real life, often carrying the implements used in the suicide Seo was investigating before meeting Choi.

Structurally, Interpretation is a time-warping, reality-problematizing Borgesian puzzle box of a film, with events in waking life repeating dreams, repeating life, repeating dreams. Lee’s film is a feat of reprise and variation, echoing line after line and incident after incident, but giving each new take its own sly twist. He addresses some dark subject matter (after all, somebody ended it all in the white car), but keeps the mood upbeat and playful.

As clever as Lee’s screenplay is, it is Shin Dong-mi who makes it sing. Even Det. Seo notices how well her Choi curses—with style and attitude rather than cheapness. It is a gutsy sort of part to play—the still attractive but past her professional prime actress struggling with life’s disappointments. She nails it will a dynamite performance that is sexy and sarcastic, yet kind of-sort of down-to-earth.

Yu Jun-sang nicely plays with and off her as the preternaturally unintuitive detective, while Kim Gang-hyeon is believably nebbish as her ex-boyfriend, Shin U-yeon. However, young Kim Dan-yool thoroughly upstages the latter in his brief but memorable scenes as the boy whose street art both Choi and Shin appreciate far more than his tiger mom.

Every scene in Interpretation rings with call-backs and foreshadowings, but it never feels forces or excessively gamesterish. In fact, it goes down quite smoothly, ambling along at its own pace—a healthy trot, really—representing a considerable step up (particularly in terms of tempo) from Lee’s already impressive feature directorial debut, Romance Joe. Highly recommended, A Matter of Interpretation screens this Thursday (5/28), Friday (5/29), and Sunday (5/31), as part of this year’s SIFF.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Walking on Sunshine: Get Your 1980s Pop Nostalgia On

Italian beach himbos are meant to be disposable, good for a summer fling before their expiration date kicks in. Like last year’s cherry blossoms, they might be lovely to look back on, but it would be awkward and ultimately unsatisfying to carry them around indefinitely. Nevertheless, two sisters will fall for one. In fact, it is the same monosyllabic pretty boy, but now that Maddie is engaged to the luggish Raf, the more repressed Taylor is determined to keep their past romance secret in Max Giwa & Dania Paquini (a.k.a. Max & Dania)’s 1980s pop jukebox musical Walking on Sunshine (trailer here), which launches this Friday on VOD.

We know Taylor is the more practical one, because she has been studying at “Uni,” as we hear over and over. The one time she really let her hair down was a summer in Perugia. She therefore recommends it to her more romantic (flightier) sister Maddy as a place to nurse her latest broken heart. Her prescription works only too well. Arriving to discover Maddy is already engaged to the beach bum she was hoping to pick up with again, the heartbroken Taylor resolves to put up a brave front. Needless to say, the circumstances of the whirlwind wedding will make that difficult. Meanwhile, Maddy will try to fend off Doug, the jerk-heel ex-boyfriend she recently dumped for the umpteenth time.

It is possible that Sunshine bears some superficial resemblance to the ABBA juke-boxer Mamma Mia, but who here would possibly know? Regardless, none of this could be considered super-fresh territory. Let’s be honest, these are all stock characters. Poor backstory-less Raf is particularly weak. You will find more personality stuffed and mounted on the wall of a hunting lodge.

Nevertheless, it must be conceded the way the tunes were selected and molded into something like a book musical is often quite clever. Madonna’s “Holiday” is sort of an obvious choice for a flag-waving opener, but the big airport dance number is appealingly choreographed. Unfortunately, Bananarama’s cover arrangement of “Venus” is still lame, nearly thirty years after its initial release.

However, the real surprise is how adroitly Katrina and the Waves’ title tune has been adapted to serve the film’s dramatic needs. Similarly, the rendition of “If I Could Turn Back Time” (associated with Cher) could not be any more manipulative, but the tune does what it needs to do as an emotional climax, worming its way into your head afterward. Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” and the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” also perfectly fit the vibe of the film and move the action along nicely.

Gemma’s sister Hannah is game enough as Taylor, but if you see one film this week with an Arterton, it absolutely, positively must be Gemma Bovery. Problematically, it is just hard to believe either woman could get hung up on a vacant stare, like Giulio Berruti’s Raf (is that supposed to be a patriotic hat tip to the Royal Air Force?). For the most part though, Sunshine’s cast is attractive, but not inhumanly so. The Perugia backdrops are lovely and the local Tomato Festival (sort of like Holi, but with tomatoes) looks like a lot of fun. By the way, the dude with the soul patch playing Doug the sleaze is Emma Thompson’s husband, Greg Wise.

This film might be hummable, but it isn’t even an inch deep. Still, if you grew up with these tunes (who else saw Katrina and the Waves open up for Squeeze? Anyone? Seriously, that was a good show), this just might be a guilty, shame-ridden pleasure. Recommended solely as a sugary vehicle for nostalgia, Walking on Sunshine hits VOD platforms this Friday (5/29).

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Panorama Europe’15: Gods

During the Communist era, Poland was officially an atheist state. Yet, Dr. Zbigniew Religa’s crusade to successfully perform the country’s first heart transplant surgery was often denigrated as a desire to play god. The establishment would use any rhetorical club to beat down innovation. Fortunately, Dr. Religa was not the sort to hew to the Party line. Medicine will struggle to overcome politics in Lukasz Palkowski’s Gods (trailer here), which screens on the opening weekend of this year’s Panorama Europe, at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Religa was not the first Polish doctor to attempt a heart transplant. That was Prof. Jan Moll, who was crucified by the medical authorities when the patient rejected the donor heart. Although no longer pushing the frontiers of medicine, Moll will serve as an informal advisor to Religa when he picks up his transplant standard. Unfortunately, it will not happen in Warsaw. All the directors of big urban clinics avoid controversy like the plague. To develop the life-saving procedure, Dr. Religa will assume the directorship of a new clinic in the provincial town of Zabrze. The clinic is fine (it should be, considering Dr. Religa and his staff largely built it themselves from the ground up), but the time away from his wife will wreck Religa’s marriage.

Despite Religa’s eventual breakthroughs, Gods is anything but a ringing endorsement of the old, oppressive system and its socialized medicine. Just funding the clinic was quite a trick. Although Religa is reluctant to ask for Party money, he has little options. Happily, he connects with a regional boss, who is corrupt in a good way. Dr. Religa also has no problem hiring junior surgeons who have been blackballed for their past support of Solidarity.

Clearly, Dr. Religa was quite a physician, but as played by the 6’ 6” Tomasz Kot, he hardly looks like George Clooney in ER. A tall, gaunt, stoop-shouldered chain-smoker, his Religa is far from a picture of health. Frankly, it is easy to see why he was so driven to perfect heart transplant surgery. Nevertheless, he projects a commanding presence that would instill confidence.

Without question, Gods is Kot’s show, but he gets some key consults from veteran Polish actors Jan Englert as Prof. Sitkowski, Religa’s skeptical former mentor, and Wladyslaw Kowalski as the wise and compassionate Prof. Moll. Much like the trailblazing surgeon, inter-personal relations are not exactly the strength of Krzysztof Rak’s screenplay, which means Magdalena Czerwinska is stuck holding a rather one-dimensional stick as Religa's neglected wife, Anna.

Still, Gods has an appealingly dry wit. It is also a first rate period production, reproducing the general drabness of the late Communist era, as well as the defiant manifestations of grooviness that periodically popped-up through the cracks. In fact, it might well be difficult for a potential American distributor to license several of the period-signifying pop songs for theatrical release, so viewers intrigued by Gods should make a point of seeing it on the festival circuit. Recommended for fans of Polish cinema and medical dramas, Gods screens Friday (5/29) at MoMI in Astoria Queens, as part the 2015 Panorama Europe.

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Da Sweet Blood of Jesus: Ganja & Hess, Together Again

Duane Jones only had two lead roles in his trailblazing film career, but they were both truly iconic for genre film connoisseurs. The first was George Romero’s enduringly popular Night of the Living Dead. Remaking such a familiar film was a perilous proposition, as both makeup artist Tom Savini and team of filmmakers not affiliated with Romero have proved on separate occasions. Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess is a different story. Less well known, the 1973 experimental exploitation film exists in both director and studio cuts, making issues of authenticity more complicated. Nevertheless, Spike Lee remains devotedly faithful to Gunn’s narrative throughout Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and BluRay.

Dr. Hess Greene is an independently wealthy anthropologist, who specializes in the Ashanti people and their cultural obsession with blood (which Dr. Wiki has never heard of). He is about to commence a major research project when his jittery new research assistant, Dr. Lafayette Hightower stabs him repeatedly with a ceremonial Ashanti knife, before blowing his brains out. Strangely, Dr. Greene does not die. He merely wakes up rather the worse for wear, with a powerful thirst—for blood.

Eventually, Hightower’s hot but cold ex-wife Ganja comes looking for her disappointing former husband, but finds the very rich and highly interested Greene instead. Of course, he also happens to be undead. As they fall for each other he starts planning for their eternal future together, but Greene’s new existence will become more draining (in more ways than one) than he ever anticipated.

Yes, Ganja and Hess will essentially become vampires, but neither film really plays up the traditional Universal/Hammer/Anne Rice motifs. These are very existential vampires, isolated by privilege and addiction, like Howard Hughes or Brian Wilson. It is never exactly scary, but there are several sly “here-it-comes” moments. Lee also manages to maintain a distinctively icy vibe throughout the film.

Arguably, the best thing going for Sweet Blood is its soundtrack. This is easily Bruce Hornsby’s best and most jazz-oriented film work yet. Featuring contributions from prominent musicians like Vernon Reid on guitar, Lew Soloff on trumpet, Esther Noh on violin, Clark Gayton on trombone, and Patience Higgins and Stacy Dillard on tenor, it often sounds somewhat akin to his terrific debut jazz release, Camp Meeting.

If that were not enough, the soundtrack also includes licensed tracks from Milton Nascimento’s Journey to Dawn album, as well as performances from the church band previously seen in Red Hook Summer, with Jonathan Batiste returning as the Hammond B3 organist, “TK Hazelton.” It all might sound too upbeat and soulful for a tale of quiet undead desperation, but it really helps pull viewers through many scenes that would otherwise be rather slow and aesthetically severe.

From time to time, Sweet Blood does indeed intersect with the world of Red Hook. Considering how painful his last original narrative film truly was, this would sound like a very bad idea on paper. Yet, the excursions to the “Little Church” give the new film greater depth and heart. Frankly, unlike Lee’s ill-advised remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Sweet Blood is a pretty good film. Perhaps it is time Lee swore off originals and just stuck to reboots and sports docs.

As Greene, Stephen Tyrone Williams is cold fish, by design, but almost to a fault. However, it is great fun to watch Zaraah Abrahams ravenously chew the scenery Ganja Hightower, the temptress who will not be denied. Naté Bova also makes a strong impression as Tangier Chancellor, Hightower’s potential rival turned target of seduction. By genre standards, Sweet Blood is quite sensual, but Lee must have directed Abrahams’ horny-porny scene with Bova in a raincoat. It is the one time the film’s disciplined restraint goes out the window.

Be that as it is, Sweet Blood gets under the skin precisely because it is mostly so reserved and cold-blooded. It is not one hundred percent successful, but it is an intriguing outing from a filmmaker who hasn’t been interesting outside of New York sports documentaries for some time. Recommended for fans of Lee and Gunn’s 1973 cult classic, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay and Gravitas Ventures.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Gemma Bovery: What’s in a Name?

Gustave Flaubert was an exacting writer who often spent days perfecting a handful of lines, making him a fitting literary idol for a fussbudget like Martin Joubert. As a result, when an English woman named Gemma Bovery (mind the “g” and the “e”) moves to his Rouen village, he quickly fixates on her similarity with Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. Her curviness does not exactly dampen his interest either. Literary obsession will have comedic and tragic implications in Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Joubert was once a miserable editor for a Parisian publishing house, but he has been much happier since he returned to Normandy to take over the family bakery—up until now. It was Charlie Bovery’s idea to move to France. Even though his somewhat younger wife Gemma does not speak French, the antiques restorer thought the charms of provincial life would be a healthier environment for them. However, as Joubert immediately suspects, small town life is rather stifling for the passionate namesake.

As part narrator and part Iago, we watch the story unfold through Joubert’s jealous eyes. He is perfectly positioned for spying, since the Boverys moved in right across the street from the Jouberts. Despite his obvious infatuation, the curt Valérie Joubert is not particularly concerned about anything happening between them, for obvious reasons. However, when Bovery commences an illicit affair with the shiftless son of the wealthy Madame de Bressigny, Joubert’s rash petulance will set in motion an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable series of events.

With her adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel (with co-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer), Fontaine completely redeems herself for the cringing smarminess of Adore. This is a wickedly droll film that saunters towards its sad end with a strangely carefree but knowing vibe. Frankly, the final ten or fifteen minutes are just about brilliant.

Of course, Fabrice Luchini is perfectly at home with Martin Joubert’s literate humor and angst-ridden yearning. He plays a darkly comic figure, but one that is dashed easy to relate to. Frankly, someone like Film Forum or MoMA ought to program an overdue retrospective of his films. Gemma Arterton alos brings an earthy sensuality to the film as Bovery and earns credit for her diligence learning French. Yet, one of the film’s most notable surprises is Jason Flemyng’s dignified, humanistic portrayal of Charlie Bovery, who is quite the far cry from the put-upon cartographer of the recent chaotic Russian maelstrom that is Forbidden Empire.

Although Fontaine’s film certainly has a smart sensibility, it is never too clever for its own good. Its sly literary parallels, allusions, and foreshadowing emerge organically from a wholly satisfying narrative. There is not one scene that feels forced (but there are plenty of times Joubert will have viewers wincing at his recklessness). Very highly recommended for fans of French cinema and French literature, Gemma Bovery opens this Friday (5/29) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza and Landmark Sunshine theaters.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fandor Celebrates Welles: Around the World

Only Orson Welles cold win a Peabody for a television pilot that never went to series. That would be The Fountain of Youth, produced by Desi Arnaz. As he did in film, Welles burned TV bridges on both sides of the Atlantic. At least six episodes of his British travel series were produced and eventually aired on the fledgling ITV. Twenty-six had been commissioned, but they were probably lucky to get what they got, for reasons Welles fans know only too well. Little seen at the time of their original broadcast, all six episodes are now available for streaming as part of Fandor’s Orson Welles collection, assembled in celebration of the filmmaker’s centennial.

Orson Welles will be our host, as well as the director and primary cameraman and editor. You might pick up a little something about each port of call, but the series will never replace your Fodor’s or Let’s Go. It’s all about Welles, but isn’t it always?

The first episode assembled into the Around the World super-cut is probably the most Wellesian. It is here in Basque Country that we most often see his dynamic sense of composition. Of course, it is hardly surprising Welles was inspired by the locals’ defiant refusal to quietly conform to either France or Spain. He also clearly had a great deal of affection for his appointed translator, Chris Wertenbaker, the young son of his recently deceased friend, Time foreign correspondent Charles Wertenbaker.

If you were charmed the first “Pays Basques I” than hopefully you will also will also enjoy the network-edited “Pays Basques II,” which includes the same intro and conclusion, but comes with a lot more Pelote (the Basque game related to Jai alai) in between. Still, Welles’ easy rapport with Wertenbaker and all the little moppet Pelote prodigies is quite engaging.

Probably the one episode most likely to disappoint is “Return to Vienna.” By its very title, it promises to revisit the memorable backdrops of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, but Welles spends most of his time in the city’s elite pastry shop. Evidently that was what he most remembered from his time in Vienna. Still, it is nice to be able to finally see it for ourselves. Like many works of Welles marginalia, “Return” was presumed lost for years.

Continuing on to Paris, Around gets a bit impressionistic with “St.-Germain-des-Prés.” Welles spends a lot of time wordlessly panning the streets of the Left Bank hipster enclave. A lot of famous French intellectuals, including Jean Cocteau and Juliette Gréco make cameo appearances, but Welles only talks at length with Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s sandal making, Greek tunic-wearing brother. He and Welles get on pretty well too.

In one sense, Welles was really phoning in the London episode, since he spends half the episode talking to the widows living in the Anglican charity houses next door to theater where he was mounting his ill-fated production of Moby Dick—Rehearsed. On the other hand, that old Welles charm really comes through as he flirts with his eighty and ninety year old neighbors, all whom declared themselves to be “true blue” Tories, who must be besides themselves with glee up in Heaven watching the pasting David Cameron just laid on Ed Millibrand. For the second half of the show, Welles knocks back a few pints with a few of retired soldiers living in the Royal Hospital Chelsea (hospital in this case meaning a place of hospitality). Again, the old salty dogs appreciate Welles’ good fellowship (and his hollow leg).

For the bullfight report in Madrid, Welles enlists Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy as surrogate hosts. She is relatively relaxed, but he had no business being on camera at this point in his career. As was always the case, Welles’ commentary was recorded after the fact. In some cases, it certainly looks like he took advantage of the opportunity make contentions his guests never had a chance to refute (but he always seems to faithfully represent his conversations with the pensioners). With only one camera, this was sort of a necessity. Still, what could be considered highly problematic liberty-taking for anyone else, comes across as Welles’ likable roguishness here.

Frankly, there is always room for more Orson Welles projects in the world, especially those that are more or less finished. With Around we can see Welles start to understand being Orson Welles was a form of performance art in itself. There are more than enough fascinating moments at each stop (particularly Basque Country and London) to make Around the World a rewarding way to spend nearly three hours. Recommended for Welles fans looking for more, Around the World is now available for Fandor subscribers as part of its Welles collection (along with his intriguing but fragmentary Too Much Johnson).

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Dear Lastan

He looked like Archie and gave advice like Dr. Drew. For decades, the children of the former Yugoslavia and independent Croatia looked to the fictional advice columnist to guide them through the grossness of puberty and the challenges of growing up. Irena Škorić documents the lasting influence of the iconic teenage counselor in Dear Lastan (trailer here), an opening night selection of the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Modra Lasta (“Blue Swallow” in English) was like Yugoslavia’s version of The Weekly Reader, but somehow it was hipper, despite being part of the state media apparatus. In 1969, they created “Lastan,” hoping kids would open up to a cooler older brother figure. It worked, as mailbag after mailbag quickly proved. Several writers assumed the Lastan persona, but only a few of their identities have been recently revealed. Many of Škorić’s interview subjects argue Lastan was the best kept secret in publishing history—and they are probably right. After all, Lastan predated Woodward & Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” and remained shrouded in mystery well after Mark Felt outed himself. Yet, that is really the least of the Lastan story.

Even if you are a Yankee who never read Modra Lasta, listening former readers’ affectionate reminiscences will bring on waves of nostalgia. Some of the letters are a quite funny, reflecting teenagers’ peculiar predilection for melodramatic self-importance, while Lastan’s often curt responses are wickedly droll. However, readers also wrote in with real problems that received thoughtful answers.

It is fascinating to see how the Lastan column evolved to reflect the tenor of the times. Although it never rocked the boat politically during the Communist era, it was one of the few outlets that provided teens frank sexual advice. As one would subsequently expect, there was often tragic subtext to the early 1990s wartime-era correspondence. In fact, many soldiers and homefront survivors kept reading and writing Lastan well into their twenties to maintain a sense of stability.

Škorić interviews dozens of grown Lastan fans, whose stories range from the eccentrically goofy to the surprisingly profound. She immediately taps into the universal essence of the Lastan phenomenon, so non-Balkan viewers will quickly feel like they too are well acquainted with his columns.

This is one of the biggest sleepers you could ever hope to find on the festival circuit. The story of a children’s cartoon advice columnist in the former Yugoslavia might sound narrowly specialized to potential viewers and programmers alike, but it is actually a film just about everyone can relate to. Consistently entertaining and often quite moving Dear Lastan was a real discovery at this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York. Don’t pass up a screening, should the opportunity arise. Those who missed it can still catch intriguing films like The Sarajevo Assassination, A Quintet, and Racket when the BHFFNYC ’15 concludes today (5/23), at the Tribeca Cinemas.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Grace of Monaco: From Cannes to Lifetime

Alfred Hitchcock very nearly lured Princess Grace out of retirement to star in Marnie. He wasn’t known as “the master of suspense” for nothing. Unfortunately, her return to the silver screen was scuttled by the French campaign to dominate the tiny principality of Monaco. Once again, French saber-rattling ruined things for the rest of us. Fortunately, the former Grace Kelly will stand tall in her Cartier diamonds, facing down threats to her adopted home’s sovereignty, both foreign and domestic, in Olivier Dahan’s now notorious Grace of Monaco (trailer here), which premieres on Lifetime this Memorial Day, after getting booed off the Croisette at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Rumor has it, Princess Grace’s marriage to Prince Rainier is on the rocks. Of course, tensions with France have not helped much. With the Algerian War hemorrhaging cash, De Gaulle issues the House of Grimaldi an ultimatum: start taxing all the French business re-incorporating in Monaco and turn the proceeds over to France or face a blockade and possibly even an invasion. Unfortunately, Princess Grace’s American habits of speaking her mind and having her own career rock the boat at an inopportune time.

Despite the fissures in her marriage, Her Serene Highness is determined to serve the interests of Monaco. With the help of Rainier’s American Chaplain, Father Francis Tucker, Princess Grace will undergo a crash course in courtly etiquette and assemble her own kitchen cabinet. Frankly, they can hardly do worse than Rainier’s advisors, including the sleazy big-talker, Aristotle Onassis.

It is easy to see why Grace of Monaco crashed and burned at Cannes. In all fairness, the first two thirds play out like a relatively competent TV movie, but the puffed-up self-importance of the third act is almost offensive. This is the sort of film that acts like all the world’s problems can be solved with a heartfelt, ramblingly incoherent speech. Honestly, the supposedly Oscar-baiting climatic address basically boils down to: “Oh Monaco, you’re just so swellaco.” Is that enough to shame De Gaulle into behaving? Did Hitch like blondes?

Of course, gingerish Nicole Kidman is not exactly a classic Hitchcock type, but she is about the only name actress in Hollywood who can play classy convincingly. She is not bad as the reserved but vulnerable Princess. Even though he apparently put on some poundage for the role, Tim Roth is relatively restrained as Rainier. Unfortunately, Roger Ashton-Griffiths and Sir Derek Jacobi go all in for shtick as Hitchcock and decorum guru Count Fernando D’Aillieres. For the first time probably ever, Parker Posey is also boring (or maybe she was just bored) as the Princess’s officious staffer, Madge.

It is sort of entertaining to watch Kidman and Roth glide through the opulent world of 1960s Monaco. Unfortunately, any good will they manage to accrue is undermined by the third act cheesiness. Frankly, Dahan and screenwriter Arash Amel completely miss the film’s most relevant takeaway: high taxation inevitably leads to capital flight. Cinematographer Eric Gautier makes it all look glitzy enough, but there is just no way to recut the laughable climatic speech into a presentable cut with any sort of dramatic credibility. Yet, given all the off-screen notoriety and behind-the-scenes recriminations, it is impossible to avoid a certain morbid curiosity. Those so intrigued should watch Grace of Monaco in all its awkward clunkiness when it airs on Lifetime this Monday (5/25), before Harvey Weinstein locks it away in the old vault for good.

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BHFFNYC ’15: A Quintet

There is a reason some people stay in hostels even when they can afford nicer digs. They crave those brief but memorable incidental encounters. Travel is broadening, especially for those coming from or going to Berlin in the five-part multinational anthology film A Quintet (trailer here), which screens during the resiliently scrappy 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Of the five constituent short films, one of the best is the late night tale set in Sarajevo—a fact that should hardly surprise anyone. In Kosovar filmmaker Ariel Shaban’s “The Tourist,” a disgusted Sarajevan reluctantly protects a German visitor from the consequences of his hedonism. Slowly, a connection is forged, but the fatalistic Bosnian understands better than the naïve German their friendship mostly likely expires when the sun rises. Bosnian actor Armin Omerovic is terrific as the Samaritan, but what really distinguishes “The Tourist” is the way Shaban captures the strangely calm feeling one gets when completely lost in an Eastern European city late at night, when you do not speak the language. If you have ever been there, you will recognize it immediately.

Lebanese filmmaker Elie Lamah’s “Friend Request” is the other head-and-shoulders high point and it also happens to be the boldest. Rami, who coincidentally happens to be a Lebanese filmmaker, has been enjoying the German festival that programmed his film, until a colleague invites a group of Israelis to join them for drinks. While the Israelis are more than happy to overlook past tensions between their countries, Rami is not so gracious. However, he has some reason to be cautious, since, as he pointedly reminds everyone, he could be tried for treason by his government merely for associated with citizens of Israel. Nevertheless, he might just start to loosen up a little when he walks back to the festival hotel with Ayala, the Israeli director.

“Friend Request” packs a real punch precisely because Lamah never resorts to facile sentimentality or Pollyannaish takeaways. Instead, he suggests in no uncertain terms, hatred and misunderstanding are allowed to persist when average people like Rami are afraid to take the tiniest of stands.

There are also some lovely performances in Sanela Salketić’s opener, “The House in the Envelope.” It is a small story about a Turkish woman briefly returning home from German and the cabbie she keeps hailing, but it is a crowd-pleaser. Screenwriter Demet Gül brings a wonderfully subtle and refined presence to the film as the expat Leyla, while Salketić fully capitalizes on the Istanbul backdrops.

Despite its brevity, the narrative of Roberto Cuzzillo’s “Polaroid” is oddly (but not intentionally) disjointed. However, the work of cinematographer Roberto Montero and segment composer Enrica Sciandrone is quite striking. Unfortunately, Mauro Mueller’s New York-set closer, “The Cuddle Workshop” is about as cloying as it sounds.

A Quintet is all about fleeting moments and there are enough good ones in the film to make it worth your time. Recommended for fans of Bosnian-Kosavar-Turkish-Lebanese-German-Italian cinema, it screens tomorrow (5/23) at the Tribeca Cinemas, as part of this year’s BHFFNYC.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Bridges of Sarajevo

The image in your mind’s eye a bridge in Bosnia-Herzegovina is probably the destroyed and subsequently rebuilt Stari Most in Mostar. Nevertheless, there are plenty of bridges in the capital city of Sarajevo, architecturally and metaphorically. Indeed, they serve as both backdrops and symbols in Bridges of Sarajevo (trailer here), an anthology film conceived by French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, which screens during the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, kicking off tonight at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Yes, anthology films are usually uneven and Bridges is especially so, with the highs being particularly high and the lows being Jean-Luc Godard. Happily it starts off with a strong entry, Kamen Kalev’s “My Dear Night,” depicting the final hours of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, much like a moody, almost Shakespearean tragedy. True, we know how it must end, but Samuel Finzi is quietly riveting as the doomed aristocrat. It is probably the one segment that has both the merit and the elastic capacity to be expanded into a feature.

WWI is a major focus in Bridges, continuing with Vladimir Perišić’s somewhat experimental “Our Shadows Will,” which overlays audio excerpts from Gavrilo Princip’s pan-Slavic, crypto-socialist confession with contemporary scenes of disaffected nationalist and leftist youth. It is a bold juxtaposition, but Perišić simply does not have the time to fully develop the idea.

Leonardo di Costanzo’s “The Outpost” is a technically polished segment portraying the exploited enlisted Italian peasantry struggling with the horrors and absurdities of WWI. The tactile feeling of the constituent film is impressive, but it is more of a sketch than a full dramatic arc. Likewise, Angela Schanelec’s “Princip, Text” takes much the same approach as Perišić’s contribution, but it is less provocative. Cristi Puiu also shows a preoccupation with text, much in the spirit of Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective. As satire, “Das Spektrum Europas” seems to cut both ways, eavesdropping on a tired married couple as they dissect Keyserling’s early Twentieth Century analysis of the Balkans from an anti-American and borderline anti-Semitic perspective.

Godard’s “The Bridge of Sighs” is an eight minute mashed together collage that is more watchable than his last two features, for what that’s worth. Regardless, if you seriously follow or cover world cinema, you really need to see it, just to be able to render a fuller judgement on his late career years. Sergei Loznitsa’s “Reflections” is also collage-like in form, but visually it is exceptionally arresting. Essentially, Loznitsa overlays Milomir Kovacevic’s war photographs with present day Sarajevo street scenes, achieving a truly ghostly effect.

Marc Recha’s “Zan’s Journey is more or less an exercise in oral history, but his subject’s memories are truly moving. Aida Begić (whose feature Children of Sarajevo played the 2013 BHFF) incorporates many such voices into “Album,” selecting several brief but unusually telling recollections of the workaday trials of life during the war.

Then Isild Le Besco adds a graceful humanist touch to Bridges with “Little Boy,” the story of a plucky five year old survivor, now living with his grandmother. Themes of youth and the loss of innocence also factor prominently in Ursula Meier’s concluding “Quiet Mujo,” featuring an extraordinary lead performance from Vladan Kovacevic, as a young orphan who encounters a grieving professional woman at a cemetery’s boundary between Muslim and Christian sections.

Frankly, the contributions of Meier, Loznitsa, and Kalev easily justify a ticket to Bridges. Recha, Le Besco, Begić, and Perišić also have some real substance to offer. For film snobs, it even represents an opportunity to catch up on recent work from major auteurs like Meier, Puiu, and (Heaven help us) Godard. While viewers need to go in understanding some pieces work better than others, the entire package is highly recommended because the good parts are so good. It screens Friday night (5/22) as part of this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

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Forbidden Empire: Fighting Evil, One Map at a Time

The 1967 Mofilm adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” is considered the first Soviet horror movie, aside from whatever real life torture porn might be hidden away in the KGB archives. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Stepchenko originally set out to remake Gogol’s tale, but the scope of their long stop-and-start production expanded over the years. The guts of the macabre story are still there, but there is also plenty of witch-hunting and map-making in Stepchenko’s Forbidden Empire (as it was bafflingly retitled for the international market), which launches tomorrow on VOD (trailer here).

British cartographer Jonathan Green hopes to make his fame and fortune mapping the sleepy hamlets of southern Europe and Ukraine, so he can return home to claim his loyal fiancée from her judgmental father. However, he will reluctantly find himself swept up in the dirty dealings of a small village. As will soon be explained to Green, when a wealthy Cossack’s daughter died under suspiciously supernatural circumstances, a baffled divinity student was brought in to prey over her body for three bump-filled nights, per her last request. The precise blow-by-blow of that third night will be revealed over time. Regardless, the aftermath was disturbing enough for the sheepish villagers to seal off the church and shun it thereafter.

Distressed his daughter never had a proper funeral, the Cossack hires Green to map the area surrounding the church. You might well ask why, but it certainly shakes things up. Before long, Green and a mute servant girl are accused of witchcraft, while the malevolent spirit known as Viy continues to terrorize the village with impunity.

Empire is a weird viewing experience, due to a number of factors, including the feverish religious imagery, the fairy tale-like stylization of the sets and backdrops, and the disembodied dubbing voices. Frankly, this film would probably be a good deal better with subtitles. Czech Airlines used to show a garish looking 1960s fairy tale film, sans subtitles, during the breakfast service of its New York bound flights. Watching Empire produces a similarly disorienting effect.

Ironically, the best sequences by far are those that harken back to the original Viy source material. It is impossible to not appreciate the scene in which the coffin animated by foul spirits chases the divinity student throughout the church, trying to ram him like a sinister bumper car. That is the kind of stuff movie magic is all about.

On the other hand, when the narrative focuses on Green, it wildly veers from broad shticky comedy to demonic horror, throwing-in didactic jabs at religion’s supposed hostility towards science and reason for good measure. Reportedly, without the story’s rustic, folkloric elements, the materialistic Soviet authorities never would have greenlighted the 1967 Viy. However, they would have loved Stepchenko and co-screenwriter Aleksandr Karpov’s depiction of the venal, power-hungry priest.

There are a lot of bald dudes with Fu Manchu mustaches in Empire, so it is often devilishly difficult to differentiate the various cast-members. However, Jason Flemyng (probably just famous enough to justify some British co-production investments) is a good sport, pivoting at a moment’s notice to be goofy one moment and resolute the next. This is a loud, dark, defiantly illogical film, but at least the resulting spectacle is a strange sight to behold. In short, it is a mess, but in bizarrely compelling, can’t-stop-watching kind of way. Recommended accordingly (I guess), Forbidden Empire hits VOD platforms tomorrow (5/22) and has a special screening at the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles on Saturday (5/23).

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

BHFFNYC ’15: Racket

You can tell what preoccupies a nation’s subconscious from the villains and nightmares that appear in its films. As one would expect, the Balkan War, the Siege of Sarajevo, and the frustrated attempts to prosecute war criminals have loomed large in many, many previous Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival selections. However, this year’s slate suggests something of a turning of the corner, including several films addressing concerns New Yorkers understand only too well. That would be gangland shakedowns and public corruption in the case of Admir Buljugić’s crime drama—two New York traditions if ever there were any. Representing an intriguing change of pace in several respects, Buljugić’s Racket (trailer here) screens during the fondly anticipated 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York.

Amil Pašić is a globe-trotting nature photographer, who does not come home to Sarajevo very often. His latest stop-over will be a mere seven days, to be divided amongst his father, his neglected best friend, and his even more neglected on-again-off-again girlfriend. However, his plans go out the window when his father has a heart attack induced by the stress of defying a protection racket.

Of course, Pašić is even more obstinate than his father. When he seeks out Bakir, the extorting gangster, he is not about to come to terms. Instead, he will be serving notice. However, that will not entail unleashing his inner Van Damme. Pašić is hardnosed, but not superhuman.

In fact, the just-rightness of the Pašić character and Adnan Hasković’s lead performance are what really distinguish Racket. He can easily beat up one gangster, but he is probably in serious trouble facing two or three. Striking an intense but not psychotic vibe, Hasković (he killed Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer) makes a compelling everyman action hero.

While admirably scrappy and impressively moody, Buljugić’s screenplay is still undeniably uneven. Frankly, it heads in a legitimately interesting direction, but his third act is rather perfunctory. Given his budget constraints, he might have been under-pressure to wrap things up quickly. Look, this is a rare case where we would argue thriller fans really need to relax and grade on a curve.

The truth is spending time with Pašić and his circle is rather enjoyable. In fact, it would be rather nice to see subsequent Pašić films come to BHFF, but with a few more zigs and zags coming down the stretch. Recommended as a rare Bosnian gangster film and for Hasković’s winning star turn, Racket screens this Saturday (5/23) as part of this year’s Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival, a New York tradition for twelve years and counting.

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BHFFNYC ’15: The Sarajevo Assassination

Many historians believe Archduke Franz Ferdinand was far more progressive than your typical early Twentieth Century aristocrat. He generally advocated for greater decentralization of power and provisionally lent his support to the unlikely concept of a “United States of Austria.” Unfortunately, he was the perfect crowned head to kill if you wanted to ignite a war. Eastern European history professor Paul Grandvohl will re-open the Archduke’s cold case in Nedim Lončarević’s The Sarajevo Assassination (clip here), which screens during the 2015 Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York, proudly celebrating its twelfth anniversary as one of the most welcoming fests in the City.

The way textbooks typically dismiss the Archduke as a historical footnote is problematic in its own right. Even more dubious are the frequent descriptions of the assassin, Gavrilo Princip and his accomplices as Dostoyevskian pan-Slavic revolutionaries. While Grandvohl probably does not collect enough evidence for a court indictment (nearly 101 years after the fact), he makes a strong circumstantial case, suggesting a certain government played an instrumental role planning and financing the attack. Needless to say, it was not Bosnia (where the Archduke was particularly popular).

As a sidebar to the historical inquiry, Lončarević also follows Grandvohl as he researches his own family history in Sarajevo’s traditional Jewish quarter. What he discovers is much more satisfying than the roots of Ben Affleck’s family tree. Through the process, viewers also get a sense Sarajevo was an unusually tolerant and cosmopolitan city, especially by the standards of pre-WWI Europe.

Although Assassination clocks in with a TV-friendly running time just under an hour, it is chocked full of interesting historical background and context. It is particularly eye-opening to see how Princip was venerated as a revolutionary hero under the Communist regime and remains a celebrated figure in Serbia today.

PBS really ought to pick-up Assassination for broadcast in America. Frankly, the murder of the Archduke and his morganatic wife, the much-maligned Sophie, Duchess of Bavaria is something everyone has heard of, but very few really understand to any significant extent. While the film never feels drily academic, Lončarević and Grandvohl shoehorn in a good deal of informative and telling history. Highly recommended for those fascinated by WWI (and the ultimate origins of WWII), The Sarajevo Assassination screens this Saturday (5/23) as part of this year’s Bosnian Herzegovinian Film Festival, which has become an annual tradition both for the expat community and a growing number of cineaste supporters.

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Human Centipede 3: Only the Victims are in Stitches

So much for truth in advertising. Tom Six’s third go-round stitching together poor hapless victims, throat-to-butt, claims to be “100% politically incorrect,” but nothing could be farther from the truth. Take for instance the setting: “George W. Bush Prison” in East Jesus, Texas. Unfortunately for viewers, Six desperately wants to be considered “relevant” as a satirist, but he just isn’t funny. However, what is really unforgivable is the baffling lack of scatological grotesqueness in Six’s Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence) (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The narrative, such as it is, follows screechy prison warden Bill Boss as he sexually harasses his secretary Daisy, bullies his bean-counter Dwight Butler, and wages open warfare against his heavily tattooed gang-member inmates. Boss has embarrassed the politically ambitious Governor Hughes once too often. If he cannot restore order to the prison in one week, Hughes will give him the axe. Fear not, Butler has a perfectly logical solution. Form the inmates into a Human Centipede, just like in Six’s movies. In fact, Six will pop in meta-style, to offer his advice.

Frankly, ‘pede-3 really should have been grosser and gorier, because at least that way it would have been something. Instead, Six tries to make a comedy, but it is deafeningly unfunny. Absolutely nothing lands here. You really have to wonder what was going through Dieter Laser’s head as he raged and mugged as the horrendously loud and annoying Boss. Did he ever ask Six: “Is this funny? Is this really working?” Whatever the director might have said, the answer is a resounding “no.”  As a result, it is truly embarrassing to watch Laser face-plant time after time. Seriously, his bulging eyes and schticky twitching are so over-the-top, it is like he is trying to be Meryl Streep on a bad day.

Honest to goodness, there is only one solitary dry chuckle in the whole film, earned by Clinton Rohner’s understated delivery as the unlicensed prison physician. However, it is still deeply depressing to see the G vs. E star mired in this muck. Sadder still, HC3 probably represents the dumbest, most underwritten film of pornstar Bree Olson’s career. Yet somehow Eric Roberts manages to skate through relatively cleanly as the governor. Say what you will, that man works a lot. If you don’t like him here, wait a few weeks and watch him play the mayor in LA Slasher.

While it was certainly not a masterpiece, the first Human Centipede was an effective mad scientist film in its own defiant way. This film is simply not funny—period, end of story. Nor does it try to fulfill any traditional horror movie functions. There is just a lot of Laser yelling at the camera. It is sort of like watching Gilbert Gottfried playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, without any sense of irony. Not recommended for genre fans or even viewers who enjoyed the previous two films, Human Centipede 3 opens this Friday (5/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Love at First Fight: Young French Preppers in Love

Arnaud Labrède would prefer to be a lover rather than a fighter. Madeleine Beaulieu will opt for the fighting every day. That is the only way she believes she will be prepared for the coming doomsday. Clearly, it will be an awkward courtship for Labrède, but that is always the case when you are young and stupid. However, if Armageddon holds off long enough, they might just mature a little (or perhaps not) in Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Times are tough in the wooded Landes region of France. The Army seems to be the only employer recruiting in town. Labrède has gone to a few information sessions to pick-up the free swag, somewhat befriending the recruiters in the process. However, he assumes he will stay at home and help his older brother Manu rebuild the family carpentry business. Like their recently deceased father, both brothers are handy with tools. Yet, it is still hard for Labrède to get Beaulieu to acknowledge him.

Granted, their first meeting is hardly ideal. She will put the big hurt on him during an Army-sponsored self-defense exhibition, until Labrède pulls a Tyson and bites her. Labrède finds she is still rather sore over the whole thing when her parent hire him and his brother to build a shed in their backyard. Little by little, Beaulieu slowly thaws, until Labrède feels sufficiently encouraged to sign up for her special summer training camp for prospective commando enlistees.

To his credit, it is hard to get a blanket sense of how Cailley views the military, preppers, and End Times anticipators. It is safe to say Beaulieu is . . . intense. Nevertheless, there is no denying the credible fashion in which their relationship develops or the electric chemistry shared by co-leads Adèle Haenel and Kévin Azaïs. At times, their verbal sparring is rather sly and quite revealing. Unfortunately, the third act reversal, in which Labrède’s easy going nature turns out to be better suited for team-building and unit cohesion, becomes predictably formulaic. Even the mildly apocalyptic climax feels like a pre-programmed inevitability (nonetheless, it is executed surprisingly evocatively).

Haenel (recently seen in In the Name of My Daughter) is convincingly surly, but it is hard to understand the initial attraction. Maybe you just have to be French, since she seems to be the latest minor “It” sensation. On the other hand, Azaïs pulls off something trickier and more interesting, showing how his character quietly changes in response to the people and environments he is exposed to. Antoine Laurent also has some nice moments as the big brother out to prove his worth.

First Fight is a small film that does not amount to much, despite a few sharply written scenes and some deftly turned performances. It has probably received disproportionate critical and festival attention, just because smart setters are so amazed by the notion of French survival preppers, as if that would be a phenomenon confined to the mountainous regions of southern Border States. Many of the cast and crew should have very bright careers ahead of them, but this will probably be remembered as a promising early minor work. Mildly recommended for Francophiles and Francophones, Love at First Fight opens this Friday (5/22) in New York, at the Village East.


The Pirate: Caviar and Crossbones

For centuries, Greeks have maintained a commanding share of the global shipping business. Arguably, Ioannis Varvakis was part of that tradition. He specialized in re-routing Ottoman shipments. He was a proud pirate, but he became a Russian officer and nobleman, while never relinquishing his Greek identity. Yannis Smaragdis, Greek cinema’s prestigious bio-pic specialist turns his attention to the swashbuckler in his English language production, The Pirate (a.k.a. God Loves Caviar), which releases today on DVD and is available on multiple VOD platforms from Vision Films (trailer here).

The dreaded pirate Varvakis will end up old and infirm, living as a secret captive in a remote British “clinic” for infectious diseases. We know this because the film starts at this cheery point, telling his story in competing flashbacks. Lefentarios a dodgy veteran of the Greek resistance will explain to the British superintendent how he goaded the buccaneer into more direct action, while Varvakis’s former servant will explain to a group of street urchin’s how great his former master truly was.

Varvakis had always fought the Turks ship to ship, claiming the spoils for his efforts. However, at Lefentarios’s urging, Varvakis hatches an unlikely plan to wipe out the entire Ottoman fleet (apparently by setting his ship on fire and pointing towards several hundred Ottoman vessels). Needing safe haven, Varvakis offers his services to Catherine the Great, who appoints Varvakis her personal agent for the Caspian.

The mostly reformed rogue makes decent coin tending to her interests, but he becomes vastly wealthy when he develops methods to ship caviar without spoilage. Russians love caviar. So do the Persians, which lends his operations additional strategic significance. Catherine is well satisfied with Varvakis, bestowing rank and title upon him. Unfortunately, his personal life is a mess.

Frankly, the Greek resistance to the Ottoman occupation is not exactly over exposed in Western media. The Pirate’s home viewing release comes at an opportune time, countering Russell Crowe’s ripping well-made Water Diviner, which views Greco-Turkish conflicts through the lens of Smyrna. However, Smaragdis devotes an awful lot of time to Varvakis’s loveless marriage to the unfaithful Helena, his strained relationship with a grown daughter from a previous union, and the whiny son who can never live up to his father’s expectations.

Even though it is a minor role, John Cleese not surprisingly delivers all the best lines as McCormick, the British administrator. Sebastian Koch (still best known in America for The Lives of Others) has the appropriate presence for a figure of Varvakis’s stature, but despite no shortage of makeup, he never looks like he is the right age for the character’s successive stations in life. In contrast, Evgeniy Stychkin never ages a day as Ivan, the loyal servant who manages to make his way to Varvakis’s double-secret island prison without arousing any suspicion. Of course, Catherine Deneuve does her stateliest as Catherine II, but her screen time is limited.

The Pirate was a big hit domestically, arriving to bolster national spirits in a time of austerity. Tellingly, the Greeks would look to a pirate, who lives off contraband appropriated from others, as a source of inspiration. Still, there is something appealingly old school about its earnest approach to historical drama. You can practically hear the voiceovers announcing “special guest stars” Cleese and Deneuve. Recommended for those looking for some unselfconscious, slightly creaky, throwback entertainment, The Pirate (a.k.a. God Loves Caviar) is now available on DVD, as well as on VOD services like iTunes, DirecTV, and Vudu.

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