The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

Terri


Terri

John C. Reilly is getting fed up wth these early morning breakfast read-throughs with Jacob Wysocki.

(2011) Coming of Age (ATO) Jacob Wysocki, John C. Reilly, Creed Bratton, Olivia Crocicchia, Bridger Zadina, Tim Heidecker, Justin Prentice, Mary Anne McGarry, Curtiss Frisle, Tara Karsian, Diane Louise Salinger, Lisa Hoover, Jenna Gavigan, Jessica D. Stone, Jamie Lee Redmon. Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Fitting in is pretty much all we aspire to, particularly in high school where it reaches a place of importance somewhat higher than breathing. There are always non-conformists who kind of find their own way but it is nearly always at the expense of pride and self-esteem, as they undergo a gauntlet of vicious teasing that skips over the line right into cruelty, thank you very much.

Terri (Wysocki) is one such non-conformist. He lives with his Uncle James (Bratton, best known for his work on “The Office”) who is elderly, sick and maybe afflicted with dementia. Terri does the best he can, for if Terri’s parents are around we never see them. He is forced to miss a few days of school, which attracts the attention of Mr. Fitzgerald (Reilly), the vice-principal who has problems of his own and recognizes Terri’s good heart and strong potential.

They develop an unlikely friendship, even a Terri is picked on mercilessly. He wears pajamas to school for one thing (Roger Ebert applauded this as an indication of character but it is really a one-way ticket to non-stop ridicule) and he is a little smarter than most of his peers. He has no real friends. At his uncle’s insistence he puts some rat traps in the attic and on his way to school, dutifully lays the corpses on a log in the wooded area between his house and school. One day, he watched a carrion eating bird consume the corpse. After this, he makes a habit of baiting the log.

This might sound weird, morbid and even cruel but it really isn’t. Terri is actually a good-hearted soul. He’s made some other friends – a misfit named Chad (Bratton) who has a tendency to act out, and Heather (Crocicchia) who was almost expelled for performing a sex act in a home economics class until Terri took the rap for her. They make an odd trio but an endearing one.

They learn valuable social skills through trial and error because high school is a time to make mistakes. The problem with high school is that it is a time to make mistakes and they begin to make some doozies. Can their fragile friendships survive?

This is one of those movies that doesn’t come at you with some grand revelation or mindbending twist. While these are all unique individuals, they aren’t quirky indie film caricatures. They are real people – flawed yes, damaged goods yes. In short, just like the rest of us. They’ve had their share of bumps and bruises over the road of their journey but they manage to keep on trucking down that road.

Wysocki is largely unknown but he delivers a self-assured performance. It’s genuine and honest and while there’s a unvarnished sense to it, i wouldn’t call it raw. This is more the performance of a young actor who has a good grasp on his character and some excellent abilities. Sadly, Wysocki’s girth make it unlikely that the weight-conscious Hollywood casting agents will ever give him a part this memorable again unless it’s in a comedic context. Hollywood long ago made the decision that overweight actors would only be accepted in comedies. Because, apparently, fat people don’t have stories to tell – none that anybody wants to hear, anyway.

Reilly is always Re-Reilly-able (har har har) and he is no less so here. He is a high school administrator who is not a bureaucrat but an individual who legitimately wants to make a difference in the lives of his kids. He is not without damage either, and sometimes he expresses himself awkwardly in the way of adults trying to relate to kids on their own level and with their own language (generally  good six months to a year behind the current idioms). While there are some inherent creepiness to Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri (I always get suspicious of adults wanting to be too friendly with high school kids which is kind of sad but that’s the time we live in) the movie is sweet enough and has enough humanity to make the relationship work.

This is not an exhilarating movie to say the least; it moves a little too ponderously for that. It doesn’t necessarily engage a great deal of contemplation, although the more cerebral viewer might opt for it. No, this is a movie simply to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop you and soak into you, like bathing in a cool pond on a warm summer’s day at twilight. It’s imperfect but life’s a lot like that. And Terri is a lot like life.

WHY RENT THIS: Well acted and never loses sight of the film’s inner humanity. Flawed characters seem much more real and less archetypal.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes seems willfully quirky. Mr. Fitzgerald’s relationship with Terri is a bit creepy.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a good deal of bad language, some teen drug and alcohol use and a fair bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: For the weekend it was released, only Transformers: Dark of the Moon had a higher per-screen box office average.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $655,802 on an unreported production budget; I think it probably made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fat Girl

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Words

Thin Ice


Thin Ice

Greg Kinnear and Billy Crudup wonder why they couldn't find a movie that is set in Aruba.

(2011) Thriller (ATO) Greg Kinnear, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Jennifer M. Edwards, Peter Thoemke, Bob Balaban, James Detmar, Michelle Hutchison, Peter Moore, Michael Paul Levin, Michelle Arthur, Alan Johnson, Chris Carlson. Directed by Jill Sprecher

 

There is nothing warmer than the human heart. There is also nothing colder – even the Wisconsin winter pales in comparison. Greed and desperation can make of even the kindest of hearts one made stone and frozen, allowing nothing in and nothing to leave.

Mickey Prohaska (Kinnear) lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and sells insurance. On the surface an amiable, trustworthy fellow, he is a predator in reality, preying on the fears of people to sell them policies that for the most part they don’t need and can’t afford. However, business is bad these days; Mickey needs the appearance of success and so drives an expensive car and wears nice suits. However, his bills are piling up and he is deep in debt. His wife (Thompson) has thrown him out – which he frankly deserves – and his secretary (Edwards) is getting fed up as well.

Mickey meets even more amiable Bob Egan (Harbour) at an insurance conference and in order to keep the earnest young man from his biggest competitor hires him on as an agent, even though he hasn’t been licensed by the state of Wisconsin just yet. That’s okay – the policies can be turned in under Mickey’s name and Mickey will pay him once the company pays Mickey his share. Right.

Bob brings Gorvy Hauer (Arkin) to Mickey’s attention and Mickey is at first not interested – the old man is in the beginning states of dementia and doesn’t have much money to his name. What he does have is a rare violin, one worth $25,000 according to the appraiser (Balaban) but Gorvy thinks it is a toy for him to play with his dog.

Mickey can’t resist – he needs the money desperately and the old man won’t miss the money. However, there is a fly in the ointment – Randy (Crudup), who is installing the alarm system that Bob is advising Gorvy to put in, gets wind of what Mickey’s up to. When meddling neighbor Frank (Thoemke) discovers something fishy going on, Randy panics and suddenly Mickey is in the middle of a real mess.

This is the kind of suspense movie worthy of the Coen Brothers; just a little bit offbeat, lots of twists and turns but always with a nice gotcha at the end. However, this is also not quite in that league and it’s really hard to pin it on the director. As I mention below in the Trivial Pursuits section, distributors ATO got together with some of the producers and ordered that the film be re-cut which Sprecher refused to do. The movie was then re-cut using outtakes, the voice-over narration was removed and various subplots and characters were cut from the film. Sprecher has sent letters to prominent film critics (including Roger Ebert) to let them know the situation and to divorce herself from the movie. She is unable to comment further for legal reasons; however it must be said that she doesn’t consider Thin Ice to be her own work.

That makes it kind of difficult to assign credit and blame as the case may be. My gumption is to credit Sprecher for most of the things that work and blame the producers for those that didn’t. Strictly speaking that may not be fair but it is human nature to take the side of the person who did the work and had the vision against those whose only goal was to make money rather than necessarily make the best movie possible. How do I know that the producers weren’t trying to make a better movie?

Simple. The film was screened in its original director cut version at Sundance and received raves. Since its limited release in this edited version, the reviews have been lukewarm. However, I must say that if that’s the case, the original cut must have been special indeed because I really like this movie a lot.

Kinnear excels at these sorts of roles, the ordinary Joe with a bit of an edge to him. Mickey is a congenital liar who’s always looking for the angle that benefits him most. Ostensibly he is in love with his wife but for the most part treats her like a possession or a status symbol – you never get the sense he needs to be with her so much as wants to.

Crudup plays the volatile Randy nicely, giving him the right edge of kicked puppy to go with the volcanic temper. Randy puts Mickey off-balance and the audience as well. Arkin has some tender moments having to do with his dog that are heart-rending. No matter how good or bad the material, Arkin always finds a way to elevate it.

It’s no surprise given the history of the movie that the pacing is irregular. Sometimes the movie goes at a snail’s pace and other times it races along willy-nilly. This has a jarring effect on the audience; I would have liked to see something a bit smoother.

There are plenty of Hitchcockian twists here and the final one is of the sort that makes you want to see the movie a second time knowing what you know about what really happened. Some of the twists aren’t too hard to figure out but others do take you unawares. That’s always a lovely surprise in movies of this sort.

I have to wonder what might have happened had we been allowed to see this the way the original director intended us to. Would it have been a better film? Did the producers make the right call? I doubt we’ll ever know – when it makes it to home video it is unlikely the original directors cut will ever see the light of day, given the contentious relationship with the filmmakers and the distributor. I find it somewhat ironic that the initials of the distribution company, ATO, stands for “Artists Take Over.” Certainly that’s not what happened in this case.

REASONS TO GO: Some really nifty twists and turns. Kinnear knows this role as well as anybody. Arkin and Crudup also do stellar work.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems choppy and rushed in places.

FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of bad language, a bit of violence and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After rave reviews at its 2011 Sundance appearance, the distributor demanded massive re-cuts and a title change (from The Convincer); the director has since disassociated herself from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo

ICE FISHING LOVERS: There’s a sequence early on in which Randy discusses the sport with Mickey, ending up with Randy attempting to drill a hole in the ice – unsuccessfully.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Mirror, Mirror