Afterimage (Powidoki)


The professor teaches a class of delighted students.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Akson) Boguslaw Linda, Aleksandra Justa, Bronislawa Zamachowska, Zofia Wichlacz, Krzysztof Pieczynski, Mariusz Bonaszewski, Szymon Bobrowski, Aleksander Fabisiak, Paulina Galazka, Irena Melcer, Tomasz Chodorowski, Filip Gurlacz, Mateusz Rusin, Mateusz Rzezniczak, Tomasz Wlosok, Adrian Zaremba, Barbara Wypych, Izabela Dabrowska. Directed by Andrzej Wajda

When it comes to art, the act of creation is a highly personal thing. Style and subject define the artist as an artist and to ask them to create something that isn’t felt, that doesn’t come from the heart is tantamount to asking an artist to slice off a leg and having them serve it up for a backyard barbecue.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Linda) is one of Poland’s most notable modern artists. As World War II comes to an end, Poland is going from Nazi occupation to becoming a Soviet satellite state in the Eastern bloc. He had served in the Polish army during the First World War and had lost a leg and an arm in the process. During the Nazi occupation, he defiantly painted subjects that went outside what was permitted and was hailed by Poles as a national hero.

After the war he founded the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz along with his estranged wife, sculptress Katarzyna Kobro with whom he has a child, Nika (Zamachowska) with whom he has a relationship that can best be described as guarded. He is teaching eager students that essentially worship the ground he walks on, particularly Hannah (Wichlacz) whose hero-worship might be deepening into something else.

His life is about to turn upside down however. The Soviet state wants art to serve the people and thus wants a style more in line with social realism; Strzeminski has been a champion throughout his career of modernism. When he refuses to adapt his style to Soviet demands, he is fired from the school he founded. Slowly rights and privileges are stripped away from him; his membership in the artist’s trade union is rescinded, meaning he can’t buy art supplies. He attempts to work a menial job essentially painting huge banners of Stalin and other communist icons.  When he is denied even this, he is unable to provide for himself. Most of his art has been taken down from the museums where they have hung for in some cases for 20 or 30 years; he is slowly starving to death and it is a race whether he will meet that fate or whether the tuberculosis which has been exacerbated by his nearly constant smoking will kill him first.

Wajda is one of Poland’s national treasures, a director with a six decade career that have created some amazing films although he remains not well known in the States other than to film buffs. He has an artist’s eye for color and design; his images are often far more than they appear to be, such as when a frustrated Strzeminski flails at store mannequins he’s been hired to dress which symbolizes art flailing away at the commercial.

He is buoyed he by Linda, one of Poland’s most respected actors who plays Strzeminski with a certain dichotomy of often contradictory characteristics; he is an amazing teacher devoted to his students but he dismisses his daughter to an orphanage with a curt “She will have a hard life” by way of explanation. When Hannah declares her feelings for him, he reacts with a stoic “That’s unfortunate” and with two words absolutely destroys her world, and she was one of the few that stuck with him to the very end.

The film posits the question “What does the artist owe more responsibility to, the people or himself?” It is clear which side Wajda was on. I’m not sure I agree completely with him but the man has earned the right to make his stance crystal clear.

The production design ranges from sleek and modern to dingy and colorless. The further Poland falls into Soviet control, the grayer the settings get. Soon the entire city of Lodz becomes dystopian, moving from beautiful European metropolis to soulless Soviet city where conformity is the rule of the day.

Strzeminski often reacts in inexplicable ways which are often detrimental to his own cause, but one admires the fortitude it took to stand up to a powerful and ruthless government that recognizes no other way than the one it endorses which sounds vaguely familiar these days. For those who are big fans of Wajda as I am, this won’t be disappointing. For those who are looking for an introduction to his work it’s one of his best – maybe his very best. The themes he tackles here are pretty much standard for him although the movie is a little bit more mainstream than most of his audience is used to. This is a marvelous movie which you should keep an eye out for once it gets American distribution. In the meantime, look for it on the Festival circuit.

REASONS TO GO: Wajda’s use of color and design is simply amazing. Linda’s performance is more than noteworthy. A work of genius by a master of European cinema.
REASONS TO STAY: The parallels to modern society may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Wajda’s final film, directed at the age of 89; He died in Warsaw of pulmonary failure October 9, 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: When the Bough Breaks

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The Perfect Husband


A walk in the woods.

A walk in the woods.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivian, Philippe Reinhardt, Maria Ester Grasso. Directed by Lucas Pavetto

 

Who knows what goes on behind bedroom doors? The relationship between a husband and a wife is largely unknown to the world other than to the two people in it; the things they choose to share with close friends and family may shed some light on at least the perspective of one member of the couple, but at the end of the day, the truth is known only to the husband and the wife.

Nicola (Roberts) and his wife Viola (Wright) have been going through a very rough patch. After a family tragedy had left her wallowing in grief and him trying to resurrect their marriage from the strained doldrums it’s fallen into, he decides that maybe the best thing for them would be a change of venue. Accordingly, he drives the two of them out into the Italian countryside where his Uncle has a cabin up in the mountains. It would seem to be a good place to reconnect and rekindle.

The problem is that Viola seems diffident to any kind of reconciliation; she’s high-strung, sneaking smokes when she thinks her husband can’t see her, and refusing any sort of sexual advance by him. His frustration is growing; he is trying to be as perfect a husband as it’s possible to be but she won’t give him even an inch of slack. Something has got to give…but when it does, what will be the cost?

The plot here is pretty simple and could be extremely effective in the right circumstances. Sadly, these aren’t them. The acting here for one thing is extremely inconsistent. The two leads are required to carry nearly the entire film and I’m not sure if the case here is that they’re not equal to the task, or if they didn’t get the direction they needed to turn in the kind of performances that the movie needed – and didn’t get. Roberts, in particular, seems particularly stiff; at times he looks like he would rather be anywhere but in this film. His character changes drastically about two thirds of the way through; the change comes off drastically with little warning and makes one feel as if they are lurching on a train that is in the process of derailing; there are no subtle hints as to why his character changes or any indication that he’s going to change. I suspect that is more the director’s choice than Roberts’ idea. Wright fares little better, but at least she conveys some modicum of feeling.

Pavetto is an Italian director who is working on an English-language film and that might have hampered him somewhat; the dialogue is a bit flat-sounding to my ears, and quite frankly, the tension that the movie needed to succeed isn’t always there. The last 30 minutes of the movie should be tense and pulse-pounding but at this point the viewer is checking their watch or loading up another movie to watch.

But the movie isn’t completely without merit. One thing that Pavetto does nicely is combine the genres of 80s slasher films and Italian giallo into a nice little mix of styles that actually works, or would have worked with a little more realism in the acting department. Cinematographer Davide Manca gets full marks for setting up some beautiful shots that seem to indicate that there is someone watching, occasionally giving some startle scares with half-glimpsed figures that make one wonder if there is more to the story than meets the eye. As it turns out, there is – but you have to sit through the entire film to discover what it is.

Therein lies the rub; the movie has an ending that does have quite the twist involved, but in order to suss it out you have to sit through a movie that doesn’t do the twist justice. It is incumbent upon the viewer to determine whether that payoff is worth sitting through the rest of the movie for and to be honest, I can’t really advise you one way or the other whether you should; it will depend on your tolerance for subpar acting. I found it enough to give the movie a very mild recommendation, but you might not agree. The gore ‘n’ guts crowd will probably appreciate some of the violence but will bemoan the lack of nudity. The rest of us will likely bemoan the lack of passion.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice mash-up of giallo and 80s slasher-films. There’s some nice cinematography here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a bit stiff. The film could have used a little more tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, some of it graphic and brutal; some sexual scenes, rape and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pavetto originally made a short by the same name, but later fleshed it out into a feature with a new cast and filming in English rather than Italian which the original was in.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The original short film is included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping with the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Captain Fantastic

A Most Wanted Man


R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(2014) Spy Thriller (Roadside Attractions) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Neil Malik Abdullah, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Rainer Bock, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit, Herbert Gronemeyer, Ursina Lardi Directed by Anton Corbijn

 

It is a tricky world out there, complicated and dangerous. These days, being a spy is a lot more than playing baccarat and sipping a superbly made martini and spies aren’t urbane, elegant men in formal wear. They’re more often than not rumpled, middle aged bureaucrat sorts who wouldn’t make an impression on anyone at first glance.

 

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is such a spy. He chain smokes, drinks too much and has a pot belly not well-disguised by his ill-fitting suit. He looks like middle management for some automobile manufacturer – in fact, he is middle management but in a far different vocation. He is part of an anti-terrorist group, a small but dedicated group who monitor potential terrorist activities in Hamburg, a port city in Germany from which Mohammed Atta once organized the events of 9-11.

 

Since then, German intelligence has kept a close eye on what’s going on in the city as have their counterparts in the CIA. While Gunther’s group operates in a quasi-legal state, able to break German law with a certain amount of impunity, Dieter Mohr (Bock), the local station chief, is more of a by-the-book sort who has a bureaucrat’s soul and  the keen political sense of a born game player. Naturally he and Gunther clash repeatedly, Dieter disdaining the cowboy tactics of Gunther and Gunther less than forgiving of Dieter’s lack of field experience and political gamesmanship.

 

Into this highly volatile environment comes Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), a half-Russian half-Chechen man who has escaped Russian prison and entered Germany illegally. The Russians have branded him a terrorist, but Gunther sees him as a means to an end. He could be just what the Russians say he is, or the innocent victim of overzealous Russian hatred for Chechens in general. Gunther really doesn’t care which. He sees him as an opportunity to get to bigger fish in the pond, particularly Dr. Abdullah (Ershadi), a spokesman for Arabic charities who may actually be raising money for terrorist organizations while decrying terrorist activities publicly.

 

Karpov contacts Annabel Richter (McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. He needs to get in touch with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe) for reasons that are his own. Gunther, a manipulative and sometimes cruel man, knows that he needs to make Annabel and Tommy his operatives and he will stop at nothing to do it, be it blackmail, kidnapping and intimidation, or even death threats. Whatever it takes.

But there are games within games, with a U.S. Embassy official (Wright) who may or may not be a CIA operative and who may or may not be Gunther’s ally. Gunther and his team are walking a fine line and with Mohr breathing down his neck he may not make it out of this one unscathed.

 

This is based on a recent John Le Carre novel (the acclaimed author is also a producer on the project) and like most Le Carre works, this is more of a gritty look at the world of espionage rather than the gloss and glamour of the James Bond series. Anton Corbijn, whose last film was The American which is similarly themed, is the perfect choice to sit in the director’s chair. Like the work of Le Carre, that film is complex and tense with characters whose motivations are maddeningly unclear. In other words, probably a more realistic look at the intelligence business.

This is the last leading role that Hoffman would complete before his untimely passing earlier this year and thankfully, it’s a good one. Gunther is world-weary, tired of the constant betrayal and backstabbing which on occasion has cost him the lives of his colleagues. The only people he truly trusts are on his team and one suspects, he isn’t 100% certain about them either. He is a master manipulator but he can also have his own buttons pushed. Near the end, you hear Hoffman wheezing as he breathes – whether that was an indication of the actor’s ill health or if he was capturing the out of shape frustration and passion of Gunther as things come to a head we’ll probably ever know.

McAdams is a good actress in her own right, but she is hidden behind a German accent whose authenticity varies. Dafoe and Bruhl are also fine actors but neither has a whole lot to do. Wright makes a fine foil for Hoffman, cool and terribly overbearing who clearly has little respect for Gunther and European intelligence in general.

 

In fact, this has a much more European outlook on modern espionage and intelligence. Le Carre generally had a fairly cynical outlook towards the benevolence of the CIA and often made them either incompetent or villainous in his books. There is often a moral complexity to his work which requires a lot more patience than American audiences tend to be comfortable with.

And therein lies the rub. American audiences are not tailor made for the kind of pacing and complexity that comes with the best of Le Carre’s work. There is no easy way to put it – we Americans tend to have a very finite attention span and we require stimulation nearly non-stop. That’s what years of video games will do to you.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does a great job of making Hamburg a character in the movie. She’s dingy, gritty and a little bit disreputable here – we see the seedy underbelly of a town that already has a rough reputation to begin with. We get that palpable sense of danger and dissatisfaction.

I found this movie to work on a lot of levels, particularly in regards to Hoffman’s performance which has an outside shot of netting him a posthumous Oscar. Roadside Attractions, the art house arm of Lionsgate, has a few Oscar nominations to its credit so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. I found the middle of the movie to be a bit tough sledding, but nevertheless this is a fitting send off to one of the best actors of his generation who left us too soon.

REASONS TO GO: Stand-out performance  by Hoffman. Nice tension. Hamburg used as a character in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Le Carre likes a lot of twists and turns which some moviegoers may not appreciate. Stately pacing.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman (he also appears in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two but his filming hadn’t been completed when he passed away).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Boyhood

The Hangover Part II


The Hangover Part II

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.

(2011) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike Tyson, Mason Lee, Jamie Chung, Sasha Barrese, Gillian Vigman, Nick Casavetes, Yasmin Lee, Sondra Currie, Nirut Sirichanya. Directed by Todd Phillips

Nothing exceeds like excess, and what happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok. I imagine if you look hard enough, you can find a cliché to fit any situation – and if you can’t find one that works, just make one up.

Stu (Helms) is getting married to a beautiful Thai girl (Chung) whose father (Sirichanya) doesn’t really approve of Stu or of his dental profession. It is determined that the wedding will take place in Thailand at a lovely island resort. Of course, Stu’s buddies Doug (Bartha) and Phil (Cooper) are going to go, although Phil is grousing about the lack of a bachelor party. Considering what happened in Vegas for Doug’s celebration, it’s understandable why Stu is a bit leery.

However, Doug’s brother-in-law Alan (Galifianakis) has been putting intense pressure to be invited to the wedding, their exploits in Vegas being the highlight of his life. To keep the peace, the three of them venture into Alan’s room (“I’m a live-in son,” he tells them) at his parents’ house which is a shrine to forbidden Vegas memories where Stu reluctantly invites him and thus the Wolfpack is reunited.

Added to the mix is Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law Teddy (Lee), a prodigal 16-year-old about to graduate at Stanford in pre-med with an eye to becoming a surgeon, as well as a classically trained cellist. Alan takes an immediate dislike to the boy, considering him an interloper on Alan’s turf. Stu, still sulking over the lack of a bachelor party, proposes that the guys all head out to the beach for a single beer and a bonfire. There they all go, ready to cast one final toast to Stu’s freedom.

They wake up in a seedy hotel with no idea where they are, how they got there and what they did the night before. Alan’s head is shaved. Stu has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face. All of them have raging headaches. And all that’s left of Teddy is a severed finger with his Stanford ring floating in a bowl of cold water. There is also a Capuchin monkey and Mr. Chow (Jeong), the neurotic Chinese gangster from the original The Hangover.

They have to find Teddy before the wedding – there’s no way that the doting father-in-law will ever allow the marriage to take place without the apple of his eye, Teddy. To go there, the Wolfpack must brave the seedy bars and strip joints of Bangkok, the palaces of power and a singing performance by Mike Tyson. That’s right, I said singing.

If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The sequel is essentially the first movie transplanted to Bangkok in the sweltering tropics. There are some different running jokes (we don’t see Jeong’s bare tush but we see full nudity of a bunch of Thai transvestites) but the song remains the same.

The main leads here – Cooper, Helms, Galifianakis and Jeong – are all pretty amiable and Cooper looks like a romantic lead in the making. Galifianakis looks like he has the most potential in the group. His timing is impeccable and he makes Alan into a somewhat disturbed individual but anything but a caricature. Helms, from “The Office,” also has his moments and the frenetic Jeong has some as well.

The problem here is that the producers took the safe route. There is little variation in the routine that made the first movie so enjoyable. The good news is that the original routine worked pretty damn well, and we haven’t had time to get tired of it yet. There are a lot of great set pieces and really funny jokes, mostly uttered by Galifianakis. In many ways it’s his movie and the others are just reacting to him.

There is some waste here too – Giamatti as a criminal boss lacks the bite of his work in Shoot ‘em Up and Tambor basically appears in only one scene. And this movie is crude. I’m talking crude enough to make the Farrelly Brothers wince and Judd Apatow murmur “Too far man, too far…” Certain mainstream critics have been criticizing the movie for it but c’mon, if you saw the first movie you have to know what was coming. Don’t write your review for the Tea Party bluenoses.

So does it deserve the huge box office numbers it’s been getting? Yes and no. Obviously, people are looking for the familiar in their multiplexes and certainly this will give the people what they want in that regard. I have no objection to the concept of a The Hangover Part III but I sure hope they put some kind of variation in the formula when they make that one.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is funny more often than it is not, which is an accomplishment these days. Helms, Cooper, Galifianakis and Jeong rock.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the first movie done in Bangkok instead of Vegas,

FAMILY VALUES: Oh, the language. It could have been the sexual situations and nudity. Maybe it’s the violence, or the drug use. In any case, this got an R rating for a reason.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former President Bill Clinton visited the set in Bangkok, leading to rumors that he was performing a cameo in the movie but this proved to be erroneous. Bradley Cooper stated on several talk shows that he actually expressed interest in doing a sequel to The A-Team if one was ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: It is not mandatory to see this in a theater, but you may want to so that you can understand the water cooler references afterwards.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cave of Forgotten Dreams