By Joe Bendel. Starting out as a western writer but eventually hitting his stride with crime novels, Elmore Leonard has a reputation for his sharp dialogue and lethal characters. Notable adaptations of his work include Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and 3:10 to Yuma. Indeed, the bard of badaassery’s support for a new big screen treatment of his work factored prominently in the Tribeca Talks panel discussion following the special screening of Charles Matthau’s Freaky Deaky (trailer here) during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Originally set in the 1980’s, Matthau shifted Freaky to the groovy 1970’s at Leonard’s suggestion. About to be transferred out of the bomb squad, Det. Chris Mankowski does not exactly kill himself trying to save a booby-trapped gangster. Still, it looks rather bad. Relegated to vice as a result, Mankowski takes the call when failed starlet Greta Wyatt files a rape report against wealthy creep Woody Ricks. Talk about a discordant way to kick off a supposedly madcap romp.
Initially, Mankowski downplays the legal recourse available to Wyatt, but he decides to rattle the nutter’s cage anyway. He is not the only one with his sights on the antisocial weirdo. Demolitions expert Skip Gibbs and his friend-with-benefits Robin Abbot blame Ricks for their own scrape with the law, for reasons that are hazily glossed over. To get to him, they will use his brother Mark as the tool he so obviously is. Meanwhile, Mankowski develops a personal interest in Wyatt and a sort of-kind of professional rivalry with Ricks’ bodyguard-fixer, Donnell Lewis.
Once you get past the unseemliness of the film’s catalyst, it is a breezy enough distraction. However, despite the vintage cars and occasional file footage of Vietnam or Watergate, the film never really gets inside the 70’s mindset. This was a bizarre period of time, when millions of Americans were joining Est cults and taking Erica Jong seriously. By comparison, though not exactly a classic, the film version of Serial (released in 1980) is far more successful capturing the vocabulary and attitudes of the era. (It also offers the opportunity to see Martin Mull playing off Sir Christopher Lee). Still, there is one appealing era-appropriate in-joke. In a nod to the director’s father, every movie theater seen in Freaky is showing a Walter Matthau film, which might well have been possible in 1974.
Frankly, what distinguishes Freaky is the unusually eccentric cast it assembles, including Crispin Glover, Andy Dick, and Christian Slater. It begs two questions: how did they manage to insure this production, and where was Tom Sizemore? Perhaps he was already locked-in somewhere else. While it is nice to see blaxploitation veteran and former Bond girl Gloria Hendry, even in a small bone-thrown-to-genre-fans role, and Michael Jai “Black Dynamite” White doing his thing as Lewis, it is relative newcomer Breanne Racano who shines the brightest as femme fatale Abbot, clearly understanding villainesses should enjoy being devious.
According to the post-screening discussion, there may in fact be a Black Dynamite sequel in the works. Freaky Deaky actually compares reasonably favorably to White’s prospective franchise, but hardly so in the case of the senior Matthau’s gritty classics, like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Flawed but somewhat diverting, largely thanks to Racano’s head-turning work, Freaky Deaky has already had some rights announcements following its Tribeca Talks screening at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: C+
Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 7:46pm.
By Joe Bendel. As if Palestinian terrorism were not enough to worry about, Israel also must contend with old fashioned violent leftist extremism. Fortunately, the anti-terror cops are confident they can handle any threat in Nadav Lapid’s anti-procedural Policeman (trailer here), which screens during the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.
Yaron is your basic red-blooded Israeli man with a very pregnant wife. He is the leader of his squad not necessarily by rank, but by force of personality. Regrettably, a rather messy mission has created lingering legal problems for his unit. However, Yaron should be able to fix it, if he can convince a colleague with a convenient but all too real brain tumor to take the heat for them.
About halfway through the film, Lapid switches gears, introducing viewers to the next crisis the SWAT cops will face. The charismatic Shira and the manipulative Natanel lead an extreme left wing terror cell planning to crash a billionaire’s wedding. Their manifesto states: “it is time for the poor to get rich and the rich to start dying,” which ultimately would not leave anyone left alive. At least total equality would be achieved. The jig is nearly up when the father of Shira’s newest dupe discovers their plan. Yet, rather than save his son by informing, the old school radical invites himself along to serve as his protector. Before long, Yaron and his comrades reappear with an obvious job to do.
Policeman is an unusually detached film, highly charged politically, yet scrupulously avoiding the central issue of Israeli life. In fact, Natanel vetoes every reference to the so-called “Palestinian” issue in Shira’s proclamation, lest it muddy the waters. What emerges is a portrait of extremes. On one hand, we see the hyper-masculinity of Yaron and his colleagues. Lapid repeatedly shows viewers the back-slapping and chest-bumping rituals they go through every time they greet each other. On the flip side, Shira and her co-conspirators are an emotionless lot, who are all more than willing to kill and die as part of the violence—all except Natanel that is. He seems to prefer that someone else stand in the line of fire.
Lapid’s clinical tone is not that far removed from Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, but it is even less judgmental. Whereas many people will be horrified by the actions of Shira and company during the final act, it is quite possible some immature viewers might be stirred up by it all. Granted, that ambiguity is largely the point, but it leaves the film in a precariously half-pregnant state.
Whether it was her intention or not, Yaara Pelzig’s performance as Shira is absolutely terrifying. Like a cobra, she expresses the hypnotic power extremists hold over their followers. Frankly, the lack of a correspondingly compelling character among the police, good or bad, somewhat unbalances the film.
Lapid’s distinctly bifurcated narrative structure leads to a conspicuous stop-and-start-over effect that is arguably not in the film’s best interests. Still, it quickly builds up more steam in the second part than first segment ever had. Indeed, Policeman lays claim to one of the more intense and disturbing hostage stand-offs dramatized on film in recent years. Wildly uneven but powerful down the stretch, Policeman should intrigue and scare viewers. It screens tomorrow (5/2) and Thursday (5/3) as part of the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 7:45pm.
By Joe Bendel. Over an eight day period, Nasser-Ali Khan will become the anti-Scherezade. As he wills himself to die, stories from his past, narrated by the Angel of Death, will explain how the musician reached such a state of profound melancholy. Love and death become intimately intertwined in Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud’s Chicken with Plums (trailer here), their fantastical but sophisticated live-action follow-up to the rightly acclaimed Persepolis, which screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and also unspooled yesterday at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
Khan is widely regarded as the greatest Iranian violinist of his generation, but he has stopped playing. On the surface, his silence appears to be the fault of his wife Faringuisse, who destroyed his prized violin in one of their frequent squabbles. However, his depression is rooted in an elegantly tragic tale of love denied.
Technically proficient but never impassioned, Khan’s music took on uncommon richness after he was forbidden from seeing his true love Irâne, the traditional clockmaker’s daughter. Music never has been considered a stable profession by protective fathers. As Khan’s reputation rises, he acquiesces to his controlling mother’s wishes and marries Faringuisse. For him, it is a loveless union. For her, it is a marriage based on unrequited love.
Frankly, Khan is a crummy husband and a negligent father, but it is difficult to condemn him after witnessing his compounded heartache. Mathieu Amalric, with his big sad eyes, is perfectly cast as the exquisitely sensitive jerkweed. Viewers will sympathize with him, even as they shake their heads at his casual cruelty to Faringuisse. Likewise only more so, Maria de Medeiros (Bruce Willis’s girlfriend in Pulp Fiction) explodes the harpy exterior of his nagging wife, revealing the pain and vulnerability of Faringuisse.
Set in the late 1950’s pre-Shah, Western-leaning Iran, Satrapi and Paronnaud’s fable of star-crossed love would seem to hold limited political ramifications. However, it is not an accident that Khan’s forbidden love is named Irâne (as they confirmed in a post-screening Q&A). That she is played by Golshifteh Farahani is also clearly significant. The internationally acclaimed actress was barred from returning to Iran after (tastefully) posing nude in a French magazine to protest the Islamist regime’s misogynist policies. A radiantly beautiful woman, she also invests her character (and the film) with a graceful sadness.
Visually, Plums is also quite arresting, incorporating brief animated interludes, expressionistic sets, and highly stylized design elements. The inspired technical team definitely creates a seductive atmosphere of magical realism that is a pleasure to get caught up in. Highly recommended, Chicken with Plums was enthusiastically received by audiences at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. For those in the Bay Area, it also screens Wednesday (5/2) as part of the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, concluding this week.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 6:37pm.
By Joe Bendel. Social class is a hard immutable fact of life in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Plunking the classic story down in contemporary America would be highly problematic, but India is a different matter. Taking a few liberties here and there, Michael Winterbottom still captures the spirit of the original novel and its new setting in Trishna, which screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, with further screenings coming up this week as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Jay will serve as both Trishna’s Angel and Alec. Touring the off-the-beaten-path attractions of Rajasthan, his head is turned by Trishna, the primary provider for her large family. The son of a British hotel mogul, Jay recruits the young woman for the resort he reluctantly manages. Things are quite pleasant for Trishna, making considerably more than she ever could in her village, while Jay harmlessly pines for her.
One night when her defenses are weakened, Trishna succumbs to Jay’s advances. Instinctively realizing a Rubicon has been crossed, Trishna retreats, but Jay pursues, whisking her off to Mumbai, where they are socially accepted as a couple. However, Trishna’s life and relationship will take a dark turn, paralleling Tess’s tragic history with men.
You never know what you’re going to get from Winterbottom, but he has emerged as the leading cinematic interpreter of Hardy’s novels, following up Jude and The Claim, very loosely based on The Mayor of Casterbridge. He is clearly comfortable navigating the film’s sexually charged power-dynamics, but Trishna also exhibits an affinity for India, even including musical montage sequences (with original songs composed by Amit Trivedi) that would not be out of place in high-end Bollywood cinema.
Winterbottom uses the subcontinent as a big canvas, covering a wide swath of geography, but his focus rarely strays from Frieda Pinto’s Trishna. While some might find her maddeningly passive, she is a product of her environment. Through Pinto’s haunted presence, viewers get a sense of the social and cultural weight crushing down on her. Thanks to Winterbottom’s streamlining, Riz Ahmed’s Jay has to turn on a dime from leading man to a cruel exploiter. Still, there are enough underlying consistencies in the impulsive, entitled persona he creates to maintain audience credibility. Pinto and Ahmed really carry the dramatic load, but veteran character actor Roshan Seth (Chattar Lal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) has some memorable moments as Jay’s stern but humanistic father.
Granted, everyone should have a pretty good idea where Trishna is headed. After all, Hardy is not exactly famous for his happy endings. However, Winterbottom’s treatment of Tess is boldly cinematic. (Incidentally, Polanski’s Tess will screen as a classics selection at this year’s Cannes, so cineastes might want to break out their Cliff Notes.) Literate and absorbing, Trishna is recommended for anglophiles and fans of Hindi cinema, alike. A strong selection of the recently wrapped 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, it screens Wednesday and Thursday (5/2 & 5/3) during this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 6:37pm.
By Joe Bendel. Michael Fassbender is fully clothed, while Liam Cunningham is really drunk. Together, they are a mismatched pair of crooks hired to pull off a very dark caper in John Maclean’s Pitch Black Heist, the winner of the 2012 BAFTA Award for best short film, which screened over the weekend as part of the Status Update programming block at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Known simply as Michael and Liam, two safecrackers are meeting each other for the first time on a very unusual job. They are to retrieve some item (it hardly matters what) from a safe with a light-sensitive alarm. To prepare, they practice navigating a dummied-up room in complete darkness. On the day in question, they meet in a quiet pub and wait for their employer to send them the all-clear. However, they find themselves cooling their heels far longer than they expected, so they start doing what you’re supposed to do in a pub, lest they attract attention.
Pitch has a nice little twist at the end that Maclean adroitly lays the groundwork for, without glaringly telegraphing it. Frankly, this concept could be relatively easily expanded into a feature, which makes the economy of Maclean’s thirteen minute storytelling all the more noteworthy. Still, the real entertainment is watching the boozy interaction between co-executive producers Fassbender and Cunningham. Both actors have genuinely intense screen presences, perfectly suited to their roles in Pitch.
It all looks quite stylish as well, thanks to Robbie Ryan’s appropriately noir black-and-white cinematography. A neat little ironic crime drama, Pitch Black Heist is one of the overlooked treats of the Tribeca line-up. As per tradition, all short film blocks screened on the concluding day of this year’s festival.
Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 5:39pm.