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By Joe Bendel. This is a film the Sheik of Sharjah does not want you to see. In the Emirate of Sharjah, he has the first and final say on everything. A self-styled scholar, he has published tracts like The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. If ever there was someone in need of a thorough mocking, it would probably be him – but don’t tell that to the Sharjah Art Foundation. Why yes, the Sheik happens to be their primary patron. However, the issues Iranian-American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi encountered while filming a commission for the Sharjah Biennial cut deeper than the merely economic. He documented his outrageous yet chilling misadventures in The Sheik and I, which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

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Frankly, the Sharjah Biennial was asking for it. They recruited Zahedi, told him what great fans they were of his appropriately titled I Am a Sex Addict, proclaimed the theme of the Biennial was “art as a subversive act” or some such artspeak, and assured him nothing was off limits – except the Sheik. Talk about planting a seed. Granted, they also said no frontal nudity and no mocking the prophet, constraints Zahedi thought he could easily abide by. The Sheik just got in his head.

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With his wife and young son in tow, Zahedi quixotically sets off on a Roger and Me quest to get the Sheik to play himself in his Biennial film. He intends to blend documentary and fictional narrative in a way that will mock American stereotypes about the Middle East. However, he cannot ignore the way his requests freak out everyone around him. They might say art is a subversive act, but nobody seems to mean it. To his credit, Zahedi never ignores this hypocrisy or the harsh facts of everyday life for migrant workers in the UAE.

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Does Zahedi conduct himself rather recklessly at times? Probably. However, charges that he endangered people’s lives might be technically true but completely unfair. To be invited to make a film in a closed, repressive society is a rare opportunity. To make a puff piece would completely squander that prospect and betray any notions of artistic or journalistic integrity one might hold. Zahedi duly holds up a mirror to the UAE society. It is not his fault if what he sees is dirty, dangerous, and decidedly undemocratic.

Nonetheless, the important thing to keep in mind about Sheik and I is that it is a really funny movie. The sarcastic yet weirdly guileless Zahedi serves as the perfect everyman-commentator on the bizarre deceit and denial going on around him. He also stands his ground quite admirably down the stretch, especially when the dreaded b-word comes out: “blasphemy.” Indeed, it is rather telling when a playful dance involving Indian street children and Islamic prayers becomes the stuff of a potential fatwa (no joke). Had he staged a similar number incorporating Catholic rituals, the Pope probably would have found it cute.

Truly packed with revealing scenes, Zahedi clearly captured more than anyone realized at the time and what he did not record, he recreates with some South Park-ish animated sequences. Diehard doc watchers will also enjoy the brief but amusing appearances by Zahedi friend and advisor Alan Berliner. With a third act explosion of irony, The Sheik and I absolutely must be seen to be believed. Worthy of being screened with Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador, Zahedi’s docu-provocation is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (12/7) at Videology in Brooklyn.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on December 3rd, 2012 at 9:50am.

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Dec 032012

By Joe Bendel. There is not a lot of love lost between NATO and some Serbians. An elite Marseilles police captain understands this only too well. A group of Serbian gangsters has hijacked a shipment of the military organization’s arms, leading to a wave of violent hold-ups. As it turns out, the Serb network also smuggles drugs, forcing the captain to make an uneasy alliance with the Parisian vice cop daughter he never took the time to know. It is a dangerous game for all involved in Pierre Jolivet’s Armed Hands (trailer here), which screened as part of the 2012 In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, now underway in New York.

Captain Lucas Skali is a perfect fit for festival special guest Roschdy Zem. Yes, he has played many diverse characters throughout his career, but he truly excels in hardnosed roles, such as those he played in Point Blank, 36th Precinct, Paris By Night, and even Anne Fontaine’s comparatively breezy Girl from Monaco. Skali is not a superman nor is he always very sympathetic, but he is all business, so do not trifle with him.

Getting wind of the Serbian operation, Skali almost loses an informant when a set-up buy goes down badly. Oh well, eggs will break when you’re making omelets. Hot on the trail, they follow the gang to Paris, where his grown daughter Maya Dervin works for the corrupt Julien Bass. The extent of Bass’s graft is not immediately apparent, but he seems to be at the center of a number of dodgy deals. In fact, one of the more intriguing aspects of Armed is the way it depicts a sort of twilight economy shared by both the vice cops and the criminals they pursue. Naturally, Skali and Dervin find themselves working different ends of the same case. It is a serendipitous situation Skali tries to make the least of.

From "Armed Hands."

Without question, Jolivet is more interested in the procedural side of “policiers,” rather than shoot-out spectacles. Frankly, Armed is somewhat reminiscent of 1970’s films, not in terms of superficial style, but for its jaded, anti-heroic vibe. While not as chocked full of attitude as Paris by Night, it is decidedly moody all the same.

Again, that plays to Zem’s strengths. Appropriately world-weary yet ruthless, Zem commands the screen as Skali. Leïla Bekhti is also quite credible as Dervin, but her character’s inclination towards self-pity often feels a bit off. Is she her father’s daughter or what? Still, Marc Lavoine (excellent in Tony Gatlif’s Korkoro) is ambiguously sleazy in a rather effective way as Bass.

Armed is the sort of cerebral, detail-rich crime drama genre fans will relish digging into. Given the commercial subject matter and Zem’s steadily increasing American art-house stardom, it should be a cinch for extensive festival play. Recommended for connoisseurs of French cinema and those who appreciate intricate, multi-character procedurals, Armed Hands should have international legs. It did not disappoint patrons when it screened at this year’s In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, which concluded yesterday (12/2) with another full day of screenings.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on December 3rd, 2012 at 9:49am.

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Dec 032012

By Joe Bendel. Is an underachieving jazz musician the most promising step-father material? Probably not—and he is not interested anyway. Nonetheless, people have a way of coming together in romantic comedies. Featuring a big name cast and liberal portions of slapstick comedy, James Huth’s Happiness Never Comes Alone (trailer here) was a crowd-pleasing opener for the 2012 In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, now underway in New York.

Sadly, Sophie Marceau could not be in New York this past weekend, but her animated co-star Gad Elmaleh was present for a post-screening Q&A. The French Ambassador was there too, but Elmaleh was under the impression he left early and mercilessly skewered him accordingly. Nobody ever said diplomacy was easy. At least Elmaleh was a hit, on-screen and in-person.

As the ostensibly mismatched Sacha Keller and Charlotte Posche, who are in fact perfect for each other, Elmaleh and Marceau develop some nice chemistry together. The son of a celebrated classical pianist, Keller definitely has a hedonistic Peter Pan thing going on, until he meets Posche. She is a mature and sophisticated director of a non-profit arts foundation and the ex-wife of the director of the corporation he composes freelance jingles for. She also has three kids from her two previous marriages. That ought to be more than enough to scare off the cradle-robbing Keller, yet he is overwhelmingly attracted to her.

Of course, there are those working to keep the two lovers apart, especially her not-ex-enough husband.  Surprisingly, though, her brood warms to the musician. Still, the course of true love never runs straight, detouring in this case to New York City’s Great White Way.

From "Happiness Never Comes Alone."

Both Elmaleh and Marceau take a number of pratfalls in Happiness, which is pretty impressive in the case of the latter, given her glamorous image. Frankly, her Posche might get hit on the head with a bathroom sink more times than any movie character since the glory days of Laurel & Hardy. That should also give you a good idea of the film’s tone. In fact, it is roughly similar to Pascal Chaumeil’s Heartbreaker, but the comedy is broader (leaving less to be lost in translation). Jazz fans might find the jazz isn’t very jazzlike, though.

Regardless of one’s taste for physical humor, it is rather refreshing to see Marceau playing a professional woman – who is attractive to be sure, but also someone relatively down-to-earth and no longer an ingénue to life. Aside from brief references to the Holocaust from Keller’s grandmother, Happiness never addresses any hot button themes, making it a good screening selection for whenever an ambassador might be expected. However, the In French fest has some gritty looking crime dramas on-deck, starring genuine movie stars like Daniel Auteuil and festival special guest Roschdy Zem.

Recommended for fans of romantic comedy with a strong physical component, Happiness Never Comes Alone is evidently unlikely to screen in America outside of festival play, due to issues of musical clearance. Interested viewers should therefore keep their eyes open.

Posted on December 3rd, 2012 at 9:48am.

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Dec 032012

By Joe Bendel. One of the hazards of a career in crime is the proximity to criminals. Initially, the sniper-mastermind of a small gang of bank robbers is only concerned with keeping the cops at bay. However, he soon must contend with a shadowy figure outside the law in Michele Placido’s The Lookout, which screened last night as the closing selection of the 2012 In French with English Subtitles Film Festival in New York.

Parisian police captain Mattei thinks he has the drop on Vincent Kaminski’s gang, but it is the sniper-lookout who has the drop on the cops. Kaminski does his job, but it is not a clean getaway. The married Nico has been badly wounded. Their only option is the disgraced suburban Dr. Feelgood, who periodically supplies morphine to the gang’s secret addict, Éric. Keep your eye on him.

Given the hail of bullets Kaminski rained down on Mattei’s men, the armed robber could not be hotter. Nico and his brother try to lay low and recuperate. However, Kaminski is pinched due to a suspicious anonymous tip. Of course, no prison will hold the marksmen, especially when he feels slightly betrayed.

Placido certainly is not afraid of generating a body count in The Lookout. The first act shoot-out is just a massive spectacle of flying ammunition. Yet, sensitive viewers should be warned, the film takes a dark detour into rather shocking territory, much to the surprise of both cops and robbers. It is not for the delicate, but The Lookout has some real jolts in store. Indeed, Placido pivots into left field relatively agilely, pulling viewers along with his ultra-slick Michael Mann style.

From "The Lookout."

As Kaminski, Mathieu Kassovitz broods like a monster and comes across convincingly hardnosed, in a wiry kind of way. Daniel Auteuil certainly knows how to play a civil servant under pressure, also acquitting himself rather well for a middle-aged guy in the believably staged action scenes. Olivier Gourmet is simply chilling as the underground sawbones, in ways that would be spoilery to explain. In fact, the large ensemble cast of dozens all look pretty credible as either cops or robbers.

The Lookout is exactly the sort of French film that exports well, with a story that could easily be transferred to an American city like New York without jeopardizing its dramatic integrity. Gritty in tone but super cool visually (thanks to cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari), The Lookout delivers for fans of Mann’s Heat and Affleck’s The Town. It ought to have a plenty of action on the festival circuit, driven by its star power. A strong closer, it capped three days of entertaining French cinema programmed by the In French with English Subtitles Film Festival, who donated all their proceeds to the Metro New York Make-a-Wish Foundation, Entraide Française, and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

LFM GRADE: B+

Posted on December 3rd, 2012 at 9:48am.

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