Tag Archives: 2010 Reviews

CSI Vaslui: Police, Adjective ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2010)

“What do you think; would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

 -Fyodor Dostoevsky

 Most people would agree that Bullitt and The French Connection qualify as seminal examples of the modern “cop thriller”. While both are primarily revered for their iconic action sequences, what makes them most fascinating to me is the attention to character minutia.

In Bullitt, it’s a scene where Steve McQueen’s character slouches home after a shift. He walks into a corner grocery and perfunctorily scoops up an armload of TV dinners, then retires to his modest apartment to decompress. It’s a leisurely sequence that may seem superfluous, but speaks volumes about the character.

A similar scene in The French Connection has detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) shivering outside in the cold for hours, wolfing fast food and drinking bad coffee out of a Styrofoam cup as he stakes out his quarry, an international drug kingpin who is enjoying a gourmet meal in an upscale restaurant. Both films demonstrate how non-glamorous and mundane police work actually is, an aspect most genre entries tend to gloss over.

“Non-glamorous and mundane” could be a good descriptive for Police, Adjective, the latest film from Romanian writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu. In fact, this is the type of film that requires any viewer weaned on typical Hollywood grist to first unlearn what they have previously learned about crime dramas.

There are no foot chases, car chases, shootouts, take downs or perp walks. There are no fast cuts or pulse-pounding musical cues. In short, the viewer is forced to pay attention, to observe and study…to “stake out” the characters and events, if you will. The devil is in the details (like real detective work.) And your reward? Well, you may not solve a major crime, but you could reach a certain state of enlightenment via a 15-minute denouement involving a Dostoevskian discourse on the dialectics of law, morality and conscience (Nothing blows up?!).

We observe a plainclothes cop named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) as he keeps tabs a teenage suspect who may or may not be a low-level pot dealer…pretty much in real time for the first half of the film.

As if we haven’t received an adequate taste of Cristi’s job-related tedium, Porumboiu appends each sequence with a static, several-minute long close-up of the officer’s handwritten report, annotating every detail of what we have just seen. It’s almost as if we’re reading the shooting script; I wonder if the director is conveying an allusion to the relative tedium of the film making process itself (clever-clever!).

Based on my description so far, you may be saying to yourself “This movie sounds like a waste of time.” Funny thing is, that is exactly what Cristi is thinking about his stakeout. He is becoming increasingly chagrined that his boss (Vlad Ivonov) insists that he keeps digging until he finds cause to set up a sting, because he intuits that it’s merely a case of kids just “being kids”…hanging out and getting high together, as opposed to a major drug operation.

Besides, Cristi feels in his heart of hearts that his country is on the verge of joining other European nations in lightening up the penalties for personal pot use (yes-the innate stupidity of most pot laws appears to be universal, and requires no translation).

Cristi’s boss, however, sees this subjective attitude toward his assignment as an opportunity to teach the young officer an object lesson about the meaning of “duty”; literally starting with the etymology of the word “police” (hence the film’s unusual title).

I know that sounds as dull as dish water, and it’s difficult to convey what makes this film work so well. It may sound like the makings of a sober, introspective drama, but there is actually a great deal of wry comedy throughout. One scene in particular, in which Cristi and his school teacher wife (Irina Saulescu) spiritedly banter about the literal vs. metaphorical context of a pop song’s lyrics is a gem.

The film is also a fascinating glimpse at a post-E.U. Romania, and the unenviable task of redefining “policing” in a formerly oppressive police state still gingerly feeling its way as a democracy. Besides-when is the last time you saw a cop thriller wherein the most formidable weapon brandished was…a Romanian dictionary?

Karn Evil 9: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 23,  2010)

Step inside, step inside…

Terry Gilliam must be a very persuasive man. How he convinced Heath Ledger to work with him again after that ill-advised train wreck The Brothers Grimm, is beyond my ken. Then again, Ledger could not have predicted that he would die prior to the completion of principal shooting for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which will now be cemented (for better or for worse) as the late actor’s swan song.

“For better or for worse” could be the mantra of the unflappable Gilliam fan, considering the iconoclastic writer-director’s spotty and underwhelming output since 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which represents the last detectable vestige of “classic” Gilliam. And as entertaining as that film was, it still doesn’t hold a candle to his Holy Trinity- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones), Time Bandits and Brazil. So-does his new film redeem his reputation and convey respect to Heath Ledger’s legacy?

Well, kind of. If you have seen the excellent 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha (a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Gilliam’s ill-fated project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) or the illuminating “making of” feature in Criterion’s edition of Brazil, you know that Gilliam is one of those directors who thrives in the face of adversity. Considering the tragic circumstances, Gilliam has done an admirable job of salvaging, from both a narrative standpoint and in preserving one last wonderful turn from Ledger.

An odd mash-up of The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, The Stuntman, and Angel Heart, the film is a “through the looking glass” tale about an anachronistic travelling circus touring present-day England. The small troupe, led by the wizened, mysterious and frequently plastered Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, reeling through the proceedings like King Lear on a bender) ply their trade via horse-drawn wagon, setting up anywhere they might be able to scare up some coin.

The star attraction is the “Imaginarium”, entered (of course) through a looking glass. Once inside, depending on what kind of psychic baggage they bring with them, the patron becomes immersed in either a) their most treasured fantasy, or b) most dreaded nightmare (in full Sensurround). So-how, when and where did he learn this neat trick? Long story, but I won’t bore you with details (that’s the director’s job). Suffice it to say that it has something to do with immortality, and a deal with the Devil (Tom Waits).

Every Faustian bargain carries a caveat; for Dr. Parnassus, it’s a heart breaker that has  driven him to drink, and the time is now fast approaching to give the Devil his due. He also has his hands full with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), who is on the cusp of her 16th birthday. Valentina loves her father, but has grown weary of the troupe’s hand-to-mouth existence, and dreams of escaping the family business to enjoy a “normal” life (which makes for an amusingly ironic twist on the cliché about the kid who yearns to run away and join the circus).

Meantime, the doctor’s young apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield) secretly pines for her. The dynamics become more interesting when the troupe picks up a new barker (Heath Ledger), an amnesiac with a possibly dubious past, who they initially discover (literally) under a bridge (hanging, actually…don’t ask).

Without giving too much away, I will say that Ledger’s central (if unfinished) performance has been made miraculously whole through Gilliam’s resourcefulness and assistance from three talented guest stars-Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all seamlessly incorporated into the narrative as several Imaginarium-enhanced “versions” of Ledger’s character. The cast is uniformly good; Waits is an inspired choice as ol’ Scratch (known here as “Mr. Nick”) and Verne Troyer is on hand as the doctor’s longtime counsel/business partner (it wouldn’t really be a Terry Gilliam film without at least one little person in the cast, would it?).

As I implied earlier, this film may not rank among Gilliam’s best, but on a sliding scale, it comes close in execution and spirit to his “classic” period (a choreographed number with dancing bobbies is an unexpected delight, invoking the spirit of the original Python ethos for one brief and shining moment). The director hasn’t lost his visual flair; he certainly knows how to fill every available bit of space in the frame with eye-popping imagery (and probably brought it in at a cost somewhere in the neighborhood of the catering bill for Avatar). Gilliam proves that sometimes, the cheap rides can be more fun.

Mopey white guy with guitar, pt. 2: Wonderful World ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2010)

Wait a minute…didn’t I review this film last week?

Well, sort of…

Can blue men sing the whites?

Or are they hypocrites for singing woo, woo, whoo?

Oh Lord, somebody help me!

-The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

There was a famous children’s radio show that ran on WOR in New York from the late 1920s through the late 1940s that became infamous when it was rumored that the host, Uncle Don Carney, had once signed off with his signature cheery goodbye to the kiddies, then (not realizing that his microphone was still “hot”) immediately wisecracked, “There! That oughta hold the little bastards!”

I remember listening to it back in the 70s on an LP of legendary broadcasting bloopers compiled by Kermit Schaefer. I was disappointed to learn in later years that the gaffe was actually faked for the album (although most of the other cuts were genuine). Still, the enduring popularity of the urban legend says something about the  appeal of the subversive cynic hiding behind the clown face.

This concept has spawned a  sub-genre of films that can  be traced back to the 1957 Elia Kazan entry, A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith stars as a backwoods conman-turned media superstar whose vitriolic disdain for his public belies his image as a benignly goofy, “family-friendly” entertainer. Tony Richardson’s 1960 film adaptation of John Osborne’s cynical and scathing portrait of a fading vaudevillian (Laurence Olivier), The Entertainer also deserves a mention. More recent films like Bad Santa, Shakes the Clown and Death to Smoochy have toyed with the same theme. Wonderful World, the directorial debut from Joshua Goldin, fits right in.

“The only crime left in the fucking world is negative thinking,” laments Ben Singer (Matthew Broderick) who holds the view that everything is fixed, yuppies are the root of all evil, and we’re all doomed anyway…so why bother. A failed children’s singer (his sole album long relegated to the dusty cutout bins of history), the divorced Ben now works a dead-end job as a proofreader. When one of his co-workers chastises him for not sharing in the congratulatory excitement surrounding the news that another co-worker (an aspiring actor) has just landed his first television acting gig, he dismisses the scold with a shrug and says “I don’t delude myself with hopes and dreams.” He’s a real piece of work.

Interestingly, however, he does have friends. He participates in a weekly after-hours jam session in the back room of a music store with some pals, and proves to be a decent guitarist; it makes us wonder why he’s squandering his talents. As the music store owner  observes, “That’s a shame, to be good at something no one cares about…” (as a blogger, don’t I know that feeling). His roommate Ibu (Michael K. Williams) a Senegalese immigrant, doesn’t let Ben’s chronic glumness dampen his own perpetually sunny disposition, and considers him a friend, despite all of his negative waves.

Ben does approach a state approximating enjoyment when he spends time with his precocious 11-year old daughter (Jodelle Ferland); although his rampant cynicism is markedly straining their relationship and becoming a source of concern to Ben’s ex-wife (Ally Walker). Ben seems quite happy to continue wallowing in his half-empty glass bubble of apathetic detachment, until a series of unexpected and personally challenging events shakes up his world, not the least of which in the person of Ibu’s sister (Sanaa Lathan) a Senegalese national who shows up on his doorstep one fateful day.

While this is familiar narrative (the self-pitying mope gets snapped out of his myopic torpor by the Free-Spirited Other), writer-director Goldin gives it a fresh spin. I expected things to go in another direction (another black comedy about a bitter children’s entertainer); but was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and humanity at its heart. Broderick gives a nuanced performance that I would put up there with his work in Election. Lathan does a lovely job, as does Williams (you may recognize him from HBO’s The Wire). Wonderful World may not be a major film, but it is a rewarding one.

Sturm and twang: Crazy Heart ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2010)

Ev’rything’s agin’ me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive
.

-Hank Williams

I think I stumped Mr. Google. For the life of me, I can’t pin down the name of the artist who wrote and/or sang my favorite country song of all time. Let me qualify that. That would be my favorite country song title, which is “I’m Gonna Build Me a Bar in the Back of My Car and Drive Myself to Drink” (I believe it came out circa ‘78, if that helps jog memory). At any rate, after watching Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, I can visualize the film’s protagonist, “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) as that songwriter. This guy is a country song-with a pocketful of whiskey and a lifetime full of heartache and regret.

Look in the dictionary under “has-been country musicians” and you’ll see an 8×10 of Bad Blake. Take a little whiff of the accompanying “scratch’n’sniff” card, and you’ll catch a pungent mélange of stale beer, cigarettes, musty nightclubs and cheap motel rooms.

Tooling around the Southwest in his antiquated, “lucky” Suburban, Blake’s life is a never-ending series of shithole one-nighters (in the film’s opening scene, his name gets second billing to a league tournament on a bowling alley sign, which reminded me of the visual gag from This is Spinal Tap with the amusement park marquee touting “Puppet show…and Spinal Tap”).

Keeping his road expenses to a minimum, he tours solo, using pickup bands to back him at each location. Eschewing rehearsals and sound checks, he spends his off hours brushing up on his ornithology (e.g. Wild Turkey, Old Crow and Eagle Rare). Somehow, he still manages to get through his performances. Oh, on occasion, the band has to vamp while he slips out to vomit in the alley-but that’s showbiz.

His love life is in similar disarray; it is a trail of broken hearts, one-night stands with groupies, an adult son whom he has not seen since infancy and a handful of exes (who may, or may not, live in Texas). His romance with the bottle is his longest-standing relationship.

Enter a small-town newspaper reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorcee with a 4-year old son. A piano player who is backing Bad at one of his gigs asks Bad to grant her an interview as a favor. Preferring his fans to remember him as he was “back in the day”, the initially reluctant interviewee becomes much more enthusiastic once he meets the winsome young woman. Sparks fly, and the heat, as they say, is on.

Bad starts feeling much more enthusiastic about life in general; he surprises his long-suffering booking agent by agreeing to bury the hatchet with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protégé who is now a country superstar, and open a stadium show for him. Things are looking up. But as anyone who has seen more than one film about an alcoholic knows, it’s about this point where you begin to brace for the fall (“How’s he going to fuck it up? Pass the popcorn”).

So, is this just another “narcissistic, self-destructive musician who has hit rock-bottom but just needs the love of a good woman to put him on the road to redemption” story? Well, yes. And no. Writer-director Cooper’s script (adapted from the original novel by Thomas Cobb) does travel down some dusty and well-worn country roads, but thankfully avoids some of the usual clichés before it takes us home. For instance, there are no barroom brawls, and nary even one scene shot in a trailer park (that was refreshing). Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but we don’t always get to see it with such a great cast.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about Bridges’ performance, although if truth be told I wouldn’t necessarily consider it the best thing he has ever done. But if anyone deserves a statuette for a consistently fine body of work, it would be Jeff Bridges. He’s got a good shot; if history has taught us anything, it’s that Oscar loves drunks (and nuns, according to Kate Winslet in a classic episode of Extras).

Robert Duvall has a small but memorable role; he and Bridges are a joy to watch together. Gyllenhaal is excellent, although her part feels a little underwritten. Bridges does his own singing, and he isn’t half-bad. Crazy Heart may be a small and simple film, but it has a big heart…like a good country song.

Von liebe und schnitzel: Soul Kitchen **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

You know, it’s great when you can find a nice palette-cleanser to tide you over during these dog days at the multiplexes, as the last crumbs of empty-calorie summer fare are cleared from the table to make room for the heartier fall menu. Soul Kitchen is one such cinematic soufflé; it bakes up light and fluffy, stopping just this side of demanding any deeper contemplation, yet it is still substantial enough to leave you feeling pleasantly full.

Equal parts romantic comedy, foodie film, and (mildly) raunchy screwball farce, German writer-director Fatih Akin’s breezy story concerns a grubby but amiable young restaurateur named Zinos (co-scripter Adam Bousdoukos) who has converted an abandoned warehouse in Hamburg’s Wilhelmsburg quarter into a funky eatery called “The Soul Kitchen”.

Operating on the cheap, Zinos is not only the manager, but the cook as well, serving up your basic beer ‘n’ pizza, schnitzel and French fries menu to a not-so-picky neighborhood clientele. If Zinos seems a bit harried and distracted, it’s due to the impending departure of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) to China.

Zinos’ separation anxiety comes to a head when he joins Nadine and her family for dinner at another restaurant, where the two have an embarrassing public spat. Just a few moments later, that restaurant’s head chef, Shayn (Birol Unel) quits in a huff after losing his shit when a customer demands that his gazpacho (a Spanish soup, traditionally served cold) be heated up for him. The two sulking men are soon commiserating outside, where the pragmatic Shayn asks, “So, do you have a job for me?”

Although Shayn  admires what he refers to as the “Romanesque” ambiance of the Soul Kitchen, it doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that Zinos’ pedestrian menu could use sprucing up. At first, the regulars are bewildered by the “fresh sheets” and the upscale presentations on their plates. “Where’s our fries, burgers and pizza?” they demand-to which Shayn rebuffs “Get your pizza at the supermarket! Culinary racists!” before storming back to the kitchen.

Things settle down, the word gets out, and business picks up as the eatery gains hipster cachet. Zinos is not out of the woods yet, however. His brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtrau), a convicted thief, shows up unannounced on his doorstep, fresh out of prison on work release. Things get (as Arte Johnson’s catchphrase used to go on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In) “Velly interestink…but schtoo-pid!”.

Bousdoukos (whose passing resemblance to Jim Morrison is amusing, considering the title) and Bliebtrau have good chemistry as the brothers. Keep an eye out for the great Udo Kier in a minor role. Although many elements of the narrative feel familiar, the combination of energetic performances, well-chosen music (featuring everything from Louis Armstrong and Ruth Brown to Curtis Mayfield and Burning Spear) and Akin’s fresh directing approach make up for it. Sometimes, it’s all about presentation, ja ?

60 is the new 40: Solitary Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2010)

https://i1.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/_RUn30y-EIlA/TB1UC5FTKKI/AAAAAAAAASA/FMPOiu5l8GE/s1600/solitary+man+movie+image++Michael+Douglas+and+Jesse+Eisenberg+%281%29.jpg?w=474

Michael Douglas dispenses some not-so-sage advice to Jesse Eisenberg.

Did you know that the average human life expectancy in the Neolithic era was 20? Which means that you would have your midlife crisis around what…age 10? Of course, 12,000 years later, thanks to advances in medicine, science and technology, that number skews a bit higher now. This probably accounts for 65-year old Michael Douglas getting away with portraying a 60 year-old who is suffering a midlife crisis, in the film Solitary Man.

Douglas is Ben, a divorced 60-year old New Yorker at a personal and professional crossroads. His physician has given him sobering health news. However, having a bad ticker (and a ticking clock) is the least of his problems. A classic narcissist, Ben’s main concern is not that he might be “going” any time now, but that he may not get to go out with the most toys.

You see, Ben’s a “used to be”. He used to be a successful car dealer, but lost the franchise due to unethical business practices. He used to have a lot of money, but the resulting legal expenses decimated most of his net worth. He used to be married to lovely and supportive Nancy (Susan Sarandon) but blew it with serial philandering. He’s not a likeable guy. He is a “closer”- on the car lot, or on the pull.

His girlfriend, Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker), is a well-connected Upper East Side divorcee with a college-bound daughter named Allyson (Imogen Poots). Ben accompanies Allyson to his alma mater; Jordan has asked Ben to use his pull with the dean to assure admittance. The dean used to be happy to see him, when he was a benefactor (the campus library carries Ben’s name), but his public fall from grace in the business community has made him a pariah.

To paraphrase Steely Dan-the weekend at the college doesn’t turn out like they planned. Ben’s penchant for getting himself into hot water gets the better of him. We spend the rest of the film watching self-sabotaging Ben crawl slowly from the wreckage of his life.

Director-screenwriter Brian Koppelman and co-director David Levien navigate the tricky waters of “dramedy” on a fairly even keel. It’s  a fine performance by Douglas (no one plays a self-serving prick as convincingly as Douglas …remember Gordon Gekko?).  Danny Devito is reunited with Douglas in an engaging supporting role, and Jesse Eisenberg once again plays, erm, Jesse Eisenberg…or maybe he’s playing Michael Cera (or perhaps those two young men represent a new paradigm in post-modern acting too subtle for me?).

I would have liked to have seen more scenes with Sarandon and Louise-Parker, those two wonderful actresses feel under-utilized; but this project was obviously developed as a showcase for Douglas, so it is what it is, and I accepted it as such. I find myself becoming more accepting as I get older. Besides, according to this film, I still have about six more carefree years before my midlife crisis.

The Gaulfather: Mesrine ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2010)

In November 1979, police sharpshooters ambushed and killed France’s “Public Enemy #1” as he drove down a busy Parisian boulevard with his girlfriend (who was wounded, but survived). Although this violent dispatch was, in essence, a public execution without trial, very few grieved for the demise of murderer, bank robber, kidnapper, and serial prison escapee Jacques Mesrine.

Over the course of his 20 year “career”, Mesrine managed to wreak major havoc, not only in his native France, but in Canada and the U.S. as well. A folk hero to some, Mesrine fancied himself to be a sort of underworld Renaissance man-master of disguise, self-styled “revolutionary”, and author.

If there was one thing he loved more than the thug life, it was watching and reading about himself in the media (he once nearly killed a French journalist for writing an unflattering article). I suspect that he would have been especially gratified to have lived to see the day that he became the subject of an epic crime film diptych, currently in limited release in the U.S.

Director Jean-Francois Richet and his co-writer Abdel Raof Dafri adapted Mesrine’s autobiography, L’instinct de mort, into two films-Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1. With a combined running time of 4 hours, you are going to need a dynamic leading man to keep your audience riveted, and the edgy, explosive Vincent Cassel (La haine, Eastern Promises) proves up to the task.

Despite having the luxury of a broad canvas, Richet doesn’t linger much on the formative years; opting instead to kick off with a brief glimpse of Mesrine’s hitch in the French army, while serving in the Algerian conflict. In a scene fraught with  uncompromising brutality (setting the tone for the films) Mesrine beats a captured Algerian insurgent senseless, at the behest of his commanding officer.

When this treatment fails to yield the desired information from the dazed prisoner, the man’s sister is paraded out, and Mesrine is commanded to escalate the violence to its inevitable denouement. For the only time in either film, Mesrine appears to balk, reticent to follow these orders; suggesting, for one infinitesimal moment, that he may have a conscience. Once he pulls the trigger, however, Mesrine knows that he has irreversibly crossed  to the dark side.

Does this vignette infer that the military breeds sociopaths, or that it perhaps attracts them? It is left open to interpretation. There is a lot left open for interpretation throughout, regarding what it was that made Mesrine tick. With the exception of the aforementioned scene, we are presented with Mesrine the fully formed career criminal, straight out of the box.

He gets out of the army, meets and marries his second wife, a beautiful Spanish woman (Elena Anaya), and takes a halfhearted stab at a few straight jobs. However, once he falls under the sway of a powerful local gangster (Gerard Depardieu) he comes to realize his true calling-taking what he wants, when he wants, and by any means necessary.

The first film follows his activities in Europe through the late 60s and then his North American crime sprees with partner Jean-Paul Mercier (Paul Dupuis) from ‘69-‘72, including bank robberies and several murders.

The second film covers Mesrine’s return to France in 1972, when he picked up where he had left off-participating in bank robberies, kidnappings, and brazen jailbreaks, which finally earned him his “public enemy #1” moniker from the exasperated French law enforcement authorities. The second film is a little more compelling than part one, as it provides an interesting nemesis for Mesrine, commissioner Broussard (Olivier Gourmet).

The two men have a sparring relationship of begrudging mutual respect, much like the (fictional) characters played by Al Pacino and Robert deNiro in Michael Mann’s Heat. Part two also benefits from the presence of one of my favorite French actresses, Ludivine Sagnier (as Mesrine’s girlfriend at the time of his death), who brings a simmering blend of earthy sexuality and dangerous volatility to her roles that reminds me of Ava Gardner (or the young  Ellen Barkin).

Taken as a whole, the 4-hour narrative begins to run out of steam about ¾ of the way through, mostly due to the rote sequencing and repetitive nature of Mesrine’s exploits; he robs a bank, gets caught, goes to jail, breaks out of jail, robs more banks, gets caught…well, you get the picture. Cassel’s performance, as good as it is, teeters on the edge of becoming a one-note acting exercise.

Maybe we didn’t need to inventory/reenact every crime the man ever committed? I could have used a bit more insight into Mesrine’s motivations. That being said, Richet is a promising filmmaker, showing a particular penchant for kinetic action sequences, and his recreation of France’s 1970s sociopolitical milieu is quite canny (I was reminded at times of Fred Zimmerman’s Day of the Jackal).

So is this a recommendation? If you are a true-crime buff, I think you will like this. The real Mesrine, repellent as his actions were, was a fascinating character, and it is mind-blowing what he got away with, and for how long (especially considering how much he enjoyed the spotlight, courting the media whenever he got the opportunity).

And how was he able to escape so many times? Couldn’t they figure out a way to keep this guy locked up, especially after the first several escapes and re-apprehensions? Maybe if the director had asked himself some of these questions, the film(s) could have been a bit more compelling? Well, you know what the French say… C’est la vie.

All the world war’s a stage: Garbo the Spy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo in 2010)

WW2 espionage buffs won’t want to miss Garbo the Spy, an absorbing documentary about a Spanish double agent who arguably changed the course of the war in one brilliant play. In 1944, he managed to convince the Germans (who thought he was working for them) that the D-Day landings were merely a diversionary exercise (the Nazis may have otherwise thrown even more weight behind the defense of their crucial Normandy beachheads).

It’s a fascinating tale of an enigmatic and unlikely hero, who one interviewee calls “one of the greatest actors” who ever lived (at one point, he had 22 “operatives” working for him-all creations of his own imagination, and juggled so masterfully and convincingly that his German employers truly believed that they were an actual consortium of intelligence gatherers). Director Edmon Roch uses a clever device, weaving in footage from classic WW2 espionage thrillers to put events in context. One bit of footage (from the 80s) showing a choked-up “Garbo” visiting the U.S. cemetery in Normandy, is a moving tribute to the great sacrifices made on those beaches.

Of carnies and Calvary: Stigmata ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo in 2010)

Stigmata (aka Estigmas) is a film that is so visually intoxicating, striking in tone and steeped in atmosphere, that one is compelled to overlook (forgive?) its relatively thin narrative and decidedly glacial pacing. Based on the graphic novel by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti, the film is directed by Adan Aliaga.

In his acting debut, champion Spanish shot-putter Manuel Martinez stars as the central character, Bruno, a classic “gentle giant” (replete with the requisite heart of gold) who wakes up one morning with mysterious, painless wounds in both hands, which proceed to bleed copiously and continuously. Naturally, this makes him an instant social pariah. He finds refuge with a carnival, where true love, tragedy and redemption transpire.

I assume much of the simmering angst and sublimated religious subtext will resonate more strongly with my Catholic brethren (although, as a Jew, I can sort of empathize). I was reminded of Fellini’s La Strada, with a few echoes of Lynch’s The Elephant Man as well. Pere Pueyo’s B & W cinematography is outstanding, and Aliaga is a talent to keep an eye on.

‘F’ for fake: Catfish **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2010)

So-would you believe me if I told you that showman P.T. Barnum never actually uttered the words “There’s a sucker born every minute”? You know how I found that out? I Googled it. It says, right here in the Wikipedia, that P.T. Barnum’s “famous quote” never left his lips. And since I read it on the internet, it simply must be true…right? Oh, and have I mentioned that I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year-old male, with a PhD in quantum physics, into music, literature and film? Are you buying this shit?

In the documentary (-ish) Catfish, a buzz-generating entry at this year’s Sundance, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost ask their audience to buy a lot of shit. In spite of a cast billed as playing themselves, and Universal’s press kit trumpeting that “filmmakers” Schulman and Joost “…had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives”- well, if this film is a “documentary”- then I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year old male with a PhD.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps the events “documented” in this film did actually transpire as presented, and I’m just an embittered, mean old cynic who has seen too many movies. Let’s play along just for a moment. Let’s say that Schulman and Joost really were in the process of making a documentary-in-search-of-a-story, when it dawned on them that the “story” was right in front of them the whole time.

Schulman’s brother Nev, a professional photographer and genetic lottery winner with his own camera-friendly good looks, had struck up a social networking-based friendship with an artistically gifted 8 year old girl from Michigan, who initially intrigued him by snail-mailing strikingly mature oil paintings, based on his photos. When the girl’s 19 year old sister introduced herself into the mix, Nev struck up a web relationship with her as well; a relationship of a more involved and potentially amorous nature.

Nev, now the official “subject” of his brother’s film, reached a point where he wanted to take the next logical step-and not necessarily for the reasons you might think (I’m trying to keep this review as “spoiler-free” as possible). Suffice it to say our intrepid NYC-based trio of dazzling urbanites-turned-detectives are soon packing up their film gear and heading to Ted Nugent country for a surprise visit. Ah, but which of the parties involved in this cyber-intrigue is in for the bigger surprise? I could tell you…but then I’d have to kill you.

I will hand it to the filmmakers-they have constructed a virtually critic-proof product. If one decries the possible fudging involved, then the filmmakers could counter that the heart of the story is, after all, about the inherent deception of cyber romance (the  “How do you know that the 19 year old cheerleader you’ve been sexting isn’t in reality a middle-aged truck driver named Bubba?” meme).

Also, the Universal press kit I quoted from refers to the film as a “reality thriller”-which could be thrown back at critics as a caveat emptor (“We never billed this as a documentary.”). Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but in a post Blair Witch Project world I feel it my duty as a critic to bring this up. Oh well…wasn’t it Godard who said that “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”?

If you can get past the “Is it real or Memorex” conundrum-this is not necessarily a bad film; it’s intriguing enough to hold your interest through to the end. And if the point is to show how we have become a world of Walter Mittys and Eleanor Rigbys, spending the long dark nights of our souls pecking away on our keyboards, busily reinventing ourselves to assuage our lives of quiet desperation, then the film does convey a bittersweet poignancy in the denouement. And I have a confession to make. I’m not 6’2”.