Tag Archives: 2012 Reviews

Harvest uptown, famine downtown: The Queen of Versailles **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2012)

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(*Sigh*) Mon Dieu, I hate being so right all the time. Several weeks ago, in my review of Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (a drama centered on intrigue in the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI at Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution), I wrote:

It’s nearly impossible to observe the disconnect of these privileged aristocrats carrying on in their gilded bubble while the impoverished and disenfranchised rabble sharpen up the guillotines without drawing parallels with our current state of affairs (history, if nothing else, is cyclical).

Which reminds me of a funny story. In Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, The Queen of Versailles, billionaire David Siegel (aka “The Timeshare King”) shares an anecdote about his 52-story luxury timeshare complex on the Vegas strip (the PH Towers Westgate). In 2010, Donald Trump called him and said, “Congratulations on your new tower! I’ve got one problem with it. When I stay in my penthouse suite, I look out the window and all I see is ‘WESTGATE’. Could you turn your sign down a little bit?” (And you thought that the rich never suffered?) Oh, he’s got a million of ‘em.

However, Mr. Siegel isn’t the sole subject of Greenfield’s study. A good portion of screen time is hijacked by his wife. To say Jackie Siegel (possibly the love child of Joanna Lumley and Tammy Faye) “really knows how to light up a room” would be an understatement. Her most amusing anecdote? “The first time I ever took the boys on a commercial plane, they said: ‘Mommy! What are all these people doing on our plane?!’” OMG! That is so hi-lair-ious!

Now, lest you begin to think that it’s all about chewing the fat and towel-snapping shenanigans around the mansion with the Siegels, their eight kids, nanny, cook, maids, chauffeur and (unknown) quantity of yippy, prolifically turd-laying teacup dogs…there is a sobering side to this tale. Now, I hope you’re sitting down, and I don’t want you to take this too hard (I’m bravely fighting back tears as I write this), but it seems that even this family of means has not been immune from hardships in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (I know-it’s so tragic). This “riches to rags” theme provides fuel for Greenfield’s film (or…Citizen Kane meets The Beverly Hillbillies).

The family’s ensuing “sacrifices” provide a succession of reality TV moments. Jackie is doing her Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart (the humanity!); David is losing his shit over lights being left on in the house, and so on. You know, they’re just everyday folks like you and me, worrying about the bills and feeding the kids . The elephant in the room is the family’s unfinished Orlando, Florida mansion, the infamous “largest home in America”, a 90,000 square foot behemoth inspired by the palace at Versailles. Drama arises when the bank threatens to foreclose on it, along with the PH Towers Westgate. So does the family end up living in cardboard boxes? I’m not telling.

This is a slickly produced film, yet it left me ambivalent;  it wasn’t particularly enlightening. I suppose one can wallow in the schadenfreude (obviously, I did), but that’s still not enough to carry the 100 minute running time. The problem is that regardless whether they are down to their last red cent or have 500 million in the bank, these people are not very interesting. They have little to offer beyond the glorified banality of puffed-up Lotto winners.

Then again, maybe that’s the point of the film-money can’t buy you charisma. Apparently, however, it can buy you a POTUS. When Siegel boasts that he was “personally responsible” for the election of George W. Bush in 2000, the director asks him to elaborate. “I’d rather not say,” he replies, “…because it may not necessarily have been legal.” Any further thoughts? “Had I not stuck my big nose into it, there probably would not have been an Iraqi War, and maybe we would have been better off…I don’t know.”

Now that is “rich”.

Sacred aging man: We Have a Pope **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2012)

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I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.

-Charlie Chaplin

I now quit public affairs and I lay down my burden.

-Edward VIII

 Take this job and shove it.

-Johnny Paycheck

Here’s something you or I will likely never be asked: “Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem (Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?).”  Now, some of us may have rehearsed an Oscar, or Grammy award acceptance speech, just for fun. Or contemplated a response to: “Do you prefer to receive your Lotto winnings in lump sum, or as annual payments?”

Realistically, of course, we are more likely to face queries like “Paper…or plastic?” or “How do you plead to these charges?” However, in the event you have speculated about how the world looks from inside the Popemobile, a Franco-Italian import called We Have a Pope offers a test drive.

 Actually, this newly elected Pope, formerly known as Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), is not so eager to leave his gilded cage and flit onto the St. Peter’s Square balcony. His unexpected response to “that question” is to go into a full-blown panic attack. As puzzled speculation among the thousands waiting patiently in the Square spins into dark rumor, the pontiff’s handlers brainstorm ways to snap Melville out of his accelerating malaise. They decide to take drastic measures. Loathe as they are to do so, they bring in a (gulp) psychoanalyst (director Nanni Moretti) to see if he can get right to the heart of the matter.

It  becomes apparent that the hapless shrink (a non-believer, no less) cannot ply his trade with a flock of hand-wringing cardinals eavesdropping to make sure he doesn’t ask any “inappropriate” questions. He is chagrined to learn that Vatican rules dictate that the cardinals be present; even more so when he finds out that he is to be sequestered on the premises until “we have a Pope”.

Exasperated, he puts in a plug for his ex-wife, also a psychoanalyst, with a caveat that she is obsessed with “parental deficit”. Melville is whisked off (unbeknownst to the cardinals), for a session with the ex (Margherita Buy). It still doesn’t take. Shortly after the visit, Melville gives his handlers the slip. The rest of the film is divided between following Melville’s misadventures around Rome, and how the boys back at the ranch are killing time (the chief handler has convinced them that Il papa is resting comfortably up in his apartment).

Moretti has some great ideas here (he also co-wrote, with Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli), but none of them gel, making his film an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying affair. The setup reminded me of Theodore J. Flicker’s 1967 political satire,  The President’s Analyst,  which likewise framed the narrative by humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.

Moretti seems unsure where he’s going; just when you think he’s delivering a humanist character study, he lurches into silly slapstick (an overlong segment with the cardinals playing “prison volleyball” falls flat). If it is intended as satire, the targets are too soft (I’m shocked! Shocked to learn that the Holy See is a cloistered world of gossipy, fussy old men, padding around in slippers and funny robes!).

There is one intriguing moment where the psychoanalyst, who has been killing time reading the Bible (the only book  in his room), holds it up in front of the cardinals and says, “In this book, are all the symptoms of depression: feelings of guilt, weight loss, suicidal thoughts.” But alas, Moretti tosses the idea out there and then abandons it. 

The film works best when Piccoli is onscreen. His performance is warm, funny and touching, particularly when he takes his Roman Holiday-esque  sojourn through the city. In these scenes, his character reminded me of the angel in Wim Wenders’ WIngs of Desire. who elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity. It’s only in these brief moments, that Moretti’s film, and his star, shines. It reminds us that, at the end of the day, the man behind “The Pope” is nothing but a man.

We are Devo: Surviving Progress ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2012)

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In Man’s evolution he has created the city and

The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance

And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle

-Ray Davies

This just in! Our brains haven’t changed much in 50,000 years. “We’re running 21st Century software on 50,000 year-old hardware,” observes one of the interviewees in a thought-provoking documentary called Surviving Progress…and like anyone who witnesses the perennially absurd behavior of Homo sapiens on the nightly news, I am inclined to agree. Right out of the gate, co-writer-directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks drive that point home with an illustration that doubles as clever 2001: a Space Odyssey homage.

An adult chimpanzee enters a white booth containing nothing but a table, upon which lay two “L” shaped blocks. The chimp spots a primatologist researcher in an adjoining room, on the other side of a clear partition. The chimp can also see that the primatologist holds a nice piece of fruit, so it puts its arm through a hole in the partition. No treat is forthcoming. The chimp assesses the situation. It picks up one of the blocks, rights it into a standing position, and again reaches through the hole. Nada. Aha! After righting the second block, the chimp gets its treat. Is this “progress”? Cut to NASA footage of an orbiting space station. Is this progress? Can mankind have its banana now?

Before tackling such a loaded question (and patting ourselves on the back for being so much “smarter” than monkeys), we first need to define our terms. What is “progress”, exactly? Luckily for us, the filmmakers have come fully armed with an impressive and diverse team of learned specialists: physicists, anthropologists, scientists, environmentalists, futurists and economists. Surely they can shed light on a question like, “What is progress?” Cut to a montage of positively stymied experts. Uh-oh. This isn’t a very thought-provoking documentary so far. Maybe if we offer them a nice piece of fruit?

Not to worry. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (the book that inspired the film) pops by and sets up the premise for the ensuing 90 minutes. Humanity’s progress, he posits, has historically been measured by its ever-accelerating “forward” motion. Which is all fine and dandy; that is, until you begin to consider the “cost”. And we are not necessarily talking money.

For example, there is “natural capital”. As scientist/activist David Suzuki observes in the film, “Money doesn’t stand for anything, and money now grows faster than anything in the real world.” He’s right. You can always print more money, but Earth’s resources are finite, and according to one interviewee, up until  1980  (right about the time that the world’s most populous nation, China decided to start playing “catch-up”), we were getting away with “living on the interest”- all for the sake of progress. But today, we’re blowing through our inheritance, as it were. And if we’re not careful, the human race  will be in the poorhouse.

Not that the filmmakers are using China, or environmental concerns, as the whipping boy. This is but one example of what Wright identifies as “progress traps”, which could be compromising the future of our planet as a whole. In fact, what makes the film so unique and compelling is how it connects the dots between cultural anthropology, predictable patterns of human behavior, accelerated depletion of Earth’s natural resources, lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth, and most importantly, how all of the above have repeatedly factored into the collapse of previous civilizations.

While dire warnings abound, it’s not all gloom and doom. Stephen Hawking suggests that if we can shepherd the planet through the next 200 years without destroying it, we could flourish for a very long time (barring, one assumes, a big catastrophe like an asteroid hit).

The motifs and subtexts of the visual narrative (beautifully photographed by Mario Janelle and well edited by Louis-Marin Paradis) reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s (wordless) 1982 film meditation on the price of progress, Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”). I have not read his book, but some of Wright’s on-camera observations about the negative effect of accelerated change recall those of Alvin Toffler, whose 1970 bestseller Future Shock gave us the nickname for the  phenomenon.

So while the concept isn’t new, it’s presented in a fresh manner, packing much insight into 87 minutes. Besides, we could use more reality checks like this, and would all do well to remember the film’s money quote, which Wright says he saw scrawled on a graffiti wall:

Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

What a dump: Applause ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2012)

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I have a new favorite actress. Her name is Paprika Steen, and she delivers a searing performance in the Danish import Applause, directed and co-written (with Anders Frithiof August) by Martin Zandvliet. Technically, Steen is giving two searing performances; one as an embittered, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress named Thea Barfoed, and another as the embittered, middle-aged alcoholic “Martha”, as in “George and Martha”, the venomous, bickering couple who fuel Edward Albee’s classic play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

As you might guess, the clever theatrical allusions abound throughout, with interwoven vignettes of Thea’s nightly performances as “Martha” serving a Greek Chorus for her concurrent real-life travails. While she continues to wow adoring fans with her stagecraft, the acid-tongued Thea makes a less-than-glowing impression on the people she encounters in her off-stage life (mostly due to the fact that she’s usually half in the bag by lunchtime).

She has particular difficulty dealing with the fact that her ex-husband Christian (Michael Falch) has remarried, to a younger woman named Maiken (Sara-Marie Maltha). Adding insult to injury (at least from Thea’s perspective), Maiken is a psychologist, which only further fuels Thea’s ever-present paranoia and insecurities.

However, there does seem to be a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon, as Thea is making a concerted effort to step away from the bottle for good (which is sort of working out, in fits and starts). Finding herself in an unusually lucid state of mind one day, she decides to begin lobbying in earnest for acquiring more quality time with her two young sons, who live with their father and stepmother (Thea ceded custody when she divorced Christian). Although Thea is making nice with Maiken, and assuring her ex that she has “changed” since…(a mental breakdown, or possibly a prolonged stay at a rehab clinic?), Christian  remains wary. After all…she is an actress.

And so this simple, yet emotionally dense slice of life unfolds. As anyone who has seen more than one study about an alcoholic knows, it’s right about the time things start looking up for the protagonist that you find yourself cringing and waiting for the other shoe to drop (“How is she going to fuck this up? Pass the popcorn.”).

While I’ve seen this story before, it’s been some time since I’ve seen it played with the fierce commitment Steen brings to  it. Thea’s shame spiral binges evoke Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls at times, but I felt Steen’s overall performance (and the film’s writing and directing style) most strongly recalled John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. In that 1977 film, Gena Rowlands plays, well, an insecure, middle-aged alcoholic stage actress, who is starring in a play that mirrors her real life angst. And just like the great Rowlands, Steen is a force of nature; a joy to watch. She is fearless, compassionate and 100% convincing. After all…she is an actress.

Notes from the underground: The Lady **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2012)

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On a recent trip to Myanmar, Secretary of State Clinton publicly expressed her admiration for Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledging her long personal struggle (including 15 years of house arrest) as head of an opposition party that has been (peacefully) attempting to bring democracy to a country that has been under oppressive military rule for 50 years.

Some encouraging news emerged earlier this month, with Suu Kyi and other members of her party winning 43 out of 45 seats in the lower house of the parliament. Indeed, Suu Kyi’s story is an extraordinary one (and which one hopes is far from over). That’s why it’s a shame that Luc Besson’s biopic, The Lady, while timely in its release, can only be described as “ordinary” in its execution. It’s a largely uninspired affair that starts off like Gandhi…but ends up more like Camille.

The film begins promisingly, with a beautifully constructed and emotionally affecting preface. It’s 1947, and the nation later to be called Myanmar is still known to the world as Burma. We see 3-year old Suu Kyi kissing her father, General Aung San, goodbye before he heads off to a fateful political meeting, where he is assassinated (General Aung San is now honored as that nation’s “Father” for his key role in helping gain independence from British colonial rule).

The next time we see Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh), she is an adult, living in England with her husband, Oxford academic Dr. Michael Aris (David Thewlis). They have two teenage sons (Jonathan Raggett and Jonathan Woodhouse). When Suu Kyi learns that her mother is gravely ill, she returns to Burma. It is during this visit (in 1988) that she realizes how unstable her country has become, and sees how fear and dread rules. When she is asked by pro-democracy activists to remain in-country to lead their burgeoning movement, she accepts.

After this setup, I assumed that I was in for a rousing story of personal sacrifice and determination, set against a backdrop of intense political turmoil and sweeping historical breadth (something along the lines of The Year of Living Dangerously or The Killing Fields). But what follows instead is by-the-numbers; with the dramatic impact of a Powerpoint presentation. Rebecca Frayn’s screenplay takes a Cliff’s Notes approach to Suu Kyi’s life; for a 2 ½ hour film, there are too many unanswered questions and expository holes.

Most significantly, the film is marketed as a great love story…but there is very little passion on display between Thewlis and Yeoh; there is no clue on display as to what sparked the attraction. While  it’s possible Thewlis made a choice to play the “stiff upper lip” English archetype, his behavior toward Yeoh plays as formal and detached.

Instead, we’re given an endless series of farewells and reunions, with Thewlis and sons leaving and arriving in taxis, with only Eric Serra’s overbearing orchestral swells on hand to cue us that we’re supposed to be tearing up. And the part of the family’s story that should truly move us, which was Dr. Aris’ death from prostate cancer after spending the final 4 years of his life unsuccessfully petitioning the Burmese government for permission to visit Suu Kyi (under house arrest), is instead rendered like sudsy, almost laughable (if it weren’t so inherently sad in nature) Disease of the Week melodrama.

As I am a fan of his work, I was expecting much more from Besson, who has built his reputation on slickly produced, well-paced and visually inventive films; usually with strong female protagonists (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). What he has delivered here (the opening 10 minutes aside) is a film that, while visually stunning, remains emotionally empty.

One nation, under duress: They Call it Myanmar ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 7, 2012)

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Does a nation have a soul? While there are no definitive answers to such rhetorical questions, I can say that after viewing Robert H. Leiberman’s surprisingly intimate documentary, They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, I feel that I have experienced something akin to an enlightening glimpse into the very soul of that country’s beautiful people.

I confess that I previously had not given much thought to the nation formerly known as Burma. I was aware that it is a Southeast Asian country with a history of British colonial rule. I knew it had been seized and occupied by the Japanese during WW 2. I knew that it had gained its independence in 1948 and since been plagued by civil wars. But beyond that, the country’s contemporary sociopolitical milieu was off my radar (as it was, I suspect, of most Westerners) until recent news footage of our Secretary of State embracing the most high-profile figure in Burmese politics, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary Clinton was acknowledging Suu Kyi’s long personal struggle (including 15 years of house arrest) as head of the opposition party that has been attempting to bring democracy to her country, which has been under strict military rule for several decades (some particularly encouraging news emerged just this week, with Suu Kyi and other members of her party winning 43 out of 45 seats in the lower house of the Burmese parliament). Her changes in fortune added some happy synchronicity to Leiberman’s project. Just as he was wrapping production in 2010, he learned of Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, and arranged for an interview, which he weaves throughout his film.

However, it is important to note this is not a documentary about Aung San Suu Kyi. Leiberman has said that he did not initially set out to make a political film; but as he learned during shooting (which was largely clandestine) it is next to impossible to remain apolitical while documenting a people who live under a totalitarian regime (probably only second to North Korea’s government for its dogged persistence in turning back the clock on its infrastructure) that has very little concern for their health, education or welfare. One theme running throughout is the palpable fear of speaking out (most interviewees requested anonymity). However, this state-mandated insularity is precisely what makes the film such a fascinating journey.

While there is much misery and suffering on display, there is also unexpected beauty; geographical, historical, cultural and metaphysical. What emerges at the forefront of the latter is the spirit and pride of everyday Burmese, who despite living in a state of abject poverty, maintain a Zen-like, “glass half-full” view of their lives that boggles the Western mind (then again…many are Buddhists). I liked this film, because it really made me want to root for the people of Myanmar. It’s a pointed reaffirmation of the power of film; this was basically one guy, armed with a hi-def video camera, and balls of brass. It may not be a huge production, but it sure  has a big heart.

Love souffle: Delicacy **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 24, 2012)

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“I could go on holiday in your hair,” moons a love struck Swede named Markus (Francois Damiens) to his co-worker, a beautiful French widow named Nathalie. If that sounds like an inappropriate comment to make at the office (to your boss, no less), you’re right. Then again, it’s not every day that your boss (bearing a remarkable likeness to Audrey Tautou) calls you into her office, springs from her chair without warning, plants a lingering, passionate smooch, then goes back to her desk as if nothing just happened. It’s an anomaly that a slovenly nebbish like Markus is going to require a few days to process.

Whether or not you believe that a beautiful young widow who bears a remarkable likeness to Audrey Tautou would even consider throwing herself at a slovenly nebbish who bears a remarkable likeness to a French Chris Elliot is probably a good litmus test for whether or not you will be willing to sit through a romantic dramedy called Delicacy, directed by siblings David and Stephane Foenkinos (adapted from David’s novel).

In an opening montage that vibes the films of Eric Rohmer, we get a recap of Nathalie’s relationship with her late husband, the suavely continental Francois (Pio Marmai), from their initial Meet Cute at a quaint café, to his untimely demise while out for a jog one fateful morning. The heartbroken Nathalie deals with her pain by becoming a workaholic.

For three years, Nathalie focuses on her career at a Paris-based Swedish firm (it’s never made quite clear what the company “does”,  but a lot of paper gets pushed around). Despite frequent urging by friends and co-workers, she refuses to jump back into the dating game, pretty much keeping herself to herself while maintaining her inscrutable countenance. She also has to keep one wary eye on her married boss (Bruno Todeshini), who has been creepily flirting with her since her husband’s death (“It’s terrible, but tragedy makes her even more beautiful,” we “hear” him musing to himself).

And so it is that Nathalie registers just as much shock at her impulsive amorous advance on her own underling, as does Markus himself (who leaves her office dazed and confused). When he later screws up the courage to ask her if she truly wants to go down this road, Nathalie tries to backpedal. She doesn’t know what possessed her. Her mind was elsewhere, etc. etc. “You sound like an American. That’s a bad sign,” Markus deadpans, in the film’s funniest line. This gets a chuckle out of Nathalie, breaking the ice.

Will this odd couple find true love? You’ll have to watch. You will also have to be willing to suspend your disbelief. Your willingness to go along with this fluffy but diverting affair also hinges on which camp you happen to be in regarding Ms. Tautou’s  pixie-like, saucer-eyed allure (I’m a fan, but apparently some are  completely immune to it).

There is some unevenness in tone, particularly stemming from an over-reliance on the gimmick of “listening in” to each character’s Deep Thoughts (which aim for poetic heights but tend to crash-land just this side of a Hallmark greeting card), but it’s not enough to sink the proceedings. The film is saved by Tautou and Damiens’ onscreen chemistry; they both bring an endearing charm to their roles.

Damiens imbues his shambling ugly duckling with a gentle humanity that helps us grok what Nathalie finds so appealing. Think of this film as a soufflé, which, depending on what you bring to the table, can be either an entree…or a dessert. If you’re the type of person who could bypass the entree and go straight to dessert, I think you will enjoy. Those without a sweet tooth will probably want to skip it.

See me, feel me: Perfect Sense ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 18, 2012)

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David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama, Perfect Sense  tackles the age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of all of the sleepless nights I’ve had contemplating that scenario…or is it just me?

Alright, fellow hypochondriacs, listen up. According to screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson, it starts like this: A spontaneous onset  of melancholia and despair, followed by uncontrollable weeping; after which you realize that (sniff, sniff) you have lost your sense of smell. Then, days (maybe weeks, maybe months) later, a spontaneous onset of fear and paranoia, turning into the worst panic attack imaginable. This is immediately followed by an insatiably ravenous hunger; you grab anything that’s handy and looks edible (from lipstick to pet rabbits) and stuff it in your mouth. Then, you realize you have lost your sense of taste. Then…well, you get the idea.

It appears that Patient Zero resides somewhere in Scotland. That’s what brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to help analyze the data as more cases pop up. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening where they both suffer the initial emotional breakdown that signals the onset of the disease. As they have “taken leave” of their senses in tandem, they begin, naturally, to fall in love (there is lots of room for metaphor in this narrative).

Since this is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation, people do have a certain (if indeterminate) amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit. Also (if you can make it over the hump of that suicidal despair part), it isn’t necessarily what one would call a “death sentence”. That’s what makes this film unique in an already overcrowded genre. While there’s still an understandable sense of urgency to find a cure, the question is not so much “can the human race be saved?” but rather “can the human race make lemonade out of this lemon?” I suppose your chances for survival would hinge on how you answer the old “half-empty or half-full” conundrum.

As far as any “takeaway” goes, there are likely to be as many interpretations as there are viewers of this film. I mean that in the most positive way; that’s the beauty of it. The director and the screenwriter do an admirable job of suggesting possible philosophical and sociopolitical reverberations that could result from such a scenario, without getting too heavy-handed. The film is strikingly photographed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens.

Most central to the film’s appeal, however, are McGregor and Green, who deliver performances that are at once broodingly intense and deeply compassionate. There’s great supporting work as well, particularly from Denis Lawson and McGregor’s  Trainspotting alum Ewen Bremner (retaining his crown as the most unintelligible Scot in the history of sound films). See it, while all your senses are intact.

Out of pocket: Loosies *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 18, 2012)

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Oh, indie love story (sigh). How I adore your predictably unpredictable melange of quirky characterization and pithy observation. So low in budget, so rich in substance! Fly! Take spray can in talon, spread wide your wings of gossamer, and boldly soar heavenward to tag the marquee of Hollywood convention in shades of hipster irony…OK, too flowery? I just thought that since this is sort of, Valentine’s Day “week” (yes, I’m stretching), you would indulge me if I got in touch with my inner Byron. Anyway, there’s a new film out concerning Cupid’s more scattershot tendencies.

Loosies is a hit-and-miss affair about, well, a hit-and-miss affair between a slick New York City pickpocket named Bobby (Peter Facinelli) and a barmaid named Lucy (Jaimie Alexander) who Meet Cute one day, when they bump into each other on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. However, when a pickpocket bumps into you, it’s usually not an “accident”. See, Bobby (who goes about his larcenous rounds disguised as a well-appointed stockbroker) does a little double dipping while he’s at “work”. He has developed a unique variation on speed dating. If he espies an attractive prospect among his victims, he nobly returns her “lost” wallet or purse. An “honest” guy…with GQ looks? Guaranteed icebreaker (yeah, he’s an asshole). Due to his “true” profession, he also prefers to keep his relationships casual (and relatively brief), lest his cover is blown.

However, I’m getting a little ahead of the narrative. When we first meet Bobby, his fling with Lucy is history. His current concern is with his fence, a sociopath  named Jax (Vincent Gallo). Jax is not happy with the fact that Bobby has jeopardized his enterprise by filching the badge of a NYC detective (Michael Madsen), who is now hot on Bobby’s trail. Bobby is also having a personality clash with Carl (Joe Pantoliano), who has recently started dating Bobby’s mother (Marianne Leone). As if his stress levels aren’t elevated enough, Lucy (who he hasn’t seen in three months)  tracks him down with some sobering news…she’s pregnant. With his karma closing in to nail him on several fronts, he has to decide which “life” he wants to pursue.

There are really two films here, awkwardly fighting for the lead, as it were. There’s the cutesy romcom aspect of Bobby and Lucy’s push me-pull you relationship, and then there’s the gritty urban crime thriller (culminating in a triple-cross gimmick that we’ve seen countless times before). With special care, these disparate narrative elements can gel nicely (as they do in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight) but director Michael Corrente (who in the past has delivered absorbing character studies like Federal Hill and Outside Providence) isn’t quite up to it. The problem may not lie with the director’s skills, but rather with Facinelli’s screenplay, which plays like Elmore Leonard for Dummies. Also, Facinelli the actor can’t carry the film; he has limited range (Pantoliano, Gallo and Madsen act circles around him). If you bump into this film, hang on to your wallet.

Girls will be boys: Tomboy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2012)

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“You’re different from (the other boys),” says Lisa (Jeanne Disson), sans any trace of irony in writer-director Celine Sciamma’s coming-of-age tale, Tomboy. She is talking to her new friend Michael, who recently moved into her neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris; the boy on whom she’s developing a crush.

Indeed, there is something “different” about Michael. It’s a possibility that Lisa, with the insouciance of a starry-eyed per-pubescent in the thrall of puppy love, would l never ponder (hence an absence of irony). “Michael” is the self-anointed nom de plume of a girl…named Laure (Zoe Heran).

Laure lives with her loving parents (Sophie Cattani and Mathieu Demy) and precocious little sister, Jeanne (Malonn Levana). Mom is pregnant and resting up, so we see Laure spending a lot of time with her dad, who is patiently teaching her how to drive in the film’s opening. Although dad is retaining control of the accelerator and brake (after all, Laure is only ten), she has a fearlessness and assured sense of self belying a ten year-old (and in a subtle way, challenging traditional societal expectations of gender behavior).

This is especially apparent in a wonderfully observed scene where Laure (in her guise as Michael, who she hides from her family) watches boys playing soccer, studying their body language and mannerisms. She is bemused by their propensity for spitting, and taking pee breaks en masse (typical males…spraying everywhere).

Soon, “Michael” is on the field; shirtless, spitting and generally displaying surly behaviors. But how long can Laure pull this off? It’s late summer, and a new school year looms; surely her parents won’t register her as Michael (what about roll call, or gym class?).

Although it may appear on paper that this story holds all the dramatic tension of an Afterschool Special, it is precisely the lack of drama (or, as Jon Lovitz used to exclaim on SNL…”ACT-ing!”) that makes Tomboy one of the most naturalistic, sensitive and genuinely compassionate films I’ve seen about “gender confusion”.

What’s most interesting here is that it is not the protagonist who is “confused”. Laure knows exactly who (she?) is; this is not so much about the actions of the main character as it is about the reactions of those around her (and perhaps the viewer as well).

There is one thing the director seems to understand quite well, and that is that you can learn a lot about a society’s mores by watching its children at play; Sciamma devotes large chunks of screen time to simply allow us to observe kids doing, well, what kids do when they get together.

Tackling childhood sexuality is a potential  minefield for a film maker, which is probably why so few venture to go there (the last film I saw that handled it with such deftness was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know).

Thanks to the combination of an unobtrusive  camera, sensitive direction, a perceptive screenplay (by the director), and extraordinary performances by the child actors (especially from Heran, who vibes like a Mini-Me Jean Seberg with her pixie hairdo) The film perfectly captures the elusive “secret world” of childhood. And it’s a lovely ode to self-acceptance…which is a good thing.  Any 10-year old can tell you that.