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The Devil's Double (2011)
Only 108 minutes (including credits) but it seems too long
Inspite of Dominic Cooper's tour de force, I found myself about an hour in feeling I'd been watching this movie for three hours. This is a static movie. Yes, there is that golden look, the sumptuous locales and the noisy hedonism, but the characters themselves don't evolve. Until almost the end, Latif is as stymied and troubled by his unwanted "good fortune" as he was five minutes in. Uday remains the same exuberant psychotic who can change from bountiful to brutal with the breeze. It is as if we are watching the same action, somewhat varied, over and over again. Nevertheless this film, based on real life, is worth seeing for Dominic Cooper's superlative performance as Latif/Uday.
The Extra Man (2010)
Well, it's original and interesting
Bring Clifton Webb forward 60 years, add wackiness, and you have Kevin Kline as the eccentric bachelor in a rent-stabilized dump on the Upper East Side (yes, there are such flats still). His new roomie played by Paul Dano has a poignance, a sad yearning that I haven't seen conveyed so well since Timothy Bottoms in "Last Picture Show." Dano has the sort of face you only see nowadays looking at you across time in family pictures from a century ago or more. The face is ingenuous, pure. The kind of face that America just doesn't make anymore.
Both characters have built protective walls around themselves, perhaps necessarily. Though they fascinate each other, and unintentionally entertain each other, they can't decide whether or not to be real allies.
The older man depends on super-annuated ladies of wealth for his dining out and his winters in Florida. The younger man, though straight, enjoys wearing ladies lingerie while having sex. It can be all a bit depressing.But there's a soft landing, a nice ending to this opus all around.
Anton Chekhov's The Duel (2010)
The "strong" man may be merely rigid, the "weak" man may be merely too self-aware, given to pressing his sore spots and picking at his scabs. In a moment of great crisis which man will be broken and which will stand, trembling perhaps, but stand up to his mortality.
As with all of Chekhov's works, time moves slowly here, the better to catch the subtle turns of tone and shading of character in his people.
Andrew Scott is unforgettable as Laevsky, but don't get me started. The entire ensemble works so well, so enjoyably. And when that happens it means the invisible, unheard hero of the piece is the director. His name is Dover Kashashvili. Jim Smith
At one point in this wonderful work, the camera is high in the Montana Beartooths above the cowboys with their 3000 sheep coming up the mountain for some good-weather grazing. The woolies are getting to be all over the place and you see a lone cowboy in the saddle with the help of a few sheepdogs corraling the herd purely by the way he moves his horse around and by the calls he makes. Gracefully and neatly he tightens up the herd and turns it in the direction he wants the little bleaters to go. He creates a fence invisible 'round his woolies.
It's that kind of skill, no, art that is so evident in these guys: keeping order in the herd, whittling rough branches for the spines of their tents, sleeping with one ear open for sounds of bear and wolverine, sharpshooting in the night aided only by lamp. These guys do it all and well. They can also midwife a ewe in the crisis of giving birth, find an udder for an orphaned lamb and cleanly, expertly fleece these critters when the wool is heavy.
These cowboys never get rich inspite of a bagful of skills and talents that leave the viewer in respectful admiration. Watching the travail of these guys makes you realize you have never in your life known the true meaning of "hard work."
This is a documentary without any taped-on background music and without any warm-toned narrator telling you what you're seeing. Not even Morgan Freeman. The footage tells the story without extraneous aids. The absence of other noise is welcome. This piece is awesome but it's also funny, not just in the humanity of the cowboys. There's some real comic talent among those woolies, too. Jim Smith
Off Jackson Avenue (2008)
Raw, real, an indie gem
Several strangers are connected unawares and those points of contact will bring them into collision. This kind of construction is exciting when executed well, as in "Amores Perros", and again here in "Off Jackson Avenue." A violent Albanian pimp (Stivi Paskoski), a victimized Mexican immigrant (Jessica Pimental), a carjacker (John-Luke Montias) and a Japanese schoolteacher who moonlights as a hit-man (Jun Suenaga)will profoundly impact each other's lives, literally and figuratively. Warning: The brutalization of a young girl is hard-to-watch and enraging. But there is justice, satisfying justice, in the working out of things.
Aside from Mr. Paskoski, none of the actors have a long resume, yet all the characters come across vivid and true. You wouldn't know they were acting. When everyone in a movie is good, praise the director. And he is John-Luke Montias who directs here as well as acts. He also wrote the taut, efficient script. The language is raw, real, and in the case of a Chinese entrepreneur who hires the hit-man, a pungent delight. Jun Suenaga's moonlighting English teacher is fun and funny. I'd hang with him and a bottle of Scotch any old time.
"Off Jackson Avenue" is a gem. Hopefully, it will get a wide distribution. But most indies do not. While it is still available to see in a real movie house, it is well worth the price of a ticket. At just under 80 minutes, not a frame of film or a line of dialogue is wasted. Jim Smith
Ischeznuvshaya imperiya (2008)
We see few Russian films here in the U.S. and our familiarity with modern day Russian life is limited. Here we get a view of life in the Brezhnev 1970s. "Vanished Empire" reassures us that the Russians are just like everybody else, save for social conditioning and a scarcity of consumer goods. It's convincing characters are warm, animated and full of very familiar foibles. But it is charming how readily family and friends "do" for each other there,enthusiastically.
Yet this is a society so parched for Western-style consumer goods that a used Japanese radio can get a buddy out of police custody, a nice jacket plus gas money can induce a cab driver to take someone to the hinterlands and back.
Sergey, the focal character, is well and charmingly rendered by young Aleksandr Lyapin. Like a lot of 18 year old college boys he is impulsive and easily suggestible. His romance with girlfriend Lyuda is in full bloom but a call from his comrades can make him forget his commitments to the lady. More than once Sergey shows that loyalty to his buddies trumps faithfulness to his lover.
Sergey's inattention to those who love him and his hijinks in school are forgiven, up to a point, because of his youth and charm. But the carefree life and luck of a teenager cannot last. Life becomes serious and the due bill for self-centered presumptions is, inevitably, presented.
The women characters in this film are long suffering. Though not ill-treated physically, they are never valued above male comradeship. Their needs are not thought of, or not taken seriously. Lyuda's treatment by Sergey reminded me of the comment of an American exchange student who had boyfriends in the Soviet 1970s. Asked if she ever considered marrying any of them, she said "No." She said that, in Russia, a woman might be loved but she will never be respected. Jim Smith
Goodbye Solo (2008)
A magical ride
Souleyman Savane is a natural. His taxi driver character is the focus of the film and in spite of Savane's complete lack of acting experience he carries the movie with his beautiful, expressive face and the warmth, goodness and simple joie de vivre of his character's nature and, one suspects, Mr. Savane's.
The scenes of unexceptional small city life match up right for this story and the scenes toward the end in the Great Smokies are almost as transcendent as they are in person.
At 90 minutes it is the perfect length for a movie whose central predicament is made plain from the start and it's resolution never really in doubt. An understandable determination to die by one man inspires renewal in another.
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
Low budget gem
This is a funny and original assay at life in the afterlife (as experienced by suicides). Instead of oblivion or a better world, the mostly young "offeds" awake to a place worse than the unsatisfactory life they tossed. Starless skies, smileless faces, clunky cars, a seedy messiah and Nature Most Vulgar make these hapless souls rue losing the charms of a world now beyond reach.
Yet good times are to be had in these environs, there is magic available to all for self-diversion, friendship and sex, too. And for a couple of the darned ("damned" is too noble a word for this bunch), there even is hope for another chance.
This opus could become a cult classic that you'll see years from now at some film retrospective. But why wait: if it's playing near you, go see it now. The first run at the local indie houses (11/07) is not likely to be long. Jim Smith
Le clan (2004)
Interesting. Well worth a look
A Gael Morel film whose theme will be familiar to viewers who have seen "Wild Reeds" or "Come Undone" : young, handsome, sexy, disturbed young Frenchies trapped in the limited prospects offered by the mediocre towns and cities far from Paris. Here we have the three sons of an indifferent French father and a Maghreb mother, recently deceased. Where they live horny young men lack even a town whore for relief and, resignedly, must rely on the local grouchy, bored transvestite.
Morel favorite Stephane Rideau is a 20-something, "scared straight" ex con who will trade his youthful wildness for the dull comfort and security of middle class respectability while his two younger brothers grapple, respectively, with intolerable powerlessness and gay love.
All the guys are eye candy and Morel and his actors have never suffered from fear of frontal. All of which would mean little were it not for the interesting characters and Morel's unique cinematic style. Rent it. You'll enjoy it. And if it turns out you disagree, hell, it's only 88 minutes including the credits crawl. Jim Smith
13 Tzameti (2005)
Babluani is powerful
Briefly, this is a melodrama about a young handyman who, stiffed for his pay by a "dead"beat client, naively takes his customer's place in a big stakes game that he suspects can make him more than good for the money due him. But the joust turns out to be, essentially, an elaborate game of Russian roulette.
Though the film and the language is French, the auteur, Gela Babluani, is from Georgia (that's the Georgia that used to be part of the USSR). His choice for the final turn of plot reflects, I think, the mores of Tbilisi rather than the sane moral relativism of today's West. But the look, the precision, the atmosphere, the tension Babluani produces are awestriking. The lead character, Sebastien, is played by George Babluani, a relative of the director I would guess. This young actor is handsome,lithe, intense, with a gift of expression that is magical.
Comparing Director Babluani , now in his 20's, with, say, Scorsese at the same age, Scorsese was doing imaginative, promising but still academic pieces. Babluani is sure, electric, the technique never shows. Jim Smith