Sunday, March 31, 2013

Available on DVD: “The Thieves”

Comparisons to such ensemble capers as Ocean's Eleven or Tower Heist are inevitable, but South Korea's The Thieves carves its own niche with moments of romance and stylish mayhem mixed with a more emotionally conflicted, winner-take-all sensibility than its American brethren.

Director Dong-hoo Choi (The Big Swindle), who co-wrote the sometimes overly complex script with Gi-cheol Lee, begins by jauntily setting up the potential theft of a $30 million diamond from a Macau casino vault by an intrepid band of high-end crooks, each, of course, with a burgling specialty.

But instead of all roads leading to the final jewel theft, the film shifts midway into decidedly darker cat-and-mouse territory as the diamond is located, allegiances splinter and the cops force the robbers into survival mode.

While the movie's second half feels more consequential — and more impressively action-packed — than its first part, it also loses some of its initial charm and quirk via a protracted, often dizzying descent into a kind of booty-centric game of hot potato.

Already a blockbuster on its native turf, Choi's slickly made diversion, shot in Seoul and Busan, South Korea; Hong Kong; and Macau, features a cast of Asian superstars including Gianna Jun, Hae-sook Kim, Yun-seok Kim and Jung-jae Lee, all of whom prove game and lively participants.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Available on DVD: “Holy Motors”

If a couple of this year’s DVD releases are any indication, whole worlds of weirdness are unfolding behind the tinted glass of white stretch limos.

First Robert Pattinson’s dissatisfied financier made his slow, vexing progress through Manhattan in Cosmopolis. Now the French actor Denis Lavant inhabits 11 roles in Léos Carax’s thrillingly outré Holy Motors.

In comparison with the earlier film, the Parisian odyssey is far less tethered to the social climate or to much of anything in the way of narrative expectations. It begins with the filmmaker himself waking into a dream and looking out upon a dreaming audience from the empty loge of a movie theater. This tribute to the power of cinema is the most unequivocal scene in the movie and also as eerie (and eerily soundscaped) as anything David Lynch might conjure.

From there the episodic journey belongs to the sinewy shape-shifter Lavant as Monsieur Oscar, a seemingly high-powered businessman who is also — or mainly — an actor. With the unutterably elegant Céline (Edith Scob) at the wheel of the limo, he embarks on a day’s worth of "appointments" that might collectively be a dream, an insomniac’s restless wanderings or something else entirely.

For each of his assignments, Oscar dons an elaborate disguise in his mobile dressing room. His first persona, an elderly female beggar who stands by the Seine crooked-backed and ignored, suggests an extreme exercise in empathy. That characterizes much of the day’s experiment, but finally the connective tissue is nothing more or less than the trying on of roles.

With his elastic physicality and fearlessness, Lavant is "what if" incarnate, digging beneath identities that are all too easily fixed. He’s assassin and victim, dying old man and nostalgic lover, concerned father and sewer-dwelling gnome.

In one of the most spectacular sequences, that flower-chomping gnome surfaces in the Père Lachaise cemetery, where he violently crashes a fashion shoot and spirits away the impassive model (Eva Mendes). In full sexual readiness, he’s comforted by a lullaby.

While peeling away one disguise and applying the next, Oscar laments the world’s shift from heavy machines to invisible technology. An anxious nostalgia runs through his day, from the old-fashioned backstage ambience of his limousine dressing room to the nod to Scob’s role in the horror classic Eyes Without a Face and, not least, Kylie Minogue’s soulful showstopper amid the broken mannequins of a shuttered department store.

In Holy Motors Carax insists on our other selves. His daylong ride is a wary celebration, a joyful dirge that’s served up in concentrated form by a roving band of accordion players. It’s all in a day’s work.

Available on DVD: “This Is Not a Film”

Depending on your point of view, This Is Not a Film both is and isn’t a film. What it is for sure is the only kind of film its co-director Jafar Panahi can make for now.

Panahi is not just one of Iran’s top filmmakers, he is its most politically outspoken, director of such works as Offside, The Circle and Crimson Gold that deal even more directly than the Oscar-winning A Separation with the restrictions placed on ordinary life by that country’s political leadership.

Partly for that reason Panahi was hit hard by the Iranian government in 2010: He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned for 20 years from filmmaking or even conducting interviews with the foreign press.

Panahi is out on bail but confined to his Tehran high-rise apartment under house arrest while he goes through a series of appeals. (The first one was recently turned down.)

So that limited urban space is necessarily the setting for this potent clandestine documentary, a day-in-the-life video diary shot on an iPhone and a small digital video camcorder by Panahi and his friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It was reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake in advance of its unannounced screening at the 2011 Cannes film festival.

Playing out this scenario all the way through the closing credits, Panahi labels what he’s done "an effort" (as opposed to a film) and under such categories as "thanks to colleagues" and "many thanks" he’s listed no names. If the government doesn’t want him to make a film, he is not going to make one, and he’s certainly not going to name any names.

Fascinating for what it signifies as much as what it shows, This Is Not a Film illustrates how Panahi is struggling to stay alive creatively and, paradoxically, can’t help but demonstrate how much of a natural filmmaker he is. Even when he turns his camera on the most mundane activities, his passion for cinema enters into and enlarges the picture.

The first part of This Is Not a Film in effect sets the scene of Panahi’s current existence. We see him in everyday activities like eating breakfast and feeding his daughter’s enormous pet iguana Igi, and we also hear, through a series of recorded phone conversations, the details of his life: He’s missing family New Year’s celebrations because of house arrest and, as a talk with his lawyer shows, is still facing potentially serious legal repercussions.

Even in these not especially dramatic situations we can’t help but register that Panahi, with jet black hair and a matching T-shirt worn over jeans, is a man of noticeable intensity who is facing his situation with total sang-froid.

One of Panahi’s phone calls is to fellow director Mirtahmasb, who comes to the apartment and gets behind the camera to record something he jokingly calls Behind the Scenes of Iranian Filmmakers Not Making Films.

Declaring himself unhappy with what he’s filmed, Panahi tries a different tack, reading from the script of what was to be his latest film, which the government has refused to approve, about a girl imprisoned by her parents to prevent her from attending university. Finally, Panahi gives up on this tack as well: "If we could tell a film," he says in a key line, "then why make a film?"

After Mirtahmasb leaves, Panahi more or less stumbles on another story line when a worker comes around collecting trash from the building’s apartments. Camera in hand, unable to resist the new situation, Panahi trails along, interviewing the young man and pulling us into a haphazard situation that culminates in a view of a New Year’s bonfire outside the apartment gates, a fire that inevitably takes on apocalyptic overtones. Even when this director is "not making a film," he is creating situations that we won’t forget.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Available on DVD: “Bully”

Some movies use make-believe to make you squirm or cry or rise to righteous anger. Bully does all of that with reality.

Documentarian Lee Hirsch peers into one of the most horrifying things you’ll ever see — the lives of bullied young teens — and wrings and terrifies and outrages you impressively.

Bully focuses on five or children around the United States who have been abused by schoolmates, two so relentlessly that they committed suicide. The film speaks to the impact of bullying and, more terribly, actually depicts the abuse and — worse — the ineffective responses of scholastic and legal authorities, who sometimes exacerbate the troubles.

You sense that some corners have been shaved in Bully, but that doesn’t lessen the film’s impact or import. Watching two fathers mourn their sons, who took their own lives, is utterly gut-wrenching, and you want to reach out and help any child headed toward such a dire decision.

Bully was initially rated R for profanities that, frankly, I can’t recall hearing. But it’s been edited and re-rated PG-13 for its DVD release, meaning that those who most need to learn from it — victims of bullying and, yes, their tormentors — will get to see it. I think it could be argued that it ought to be mandatory.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Available on DVD: “The Kid With a Bike”

Has there been a young boy with an older face than Thomas Doret in the Dardenne brothers’ film, The Kid With A Bike? Playing Cyril Catoul, an 11-year-old abandoned by his father, Doret betrays little emotion beyond a furrowed brow as his character cycles around the Belgian city of Liege looking for proof he’s no longer wanted. With his blonde buzzcut and upturned nose, the character could be Tintin marooned in the real world, his comic-book adventures turned taunting and cruel.

The movie, a grand jury prize winner at last year’s Cannes film festival and recently released on DVD as part of the Criterion collection, sounds unbearably sad in outline, and the Dardennes film it in their usual quasi-documentary style. And yet The Kid With A Bike is, remarkably, about hope — about the connections people forge when the ones they’ve been given desert them. Escaping the state-run facility in which he has been dumped, Cyril runs back to the last place he lived with his father — he needs to see for himself that the apartment is empty — and when he gets chased by authorities into a doctor’s office, he clings desperately to a woman sitting in the waiting room. She asks Cyril to ease his grip but still lets him hold on; the moment, his ferocious need, touches something in her.

A few days later, she’s back in his life, having retrieved the boy’s bicycle from the apartment complex. Then she signs up for weekend foster care. Samantha (Cécile de France) owns a salon, has a boyfriend (Laurent Caron), lives a casual urban life. One of the mysteries and consolations of the movie is that she lets Cyril into her world when most other people wouldn’t. There’s very little self-congratulation about The Kid with a Bike, the way there might if Sandra Bullock were starring in the Hollywood version. The Dardennes view her kindness as if it were a flower sprouting in concrete: rare, endangered, hardy.

Cyril doesn’t know what to do with it. Until he exhausts all other options, Samantha is merely a well-meaning distraction, and he kicks hard against what she represents: admitting that his dad no longer cares. With her help, he does locate the father (Jérémie Renier), who, somewhat disappointingly, isn’t an ogre but simply useless — an overgrown child who can’t see past his own inability to parent. The son, who doesn’t ask for pity from either Samantha or the audience, takes matters into his own hands, which leads him to the local drug dealer (Egon de Mateo), himself a former abandoned boy who empathizes with Cyril as much as he uses him.

As I said, you can see how the American remake of this would play, and the After-School Special version, too. The Dardennes don’t telegraph the story’s emotions, though, but let us locate them in the flow of their rigorously natural medium shots. There’s no backstory — Cyril’s mother is gone, never mentioned — and the only obvious touch of sentiment is the occasional burst from the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto on the soundtrack.

Yet, because neither Thomas nor the filmmakers beg for our attention, The Kid With A Bike richly rewards it. Like all their movies — La Promesse (1998), The Son (2002), The Child (2005), etc. — this one peers into society’s margins, bearing witness to mistakes and resilience, mundane acts of cowardice and courage, those lightning moments where one sees one’s options with the clarity they deserve. "It’s him or me,’’ the boyfriend says, fed up with Cyril’s angry outbursts, and we can see that Samantha’s almost grateful to him for making the decision so easy.

The Dardennes achieve lyricism without seeming to try. All the scenes of Cyril on his bike move with the freedom the boy is denied elsewhere; his wheels are his only friends and an extension of his will. At times he appears to be a lonely mechanical centaur. Doret’s performance is solemn and focused all the way to the final image, which comes after one more brush with catastrophe and seems almost a throwaway, just another shot of the kid on his bike. It may only be after you take the disc from the player that you realize what’s different: He’s finally riding toward something rather than away.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Available on DVD: “The Sessions”

The hard part for The Sessions won’t be to win the hearts of audiences. As disarmingly funny and as well acted as it is, director Ben Lewin’s film is all but guaranteed to do that. The trick is persuading people to see it in the first place.

That’s because, although it arrives as one of the most enjoyable DVDs of the young year it is a hard sell, thanks to its deceivingly off-putting one-sentence summary: A man in an iron lung hires a sex surrogate to help him lose his virginity before he dies.

I know that noise I'm hearing is the sound of people clicking through Pete’s Place looking for something a tad more uplifting to rent. It’s also the sound of people making a terrible mistake.

That’s because The Sessions isn’t merely a depressing, less-arty riff on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or some other well-intended but emotionally exhausting film in which courage trumps paralysis. Rather, it is a beautiful and inspiring story that celebrates the human spirit, underscores the value of emotional connections, and invites viewers to laugh along with it at the beautifully embarrassing urges that remind us that we aren’t as far removed from Australopithecus Afarensis as we like to pretend.

It’s also because the man at the center of Lewin’s real-life story isn’t prone to depressing thoughts. Portrayed in an award-worthy turn by the underrated but brilliant John Hawkes, his name is Mark O’Brien and he, after contracting polio as a child, defied all expectations — medical and otherwise — to become a college graduate, a journalist and poet, and, above all, a 38-year-old. All this, despite being unable to move from the neck down and confined for the majority of his day to an iron lung.

It’s a device with which O’Brien has a love-hate relationship. Without it, he’d be unable to breathe on his own. At the same time, though, it has a way of cramping his style with the ladies. And so, afraid of dying before ever knowing the intimacy of sex, he decides to hire a "sex surrogate" — which is apparently a thing — to help him check that particular box off his bucket list.

What’s most impressive about Hawkes’ performance is the way he fills the screen with life and personality despite being able to move only his head, and then only 90 degrees. You want to find out how good an actor is? Take away his toolbox and see what he can do. In Hawkes’ case, he accomplishes something remarkable.

A quiet co-star of such movies such as Winter’s Bone (a role for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Hawkes’ beanpole frame and piercing eyes usually land him roles as grungy and slightly psychopathic felons. In The Sessions, he gets an opportunity to demonstrate his range, and he seizes it. Not only does he change his physical comportment — contorting his slight frame with a frightening degree of believability — but he alters his voice as well. Gone is any hint of the strength or defiance that movie watchers are used to hearing from him. For his O’Brien, even words are work, and so his voice becomes reedy and weak and convincingly laborious.

Despite the broken body, the hollow voice, the reliance on a hulking medical device to stay alive, however, Hawkes makes it clear that his O’Brien is more than the sum of his medical issues. Within the film’s first 15 minutes, his personality and his wry wit take over.

Some of the most amusing moments come during his regular visits to his parish priest (William H. Macy) to talk things out — and to seek pre-emptive absolution for his premeditated fornication. But it is Helen Hunt, as O’Brien’s sex surrogate, who provides the film’s emotional center.

Her name is Cheryl, and she’s a pro, so she approaches it all clinically — very straight-forwardly, very matter-of-factly and very, very nakedly. As caring and supportive as she is of O’Brien’s emotional needs, she makes it clear: to her, sex with him is just an act — just therapy.

It has to be, really, given the potential for emotional entanglements in her line of work. In fact, that’s why they are limited to no more than six sessions together. Still, she isn’t surprised when it becomes more than "just therapy" to O’Brien. She is blindsided, however, when the same happens to her.

The result is a human drama that quietly argues that the gift of life isn’t one to be taken lightly. As such, it’s also stands to be a wonderfully rewarding film, both for Hawkes — who richly deserved the awards he received for this performance and who should have been nominated for an Oscar — and for those reading this smart enough to take a chance on it with a rental.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Available on DVD: “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”

Call it instinct, call it intuition, or some innate talent for defining beauty and style. Or just call it Vreeland.

Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor, society icon, and cultural arbiter, embodied confidence and cool. Her visionary approach to editing — Vreeland had her hands on the pages, and page design, at Harper's Bazaar and Vogue for five decades, beginning in the late 1930s — changed the course of both magazines, and inspired their readers. Readers who could afford the clothes and shoes and jewels, and the many, many more who could only dream.

Bringing dreams to life was what she was about.

Vreeland, who died in 1989 at 86, comes alive herself in the wonderfully illuminating documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. With a lengthy interview session with her friend George Plimpton as the film's narrative spine, Vreeland emerges not only as a woman who embraced couture and culture, but also as someone whose philosophy was built on independent thinking and a recognition of the transformative power of beauty and art.

Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland (a granddaughter-in-law), Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel also boasts interviews with designers (Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta), models (Veruschka, Polly Tree) and photographers (Richard Avedon, Lillian Bassman). Ali MacGraw, who came straight out of college to be Vreeland's assistant, recalls (amusingly) her boss' rigorous working methods. And Vreeland's knack for discovering new faces and trends is remembered; this is the woman who brought the 18-year-old model Lauren Bacall to the world, who counseled Jackie Kennedy on her wardrobe, who hired Twiggy, who hobnobbed with Warhol.

Her life, and her work, transcended what we think of as "fashion." Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel celebrates a unique and uniquely determined woman.

Available on DVD: “A Late Quartet”

Christopher Walken’s gentle, dare we say even normal, portrayal of an acclaimed concert cellist is the main attraction in Yaron Zilberman’s confident filmmaking debut, A Late Quartet. Walken elegantly plays Peter Mitchell, who a quarter century earlier joined three of his students to form the Fugue Quartet, a revered chamber music ensemble.

On the cusp of their 25th anniversary tour, Peter learns he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, putting the quartet’s future in doubt. If he’s still sound enough, their next performance with be Peter’s last.

The chosen piece of music is Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet, Opus 131, one of the maestro’s final works and reportedly one of his favorites. This melancholy opus is composed to be played faster than Peter’s hands can now handle, and intended to be performed without breaks for re-tuning, while strings are stretched off-key.

"It’s a struggle to continually adjust to each other until the end, even if we are out of tune," Peter explains to a class, unwittingly describing the dilemma the Fugue Quartet suddenly faces.

Jealousy, lust and marital strife may implode the group before Peter’s body wears out.

Second violinist Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is unhappily married to violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), staying together only for the music and daughter Alex (Imogen Poots), a promising musician herself. Robert covets the first violin chair held by Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), an arrogant sort without ambition to take risks. Except when it comes to Alex, whose interest in Daniel is a swipe at her parents.

Such urbane Upper East Side roundelays are reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early Manhattan phase, and Zilberman and co-writer Seth Grossman frequently deserve that comparison. A Late Quartet isn’t as stuffy as the subject suggests, prying into these privileged lives with allegro wit and recriminations. The Fugue Quartet and its temperamental indiscretions make it the Fleetwood Mac of chamber music.

Zilberman plays conductor to an indie cinema dream team of actors. That Hoffman and Keener are spot-on in each scene is no surprise; Ivanir’s magnetic brood and the range Poots displays certainly are.

Best of all there’s Walken, masterfully subdued by Peter’s sophistication and illness, yet still eccentric enough to deflect pity. His halting cadence is intact but sadder than usual, as in a monologue recalling a bittersweet meeting with cello legend Pablo Casals. How many surprises and peaks can Walken possibly have left, after so many movies and memorable roles? Well, there’s this one.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Houston trumps everyone with innovative trash plan

"One Day Dallas," a plan to pick up trash and recycling on the same day, was and is a great idea. But now the city of Houston has come up with a better plan: "One Bin for All."

Actually, it’s a throwback to the old days (and the present, if the absence of blue recycling carts in my neighborhood is any indication) when we never recycled at all. We just dumped everything into the garbage cans.

That’s what Houston is doing, except it’s taking everything in that garbage bin to a recycling center of some sort and not a landfill. This has all the earmarks of what some far-sighted Dallas sanitation officials (some of whom, sadly, are no longer making those decisions for the betterment of Dallas residents) wanted to accomplish at the McCommas Bluff Landfill.

A contest started by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg designed to spur innovations in city government awarded Houston’s plan a runner-up prize of $1 million to pursue the idea. Here is the video Houston submitted to the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. Watch it and eat your hearts out. It could have been us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Available on DVD: “The Imposter”

We’ve all wanted at some point in our lives to become someone else, to shed our troubles and responsibilities and start afresh.

French-Algerian con artist Frederic Bourdin made a career of it, assuming throughout the 1990s a series of more than a dozen alter egos that took him across Europe on false passports.

Bourdin’s greatest con brought him in 1997 to America and to a traumatized family in San Antonio, who welcomed the 23-year-old interloper into their home as their long-lost son, Nicholas Barclay, a boy who vanished one day in 1994 when he was 13.

The mother of all stranger-than-fiction yarns, Bourdin’s Texas con is meticulously retold in director Bart Layton’s gripping, hair-raising documentary The Imposter.

Layton turns up the weird by having Bourdin, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, recount his story for us and play himself in the clever dramatic reconstructions.

Bourdin gets under your skin.

"For as long as I remember, I wanted to be someone else. Someone who was acceptable," he says. "Nobody ever gave me a childhood, because to give a kid a childhood you need to love that kid."

Finding himself in Linares, Spain, in 1997, Bourdin decides to seek shelter at an orphanage. Grilled by the authorities, he lets out that he’s American. So begins the con.

A resourceful manipulator and a great storyteller, Bourdin recounts how he called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Virginia to find a missing boy whose identity he could steal.

He picks Nicholas, despite their age difference.

To our astonishment, Nicholas’ family immediately accepts Bourdin as their beloved child. No matter that Bourdin is a dark-haired, brown-eyed, olive-skinned adult with dark stubble, while Nicholas was a blue-eyed, blond child with pale skin.

Everyone buys the lie, including the Spanish authorities, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, and the FBI agent assigned to track down Nicholas’ supposed abductors. (Bourdin claims he had been kidnapped by an international sex slavery ring.)

If The Imposter provides a measure of insight into Bourdin’s pathology — he was the unwanted child of a 17-year-old French girl and an older Algerian man — it provides a searing, laser-sharp emotional portrait of Nicholas’ family, including his mother, Beverly Dollarhide, and his sister Carey Gibson.

Both refuse to accept the FBI’s later findings that Bourdin is a fraud — his fingerprints yield a thick Interpol file detailing his previous scams. It’s unnerving to learn that he always impersonates children.

The Imposter  shows how our beliefs, our sense of truth, are more often shaped by our desires — for love, affection, revenge, closure — than by the facts.

The film leaves us with a couple of nagging questions: Is Bourdin lying to gain our sympathy when he tells about his own traumatic, loveless childhood? Did the family have an ulterior motive for so readily accepting the imposter?

Layton’s dazzling film is an exciting, edge-of-your-seat experience superior to any Hollywood mystery you’re likely to see for a long time.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

NCAA Tournament Predictions

St. Mary's
James Madison
Boise State
Colorado State
Oklahoma State
Saint Louis
Michigan State
Kansas State
New Mexico
Notre Dame
Ohio State
Virginia Commonwealth
San Diego State
North Carolina State
Miami, Fla.
Oklahoma State
Michigan State
Kansas State
New Mexico
Ohio State
Miami, Fla.
Ohio State
Ohio State
Louisvillle 67 Syracuse 65

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Available on DVD: “Keep the Lights On”

When we first meet Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a Danish filmmaker living in New York in 1997, he is on the telephone looking for a casual sexual hookup. He seems fickle and impatient, hanging up on potential partners at the first hint that the chemistry might be wrong, but eventually he finds more or less what he is looking for. Quite a bit more, actually, in the person of Paul (Zachary Booth), even though Paul says he has a steady girlfriend, and Erik is not interested in commitment.

Fate — or whatever force governs the erotic destinies of modern city dwellers — has other plans. Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs’s sensitive, knowing new film (his fifth feature), follows Erik and Paul for more than a decade, during which their relationship blossoms, withers and renews itself like a perennial flower with a peculiar and unpredictable life cycle.

The physical attraction between them is strong and immediate, but they don’t necessarily seem like a promising couple, and not just because Paul is ostensibly straight. That is a minor detail in the greater scheme of things. The more significant obstacle appears to be a temperamental difference.

Erik, who has been desultorily working on a documentary about an avant-garde New York filmmaker, is something of a flake in work and love. His best female friend (Julianne Nicholson) worries indulgently about him. His sister (Paprika Steen) scolds him about his lack of direction, warning him that being "up and coming" is not an appropriate condition for a man in his 30s. With his gap-tooth smile, laid-back posture and unkempt blond hair, Erik seems locked in perpetual, irresponsible boyhood.

Paul, in contrast, presents a more conventionally grown-up face to the world. He is organized, ambitious and professionally well-established, with an important job in book publishing. But one of the most ingenious and convincing aspects of Sachs’s film is the way it allows the characters to move in surprising directions, upending our expectations and their own sense of who they are, individually and to each other.

So it is Paul who proves to be the wayward soul, in danger of losing everything — Erik, his job, his life — to drug addiction. And Erik, at first glance a freer, more hedonistic spirit with a wandering eye and an eager libido, turns out to be a more disciplined and steadfast fellow than anyone might have supposed. He grows out of his dilettantism and promiscuity even as Paul slides perilously in the other direction.

This summary — and I have only sketched the outlines of a wandering, episodic story — makes Keep the Lights On sound much more schematic, more like a morality tale, than it really is. Its subject is not addiction or ambition, or even love in a conventional romantic sense, but rather the more elusive and intriguing matter of intimacy: how it grows, falters and endures over time. The dialogue sometimes has a canned, hectoring sound, as if the actors had been called upon to announce their feelings rather than express them, but the look, mood and rhythm of the film are exquisitely, even thrillingly authentic. In scenes that jump from year to year and linger over significant, ordinary moments, Sachs captures the ways strangers turn into lovers and the equally scary and exciting ways that lovers can remain strangers.

In its commitment to candid, sympathetic emotional exploration, Keep the Lights On invites comparison to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, perhaps the best big-screen love story — gay or straight, vampire or human — in recent memory. That film seemed to telescope a universe of romantic possibility into a single 72-hour stretch, during which a one-night stand between two young British men grew into a profound, life-altering and yet still elusive connection. Sachs takes a longer view, but the films share an interest in mapping the nuances of feeling that arise between men for whom sex is the easy part. They also both examine the complexities of gay life at a time when closets have (mostly) emptied, the threat of AIDS has (largely) diminished and the tide of intolerance has (significantly) receded.

The richness of Sachs’s accomplishment lies in the sense of familiarity he creates, the implicit bond that develops between the couple on the screen and the people in the audience. Even more than Forty Shades of Blue and Married Life, his two most recent films (both well worth renting if you haven’t already), Keep the Lights On feels as if it’s about people you know. I don’t mean that Paul and Erik are recognizable types — since I’ve never met a Danish documentary filmmaker, I couldn’t really say — but rather the opposite. They are so real, so specific, that by the end of the film you feel implicated in their lives, close to them precisely because after all this time, you still don’t understand them completely.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Available on DVD: “Searching for Sugar Man”

He emerged from late-1960s Detroit as a ready-for-mythologizing troubadour, boasting a voice like Cat Stevens and a songwriting style reminiscent of Bob Dylan. He went by the name Rodriguez — just Rodriguez — and, chances are, you’ve never heard of him. Hell, I was a professional music critic at the time and I never heard of him.

That’s because, despite his considerable talent, and despite earning the respect of those in the industry who worked with him on his two long-forgotten studio albums, Rodriguez’ music career never took off with the American public.

For that, you can blame his painful shyness (he was known to perform with his back to the audience) or you can write it all off to some sort of poor planetary alignment. Whatever the reason, Rodriguez — the fascinating subject of the irresistible and inspirational Searching for Sugar Man, part music documentary, part quest, part homage to artists everywhere — had for decades been merely a footnote in American music history.

But as it turns out, an ocean away, unbeknown to most Americans — and least of all to the man himself — the international man of mystery known as Rodriguez was becoming a cultural phenomenon in South Africa.

"In the mid-‘70s if you walked into a random white, liberal middle-class household that had a turntable and a pot of pop records, and if you flipped through the records you would always see Abbey Road by The Beatles, you would always see Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel — and you would always see Cold Fact by Rodriguez," says Steven Sederman, a longtime fan whose unbridled curiosity and thirst for answers W — coupled with that of journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom — provides the fuel for director Mike Bendjelloul’s film. "To us it was one of the most famous records of all times. The message it had was, ‘Be anti-establishment.’"

To this day in South Africa, Rodriguez is — without exaggeration — bigger than Elvis. Part of his popularity there came from the way his music spoke to a population in the throes of its fight against Apartheid and the resulting national self-analysis. Part of it also was in the fact that the South African government banned some of his songs from radio airplay — making it that much more delicious to the country’s naturally rebellious youth.

As important as anything else, though, was the air of intrigue surrounding this mysterious musician, this quiet genius.

"The thing was, we didn’t know who this guy was," Sederman said. "All our other rock stars, we had all the information we needed. But this guy? There was nothing. Then we found out that he had committed suicide. He set himself alight onstage and burned to death in front of the audience. It was the most incredible thing. It wasn’t just a suicide, it was probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history."

But so many questions remained unanswered. Where did Rodriguez come from? Where did he draw his inspiration from? And, most of all, why did he end it all the way he did — if that rumor was even, indeed, true?

Those are the questions at the center of Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, a highly entertaining musical mystery tour that unfolds with the pacing and the allure of a well-told rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale. Benjelloul’s film won the Oscar this year for feature documentary.

At its start, it pretends to be a conventional music doc, though one boasting above-average artistic flourishes, such as brief and wonderfully restrained animated sequences. Then, a third of the way through, it shifts gears and becomes an irresistible detective story. By the time it’s finished, thanks to a wonderfully played twist, Sugar Man becomes the sweetest kind of documentary: a meaningful and inspirational tribute to unrecognized genius everywhere.

After all, Rodriguez is by no means the only artist who — thanks to bad breaks and uncontrollable circumstances — didn’t get the recognition he deserved. There are thousands out there with stories like his — tens of thousands, even — although perhaps not quite as dramatic. One gets the feeling, though, that his story — the details of which are difficult to discuss without giving anything away — had to play out the way that it did.

Bendjelloul gets that, and he makes the most of it. Perhaps his most masterful stroke in his Sundance-decorated film is the way he gets his audience so emotionally invested in the story of a man most had never heard of before. Part of that is because Rodriguez’ tale is such an inspirational one, but part of it also is that Benjelloul packages it in such an embraceable and entertaining way.

Recently, in a fit of pique and overgeneralization, I dismissively told a fellow movie fan that music documentaries are all the same. So many of them follow such a strict formula, I said — with full knowledge that I was overstating things, but no desire to temper myself — that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.

Two days later, I saw Searching for Sugar Man, and it was all that was necessary to remind me that generalization is a fool’s pursuit — and that all music docs are not created equal. Yes, some are formulaic. But some are beautiful, some are singular, some are marvels of storytelling.

And some, like Searching for Sugar Man, are all three.

Monday, March 11, 2013

My Top Basketball Teams

This will be my last ratings for the season. Let's hear it for March Madness. Last week's rank in  parenthesis.
1.  Gonzaga 30-2 (2)
2.  Indiana 26-5 (1)
3.  Duke 27-4 (3)
4.  Louisville 26-5 (4)
5.  Kansas 26-5 (5)
6.  Florida 24-6 (6)
7.  Michigan 25-6 (7)
8.  Michigan State 24-7 (10)
9.  Ohio State 23-7 (12)
10. Georgetown 24-5 (9)
11. Miami, Fla. 24-6 (8)
12. New Mexico 26-5 (13)
13. Pittsburgh 24-7 (14)
14. Syracuse 23-8 (11)
15. Marquette 23-7 (17)
16. Oklahoma State 23-7 (16)
17. Arizona 24-6 (18)
18. Kansas State 25-6 (19)
19. St. Louis 24-6 (20)
20. Virginia Commonwealth 24-7 (21)
21. Wisconsin 21-10 (15)
22. Creighton 27-7 (25)
23. Memphis 27-4 (23)
24. St. Mary's, Calif. 27-5 (24)
25. Colorado State 24-7 (NR)
Dropped out: Minnesota (22)
1.  Baylor 31-1 (1)
2.  Notre Dame 29-1 (3)
3.  Connecticut 28-3 (2)
4.  Stanford 31-2 (4)
5.  Duke 30-2 (5)
6.  California 28-3 (6)
7.  Kentucky 27-5 (7)
8.  Penn State 25-5 (8)
9.  North Carolina 28-6 (11)
10. Tennessee 24-7 (10)
11. Maryland 24-7 (9)
12. Texas A&M 24-9 (13)
13. UCLA 25-7 (14)
14. Louisville 24-7 (12)
15. Iowa State 23-7 (20)
16. Delaware 27-3 (15)
17. Colorado 25-6 (16)
18. Nebraska 23-8 (18)
19. Wisconsin-Green Bay 26-2 (21)
20. Syracuse 24-6 (25)
21. Purdue 24-8 (NR)
22. South Carolina 24-7 (19)
23. Michigan State 24-8 (24)
24. Dayton 27-2 (17)
25. Georgia 25-6 (22)
Dropped out: Texas Tech (23)
1.  Miami 47-14 (1)
2.  San Antonio 48-15 (2)
3.  Oklahoma City 47-16 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Clippers 45-20 (4)
5.  Memphis 42-19 (5)
6.  Denver 42-22 (6)
7.  Indiana 39-24 (7)
8.  New York 38-22 (8)
9.  Brooklyn 37-26 (10)
10. Chicago 35-28 (9)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Available on DVD: “Farewell My Queen”

Farewell, My Queen, Benoit Jacquot’s tense, absorbing, pleasurably original look at three days in the life and lies of a doomed monarch, opens with a young woman shaking off sleep and scratching mosquito bites on her arm. It’s a lovely arm, as no less than Marie Antoinette (the well-cast Diane Kruger) proclaims. The young woman is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux, fittingly recessive), who serves as the queen’s reader. Smitten as well as bitten, Sidonie adores the queen and luxuriates in her good graces. Sidonie also reads plays, novels and even fashion magazines to the queen as Marie Antoinette lazes in her bed at Versailles, pretty as a Fragonard picture while France violently seethes.

France hadn’t fully erupted when Sidonie wakes at dawn on July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille fell. For Sidonie, the morning seems like any other with an early rise, a splash of lavender water and a jittery dash to the queen’s quarters. On her way Sidonie slips to the ground, suggesting her subservience and foreshadowing the greater fall to come. As usual in this deftly handled movie, Jacquot doesn’t linger on the obvious, in this case her tumble, but cuts to Sidonie looking around, as if to see if anyone has noticed. At Versailles etiquette was all. And "life at court," the 17th-century moralist Jean de La Bruyère wrote, "is a serious, melancholy game."

It’s a game that grows progressively more dangerous as the minutes race by in this efficiently plotted movie, which was written by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand and based on a novel by the French writer Chantal Thomas. It seems possible that Jacquot also dipped into Thomas’s Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, a cultural history that explores the mythifying of the queen largely through the pamphlets written about her. Widely disseminated before the revolution and even after heads began rolling, the pamphlets started off as fairly benign, more Us Weekly than Foreign Affairs — Marie Antoinette’s imperial bouffant was mocked along with her manners — but later become more pointed and politically expedient.

By 1789 the tone of the pamphlets had turned, in Thomas’s words, "from laughter to reprobation." Marie Antoinette was attacked from nose tip to toe, her body becoming a symbolic site of battle. Specifically it was a foreign (she was Austrian), increasingly sexualized body that, as the antiroyalist rhetoric heated up, became perversity incarnate. She was accused of participating in orgies and carrying on with other women. (At her trial in 1793 she was also accused of incest with her son.) The author of one pamphlet feverishly wrote that her mirrors multiplied "all the finer points of her venereal gymnastics." The propagandistic usefulness of the tracts was as naked as the queen’s lust was said to be, as in the 1789 screed The Austrian Woman on the Rampage, or the Royal Orgy.

Not for nothing does Jacquot set the movie’s first major sequence in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at Versailles, using it as a stage to introduce some of the larger dramas unfolding at the palace. This set piece opens shortly after Sidonie takes her introductory spill. Her dress muddied, she runs up the stairs to the queen’s bedroom, only to be scolded for her tardiness by Madame Campan (Noémie Lvovsky, a sly scene stealer), the tremulously watchful lady-in-waiting. As they are about to enter the chamber, a third woman, later identified as Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), loudly flounces out of Marie Antoinette’s bedroom without casting a single look at the hovering women and guards. Palace rumor has it that this is the queen’s lover, and she plays the court game well.

If the rules and the players of this continuing, increasingly dangerous court intrigue remain obscure, it’s because Farewell, My Queen is told through Sidonie’s eyes. She isn’t a privileged witness to history (or an all-knowing character), but she’s resourceful. Tapping her palace sources, notably an archivist (Michel Robin) and a dressmaker (Anne Benoît), Sidonie learns of news known only to the nobility and their trusted stewards: that the Bastille has been seized. "What will happen to us?" she asks, eyes wide. Her limited knowledge combined with what history tells us (even in foggy memory) invests the movie with the shiver of a murder mystery. Like everyone else she doesn’t have the answer to that question, but the fear in their faces suggests that they already know.

This is the first of Jacquot’s movies to be released on DVD in the United States in several years, and it’s a welcome return. (His films include A Single Girl, with the teenage Ledoyen.) Jacquot has always been a sensitive director of actresses, his sympathies evident in his caressing, sometimes ogling camerawork and the time and space he gives women and their stories. That sympathy is evident here too, though crucially, while he doesn’t demonize Marie Antoinette, he doesn’t turn her into a spurious feminist martyr. He tends not to trumpet his politics; he does brandish a few dead rats, some of Versailles’s other inhabitants. But because he shows you what Sidonie sees in the queen — and what the queen sees in Gabrielle — he finds truths beyond the era’s misogynist propaganda.

Farewell, My Queen has none of the mustiness or preciosity that can turn costume dramas into waxworks. Jacquot shot much of it at Versailles, which deepens the period verisimilitude, yet while the gilded rooms and satin clothes look sumptuous if often suitably absurd, almost clownish, the people in them breathe. That’s even true in several stunning scenes when the palace nobles, having heard the bad news from Paris, wander the halls in a daze, their bodies shadowed by the wavering candlelight, their unanswered servant bells ringing. Jacquot isn’t seeking pity for these walking dead — the movie is neither a political argument nor a trivializing fantasy — but, as he does with Marie Antoinette, he grants them a kind of measured absolution just by recognizing their humanity.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Morning News’s college sports coverage is a disgrace

Too often I get confused reading the sports pages of the Dallas Morning News these days because, if I didn’t know better, I would think I was reading the Bryan Eagle.

For some unknown reason, the idiots running the sports department at the News have assigned a writer (Kate Hairopoulos) to cover Texas A&M sports full time, while the local college team — a team incidentally coached by a basketball legend — is, for all practical purposes ignored.

I can’t remember the last time I picked up a copy of the News when it didn’t run the Southeast Conference basketball standings. Why? The only school in that conference is almost 200 miles outside of Dallas. Yet, try to find an instance when the paper ran the Conference USA standings.

If you’re a regular reader of the Morning News sports section, you probably have no idea what Conference USA is. That’s the conference that SMU plays in. If you’re a regular reader of the Morning News sports section, you probably have no idea what SMU is. That’s a Dallas based university whose basketball team is coached by one Larry Brown, the only basketball coach in history to coach a team to an NCAA championship (at Kansas in 1988) and an NBA championship (the Detroit Pistons in 2004).

Next year SMU will play in what was the Big East Conference, which has a far stronger basketball legacy than the SEC.

Take a look at today’s paper as an example. On Page 8C, the page the News set aside as its college basketball page, Hairopoulos’ story on an absolutely meaningless game between A&M and LSU is spread across all six columns at the top of the page. Presumably, the paper picked up the tab to send her to College Station. Meanwhile, the non-staff written SMU game story (courtesy of the Associated Press) — the school’s final game of the season — begins two lines from the bottom of the page. True, Tulsa, where SMU played, is 50 miles farther from Dallas, than College Station, but that would not have stopped a legitimate sports editor of a Dallas daily from placing a higher coverage priority on SMU-Tulsa than A&M-LSU.

Earlier this season, I attended SMU’s game with Memphis, the only Conference USA team to be in the nation’s Top 25 this season. That game was never even mentioned in the sports pages of the Morning News. Not an "advance" story before the game — played right here in Dallas, for crying out loud — or a game story the next day.

In this day of the Internet and 24-hour cable news and sports, there’s only reason for a newspaper to exist: To cover local news. The News sports department does an admirable job covering the local professional sports teams. It’s way past time to devote that same attention to the local college sports teams.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Available on DVD “Compliance”

Confining extremes of human behavior to a single, drab room, Compliance, the squirmy sophomore feature from the writer and director Craig Zobel, is a slow-motion punch to the groin. As such, it’s fitting that one of our first sights is a large "NO" stenciled in the parking lot of a fast-food joint in suburban Ohio: as the film progresses, the word becomes a silent mantra for viewers who can’t quite believe what they’re seeing.

Distracted by the challenges of a busy Friday, the restaurant supervisor, Sandra (a marvelous Ann Dowd), is further harried by a telephone call from a man claiming to be a police officer investigating a theft by Sandra’s young counter assistant, Becky (Dreama Walker). Middle-aged, a little worn and competent within the limits of a job that doesn’t require much critical thinking, Sandra agrees to search Becky and her belongings. But when nothing is found the caller (perfectly played by Pat Healy) becomes more demanding.

Alternating flattery and intimidation, he persuades the women that a strip search will save Becky from jail and earn Sandra the approval of her regional manager.

But that’s only the beginning. Based on a 2004 incident at a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Ky. (and roughly 70 similar hoaxes nationwide), this psychological horror movie slithers rapidly from uncomfortable to unspeakable. And inasmuch as this level of sordidness can be handled tastefully, Zobel succeeds in expunging all titillation from Becky’s ordeal.

As her humiliations — and our incredulity — escalate, the director periodically allows us some relief, backing his camera out of the storeroom where Becky is confined to check on her mystified colleagues. Snapshots of greasy fries and slimy grills pump up the unsavory atmosphere, while Heather McIntosh’s ominous, cello-driven score plucks our nerves and stirs our stomachs.

Raising troubling questions about the influence of class and education on our response to authority, Zobel cares less about charges of exploitation than about making us feel the monstrousness of the behavior on view. (A sequence involving Sandra’s bewildered boyfriend, brilliantly handled by Bill Camp, teeters right on the edge of plausibility.)

But it’s Sandra herself who carries most of the film’s ethical baggage, her subtle resentment of her attractive prisoner complicating her apparently mindless actions. A brief coda emphasizes the character’s pathos — and wonders if obeying orders is ever a valid moral defense — but makes empathy no easier. And maybe that’s as it should be.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Available on DVD: “Samsara”

Susan Sontag concluded her book On Photography with a plea for "an ecology of images," an approach to making and reproducing photographs that would protect both the meaning of particular pictures and the integrity of the reality they depict. Since the 1970s, when the essays in Sontag’s book were written, the global glut of images has grown almost beyond measure. In the age of Instagram and Google Earth it is easy to believe — it is sometimes hard not to believe — that every inch of the planet, every human face and patch of wilderness, has been snapped up and uploaded. We have seen it all.

Ron Fricke’s film, Samsara, shot in a grand and vibrant 70-millimeter format — including some remarkable time-lapse photography — is partly a Sontagian case for sustainability. Or, to adapt the food-obsessed ecological language of the moment, it presents a visual argument for slow looking, for careful, meditative attention to what is seen. A spool of arresting, beautifully composed shots without narration or dialogue, Samsara is an invitation to watch closely and to suspend interpretation (another notion Sontag might have approved).

There are some interesting paradoxes clinging to this project. The first and most obvious is that the exquisite singularity of Fricke’s images is overwhelmed, and perhaps undermined, by their sheer abundance and variety. His camera seems to float through the world, hovering above rivers, oceans and forests and then alighting on nearly every continent.

He has an eye, behind the camera and in the editing room (where he worked with the film’s producer, Mark Magidson), for reflections and patterns. The structure of Samsara, which is propelled by the breathy, resonant hum of music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, is like that of a poem or a sonata, a complex tissue of rhymes and motifs.

The film’s title is a Sanskrit word that means "the ever-turning wheel of life," and a loose and sometimes playful sense of the connectedness of everything pervades its 99 minutes. Traveling across 25 countries, to cities and rural outposts, you are invited to notice resemblances. People in factories and animals in factory farms, worshipers and prisoners, dancers and undulating waves — these things exist in a visual and choreographic harmony that allows you to infer themes that link them: work in the global economy, the state of the environment, the interactions and collisions between industry and nature.

But arresting as these images are, they may also be familiar, especially if you have been keeping up with the recent spate of documentaries that investigate the state of the modern world. The chickens and pigs in processing plants might remind you of Food Inc., while shots of crowded third-world slums, Chinese sulfur mines and transvestite prostitutes seem drawn from the lexicon of photojournalism and cinematic consciousness-raising.

This is not a matter of copying but rather a symptom of the visual information glut that alarmed Sontag. The only way to restore the power of images in a world inundated with them is, it seems, to make more, and to produce a context that will make them strange rather than obvious to the point of invisibility. Fricke did something like that 20 years ago with his film Baraka, a precursor to Samsara, and both films owe a clear debt to the work of Godfrey Reggio, on whose 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi Fricke worked as a cinematographer.

Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, with its Philip Glass music and its rapid cascade of intuitively associated images, stands as a monument of socially conscious head-trip cinema. Baraka and Samsara seem, in comparison, more accessible and perhaps a little softer. While they do challenge the viewer’s habits of perception — wrenching us temporarily out of our addiction to story and into a state of reflective reverie — they are also likely to soothe as much as they provoke. The world Samsara gives us is strange and beautiful, and in places disturbing, but it also seems manageable, even in its vastness, and perhaps too easily consumed through beautiful images.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My Top Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Indiana 25-4 (1)
2.  Gonzaga 29-2 (4)
3.  Duke 25-4 (2)
4.  Louisville 24-5 (7)
5.  Kansas 25-4 (6)
6.  Florida 23-5 (3)
7.  Michigan 24-5 (5)
8.  Miami, Fla. 23-5 (8)
9.  Georgetown 23-4 (11)
10. Michigan State 22-7 (9)
11. Syracuse 22-7 (10)
12. Ohio State 21-7 (13)
13. New Mexico 25-4 (14)
14. Pittsburgh 23-7 (16)
15. Wisconsin 20-9 (15)
16. Oklahoma State 22-6 (17)
17. Marquette 21-7 (19)
18. Arizona 23-6 (12)
19. Kansas State 24-5 (18)
20. St. Louis 23-5 (22)
21. Virginia Commonwealth 23-6 (24)
22. Minnesota 20-9 (23)
23. Memphis 25-4 (20)
24. St Mary's, Calif. 26-5 (NR)
25. Creighton 24-7 (NR)
Dropped out: Colorado State (21), UNLV (25)
1.  Baylor 28-1 (1)
2.  Connecticut 27-2 (2)
3.  Notre Dame 27-1 (4)
4.  Stanford 28-2 (5)
5.  Duke 27-2 (3)
6.  California 27-2 (6)
7.  Kentucky 25-4 (9)
8.  Penn State 24-4 (8)
9.  Maryland 23-6 (7)
10. Tennessee 23-6 (10)
11. North Carolina 26-5 (12)
12. Louisville 23-6 (13)
13. Texas A&M 21-9 (11)
14. UCLA 23-6 (19)
15. Deleware 26-3 (18)
16. Colorado 24-5 (17)
17. Dayton 26-1 (21)
18. Nebraska 22-7 (20)
19. South Carolina 23-6 (14)
20. Iowa State 20-7 (15)
21. Wisconsin Green Bay 24-2 (24)
22. Georgia 24-5 (16)
23. Texas Tech 21-8 (23)
24. Michigan State 22-7 (25)
25. Syracuse 22-6 (22)
1.  Miami 43-14 (2)
2.  San Antonio 47-14 (1)
3.  Oklahoma City 43-16 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Clippers 43-19 (4)
5.  Memphis 39-19 (5)
6.  Denver 38-22 (6)
7.  Indiana 38-22 (7)
8.  New York 25-21 (NR)
9.  Chicago 34-26 (9)
10. Brooklyn 34-26 (10)
Dropped out: Golden State (8)