Film

Tracking Shots: This Week in Film

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The Village Voice reviews most movies opening in New York. Here are some you may have missed.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography
Directed by Errol Morris
Neon
Opens June 30, Film Society of Lincoln Center

Documentarian Errol Morris’s latest is a significantly more playful and understated film than the work he’s been recognized for in recent years. In The B-Side the photographer Elsa Dorfman recalls her decades of taking portraits using large-format Polaroid cameras. She’s a chatty subject, and the film has the feel of an engaging doodle, as Dorfman guides us through her archive, rarely dwelling on one picture or figure for too long (though she does discuss her long friendship with Allen Ginsberg, whom she shot in some startling ways). The pictures are so huge that when she holds them out for Morris’s lens the images often cover her up. There’s something there, we sense, about how the person behind the camera engages with their subject, but Morris prefers to let the idea just hang there, visually, instead of going too far into it. That’s not a problem. Portrait photography can have a frozen, cast-in-stone quality, but the Dorfman images seen here capture the immediacy of the moment; there’s an ephemerality to them. The reason might be embedded in the title of the movie: The “B sides” in question are the photos she has kept in her archive, which are often the ones rejected by her clients. These discards, we come to learn, reveal more about the subjects and the circumstances of the photographic instant than more polished portraits ever could. The implication is that there’s resonance in imperfection, depth in disposability. The same could be said of this slight, fascinating little movie. Bilge Ebiri

 

Pop Aye
Written and directed by Kirsten Tan
Kino Lorber
Opens June 28, Film Forum

The setup of Kirsten Tan’s contemplative journeys-with-an-elephant comedy is commonplace. In middle age, an architect feels out of step with his industry and lost in his marriage, so he seizes an unlikely memory from his past, from a time when his life (and his country) seemed to hold promise. That memory: the elephant Popeye, spotted on the streets of Bangkok, all grown up after boy and beast had spent a childhood together outside a remote village. Being a movie protagonist in want of a premise, that architect (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) buys the aged pachyderm and elects to stop going to work so that he can guide Popeye back to their old stamping grounds. (Making this decision easier for him is the fact that his wife hides a vibrator in the closet, a revelation the architect takes as a betrayal.) Their adventure, of course, ranges not just across Thailand’s roads but into its recent history. The hero and his lumbering companion, once wild in the country, simply don’t fit into the world our architect literally built — and that now is being built over again. What’s singular here is the duo’s disquieting encounters with sex workers and the homeless. Tan’s Thailand is in cruel transition: The wealthy are building towers, the poor are bereft of opportunity, and people who once lived close to the land now bide their time in characterless apartments. At least Popeye, played by a beast named Bong, is a source of joy, especially when the architect, in a superb long take, takes about a full minute to clamber atop him. Alan Scherstuhl

 

Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge
Directed by Marie Nöelle
The Society for Arts/Society Films
Opens June 30, Village East Cinema

During her lifetime, Marie Curie was seen as an anomaly, not a pioneer. Writer-director Marie Nöelle (The Anarchist’s Wife) and co-screenwriter Andrea Stoll capture this in their fragmentary biopic set between 1905 and ’11, when Curie’s legacy was far from assured despite her major achievements. It opens and closes with Nobel ceremonies: Marie (Karolina Gruszka) travels to Stockholm with husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), to accept a shared physics prize (after giving birth to their second daughter), and Curie returns to receive a solo medal for chemistry after setbacks and scandal. Nöelle’s portrait is untidy and jittery, her Marie methodical and impetuous. To judge by the dialogue, all that concerned Curie was science and love (Pierre offered both); there’s little reference to all that she had to overcome to pursue her work, which included developing the theory of radioactivity and initiating its medical use. Madame Curie was an outsider, born Maria Sklodowska in Poland (her nickname was Mania), and held progressive beliefs that put her at odds with Parisian society. But Nöelle’s biggest concern is reclaiming Marie as a woman, and she uses nudity as a reminder of the female body beneath Curie’s utilitarian clothing. In photographs, the real-life Curie wore a dour expression and appeared nearly asexual. Here she’s a mercurial woman dealing with personal trials and professional obstacles, more concerned with finding passion and achieving her goals than being a role model. Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge is essentially a swooning romance, with science as the binding energy. Serena Donadoni

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