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 Fencer
Written and directed by Klaus Härö
CFI Releasing
Opens July 21, Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema

The Fencer, Finland’s official entry for the 2016 Academy Awards, offers an understated blend of sports story and historical drama, based on a true tale of post–World War II life. Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a young man who, with his beard and his chunky knit sweater, wouldn’t be out of place on the L train, escapes the secret police in Leningrad and installs himself in Estonia, where he becomes a teacher. An accomplished fencer, Nelis decides to teach the sport to his students, who take surprising interest in it. Despite its visual appeal, fencing isn’t a sport that has been widely represented in film, and its graceful gestures prove compelling onscreen. Nelis’s class includes both boys and girls, and, admirably, director Klaus Härö doesn’t treat the girls’ interest in the sport as a point of controversy, though school authorities scoff at the notion of a fencing club for anyone. This doesn’t mean the women onscreen are particularly bold: Nelis’s love interest, Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), doesn’t have much personality, and their relationship plays like an afterthought. Härö’s camera often lingers on Nelis’s back as the terse protagonist walks away from us. He’s difficult to know, and he has secrets. The palette is muted, like a faded photograph, and tense scenes are underplayed. Inevitably, Nelis takes his students to compete in a climactic tournament, a cliché of sports films, but this one, with its historical setting and children taking to the ring, isn’t played for the usual high-octane drama. That’s refreshing, but The Fencer is ultimately too staid: It’s at its best when Nelis shows the art of fencing to his students and the elegant yet dangerous swords are wielded. Abbey Bender

 

The Pulitzer at 100
Directed by Kirk Simon
First Run Features
Opens July 21, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

This slick new doc purports to survey the century-long history of the Pulitzer Prizes in just ninety minutes, but that mission seems less urgent to the filmmakers than does the task of dazzling us with appearances by luminaries of journalism, belles lettres, and music. Prize winners — including Paula Vogel, Ayad Akhtar, David Remnick, Junot Díaz, Tracy K. Smith, Nicholas Kristof, Wynton Marsalis, Robert A. Caro, and on and on — appear in personable interviews, happy to tell us what a Pulitzer has meant to them, always in a humble sort of way, and often with some lamenting of who didn’t get a prize. (Composer John Adams cites a Rushmore’s worth of omissions, including John Cage, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.) It’s nice to see everyone, but the analysis never runs too deep; I feel for NYU’s Cyrus Patell, whose statement that “The Pulitzer Prize is a reminder that excellence matters” sounds, as spliced in here, like the first line of a video they might show a new intern at Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall. The film picks up as it presses the argument that the history of the Pulitzer for journalism is the history of twentieth-century America, though its thumbnail examinations of Prize-winning reporting emphasize only recent decades. A quick look at the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s heroic coverage of the aftermath of Katrina serves as a reminder that journalism can thrive most in times of hardship. And who would oppose hearing one more round of Watergate–Washington Post war stories? Celebrities read too-short excerpts from fiction, poetry, and drama Prize-winners: John Lithgow recites Robert Frost and reads from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; Natalie Portman reads Jorie Graham and Eudora Welty; Helen Mirren takes on Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Biographers of Joseph Pulitzer acknowledge that maybe the great man shouldn’t have front-paged us into the Spanish-American War, but the film zips right on to something else. Alan Scherstuhl

 

The Midwife
Written and directed by Martin Provost
Music Box Films
Opens July 21, Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center

Not a whole lot happens in The Midwife, but there’s never a dull moment, thanks to the opposing yet equally stellar performances by the two Catherines in the lead. Catherine Frot plays the midwife, a timid, middle-aged woman named Claire whose mundane day-to-day is disrupted when a figure from her past comes back into her life. That would be Catherine Deneuve’s Béatrice, the ex-lover of Claire’s late father. Béatrice, recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, wants to make things right, but it’s too little, too late — Claire’s father, stricken with depression when Béatrice left him, committed suicide many years ago. Claire’s polite demeanor, worn down with resentment, resurfaces with Béatrice’s return. Deneuve gives the firecracker performance to Frot’s more understated one, as a woman who remains stubborn until her dying day, who refuses to give up the good things in life; even with her health deteriorating, Béatrice continues to eat red meat with red wine. It all builds to a turning point — that should be no surprise — when Claire and Béatrice find common ground and start to enjoy each other’s company. Director Martin Provost doesn’t do this with a showy aha moment. Rather, he illustrates the shift with subtle behavior. There’s a scene later in the film where Claire, who usually doesn’t put much effort into her appearance, is seen applying lipstick and perfume before a date, mirroring an earlier scene in which Béatrice does the same. Béatrice may be a tornado of a presence, but her influence teaches Claire to live a little, too. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

Amnesia
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Film Movement
Opens July 21, Cinema Village

A December-May friendship blooms amongst postcard-perfect views in Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia. This two-hander is light on plot, but the emotional baggage its leads carry is anything but. Spry septuagenarian Martha (Marthe Keller) leads a quiet life on the coast of Ibiza after abandoning her native Germany before World War II. It’s now 1990 and Martha still refuses to speak her native tongue (or even acknowledge she understands the language). Her new mid-twenties neighbor Jo (Max Reimelt) befriends her after he injures himself and the two kick off an easy friendship. Under Schroeder’s direction, Keller and Riemelt deliver wistful, earnest performances that almost make up for the script’s shortcomings, which include, in this story about keeping the past in the dark, forced references to amnesia and unnecessary real estate b-story. Jo — a fellow German and aspiring DJ hoping to spin at a club called… Amnesia — opens up his life to Martha, ignorant of their shared homeland until her secret slips. When Jo’s family visits, everyone is forced to reckon with their roles in Germany’s history. The entire film is an extended flashback, save for about 90 seconds of Martha literally sitting on a wall, remembering that summer with Jo after the fall of another wall, in Berlin. How much more on-the-nose can it get? Amnesia‘s uneasy marriage of confronting Nazi legacies and exploring Ibiza’s early club scene doesn’t always work; but when it does, it’s as sweet and smile-worthy as watching Keller gently jam to EDM. Tatiana Craine

 

Killing Ground
Written and directed by Damien Power
IFC Midnight
Opens July 21, IFC Center

We may have decided for the moment that scary rural Americans are off-limits for demonization, lest we somehow drive them further into the hands of the loathsome politicians they already adore. But hey, scary rural Australians are still fair game! It’s been a long time since Crocodile Dundee painted the outback-survivalist archetype as pleasantly PG; here, a couple on a camping trip stop by a pub, ask the wrong person for directions, and before long are targeted by an aggressively nervous sexual predator and his all-business, leave-no-evidence, gun-slinging partner. It’s standard Texas Chain Saw Massacre formula, but first-time feature director Damien Power mixes things up, literally, by telling the first part of the story from three different perspectives and out of chronological order. There’s the nice couple, there’s the pair of killers, and there’s a family of four who’ve chosen the same campsite. Eventually the timelines converge, things get nasty, and you learn real fast that this is one of those “realistic” horror movies that wallows in seriously ugly acts. What the film doesn’t do, much to its credit, is make the killers into charismatically “cool” villains, à la Wolf Creek‘s Mick Taylor. Just as serial killers in real life tend to be awkward dorks when caught, these are bad guys who’d be utterly pathetic if they didn’t bitterly cling to their guns, so to speak. Thankfully, despite his realistic tone, Power isn’t about to pull a Michael Haneke and deprive you of the catharsis you expect. He just makes getting there a brutal drive. Luke Y. Thompson

 

First Kill
Directed by Steven C. Miller
Lionsgate
Opens July 21, Cinema Village

Remember when Bruce Willis used to be in good shit? I don’t know what made your favorite smartass action hero decide to go the Nicolas Cage route and slum through straight-to-VOD schlock. Maybe dude has house payments. But years of witnessing this decline have taught me to wince every time I see his name. In First Kill, he plays an ornery small-town police chief who springs into action when a bank gets robbed and a dead cop’s body is located in the woods. Also involved is a Wall Street broker (Hayden Christensen) who has returned to his hometown with his family, looking to teach his son (Ty Shelton) how to be a man by taking him on a hunting trip. Now he must try to save his son when one of the robbers (Gethin Anthony) takes him hostage. Kill is one of those instances when you can see the cast and the filmmakers — director Steven C. Miller, who already used Willis to populate his cheapo action-thrillers Extraction and Marauders — making a valiant effort to come up with an appealing flick, even though the script is needlessly convoluted and filled with horrible ideas and you-knew-that-was-coming twists. Christensen is impressive as a man who uses his wits and keeps cool. His straight-faced dedication is quite the contrast to the blatant disgust Willis reveals in his performance (and, really, for the whole movie). This actually makes First Kill a surprisingly fascinating study of two leading actors — the younger actor still gives a fuck, while the veteran obviously has zero fucks left — and what they do with the mediocre material they’re given. Craig D. Lindsey

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