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.

From the Land of the Moon
Directed by Nicole Garcia
Sundance Selects
Opens July 28, IFC Center

From the Land of the Moon is an elegantly shot tale of l’amour fou that could be eyeroll-inducing were its leads not so charismatic. In post–World War II France, Gabrielle (Marion Cotillard), a free-spirited but troubled sophisticate, is married against her will to a farmer, José (Àlex Brendemühl). Sent to a sanatorium to recuperate from health issues, Gabrielle meets the excellently named André Sauvage (Louis Garrel), a handsome injured veteran with whom she begins an affair. Garrel, with his bedroom gaze and Roman nose, makes a fine foil to the coarse husband, but at times the emphasis upon his sensitivity (he plays piano! he has elegant hands! he reads!) is a touch too obvious. It’s inevitable that Gabrielle and André will end up making love — director Nicole Garcia photographs them in sculptural tableaux straight out of a romance novel. In the final act, the narrative takes a twist that veers into the realm of psychological horror. This reveal (which I won’t spoil here) is borderline absurd but fits in with the overheated, tragic narrative. Cotillard, her character suffering from vaguely defined physical and mental illness, gives a performance reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani in the Seventies and Eighties — all wide, sad blue eyes and bodily flailing. The film could be shorter and perhaps more logical, and as the soap opera drama builds, the timeline becomes muddled. Still, there’s something pleasantly old-fashioned about its commitment to grandiose emotion. The enduring image is of Cotillard, in a demure sweater and long skirt, gazing from a distance at the dreamy Garrel. From the Land of the Moon prioritizes a woman’s longing and casts everything in a gauzy, melodramatic light. Abbey Bender

 

Water and Sugar: Carlo Di Palma, The Colours of Life
Directed by Fariborz Kamkari
Opens July 28, Film Society of Lincoln Center

I guess” is the animating sentiment of Water and Sugar, a ninety-minute documentary about the Italian cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (1925–2004), whose life and accomplishments are touted here with all the excitement of an afternoon nap. Ken Loach, seated in a banquet hall, argues that the Second World War’s defeat of fascist forces led to “a certain kind of cinema, which was about people, it was about what we have in common.” Woody Allen, reclined on a sofa in a screening room, observes of Di Palma, who shot twelve movies for him, “Whatever he did just always looked good.” Even less specific is Alec Baldwin, who states, with cringeworthy conviction, “All of the great, great, great cinematographers of the last 25, 30 years — and for Carlo for many years — they’re the same. They focus you. They remind you it is an art. We are here to make art.” Sure! None of this is any fun to report: Water and Sugar, directed with a light hand by Fariborz Kamkari, was produced by the subject’s widow, Adriana Chiesa Di Palma, who frequently, superfluously, appears onscreen. (Several interviews are framed with her in the shot; there’s also a beat that shows her putting her car into park.) It’s a vital and worthwhile project to unpack Di Palma’s career — he was on the front lines of the neorealism movement, in the Forties; two decades later, he made, with Michelangelo Antonioni, some of the most celebrated color works in the medium’s history — but Water and Sugar misses the mark. Instead of close readings, or even just a clean, simple biographical sketch, the movie proceeds rather like a celebrity version of Guess Who? (This new film accompanies the Film Society’s “Shot by Carlo Di Palma” retrospective.) Danny King

 

It Stains the Sands Red
Directed by Colin Minihan
Dark Sky Films
Opens July 28, Nitehawk Cinema

There’s much to like about Colin Minihan’s new zombie film, It Stains the Sands Red. There’s Brittany Allen’s portrayal of the lead character, Molly — level-headed enough to grab plenty of water at the outset of an unexpected trek across the desert, but so gripped by her vices that she also snags her vodka and cocaine. There’s her pursuer, a tireless shambler she nicknames “Smalls” (Juan Riedinger), with his tattered suit and ravenous, blood-caked snarl, whom Molly eventually begins to regard less as an immediate threat and more as just another asshole she can’t get rid of, in a life that has probably been full of them. Then there’s the spareness of the action. Undead hordes are distilled down to one woman vs. one zombie, recontextualizing the apocalypse on a personal scale: Molly doesn’t know who Smalls was, but she knows he was somebody. While certainly flawed, Molly is compassionate and resourceful, and worth rooting for. As is the film itself: What could have been a wordless slog is inventive and even buoyant, as Molly crosses the baked Nevada landscape. And then, like a dog turd lurking in the middle of a jelly doughnut, a needless, brutal rape scene poisons the whole experience. Rob Staeger

 

Sled Dogs
Directed by Fern Levitt
Search Engine
Opens July 28, Cinema Village

Fern Levitt’s doc-exposé Sled Dogs lifts the heart before tearing it out. The film opens with a gorgeous, credulous survey of Alaska’s annual Iditarod dogsled race, which finds canine teams dashing across a thousand miles of tundra. Mushers and veterinarians tout the athleticism of the dogs, their stout hearts, and the majesty of their achievement, all scored to generic music that might come from a spigot marked “The Sound of Sports Triumphalism.” We’re all grown-ups, though, so you shouldn’t be surprised that forced runs of forty miles at a time turn out not to be as big a thrill for the dogs. One activist notes, “They compare their dogs to human super-athletes, but humans get to decide when to train, how much to train — when is it being destructive to their bodies?” Levitt’s film assembles a devastating case against the practices of dog racers and trainers, who often conceive of their animals as tools to be discarded (read: shot) when no longer useful. Levitt documents the excavation of a mass grave of dogs, a hundred killed by a trainer in one go; we also see activists’ footage of hundreds of young dogs living lives permanently chained and tethered and unsupervised, enjoying no contact with anyone else, going mad with just six feet of world to explore. And then there’s the rigors of the runs themselves, the dogs zipping across endless white vistas, hauling human drivers who speak platitudes on the soundtrack about the beauty of their understanding of each other. A reminder: Traditions that look cruel often are cruel, and we don’t always have to wait around for muckrakers to point it out. Alan Scherstuhl

 

Escapes
Directed by Michael Almereyda
Grasshopper Films
Opens July 26, IFC Center

Michael Almereyda’s Escapes is a rough sketch compared to polished Hollywood portraits like The Kid Stays in the Picture. That’s partly because Hampton Fancher — the screenwriter, actor, and filmmaker — is not a well-oiled raconteur like Robert Evans, who’d already worked out his slick patter in an autobiography. Almereyda (This So-Called Disaster, Experimenter) also doesn’t employ re-creations to enhance his single-source storytelling, as in the George Lazenby biodoc Becoming Bond. He initially pairs Fancher’s narration with clips from his heyday as a television guest star and studio bit player. So Fancher’s rambling recollection of a violent confrontation with a girlfriend’s ex plays over western standoffs and a fight scene with Troy Donahue from the 1961 film Parrish (and since that girlfriend was Teri Garr, there are snippets of her films). It’s a jarring introduction, this stream of oft-repeated clips (unidentified until the end credits) accompanied by a rambling story that makes Fancher sound like a privileged brat. Almereyda follows this by turning off Fancher’s voice and revealing, through photographs and intertitles, that his subject did more crazy, audacious things by the time he was twenty than most people do in a lifetime. This turned out to be good preparation for the vagaries of a demi-famous life in front of the camera, and as a screenwriter (Blade Runner) and director (The Minus Man). When Fancher’s weathered visage finally appears, he recounts more regrets than triumphs, but in Almereyda’s affectionate biographical scrapbook, his accomplishments are small manifestations of an iconoclastic existence whose reward is a messy, cherished independence. Serena Donadoni

 

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World
Directed by Catherine Bainbridge
Kino Lorber
Opens July 26, Film Forum

While overstuffed and scattershot, this episodic documentary makes a vital argument: That American popular music, especially the blues and rock ’n’ roll, owe much more to Native Americans than has been commonly credited. The title comes from Link Wray’s slow-mo power-chord masterpiece “Rumble,” the 1958 instrumental that is the headwaters of all later rock/punk/metal guitar badassery. (Steven Van Zandt notes in the film that it’s the “theme song for juvenile delinquency.”) Born into the Shawnee tribe, Wray channeled his people’s musical heritage into his own art, as did the many other performers profiled here. There’s Mildred Bailey, the early jazz singer whose childhood near an Idaho reservation of the Coeur d’Alene deeply influenced her phrasing — and that of her fans, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. Perhaps more influential still is Charley Patton, whose blues howl and rhythmic guitar-playing united the Choctaw and the African and inspired Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, and many more who finally won the attention of white America after the endorsement of the British Invasion rock groups that they influenced. Director Catherine Bainbridge has assembled a wealth of archival performances that she balances out with illuminating recent interviews and, on occasion, thrilling scenes of people just listening. A descendant of Patton’s spins one of the bluesman’s records and marvels: “That’s Choctaw.” At its best, Rumble invites us to hear more, to consider the source of the American rhythms and sounds, to wonder why news of our music’s heritage is news. The Band’s Robbie Robertson, a Mohawk, recalls being told early on not to let people know about his blood. As it wears on, though, Rumble’s revelations stop coming, and the film settles for being a cheery checklist, celebrating in too-brief segments great Native American musicians of recent decades. Alan Scherstuhl

 

Imperfections
Written and directed by David Singer
Level 33 Entertainment
Opens July 28, Village East Cinema
Available on demand

The languidly paced Imperfections is a far cry from the baroque plots and double-crosses of classic heist films such as Rififi and The Killing. It stars Virginia Kull as Cassidy, a failed actress who takes a new job as a courier for a diamond importer. (Were there no openings with a catering service?) The importer’s son, Alex (Ashton Holmes), is in debt to mobsters after a failed business venture, so he enlists Cassidy in an insurance-fraud scheme to clear the ledger and make some quick cash. Kull and Holmes are strong actors when they’re onscreen separately, but there’s an absence of charisma between the two — it’s impossible to believe Alex could convince Cassidy to commit a crime for him. Writer and director David Singer bears some blame for the awkwardness. His screenplay veers between cleverly written scenes and patches of quotidian dialogue reminiscent of the scattered improv of a lesser Joe Swanberg movie. Imperfections seems to miss the whole point of a heist film — there’s a solid twelve minutes in the middle when the characters forget about the crime they’ve been planning and go about their mundane lives without selling us on why this is necessary. Even Ed Begley Jr., who plays Alex’s father, can’t help; this ultimate comic utility player gets no material to work with. Imperfections is an unfortunate title for the film, one that only points out its many flaws. Brian Marks

 

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