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.

Ghost House

Directed by Rich Ragsdale

Vertical Entertainment

Opens August 25, Cinema Village

Horror films aren’t famous for exercising much subtlety or tact, and Rich Ragsdale’s Ghost House is no exception. The movie follows Julie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Jim (James Landry Hébert) as they vacation in Thailand. They’re young and in love, but their romantic getaway loses some of its luster when the spirit of a vengeful woman begins to torment Julie after she is tricked into stealing one of the ghost’s possessions. Ghost House belongs to the long tradition of movies about white people carelessly blundering into other cultures and wreaking havoc. That sort of film might have worked if Ragsdale had been interested in critiquing such destructive privilege, but it’s beyond the film’s scope. Instead, Ghost House doubles down on its cluelessness with the inclusion of Gogo (Michael S. New), a Thai tour driver who puts his life and livelihood on the line to help the couple. (Hope he got a good tip.) Gogo is nowhere close to a fleshed-out human being — he exists solely to help his wooden benefactors when they get in a rut. But beyond the film’s ethnic stereotypes and flat characters, it needs to be scary, and it fails on that front as well. The movie’s jolts are cobbled together from other (better) horror films and exclusively of the jump variety. If Ghost House succeeds at anything, it’s in the low-key portrait of Thailand. The country has been immortalized in cinema as a playground for morally depraved Westerners (see Only God Forgives). It takes guts to make Bangkok look this boring. Brian Marks

 

Polina

Directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Opens August 25, Angelika Film Center

A lot of star power, and the resources of three countries, went into the making of this subtitled dance-world weepie. Shot in French and Russian, it takes us from Moscow to Paris and ultimately to Antwerp, showing us a young woman’s emergence from tongue-tied-ballerina chrysalis into the body of a contemporary dancer ready to advance her own creativity. In its quiet way Polina is a gender-reversed, fictional version of last year’s Dancer, the doc about Ukrainian Sergei Polunin, whose parents similarly sacrifice to help him reach the stratosphere, only to see him quit London’s Royal Ballet and nearly abandon his art entirely. Spouses Müller and Preljocaj (she a director, he a distinguished French-Albanian choreographer, both transitioning here from docs to narrative film) base Polina on a graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, a young French artist. Actual Russian dancer Anastasia Shevtsova takes the title role, growing from a restless bunhead into a brave young modernist, hopping across international borders to seize opportunities (joining a French ensemble led by Juliette Binoche), surviving adversity, finding love, and delivering herself from depression by choreographing her own work. Images planted early in the film betray the path Polina will take; when we watch her move freely in the woods and commune with a moose, we guess that ballet may not be the last stop on her professional train. Elizabeth Zimmer

 

Tales of an Immoral Couple

Directed by Manolo Caro

Hola Mexico

Opens August 25, AMC Empire 25

It’s pretty clear early on that the latest film from Mexican director Manolo Caro is a squirm-in-your-seat comedy. After opening with a sex scene between two teenage sweethearts, we flash-forward to watch their fortysomething selves bump into each other many years later. Twenty-five years later, to be exact, but Martina (Cecilia Suárez) and Lucio (Manuel García-Rulfo) haven’t lost that spark; the two immediately tease each other, especially in their urgency to reveal that they’re both married now. Neither is married, turns out, and the film unfolds as they weave a comic web of deceit by hiring fake families to maintain their lies. It’s reminiscent of the Marion Cotillard–starring Love Me If You Dare (2004), about a love built on pranks. The farcical ensemble might also remind you of a Pedro Almodóvar film, and Caro’s Rossy de Palma reference may indicate that he knows it, too. The film flips back and forth between present day and flashbacks of Martina and Lucio at age seventeen. They were like seahorses (a metaphor used throughout the film), who supposedly mate for life and die from heartbreak — so what went wrong? Caro captures the exciting first moments of flirtation and early-relationship bliss with music-video-like montages, both sweet and corny, but the story within the flashback becomes more and more nonsensical and tiresome as the movie goes on. Present-day Martina and Lucio hold a bit more steam, but the film fails to sustain the exhilaration of its initial buildup. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

Clash

Directed by Mohamed Diab

Kino Lorber

Opens August 25, Village East Cinema

Director Mohamed Diab had the right idea for putting a unique perspective on real-life events from 2013: the Egyptian protests after the military removed Mohamed Morsi from government. Clash takes place almost entirely inside a riot van on a sweltering day as police officers roughly herd civilians of all type and persuasion — teenagers, journalists, people both with and against the Muslim Brotherhood — providing them no food, water, or toilet. As you can imagine, a lot can happen with just those elements, and cinematographer Ahmed Gabr captures it all with hectic handheld camerawork as gunshots and rocks buffet the truck from all sides and petty drama unfolds among the occupants. Just a few square feet of space lends itself to much onscreen commotion. When night falls, the chaotic images — green lasers, flashes of neon light, sweaty faces — take on the jarring aspect of scenes from a nightclub. It’s harrowing to be pulled out of that suspension from reality and realize what’s at stake here, especially as the events lead to more bloodshed and a steady erosion of hope. Unfortunately, Clash buckles under the weight of its many characters. A film like this needs its people to underline what it means to be human during times of political strife, but with so many bodies shoved inside the van, it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who and why they’re mad. Other than two women, most remain unmemorable. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

Unleashed

Directed by Finn Taylor

Braveart Films

Opens August 25, Cinema Village

A fantasy about seducing your pets seems like it should be pretty transgressive, a cinematic middle finger to straitlaced, cis-speciesist notions about sexual desire. In practice, though, director Finn Taylor’s Unleashed is an inoffensive Hallmark card of an indie comedy, as indifferently intended by the sender as it is regarded by the recipient. Which is true? Is our culture so evolved and progressive that we can accept a workplace conversation in which one woman bemoans her inability to bone her dog? Or can basically any sexual taboo be normalized by broad jokes, sugar-chugging montages, and two instances of the shittiest-ever session-band cover of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”? The charming, hilarious Kate Micucci is Emma, a software engineer with low self-confidence and a broken heart. A work friend warns her about a celestial alignment that will cause disruptive changes in her life; that night, some artful illustrations of constellations transform her pets from animals into humans, and they run away. Emma’s golden retriever, Sam, is played by Steve Howey as clumsy, sweet, and butt-scratchy. Justin Chatwin is Diego, her cat, who’s precise, socially aloof, and prone to retching. For reasons that aren’t 100 percent clear, they compete to romance Emma while learning to live as humans. This is really most of the film — a lot of climbing on furniture, humping strangers on dancefloors, and licking food from plates in fancy restaurants. Sean Astin plays Carl, one of those tiny-house-dwelling oddballs, who pines for Emma and therefore represents society’s intra-species sexual bias, but unfortunately, this is not the film that will tear down that wall. Chris Packham

 

England Is Mine

Directed by Mark Gill

Cleopatra

Opens August 25, IFC Center

Are you going to sulk all day?” our hero gets asked just minutes into Mark Gill’s England Is Mine. The remaining eighty-plus minutes of this muted, sometimes arresting drama concern a young man trying to find it in himself to sulk better. Since it’s 1978, and that young man is Steven Morrissey (played by Jack Lowden), soon to be known by just his surname as the frontman of England’s most literate band of the 1980s, you can’t worry too much about the lad. Still, he doesn’t have an easy go as he fails to connect with potential bandmates, fails to find possible friends at pubs and gigs, and fails to reach common ground with his fellow sallow Mancunians in the offices and hospitals where he works the miserable jobs that will inspire his transcendently miserable songs. No matter how bleak things look, Keats and Yeats are on his side — plus Oscar Wilde, the Shangri-Las, and a guitar-slinging flash named Johnny who keeps not quite fully making the Mozz-to-be’s acquaintance. It’s a wallow in a star’s prehistory, his eventual eminence suggested by the way we often see him emerging from the mists of Manchester, not to mention his fascination with reflections of himself. Somehow, though, he doesn’t seem to notice, even as he grows into his looks, other young people’s growing fascination with him. We don’t hear him sing into a microphone until fifty minutes in; we never hear a Smiths song or glimpse the talents of that Johnny, the band’s other inimitable great. Years pass; Morrissey haunts his town, broods over a typewriter, and gets told by bosses and parents either to accept his lot or actually try to be somebody. Just when he’s at last about to, the movie ends. Acting’s good, though. Alan Scherstuhl

 

Bushwick

Directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott

Bullet Pictures

Opens August 25

I don’t know what’s more preposterous about Bushwick: that Texas would drop a bunch of mercenaries into the Brooklyn neighborhood and incite a hellish, bloody invasion, or that perky-ass blonde Brittany Snow would be someone who knows the neighborhood like the back of her about-to-be-very-damaged hand. Snow plays a gal who has come back to her old ’hood to show off her new boyfriend. Unfortunately, she arrives just as Texas and other Southern states decide to form their own sovereign nation and launch a siege. She must then spend most of the movie trying to save herself and her loved ones. Luckily, she’s assisted by Dave Bautista’s tortured ex–Marine medic, who knows how to whup ass and how to keep limbs from bleeding all over the place. Bushwick really wants to be the Birdman (or Irreversible, if you prefer) of nihilistic action thrillers. It’s a series of hysterical, obviously spliced long takes, which directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion have attempted to assemble into a stream of batshit-crazy set pieces. Unfortunately, as much as you might want to be impressed by its kamikaze visual ingenuity, Bushwick is a hollow, ultimately unsatisfying exercise in organized chaos. Its most effective trick turns out to be the haunted, understated performance of executive producer Bautista, yet another former WWE superstar who can rivet the hell out of you in a movie. Craig D. Lindsey

 

Cinema Novo

Directed by Eryk Rocha

Icarus Films

August 24 and September 1, Anthology Film Archives

Cinema Novo — a sweeping cinematic movement that urged Brazilian directors of the 1960s and ’70s to pare down production resources and train their focus on stories of everyday people and the social and political forces dictating their lives — gets a suitably invigorating treatment in Eryk Rocha’s ninety-minute documentary. Eryk (the son of Glauber Rocha, one of the most prominent Cinema Novo figures) and editor Renato Vallone lose themselves in the patterns of the era’s movies, often stringing together sequences of clips whose action rhymes and corresponds. The movie opens, for instance, with footage of a majestic tracking shot showing a couple holding hands and running across a deserted field; it’s followed closely by a mélange of other excerpts, all reveling in matching, sprintlike gestures: two boys racing through a tight, fenced-in corridor, a woman gliding along a beach. In its imaginative repetitions and its frantic but controlled pacing, this opening — and other sequences like it — proves inspiring, approximating the collective energy that fermented among the movement during its formative days. But whereas Cinema Novo is trancelike on a visceral level, it falls short as education material. Rocha doesn’t identify onscreen the works he quotes from; moreover, the contemporaneous interviews with Cinema Novo directors that he inserts throughout are interesting but never firmly contextualized. Sentiments such as “It [Cinema Novo] was being invented as it was created” resonate in the moment but quickly dissolve among the sea of other voices, other ideas, other clips. In the end, Rocha succeeds at communicating the restless spirit — if not quite the underlying substance — of the movement he documents. (Anthology pairs its screenings of Cinema Novo with a week-long retrospective, running August 25–31, of works by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, who factors into the doc.) Danny King

 

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