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 Future Perfect

Directed by Nele Wohlatz

MUBI

Opens September 15, Metrograph

Might the experience of immigrants adapting to a foreign language be in essence something like that of actors studying texts to perform new identities? That’s the profound and perceptively probed thesis of German-born director Nele Wohlatz’s brisk metafictional charmer about the quotidian struggles of Xiaobin, a Chinese teenager who has recently moved to Buenos Aires (authentic first-timer Xiaobin Zhang — a Chinese expat in Argentina, go figure). With unpretentious formal rigor and a lighthearted deadpan, the film tracks Xiaobin’s development through self-reflexive escalation: Whenever she practices Spanish with classmates and gains assurance through stilted role-playing exercises, her subsequent experiences become more narratively sophisticated. (In short, the character’s maturation is writing the actress herself a better part, and even a richly imagined future.) She is fired from her uncle’s grocery because she can’t comprehend deli-counter requests, her staunchly traditional folks aren’t keen on her growing independence, and soon she’s swept up in an awkward romance with an Indian emigre (Saroj Kumar Malik) who impatiently proposes to her in the middle of a movie they barely comprehend. Each neorealist story thread doubles as a case study for how our ever-shrinking world redefines culture and communication, but played as a downbeat comedy of misunderstandings in which Xiaobin mimics Buster Keaton’s expressionless disenchantment. As the similarly stone-faced comedian Steven Wright once quipped, “It’s a small world…but I wouldn’t want to paint it.” Aaron Hillis

 

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards

Directed by Michael Roberts

Music Box Films

Opens September 15, Landmark Sunshine

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards offers an affectionate (if not particularly probing) documentary portrait of a fashion icon. Manolo Blahnik, a top designer of high-end shoes since the early Seventies, relays his life story, guiding the viewer through the idyllic environs of his childhood in the Canary Islands, the free-spirited fashion world of Sixties and Seventies London, the glamour of the Eighties and Nineties supermodel era and more (including, of course, Sex and the City, which made Blahnik a household name). Blahnik is a charming screen presence, with none of the snobbery you might expect from a designer of his stature. He still hand-sketches all his shoe designs and oversees the production of his fabulous footwear. Blahnik’s shoes are playfully sensual pieces of couture, and when the designer recounts his delight in seeing an unknown older woman wearing one of his designs, it’s hard not to wonder about the fashion industry’s longstanding conflict between craft and accessibility. The shoes may be beautiful, but most of us will never get to wear them, given their prices: The glimpse into Blahnik’s studio reveals the hyper-detailed craftsmanship that goes into a $700 pair of pumps. The film glosses over any conflict — a somber moment in which Blahnik remembers his departed muses Anna Piaggi, Isabella Blow, and Tina Chow feels perfunctory, a quick piano-scored reflection in between fun fashion images. The documentary leans on re-enactments from Blahnik’s life, featuring pretty but unnecessary and ultimately cheesy tableaus. More effective are the Matisse-collage-like animated sequences bookending the film. Manolo might be a hard sell to moviegoers who aren’t already interested, but for fashion enthusiasts, it’s an enjoyable confection. Abbey Bender

 

 

Red Trees

Directed by Marina Willer

Cohen Media Group

Opens September 15, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Quad Cinema

According to the press notes, Red Trees is not a documentary — it’s “an impressionistic visual essay.” That helps explain why the filmmakers seem to be more invested in capturing abstract, artful images than the person the doc is supposedly focused on, who just happens to be the director’s father. Filmmaker/graphic designer Marina Willer goes about chronicling the early years of her Czech-Jewish architect dad, Alfred, who grew up with his family during World War II in Nazi-occupied Prague. She travels all through Eastern Europe, visiting the spots her old man once frequented, with voiceover narration from either her, him, or the late British actor Tim Pigott-Smith (he passed away in April), who reads passages from Alfred’s memoirs. Willer makes really sure the viewer knows she picked up her old man’s flair for creating visions that will hopefully inspire some awe; the movie mostly feels like a languid, drowsy dream. Willer and cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) offer peaceful shots of empty rooms and abandoned buildings, while Pigott-Smith recalls all the disturbing, atrocious memories the elder Willer would rather forget. But it’s also a family portrait, with brief, joyful glimpses of the children and grandchildren who are here now since he escaped hell so long ago. But the hell he once knew is no more. That part of the world is actually beautiful as hell now (especially the way she lenses it). In the end, this relentlessly scenic travelogue/valentine is Willer literally giving her old man peace of mind. Craig D. Lindsey

 

Woodpeckers

Directed by José María Cabral

Outsider Pictures

Opens September 15, AMC Empire 25

The English title of José María Cabral’s Carpinteros is Woodpeckers, which refers to the secret sign language between the male and female inmates at a Dominican Republic prison: As a means of flirting and communicating, the men cling to windowsills, as woodpeckers to trees, and “peck” at their distant partners at the women’s prison across the yard. Cabral explores the new obstacles that jail presents within the timeless theme of forbidden love — prisoners sneaking behind guards’ backs for rare moments of physical intimacy and, even more threatening, jealous ex-lovers who have eyes and ears all around the cells. Julián (Jean Jean) is in preventive detention for robbery — we only find out what he was convicted for rather late in the movie. He remains, I believe intentionally, a bit of a mystery. We first see him from behind, the back of his head, the camera following him down dim corridors as prison workers shave his hair, give him a uniform and lock him up. He doesn’t speak much until he makes acquaintances with the hot-headed Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario), who asks Julián to become the woodpecking messenger for Manaury’s girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez) after he is moved to another unit. It becomes a kiss-the-messenger scenario when Yanelly starts flirting with Julián instead, advancing their “pecker-talking” to actually pecking between bars. These moments are rousing — especially as Manaury starts to suspect their affair — but we’re not given quite enough (particularly from the aloof Julián) for a memorable romance. Instead what we get is an uncharacteristically melodramatic final act that betrays how grounded (and true to real life) the rest of the movie is. Kristen Yoonsoo Kim

 

Extraordinary Ordinary People

Directed by Alan Govenar

First Run Features

Opens September 15, Cinema Village

Just as the Extraordinary Ordinary People he profiles have devoted themselves to keeping traditional art forms alive, folklorist Alan Govenar has dedicated himself to exalting their work in dozens of books and films. His knowledge and affection are contagious, but this enjoyable documentary is a sampler plate crammed with bite-size pieces that only hint at the original fare’s distinctive flavors. These enticing tidbits of folk art and music should prompt trips down internet rabbit holes to research bobbin lace–making or wooden-boat restoration, and viewers’ streaming playlists could expand to include bluegrass, mariachi, and zydeco. Govenar has directed full-length documentaries about Peking Opera performer Qi Shu Fang (Master Qi and the Monkey King) and Guinean musician Sidiki Conde (You Don’t Need Feet to Dance), whose brief appearances here illustrate the struggles and frustrations of immigrants. His portraits of refugees Rahim Alhaj (Iraqi oud player) and Chum Ngek (Cambodian multi-instrumentalist) touch on art and politics: Performing traditional music put them at odds with totalitarian regimes. These are the most obvious signs that Govenar’s innocuous vision of multiculturalism has more bite than its celebratory tone might indicate. Everyone in Extraordinary Ordinary People has won a National Heritage Fellowship, administered by the endangered National Endowment for the Arts. Govenar makes his case for the NEA by asking the simple question: What do we value? In his expansive view of American culture, that includes preserving native languages, recognizing the profundity of the blues, and honoring where we came from and what we’ve made in equal measure. Serena Donadoni

 

Wetlands

Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

Abramorama

Opens September 15, AMC Empire 25

Emanuele Della Valle follows in the footsteps of other European directors fascinated with America’s wide-open spaces and transitory communities. His choppy feature debut, Wetlands, has the visual markers of noir, using the autumnal gloom of desolate coastal communities south of Atlantic City to express the isolation and bone-deep sadness of his characters, but the genre’s clockwork fatalism is missing from Della Valle’s haphazard script. The problem is Babel “Babs” Johnson, a disgraced police detective who gets a last-chance posting after rehab. He’s quixotic and volatile, not methodical and astute, and it’s doubtful the tranquil home life he’s obsessed with re-establishing ever existed. A suitably haunted Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje can’t reconcile Babs’s impulsive actions with the character’s implied moral core. Babs appears steady primarily because his partner, Paddy Sheehan, is a flamboyant clown whom Christopher McDonald imbues with malicious flair. Della Valle, a board member of his family’s luxury brand, Tod’s, and of famed Italian studio Cinecittà, is better at presenting the detectives’ wealthy wives, and even gives Heather Graham (as Babs’s wayward heiress ex) his signature tinted eyeglasses. Playing a news anchor married to Paddy, Jennifer Ehle projects resentment so sharp it could cut glass, but both women have the means to escape their choices. Not so for the feral waif (Reyna de Courcy) with a Sunset Boulevard voiceover. A surfer who dreams of the warm Pacific, she’s stuck in this corrupt New Jersey backwater, where the powerful receive redemption but a poor dreamer’s struggles only dig her deeper into the muck. Serena Donadoni

 

Easy Living

Directed by Adam Keleman

Gravitas Ventures

Opens September 15, Cinema Village

If a film is titled Easy Living in this day and age, there’s a good chance the title is ironic. And if a motif in this film is a voiceover reciting twelve-step program platitudes (“I am the architect of my life”), well, things are probably going to get pretty hopeless. Sherry (Caroline Dhavernas) is a door-to-door makeup saleswoman (an intriguingly evocative, somewhat anachronistic job) living in a motel. She is estranged from her family, has a drinking problem, and frequently picks up random men at the bar. It would be easy to portray Sherry as a melodramatically self-destructive woman in the Lifetime movie mode, but Dhavernas’s subtle performance resists easy characterization, even as Sherry’s life is filled with portentous signifiers. Sherry is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so. Scenes of her meeting with her clients seem to take inspiration from Todd Haynes’s Safe, with queasily pastel interiors and banal chitchat that, as we realize just how unhinged our protagonist is, become ominous. These moments, and scenes of Sherry clad in a sky-blue suit as she wheels her heavy suitcase of makeup, pulse with a compelling feminized foreboding. It’s a shame, then, when the final act takes a sharp turn to a far-fetched criminal plot. Easy Living is squeamish and proves the obvious irony of its title within mere minutes — there’s little humor, and Sherry repeats the same destructive behaviors too many times. The film deserves some credit for not becoming a weepie or, conversely, making Sherry the butt of a joke, but while Dhavernas’s performance and director Adam Keleman’s penchant for soft colors in a harsh world add intrigue, it leaves a frustrating aftertaste. Abbey Bender

 

Against the Night

Directed by Brian Cavallaro

Gravitas Ventures

Opens September 15

First-person found-footage movies, like mid-century furniture, EDM beat drops, and skinny suits, are a notable mid-2000s cliché, and to his credit, director Brian Cavallaro doesn’t try to make make one with Against the Night. Instead, it’s a standard third-person film about a group of twentysomethings attempting to make a found-footage movie in an abandoned prison. Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia is the unscary film’s only source of spookiness. As the kids split into groups and explore the building, cell doors slam shut, specters emerge from the infrared spectral range, and a faceless figure stalks and murders them. They’re filming at the behest of Hank (Luke Persiani), an aspiring filmmaker who carries what must be about $15,000 worth of loose video equipment in a duffel bag, so his ghost-hunting movie is clearly bankrolled by top angel investors Mom and Dad. It’s hard to overstate how annoying the character is. Hank would easily be the top post on the Punchable Faces subreddit, and would brag about it. He would always tell you that knock-knock joke that ends with “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana,” only he would do the knock-knock-banana part, like, twenty times. If Hank obtained the manufacturing license for an important antiparasitic medication, he would jack up the price 700 percent. The film vacillates between two explanations for the hauntings — one supernatural, one boring — strobing back and forth until the film’s final, exasperating twist. It arrives after a lengthy scene in which Frank Whaley recaps the entire plot with all the energy of an accountant explaining how escrow works. And lord knows, if Whaley can’t make your dialogue lively, there’s something broken. Chris Packham

 

Alina

Directed by Ben Barenholtz

Opens September 15, Landmark Sunshine

Eighty-two-year-old distributor, exhibitor and producer Ben Barenholtz’s impressive street cred — from concocting the “midnight movie” craze at his Elgin Cinema with cult masterpieces like El Topo and Pink Flamingos, to jump-starting the careers of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and George Romero — demands that film culture owes him some gratitude. But how far does that extend when the aging multi-hyphenate has finally written and directed his first narrative feature, a hokey female-driven drama that liberally fails the Bechdel test? Fresh off the boat from Russia, an apprehensive young woman (Darya Ekamasova, a recurring player on The Americans) named — guess who? — arrives in Manhattan to find her father, a single vintage photo her only clue to his whereabouts. Less a familial mystery than an overly familiar cautionary tale of trusting strangers in a strange land, this ultra low-budget film (Lynch recorded a testimonial for its Kickstarter campaign) sees Alina get screwed over by a sleazy nightclub owner as well as the hard-partying roomies who feed her drugs she can’t handle. Every male character is written either as threatening or noble enough to save a distressed damsel, the latter an undeveloped love interest whose stereotypically boisterous Italian clan (they talk like the Sopranos while making sauce) knows exactly who can find out where Alina’s dad went. It’s all rather implausible, as is how all those cinema luminaries Barenholtz once nurtured seem to have no impact on his style-free storytelling. Aaron Hillis

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