Roman Polanski’s 2011 film, Carnage, was a moderately pleasing comedy of manners, based on a four-character play. His latest, Venus in Fur, comes from a two-person play and is even more delightful. (What’s next? A one-man show? An episode of Orphan Black?) Set in Paris, it brings a late-arriving actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner), out of a thunderstorm into a theater, where she hopes to audition for a play, Venus in Fur. But everyone has left except for the playwright/director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), and he is tired after watching a succession of ill-suited women audition for the female lead, also named Vanda. Nevertheless, Vanda persuades Thomas to let her audition, with him reading the other character’s lines. They end up reading the entire play, and the film tells the story of that run-through.

The ur-text for the film and the play-within-a-film is Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, which tells the story of a man who falls for a woman and wishes to be dominated by her. Polanski’s movie is mirrors and epicycles and echoes: Seigner is Polanski’s wife, and Amalric looks like a Chinatown-era Polanski, handsomed up a bit. Vanda and Thomas flip-flop power relationships, though she generally dominates (she arrives with preternatural knowledge of play and playwright); one could read into this an apologia for Polanski’s relationships with women, but the film clearly has deeper layers than that. But enough of this complexity! If all you make of this is two splendid, well-matched actors in clever interplay for an hour and a half–well, don’t beat yourself up.

Venus in Fur (reviews)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by David Ives and Roman Polanski, based on a play by Ives, inspired by the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Language: French
Running time: 96 minutes
Award: Best Director, 2014 César Awards
DVD release date: October 14, 2014

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Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà tells the story of a loan shark whose brutal ways are disrupted when a woman claiming to be his mother shows up. The precision with which the film is made and a gesture toward redemption in the story do not quite justify the sadism inflicted upon the onscreen victims and the audience, with or without the story’s muddled ending.

A Small Story in a Small Place

Moviegoers looking for respite from the latest wave of blockbusters should check out Ilo Ilo, a modest film from Singapore which won the 2013 Camera d’Or (for first-time feature filmmakers) at Cannes. Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann) and Teck (Chen Tian Wen) are the mother and father of a bratty ten-year-old boy, Jiale (Koh Jia Ler). Both parents work, and Jiale’s antics are disruptive enough that they decide to hire a Filipino maid/nanny to help manage the household. When Teresa (Angeli Bayani) arrives, Hwee Leng immediately takes possession of her passport; for lodging, Teresa will sleep on a mat in Jiale’s room. The brief time Teresa spends with this middle-class Singapore family, and the bonds she forms with them, make up the film.

This occurs in 1997, as the Asian financial crisis hits Singapore. Money worries loom, and each of the four main characters comes up with a plan to deal with the crisis. The viewer may choose to contrast these plans, but their differences are not thrown into relief in any sort of heavy-handed manner. Overall, this movie makes a virtue of subtlety, holding back one or two steps from melodrama. Events move in the expected direction: Teresa learns how to get by in a foreign land; Jiale matures a little and grows fond of his nanny; Hwee Leng becomes a little less peremptory with the hired help. When Teresa and the family part company at the end, the tug on the moviegoer’s heart is fully earned.

Ilo Ilo (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Anthony Chen
Languages: Mandarin, Tagalog, English, and Hokkien
Running time: 99 minutes
DVD release date: September 16, 2014

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Critics have generally praised Klown, a Danish comedy about two transgressive men and a boy on a misbegotten canoeing and camping trip. Frank (Frank Hvam) is an idiot; his stunts that hurt and embarrass others are moronic, but they contain no malice. Casper (Casper Christensen) is just a bad person. In the end Frank’s victims forgive him because he is a wuvvable foo, and Casper isn’t tarred and feathered because he is a friend of Frank. As I say, many critics went for this, and if you are less grumpy and uptight than yours truly, you may enjoy this painful film as well.

Schemes and Their Consequences

Some thrillers are like a magic castle. There are secret panels and trapdoors and other tricks lying in wait. It’s all a big surprise-delivery mechanism. These movies can be great fun. For instance, in North by Northwest an ad executive is mistaken for a spy, and for the whole film he is getting into and out of one scrape after another–much to the delight of the audience. The story is a series of explosions and disruptions.

Other thrillers are like a paper boat. The paper is folded just so, and then the assembly is sent floating on some stream. The little boat travels where the stream takes it. The story flows logically, based on an initial premise.

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves falls in the paper boat category. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) is an idealist, ready to make a dramatic gesture protesting man’s mistreatment of nature: He wants to blow up a dam. Dena (Dakota Fanning) provides funding for the plan; Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), an ex-Marine, provides some expertise. Once the plan is put into motion, the events of the film are its logical results. There are surprises and obstacles to overcome, but they develop logically from the situation. And of course after the attempt becomes public, the conspirators have to scramble to avoid getting caught. They begin to suspect one another; secrecy gives rise to paranoia.

The movie has its white-knuckle moments, but mainly its goal is to put us inside the head of Josh, the leader of the eco-terrorists. Eisenberg runs the gamut for us, from smug self-righteousness to nervous anticipation to exhilaration to let-down to paralyzing suspicion. It’s quite a ride.

Night Moves (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Running time: 112 minutes
DVD release date: September 2, 2014

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I may have a Paolo Sorrentino problem. A few years ago his film Il Divo didn’t do much for me, and now I am underwhelmed by his Oscar-winning effort, The Great Beauty, which shows journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) assessing his life and his world. (Verdict: colorful and larded with beauty, sometimes unappreciated.) That’s about it for plot; you had better enjoy the spectacle. When a film opens looking down the barrel of a cannon, the director is pledging to impress. But I tired quickly of the dissipated lifestyle of Roman high society; if I don’t have any particular interest in people, I probably won’t enjoy watching them party. Twice the film tried to evoke the wonderment of the peacock scene from Fellini’s Amarcord–once with a giraffe and once with a flock of flamingos. I wasn’t biting.

A Couple of Guys

I spent much of Breathe In in suspense–holding my breath, as it were. Keith and Megan Reynolds (Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan) live, happily, with their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) in a comfortable town an hour or two outside of New York. Keith teaches piano at the high school and dreams of playing cello with the symphony in the city; Megan sells hand-crafted candy jars. Into their home comes a British foreign-exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones).

Sophie is in Keith’s piano class, and when she sits down to play a Chopin piece (sigh: pianists in the movies are always playing Chopin; what I’d give for a bit of Grieg), she turns out to be a prodigy. The two of them, Sophie and Keith, turn out to be kindred spirits. She feels oppressed by the demands of her piano skill; he feels trapped as a teacher, a reliable profession he reached for when he became a father at a young age.

Keith signs up to audition for a cellist position with the symphony that becomes available; Sophie teaches him a breathing technique to help him relax. The two begin to bond, and the question becomes, where will their relationship take them? Now the dread begins to build; this being a movie, something’s gonna happen, probably unpleasant.

There’s a bit of melodrama, but those expecting an operatic smash-up will be disappointed (or perhaps relieved). The main charm of this film is Pearce’s performance–warm but not showy, conflicted but not agonized.

After seeing the film I learned that most of the dialogue was improvised. This underlines Pearce’s craft: For an Australian to speak well in an American accent is commendable; to improvise, remarkable.

Pearce is the second lead in Hateship Loveship, which centers on a quiet live-in caretaker named Johanna (Kristen Wiig). I wanted to call Johanna mousy, but that isn’t exactly right; she is quite capable of making decisions and taking action, as we see in the opening minutes of the film when she calmly handles the death of an elderly woman in her charge.

Johanna’s next assignment is to care for a high-schooler, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), and her grandfather (Nick Nolte). She also meets Sabitha’s father Ken (Pearce), a not-quite-recovered drug addict who is estranged from the grandfather and lives in another city, where he is half-heartedly trying to refurbish a motel.

Sabitha and her mean-girl classmate Edith (Sami Gayle) play a nasty trick, creating a phony email account from Ken and building a fictional relationship with Johanna. He is momentarily baffled when she leaves her job and shows up at his door. They figure out the deception quickly enough, but he invites her to stay when he sees her aptitude for housekeeping and redecorating. The two bond; he needs a steady, responsible dream girl, and she needs someone to care for.

Wiig’s performance is restrained. A few times I wanted her to give rein to her comic muse, but probably that would have weakened the film. As it is, most of the comic relief is provided by Christine Lahti as a busybody bank teller and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ken’s worldly, drug-addicted girlfriend.

A solid, intelligent film.

Breathe In (reviews)
Directed by Drake Doremus
Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: August 12, 2014

Hateship Loveship (reviews)
Directed by Liza Johnson
Written by Mark Poirier, based on a story by Alice Munro
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: August 12, 2014

War from the Inside

In 1982, 20-year-old Samuel Maoz was a rookie tank gunner with the Israel Defense Forces when war with Lebanon broke out. Twenty years later he wrote a screenplay based on his experiences. A few years later he directed the film, called Lebanon.

Almost the entire film takes place inside a tank, and a miserable place it is: noisy, oil and grime coating the instrument panels, dirty water pooled on the floor. The four-man crew are green and insubordinate. Their mission is to check out a Lebanese town bombed by the Israeli Air Force. Starting at dawn, they should be able to complete their mission in time for a relaxed breakfast.

The mission does not go as planned.

At times the story is heavy-handed. For instance, after one traumatic event a crewman finds himself covered with blood. He looks at his hands in horror. (At least he doesn’t say “I have blood on my hands!” out loud.)

But all in all, Lebanon is effective as either a war film or a horror movie. (Four men, trapped in a tight, dangerous space, sometimes making foolish decisions that get them into more trouble….) Take your pick.

Lebanon (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Samuel Maoz
Languages: Hebrew, Arabic
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: January 18, 2011

Special Educator

Best Kept Secret follows a year of classes at John F. Kennedy School in Newark. (The documentary’s title is the school’s standard phone greeting.) This is an inner-city school for high school-age children with autism or other special education needs. These students are difficult to teach, but the school must do its best to prepare them for the outside world.

The film follows one teacher in particular, a young outgoing woman named Janet Mino. There is a reason the filmmakers focus on her: Janet Mino is a saint. She is eternally upbeat and patient with her students, even those who seem to be regressing.

A major part of the film is Mino’s attempt to find placement in the community for her future graduates. Sometimes this is a job, but often it’s a matter of matching the person with a suitable adult care facility. Some jobs are repetitive and soul-sucking; some facilities lack the stimulus the young adults will need, while others are in an inconvenient location.

Spoiler alert: This is not a story of 100% success. But that means every little victory makes you feel ten feet tall. And grateful for heroes like Janet Mino.

Best Kept Secret (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Samantha Buck
Written by Francisco Bello, Samantha Buck, and Zeke Farrow
Running time: 85 minutes
DVD release date: April 24, 2014

Crucifixion in Flanders

If you are in the mood for plot, you should delay seeing The Mill & the Cross until your mood changes. To be sure, a few things happen in this film, but mainly this is a multi-course feast for the eyes and ears.

The subject is Bruegel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary, painted in 1564. At the start of the film, Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) briefly discusses his painting with his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Following this is a tableau vivant of the scene depicted by the painting: in the center, Christ dragging the Cross and following the two thieves in a wagon, traveling up a road to Golgotha on the upper right; the Holy Family on the lower right; a great crowd of people all about, indifferent to the procession passing through them; and a mill atop a great crag at the upper left. Except for Christ and the Holy Family, all the characters are from the sixteenth century.

The rest of the film depicts a few of the characters from earlier in the day, and then it carries the action of the story past the moment depicted, through the Crucifixion and entombment. From time to time we rejoin Bruegel as he describes the design of the painting.

The charm of the film is in the vividness of details recreated in appearance and sound. The windmill in particular is sharply drawn, with creaking gears and echoing footfalls on solid wood. We also see a houseful of children starting their day–and the brutal treatment handed out to heretics under Spanish religious rule. (Some scenes are not for the squeamish.)

See this film for the production design. It won a few minor awards in that category; it deserved more.

The Mill & the Cross (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Lech Majewski
Written by Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski, based on a book by Gibson
Running time: 95 minutes
DVD release date: March 13, 2012