Lithuanian Idyll

The Summer of Sangailė offers an hour and a half of respite from the troubles of the day–ninety minutes of luxuriating in the dreams of youth. A well-to-do family of three from Vilnius is summering in their funky villa near the sea. The daughter, seventeen-year-old Sangailė (Julija Steponaityte), meets some of the local youth, and soon she is spending her time with Austė (Aistė Diržiūtė), an aspiring fashion designer. Soon they are lovers. Sangailė also wants to become a stunt pilot–the film opens at an air show–but she suffers from a fear of heights. Her struggle with this fear and her relationship with Austė make up the film.

There are shadows–one of the characters methodically cuts herself–but overall this is light and pretty entertainment. And the love affair between the two young women features some of the most erotic cinema I’ve seen in some time.

The Summer of Sangailė (reviews)
Directed and written by Alantė Kavaitė
Language: Lithuanian
Running time: 90 minutes
DVD release date: February 23, 2016

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Pix Trix

Movies like Go for Sisters succeed based on strong characterization, but sometimes a film with thin characters can entertain. Time Lapse does so by taking a sci-fi chestnut and building a whirligig plot around it.

Three twentysomething friends, Callie, Finn, and Jasper (Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary, and George Finn, respectively) share an apartment. Through a chain of events, they gain access to a camera which spits out photographs of the future. Specifically, the camera, which is fixed in place and is trained on their living room, produces a Polaroid at 8pm every day, showing what it will see 24 hours later. The threesome recognize this as quite a profitable gadget. There are plot twists. Jealousy, betrayal, and bloodshed ensue.

Early on, it’s hinted that anyone who tries to frustrate the camera’s prediction will meet with a ghastly end. Anyone showing up in a Polaroid had better make sure they are doing what the picture says they are doing at the appointed time, or else. The trio get rich by knowing the future, but the prophetic pictures make free will unaffordable. Or so it seems. And when everything has played out, I’m happy to report that the filmmakers nail the ending.

Time Lapse (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Bradley King
Written by Bradley King and BP Cooper
Running time: 104 minutes
DVD release date: June 16, 2015

Into the Underworld

With Go for Sisters, John Sayles has taken a genre framework–the crime thriller–and furnished it to his own liking. Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), a Los Angeles parole agent, has lost track of her adult son Rodney, and she enlists the help of an old friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross), and retired policeman Freddy (Edward James Olmos) to find him and if necessary bail him out of trouble. And he looks to be in big trouble; a friend of his has been murdered, and he was tied to a group of people smugglers. So Bernice and company follow leads that plunge them into the Tijuana criminal world. There’s a car chase, and there’s hiding from searchlight-equipped helicopters. You get the picture.

Or maybe not, because Sayles has taken these elements of suspense and shaken off much of the usual artifice. There’s tension, but unexaggerated. This film is really about characters and the way they interact–the title refers to how Bernice and Fontayne could be mistaken for siblings. Bad guys are bad but not Absolute Evil. And the film succeeds, based on the strength of its character-building.

There’s something else going on as well, which seems to have escaped some in the critical community. Sayles is drawing on, and playing with, tales and tropes from mythology. Early on there’s a reference to Orpheus, identified as the musician who saved the Argonauts from the Sirens. But of course Orpheus had another adventure, probably better known: He journeyed to Hades to rescue a lost loved one. The mythological Orpheus carries a golden lyre; in the film, Freddy plays a sweet Rickenbacker. Freddy also has very bad eyesight, and this seems to puzzle viewers who have forgotten that in mythology, blindness often tracks with musical talent and wisdom. These details add another layer to the storytelling.

Go for Sisters (reviews)
Directed and written by John Sayles
Language: English and a bit of Spanish
Running time: 123 minutes
DVD release date: August 19, 2014

Unrighteous Kill

The Hunter begins with a stock villain embarking upon a scheme that cannot possibly succeed because just think. Then it gets better.

A biotech company called Red Leaf (Eeevil Corporation!!) hires Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary, to track down an animal believed by many to be extinct. There may be one Tasmanian tiger roaming the forests, and chemicals in its body may have important medical uses, if they can be synthesized. Martin’s job: to find the tiger, collect certain of its tissues, and dispose of the rest so that no competitor can have them. And I must say, any company’s chances of developing useful drugs from such a source without the backstory coming out would seem to range from zero to zero.

So Martin flies to Tasmania, supplied with a cover story (university researcher studying Tasmanian devils) and a family to lodge with when he’s not out in the woods. The family is in bad shape. The father disappeared a year earlier, and the mother (Frances O’Connor) spends most of her time in a medicated coma; the young daughter and son mostly fend for themselves, with a neighbor (Sam Neill) looking in on them from time to time. Other locals work for a logging company and resent any whiff of tree-hugging; Martin’s university sponsorship tags him as a “greenie.”

Inevitably Martin starts to care for this broken family, and just as inevitably his secret sponsor starts to worry he is losing focus on his goal. Three types of story battle for supremacy: family drama, nature adventure, and corporate thriller. Somehow Dafoe makes it work. He is credible as a hard-nosed mercenary, a potential healer, and a man of action who can improvise his way out of trouble. The plot makes one final improbable swerve, but Dafoe absolutely sells the heart-tugging ending.

The Hunter (reviews)
Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Written by Alice Addison, based on a novel by Julia Leigh
Running time: 101 minutes
DVD release date: July 3, 2012

Public Dancers

Flex Is Kings provides a glimpse into a new type of street dancing popular in east Brooklyn. It features fluid movement of the arms and legs, sometimes involving contortions, and sometimes miming acts or even stories of street violence. The film centers on three characters: Flizzo, a stocky dancer, out of work and off-and-on with his girlfriend; Jay Donn, a slender dancer with a gymnastic style; and Reem, a dancer/entrepreneur who is trying to put together a pay-per-view competition of flex dancers.

As a dancer, Flizzo is confident and charismatic, and we see him giving back to the community by teaching flex moves to kids. Jay attracts the attention of a local dance company and is invited to audition for a production of Pinocchio. Both dancers, along with several others seen more briefly, are a joy to watch. The dance scenes are generally fragments rather than whole routines; I don’t think the documentary was able to afford much in the way of musical clearances. But it’s an energetic intro to this new style of street dance.

Flex Is Kings (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Deidre Schoo and Michael Beach Nichols
Running time: 86 minutes
DVD release date: October 7, 2014

Wandering Hearts

Medicine for Melancholy is a wisp of a movie, depicting two people who meet at a party, sleep together, and spend a day dealing with the aftermath of sleeping together. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is recovering–or not–from a breakup, and perhaps his focus on topics like race and gentrification is a way to deal with his hurt. Jo (Tracey Heggins) is hesitant, alternating between horror at cheating on her out-of-the-country boyfriend and comfort at spending time with this new fellah. Despite the thin story, this is no tossed-together mumblecore; everything from the camera lenses to the dialogue (or lack thereof) feels meticulously planned.

A few things hold the film back a little. It starts on the morning after the party, and the wordlessness of the opening scene, as the two characters awake and depart the scene, feels a bit contrived and unconvincing. And Micah’s subsequent pursuit of Jo feels stalker-y, partly because we weren’t there to see the relationship develop at and after the party.

Still, once the twosome have established their morning-after rapport, we are on board. They check out each other’s living quarters and see a bit of San Francisco. They connect. They happen. For a while.

Medicine for Melancholy (reviews)
Directed and written by Barry Jenkins
Running time: 88 minutes
DVD release date: October 27, 2009

Can You Forgive Him?

Yvan Attal starts his film Happily Ever After with a hackneyed twist. Gabrielle (Charlotte Gainsbourg) flirts with a few men at a bar, giving her phone number to one but eventually leaving the bar with another, Vincent (Attal). They warm to one another and get downright passionate on the elevator up to her apartment. When they enter the flat, there’s … a babysitter, who says all’s fine with their son, and departs. We’ve been pranked! And this is the sort of cinematic gamesmanship that can put a viewer off a film from the start.

But Attal wins us back–some of us, anyway–by deconstructing that opening gambit, which is built on the idea that the couple know themselves much better than the audience knows them. Well, no: Although he loves his wife and son, Vincent is also having an affair. This being a story rather than a situation, the affair must be exposed. The people involved react in credible, complex ways.

To give the story breathing room, there are other lives rotating around our central couple: a single man, embracing the uncommitted life; and another couple whose relationship is a series of angry skirmishes. There is a lot of philosophical conversation about love and its variations–pleasing, if not quite at the level of a Rohmer film. And that elevator ride from the start of the film? Let’s just say the idea is revisited, to pleasing effect.

Happily Ever After (reviews)
Directed and written by Yvan Attal
Language: French
Running time: 104 minutes
DVD release date: October 11, 2005

* * *

Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira from a screenplay by Damien Chazelle, also challenges itself. The plot centers on a classical music concert threatened by a hidden sniper. I suppose you could say Mira isn’t really looking to be compared to Hitchcock, unless he makes the film a second time. All right, never mind that; the convoluted plot falls apart on its own. I feel duty-bound to ridicule and spoil it.

When Norman Reisinger (Don McManus), a musical entrepreneur, died, he left no trace of his vast fortune. That fortune is of the finders-keepers variety, because it apparently belongs to whoever holds a certain magic key. That key is hidden in Reisinger’s prize piano, which will release it with a clink-clink-rattle-thump if a particularly difficult musical passage is played correctly. Only Reisinger’s locksmith, Clem (John Cusack), knows about the key. Reisinger found Clem by looking in the Yellow Pages under Locksmiths, Evil.

The magic piano has been hustled out of storage to be played by Tom (Elijah Wood) in a concert. Tom is the only pianist skilled enough to play the difficult musical passage, and Clem has snuck the piece containing that passage into the program for the concert. Tom doesn’t know this until the show starts, and he finds instructions scrawled on his score. (Thank goodness Tom isn’t one of those fancy pianists who perform without a score.) Tom knows that Clem is in hiding, pointing a rifle at him, because of the red laser dot that shows up on his desk, his keyboard, and his person. Plus, Tom’s glam Hollywood actress wife (Kerry Bishé) is attending the concert, in case the shooter needs an additional target.

You may remember that in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the assassin’s shot was timed to take place when there was a crash of cymbals, to cover up the sound. That’s not a problem in Grand Piano; Clem’s rifle (in case Tom fails to deliver) is, how shall I put it, pianississimo. But with luck there will be no shooting. If all goes well, Tom will execute the difficult passage, the piano will go clink-clink-rattle-thump and drop the key to the stage floor, Clem will put down his rifle, make his way to the stage, pick up the key in view of the entire audience, say something like, “Ah, there’s my key! I wondered where I left it,” and exit a rich, rich man.

Everything does not go as planned, but can you blame me for not caring?

Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake of a 1975 horror film, Ganja & Hess, which I have not seen. An anthropologist is stabbed with an ancient dagger from a blood-addicted African kingdom, and he develops a vampire-like bloodlust. He finds a lover, with whom he shares his addiction. There are various killings and resurrections, and the whole thing is performed in a stilted, unnatural style. I didn’t take to it, but if we have to get one of these for every splendid film like Chi-Raq, I say amen.