Sunday, May 6. First Position at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. Director/Producer: Bess Kargman. This award-winning documentary, which follows six young ballet dancers as they prepare for the final round of the Youth America Grand Prix dance competition, intends to be inspiring, and it is. It’s impossible not to get involved with these young people. They come from vastly different backgrounds, and range in age from 10 to 17. The filmmakers followed them for a year, in their homes and rehearsal studios in locales around the globe. There are tears and set-backs, as you would expect, and the final competition at City Center in New York is a nail-biter, but it all pays off in the end. A DVD release is expected in the fall, and it’s available now on Video on Demand, if you can’t see it in a theater.
Monday, May 7. Climates (2006) at the Walter Reade Theater. Director/Writer: Nuri Bilge Ceylon (Distant – 2002, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – 2011). I first saw this at the NY Film Festival in 2006, and was really knocked out by it. Climates was being shown last week as part of a Turkish film series at the Walter Reade Theater, so I thought I’d see it again. It holds up well. The film opens with Isa, a college professor, and his girlfriend, Bahar, who works on a television series, on vacation at the sea shore. From the start it’s obvious their relationship is in trouble. They break up on the way back to Istanbul, and the film follows Isa as he attempts to get back together with Bahar. Ceylon favors long takes, entire scenes shot with single-camera set-ups. The pacing is deliberate, though I didn’t find it slow. Ceylon is one of a number of very interesting Turkish directors working today. Besides Ceylon’s films, I especially like those of Fatih Akin. I’ve seen three of his films, Head-On (2004), The Edge of Heaven (2007), and Soul Kitchen (2009), each of them excellent. They have a different kind of energy — punchier, faster — than Ceylon’s, which are more cerebral. Climates is available on home video through Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.
Tuesday, May 8. Bernie at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Director/Co-Writer: Richard Linklater. Jack Black can be too much for me at times, but he’s great as the title character in this film, which is based on a true story set in Carthage, Texas in the mid-1990s. Bernie Tiede is an assistant funeral director, and the best-loved man in town, always helping others in every way possible. He befriends recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, very convincing as possibly the most-hated woman in town) and becomes her close companion before shooting her four times in the back, then stuffing her body in a food freezer in the garage, where she was found nine months later. Matthew McConaughy plays Danny Buck Davidson, the DA who brings Bernie to trial. His performance seemed a bit exaggerated at first, but didn’t bother me later on (McConaughy was terrific in last year’s Lincoln Lawyer). Interviews with actual residents of Carthage commenting on the story are interspersed throughout, comprising approximately 40% of the running time. The mixture of documentary with dramatized events has an unusual effect. What is this we’re seeing, really? I found the movie fascinating.
Thursday, May 10. Polisse at the Broadway Screening Room. Director/Co-Writer: Maïween (full name: Maïween LeBesco). This film (the title is a child’s spelling of “police”) focuses on the Child Protection Unit (CPU) of the Paris police department. Since the CPU investigates cases of children who’ve been abused sexually, physically, and emotionally, the experience of the film is intense, to say the least. There are no extended car chases, no shootouts; it’s not that kind of cop movie. The members of the CPU, male and female, form a close-knit family. We see them at work, at meals, after hours in bars and at parties, and sometimes at each others’ throats. The film really takes you through all this. We get to know these people, empathize with them and care about them. Polisse might sound like a downer, but it wasn’t for me. I’m exhilarated by filmmaking like this, that pushes me back in my seat and really gets my attention. ** Polisse opens on Friday, May 18 in New York. UPDATE: Polisse will be available via Video on Demand starting May 25. Also, here’s a link to an interview with the director about the film: http://www.tribecafilm.com/news-features/Polisse_Maiwenn.html#.T7QArL_R2oA
Friday, May 11. Dark Shadows at AMC Loews 84th Street. Director: Tim Burton. As a big fan of the original Dark Shadows TV series, as well as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, I obviously had no choice but to see this new version. I was apprehensive, though, since the trailers indicated a jokey, campy approach. As laughable as the series could sometimes be — shot live on tape with no retakes, with every miscue, shaky tombstone, and exposed mic boom preserved for posterity — the intentions were still serious. But I always trust Tim Burton to bring something special to the party, especially in his films with Johnny Depp. Theirs is one of the great director/actor collaborations. Okay, so how was this one? I liked the first half quite a lot, and Johnny Depp is great throughout. But after a promising set up, the story lets down badly, becomes rushed and chaotic. That said, there’s still a lot to like. After being turned into a vampire and chained in a coffin for 200 years, Depp’s Barnabas Collins is released to find himself in 1972. This undead-stranger-in-a-strange-land premise is probably the most interesting thing about Dark Shadows, and Burton uses the period for all it’s worth. I just wish it had been a better movie overall.
Saturday, May 12. Grand Illusion (1937) at Film Forum. Director: Jean Renoir. One of my all-time favorite films, and one of the greatest films ever made. Seriously. The print being shown was made from a digital 4K restoration of the original nitrate negative, long thought lost, but which had been in a film archive in Moscow since 1945. The negative was used for the previous restoration in 1997, which was excellent, but this one is even better. Grand Illusion follows three French flyers (Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay) in World War I through their captivity and attempts to escape from German prison camps. Erich von Stroheim plays the commandant of their final prison, a castle in the mountains. The performances are excellent. The anti-war message never hits you over the head, but is implicit in the humanity that permeates the film. There’s little I can say about Grand Illusion that hasn’t already been said. You’ve probably seen it at least once, so you already know how good it is. If you haven’t seen it, it’s showing at Film Forum through May 24, and is also available on DVD. I envy anyone seeing this film for the first time. – Ted Hicks