For more than twenty years, Michael Winterbottom has kept up a restless pace, directing almost a movie a year. So he can’t be faulted for being lazy or blocked. And there’s always thoughtfulness, a sense of purpose at the core of everything he’s attempted. But, perhaps as a symptom of his assembly-line approach to his filmmaking, Winterbottom’s track record is, by and large, pretty mixed. For every In this World and A Mighty Heart, he’s churned out half-baked product like Code 469 Songs and his latest, TrishnaWinterbottom’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Read the full review


The Stranger (aka Agantuk)

When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, we lost among the last of a certain breed of artist: the socially conscious classicist. Ray was influenced in equal parts by the Western artistic tradition and by the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, perfectly realized in the literature of Rabindranath Tagore. In Ray’s cinema, we find compositions at once present and detached, functional yet poetic, serving a masterful formalism absorbed from Renoir and De Sica, Ray’s cinematic mentors. Within that framework jostle themes of survival amidst loneliness, the status of women, the decadence of the rich, old-world hypocrisy and new-world corruption, all of which rattled the Bengali status quo. Like Tagore’s sensuous riverscapes, Ray’s worlds — from the downtrodden huts and tenements of the Apu Trilogy to the ornate drawing-rooms of Jalsaghar and Charulata — thrive with detail. His cinema trains us to pay attention to set design, body language, gesture, the words left unsaid, all the while guiding us with the telling close-up, the insinuating tracking shot, the long take, the play of light and shadow.

“The Stranger” was Ray’s last film. I would not place it among his greatest, nor is it a film I would choose to introduce Ray to those unfamiliar with his cinema. But as the filmmaker’s final statement, a slap in the face of an entire social class — one that Ray devoted several pictures to criticizing — it’s as direct and as graceful as they get. Here is one satirical comedy that speaks its mind and doesn’t have to feel ashamed about itself in the morning.

On the surface, “The Stranger” is about trust and identity, as the well-off Bose family of Calcutta is paid a visit by a man who calls himself Mitra (Utpal Dutt) and who claims to be the wife’s long-lost uncle. Explaining his 35-year absence to his niece Anila (Mamata Shankar), Mitra recalls how, as an arts student in the mid-50’s, he chanced upon a picture of the Altamira cave paintings — primitive stone-age art that, he knew instantly, could never be rivaled for its authenticity, its immediacy. “After Altamira,” Picasso declared, “all is decadence,” and, after journeying all over the West, Mitra would surely agree. Having roamed the “civilized” quarters of Europe and America, Mitra explains how he grew bitter with the West’s obsession with technology (and nuclear one-upmanship), while its sickest and poorest continued to suffer. He turned to living with Native Americans and South American tribes. Civilization is just a cover, a word behind which all manner of evils and hypocrisies exist. “Savage” cultures, on the other hand, may not be perfect, but at least they are honest about themselves and co-exist peacefully with their environment.

Mitra’s presence in the Bose household triggers suspicions over his motives. While Anila bids to authenticate Mitra’s identity, humoring him with conversation and Bengali hospitality, her husband Sudhindra (Deepanker De) stashes away the family’s art pieces, and snoops out whether the self-proclaimed uncle’s sudden appearance has anything to do with a decades-old unclaimed inheritance. The only member of the family most open to believing Mitra and believing in him is the Boses’ young son, Satyaji (Bikram Bannerjee) — still innocent of social wiles.

Gradually, Ray uses Mitra’s presence to get at something deeper and more insidious, namely, that tendency in our “civilized” natures to judge self-righteously any culture we consider inferior or “savage.” The idea is first treated comically as Ranjan (Rabi Ghosh), a buffoonish actor, turns up and tries to suss out the visitor. His bungling efforts only show him up for what he is: a gossip-monger, a purveyor of lowbrow and scandal, something that Mitra has tried to escape from his whole life. Later on, a tragic version of that scene unfolds, this time as a mock cross-examination in which Prithwish (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a pompous lawyer, grills Mitra about his history and tries to shame him for his affinity with “barbaric” peoples. His efforts, morally anyway, have the exact opposite effect. For all his Enlightenment rationale, Prithwish’s bourgeois values, rife with double-standards and quick-to-condemn arrogance, makes him exactly the sort of “civilized” personality Ray is railing against throughout “The Stranger.” It’s during this sequence that we begin to sense that Mitra is, to a great extent, a stand-in for Ray himself, eager now in the twilight of life to sound off against the bourgeois smugness festering in his own culture. Indeed, we find Ray’s doppelgangers in both Mitra and the innocent Satyaji (a name not far removed from Satyajit) — characters who’ve either yet to be corrupted by “civilization” or who have successfully withstood its effects.

Mitra is not permanently estranged, though; there is hope at home, evidenced by Anila and Sudhindra’s final gestures to shed their urbane trappings. Their attempt to reconcile may be but a slight concession to our “wild side,” but it speaks volumes in Ray’s subtle vocabulary. In terms of its pacing and subtlety of style, “The Stranger” is arguably among Ray’s least accessible works. Those familiar with his cinema, though, will know where to look to find rewards — we find it in the cavernous corridors, stairways and antiques of the Bose household, bespeaking bourgeois indolence; in the sequence of carefully timed close-ups as the camera roves between faces masked in half-light; we find it in the extraordinary sequence in which Anila tries to impress Mitra with her sumptuous lunch of mutton, fish, lentils and Bengali “fancy crisps” — items that amuse more than awe the worldly and modest Mitra. With Ray, we’re guaranteed standout performances — whether farcical or dramatic — and The Stranger is no exception. Dutt, as the wise, gently acerbic Mitra is the film’s eloquent center of gravity, while De, Ghosh and Chatterjee are all pitch-perfect, variously flummoxed, bumbling or self-consciously stern. “The Stranger” cannot boast the lyrical energy of Ray’s 1955-1975 period; it’s the product of an artist whose temperament (and health) had since mellowed. It is, however, a beautiful valediction by a great filmmaker anticipating his own departure, whose message is as profound as any in a majestic career.

Grade: A-

Written/Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Dipankar Dey, Mamata Shankar, Bikram Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh, Promode Ganguly

Soul Kitchen

German filmmaker Fatih Akin, noted for award-winning dramas like “The Edge of Heaven,” takes a stab at comedy and romance with “Soul Kitchen,” an experiment in lunacy and laughs for Akin but an endurance test for the rest of us. Lacking character development and clean story construction, Akin’s film subsists on antic set pieces that try to wring laughs but come up dry.

The title refers to the comfort-food restaurant owned by the oafish Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with director Akin). With his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) on assignment in Shanghai, Zinos throws out his back while attempting to lug around a dishwasher in his restaurant kitchen. Too injured to cook, he hires a passionate but ill-tempered chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), but his sophisticated concoctions turn away the restaurant’s regulars. Meanwhile, Zinos’ convict brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) weasels his way onto the wait staff so that he can get extended parole. Tensions mount when both tax and health inspectors show up with ultimatums, and the cutthroat realtor Neumann (Wotan Wilke Möhring) turns up the heat on Zinos to sell his restaurant

While Zinos and Nadine’s relationship goes the way of the Skype end-call button, Illias falls hard for Soul Kitchen’s sexy waitress Lucia (Anna Bederke). As word of the restaurant spreads to area hipsters, business starts to boom and so do the dance beats as Soul Kitchen takes off as a culinary and nightclub hangout. Akin saturates the soundtrack with the obligatory soul, funk and hip-hop for no good reason except to justify the film’s title, and to punctuate his themes of youth, fun and freedom. Zinos himself demonstrates no special connection with music or, for that matter, with cooking or running a restaurant.

Endless scenes of young people partying float along on semi-clever gags and generic good cheer, and do nothing to punch up the plot or enrich the central characters. As the object of Illias’ attraction, Lucia is a stock bohemian: She’s got the sullen pout, the exotic dance moves and the cigarette dangling from her lips. Both she, with her frumpy rebelliousness, and the waiter Lutz (Lucas Gergorowicz), who’s a garage band musician with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude, represent not characters but ideas for characters. Then there’s the unamusing curmudgeon Sokrates (Demir Gökgöl), a freeloading tenant of sorts in Zinos’ building. He’s a contemptible fly-on-the-wall type, hovering in the background, amounting to nothing. Indeed, Akin’s entire roll call of characters is comprised of ciphers and social clichés.

Blame “Soul Kitchen’s” script for the mess. Every joke, sentiment and set piece (one involving a Honduran aphrodisiac has predictably raunchy results) strains for effect, each falling flat. Zinos comes off as a clueless tool in whom we invest our total indifference, and his cohorts are largely throwaways forgotten no sooner than we leave our seats. Structurally, the script tangles together multiple strands, as the personal and professional pieces of Zinos’ life smash together, and it hasn’t a clue how to take its characters through the requisite beats of what is allegedly a story about a man’s search for self. Just as “Soul Kitchen” is allegedly an attempt at bright, witty comedy.

Grade: D

Directed by: Fatih Akin
Written by: Fatih Akin, Adam Bousdoukos
Cast: Adam Bousdoukos, Mortiz Bleibtreu, Birol Ünel, Anna Bederke, Pheline Roggan, Lukas Gregorowicz, Dorka Gryllus, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Demir Gökgöl

House of Flying Daggers

In “House of Flying Daggers” — as in his previous outing, “Hero” — director Zhang Yimou transfigures the martial arts movie into a grand, international-quality outing. When Ang Lee made “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he managed to balance big-budget production values with the needs of an intimate narrative. Balance, however, is not the word to describe Yimou’s latest (nor, for that matter, “Hero” whose heavy-handedness taxed my patience to the brink).

Yimou is a wonderful filmmaker, renowned deservedly for his incisive studies of Chinese society–using interpersonal politics as archetypes for society at large and the historic past as an allegory for the present. Indeed, “Flying Daggers” may be read as sociopolitical allegory, but that fancy stuff matters little if you can’t deliver on the fundamentals of story, a love story in this case.

Of concern is a love triangle involving a blind girl, a government cop and a rebel. It’s Yimou’s way of saying that true love is blind and goes deeper than whose side you’re on, whether it’s the establishment or the resistence. Zhao Xiaoding’s sumptuous cinematography introduces us to 9th century China. A rebellion led by the eponymous guerilla fighters against the corrupt Tang Dynasty fractures the country. When cocksure cop Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) discovers that blind dancing girl Mei (the ever-gorgeous Ziyi Zhang) is, in fact, a Flying Daggers infiltrator, he poses as a raffish vagabond and tries to win her trust (and her heart), aiding her escape from government soldiers so as to worm his way into the rebellion’s inner sanctum. After saving her life–at least three times, by my count–Jin and Mei realize they love each other madly, in spite of their differences. Vexing their thorny affair is Leo (Andy Lau), one of Mei’s comrades and a former flame, posing now as a government officer. Passions among the trio lead to predictable territory: Leo fumes with resentment over Mei’s waning love for him while Mei and Jin bid desperately to keep their love burning in a time of windy upheaval.

There’s much in “Flying Daggers” to fill the eye and distract the senses, whether it’s Huo Tingxiao’s exquisite production design — especially the mandarin-baroque interiors of a royal bordello — or Emi Wada’s meticulous costumes. And Yimou knows how to stage himself an action scene: Flashing swords, daggers and bodies swirl amid a gamut of dramatic setpieces and, as a showcase for pure cinema, it’s riveting stuff. At its worst, the movie’s action feels repetitious, a tiring succession of climaxes, a tedious two-hour excuse for this director to indulge his fetish for digitalized blood and daggers and for immaculately composed nature shots. It’s all an empty shell of sound and fury that Yimou’s script (co-written by Li Feng and Wang Bin) fills with skimpy characters, clichéd plotting, and a lot of hand-wringing. “Flying Daggers” is epic tedium–the best reason yet to wish that Ang Lee had never let slip that Pandora’s Box of digital gimmickery, allowing for an entire genre to lose its down-and-dirty essence.

Grade: C

Directed by: Zhang Yimou
Written by: Li Feng, Wang Bin, Zhang Yimou
Cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Dandan Song

Friday Night (Vendredi soir)

“Friday Night” isn’t so much about a romantic encounter or a chance fling as it is about the emotional liberation of a lost, unhappy young woman.  In co-writer/director Claire Denis’ words, Laure (played serenely by Valerie Lemercier) is “between two worlds.”  Indeed, Laure is at a critical juncture in her life.  When Denis’ movie opens, we find her packing up her Parisian apartment quietly, methodically, like a dutiful prisoner preparing to head off to her new cell.  That new cell is her boyfriend’s apartment into which, come morning, she plans to relocate.

The movie’s opening scenes, so dreamily quiet, deliberate, meditative, lingering over the subtle sounds, rhythms and textures of Laure’s surroundings, prepare us for a most rewarding cinematic journey.  That journey begins in Laure’s car as she sets out for dinner at a friend’s.  She finds her way choked with traffic due, no surprise here, by a Parisian transit strike.  Inching along, Laure finds comfort in her last, quiet night of “freedom” before offering a ride to Jean (Vincent Lindon), a roguishly handsome man stranded for lack of public transport.  The two strike up a pleasant rapport, but, in Jean, Laure finds all that she desires in herself.  An unspoken, simmering attraction develops amidst nothing more than polite exchanges and the dull groan of traffic.

Writers Denis and Emmanuele Bernheim (drawing from her novel) reject the obligatory patter and backstory revelations that just-met romantic partners are saddled with, opting for a riskier, purely cinematic approach.  Their script, and Agnes Godard’s intimate camerawork, finds its greatest dramatic resource not in effusive dialogue or action—there’s surprisingly little of either in the movie—but from the telling gesture, glance and look.  The gentle expressiveness in the leads’ performances lends “Friday Night” its graceful, unforced appeal.  When passions do break through, Denis’ camera, rather than gaze on voyeuristically, clings lovingly to their bodies, to whispers, scents and contours.  The actors too opt for a refreshingly muted approach, erotic without being bump-and-grind obvious.

As delicately as night turns to day, Denis depicts Laure’s transformation, crafting in the process a lovely tone poem about a woman’s emerging self-assurance.  The grace note of “Friday Night’s” final shot is something only a filmmaker of Denis’ skill and humanism could have managed, inviting us to speculate longingly about Laure’s future, surprising us with how much we’ve actually come to care.

Grade: A

Directed by: Claire Denis
Written by: Claire Denis, Emmanuele Bernheim
Cast: Valerie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon, Helene de Saint-Pere

Father and Son

Alexander Sokurov’s “Father and Son,” his second part to a proposed trilogy that began with 1997’s “Mother and Son,” doesn’t so much push the boundaries of cinema as immerse itself in its deepest, most subliminal, depths. Like its predecessor, “Father and Son” takes, as its hook, the tortured dynamics of the parent-child relationship. Here, a son’s bond with his father is strained by his desire to depart and create his own life. The son, however, must first reconcile with his resentment over his motherless childhood and his grudging loyalty to his father.

In Sokurov’s hands, these characters feel as light as air, as if summoned by the storyteller from some vague dream. Indeed, what makes his movie so appealing, even thrilling, is how he breathes cinema into each frame, and invokes a sense of otherworldliness. In a literal sense, “Father and Son’s” message has no particular weight, but, as cinema, it echoes its yearnings by appealing to some darkly sensitive corner of our minds stimulated only in deep sleep.

Alexander Burov’s ethereal cinematography places us in a rooftop flat in an unspecified European port city. Here, a widower (Andrey Schetinin) shares an especially strong bond with his teenage son (Aleksey Neymyshev). The father has never healed from the long-ago death of his wife, a woman who still holds sway over his heart. The son, meanwhile, struggles with nightmares of killing his father (as Oedipal a hint as you’ll ever get), and with committing to a local girl.

The father dotes over him and beams with pride as his son, following in his footsteps, goes through the rigors of his military schooling. He senses, though, that their separation is inevitable and that he must overcome his mourning and renew his life with another woman. Hence, the two find themselves on the brink of daunting changes, something Sokurov physicalizes by placing their drama on the precarious roofs and ledge-spanning planks of their apartment house.

Throughout the movie, one son or another questions his father’s authority or else a father’s memory haunts the son. For instance, the son’s friend — in one of the most rapturous sequences to appear in any movie — wonders why his father divorced his mother, why he took to alcoholism and abandoned them. The sequence is steeped in the movie’s trademark amber glow and in the hushed sounds of the tram, the city’s cobbled streets and a muted mix of electronic and classical strains, underscoring the movie’s theme of generational collision. It’s a moment that makes you take notice of how, with lyrical precision, a movie’s visuals and sounds can make it sensually transcendent.

“Father and Son” is a cinematic tone poem that, for all its pleasures, can also be frustratingly obtuse. The tension and reconciliation between the father and son are never conveyed pointedly enough to move us because Sokurov is too preoccupied with how to merely insinuate meaning from the gentle drift of his story. The movie, hence, skips and floats in the shallows without ever boldly speaking its mind. Never mind, though, because Sokurov is too seductive a fabulist for conventional nit-picking. His movie is so physically rich and alive that, for a hit of pure cinema, you could no better in this blunt-edged summer-movie season than to spend a few moments reveling in its high.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Sergei Potepalov
Written: Andrei Shchetinin, Aleksei Neymyshv, Alksandr Razbash, Fyodor Lavrov, Marina Zusukhina

Crimson Gold

“Crimson Gold” is the latest import from that world cinema hotspot, Iran. Scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, the movie is Jafar Panahi’s follow-up to his widely praised “The Circle” (2000) and finds him continuing to explore the theme of the individual pushing feebly against inexorable social forces. But, while “The Circle’s” power erupted from its live-wire, all-female ensemble, the cold austerity of “Crimson Gold’s” style and dramaturgy all but strangles any emotional resonance the movie might have had.

Panahi frames his movie in a jewelry store where a robbery has gone tragically wrong; in a fit of rage, Hussein (Hussein Emadeddin), a glowering bear of a man, shoots the storeowner then, as pedestrians watch in horror, turns the gun on himself. Panahi then rewinds his narrative to make the case for how a combination of demoralizing circumstances turned this low-key, working-class schlub into a violent criminal. Amid the teeming streets of Tehran, Hussein ekes out a living on his moped, delivering pizzas. We see how he endures the snobbery of a wealthy jeweler, the material indulgences of a garrulous, patronizing playboy and, on one night as he delivers pizzas, the bullying of a policeman who blocks his progress as he ambushes guests leaving a party, arresting them on charges of dancing in mixed company. Hussein’s fiancé, meanwhile, is boggled by his morose detachment and her brother, Ali, can’t seem to snap him out of his stupor.

Hussein’s urban breakdown has echoes of Travis Bickle’s but with none of the latter’s engaging, expressive fury. We sense that Bickle is essentially a moral character driven to vigilantism in the name of his own, admittedly warped, sense of pride and morality. “But what does Hussein want?” we ask ourselves. “What does he yearn for beneath all this repression?” Indeed, under the relentless drone of his moped, we sense no impetus in Hussein: no yearning, no calling. So we do not especially care what happens to him.

Even Fassbinder’s Hussein-like Hans Epp in “Merchant of Four Seasons,” a movie that hews closer in tone to Panahi’s than does “Taxi Driver,” wants something—a measure of peace and acceptance after a lifetime of grief. Indeed, several scenes in “Gold” have the unsettlingly raw feel of Fassbinder’s cinema, right down to its halting, unactorly technique. Emadeddin is a non-actor (he is, by trade, a pizza deliveryman), but, more than that, he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Panahi knew this when he cast him, and it might have been far more poignant to acknowledge Emadeddin’s mental illness within his narrative rather than to work around it, to absorb it within his story-fabric, thereby adding to, rather than stripping down, the emotional texture his characters so badly need.

The impression that Panahi did his damndest to make “Crimson Gold” as elusive and distancing as possible runs like a stake throughout this movie. Panahi may have turned his camera on a fascinating society-in-transition, but it reveals so frustratingly little and remains so stubbornly alienating as to render the whole thing an artful failure, a moped-fueled odyssey into dramatic weariness and monotony.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi, Azita Rayeji