Hooray for Holly-Łódź: Cinema 3 – Polonia Kino, Movie 3 – The Extra Man (4/6)

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16:10pm Polonia Kino, Piotrkowska 67

The El Mariachi band will file in around twilight.

Polonia Kino is a sister cinema to Bałtyk and a fellow member of the Helios cinema chain (something equivalent to Odeon). Out of all the cinemas featured in this little project Polonia has perhaps the most ideal location, as it is housed toward the rear of a courtyard, just opposite The Grand Hotel, slap-bang in the centre of the city. There are at least two decent coffee shops barely a 50m walk from the cinema, as well as some of the best bars in the city within a 200m radius. Within the courtyard itself you have the added bonus of a longstanding Mexican theme restaurant, as well as the best of the Łódź Presto franchise Italian restaurants (one of the best value places to eat in the whole city). The exterior of Polonia looks like a traditional two-storey picturehouse, with a large foyer area and three screens. The concessions are a bit more tuckshop style than Bałtyk. I paid for 4 zł for a bottle of Sprite, which despite having been in a chiller was lukewarm at best.

A post-war raised letterbox screen is featured in all three of Polonia's compact auditoria.

Whereas Bałtyk tends to focus on 3D fare, big-budget blockbusters, kids movies and Polish releases, Polonia has diversified into indie fare, non-mainstream American releases and European cinema. My abiding memory of Polonia is as the cinema that I’d visit to watch those quiet little films like The Straight Story, About Schmidt and Genova. It seems fitting then that the movie I hustled up to see today was a low-key oddity starring Paul Dano and Kevin Kline, called The Extra Man. Sadly I was one of only two people in the cinema to watch the film. The screens in Polonia are classically raised, letterbox affairs, of the kind utilised by most provincial European picturehouses during the latter half of the last century. Being quite narrow horizontally it gives the impression that the image is somehow compacted, but really the projection is to ratio, with nothing missing from the frame. Initially the projection was slightly squint, but that was quickly corrected by the projectionist (how quaint) and, as with Bałtyk, the image quality was impressively clean throughout. Sound was functional without having the superior surround range of Bałtyk’s vast auditorium, however that is wholly appropriate for the more intimate charms of Polonia’s cinematic fare. The pricing for Polonia was exactly the same as Bałtyk, with my afternoon ticket costing 17zł. My sole serious complaint would be the prompt start time of the film, which means a complete absence of trailer material.

Cinema Experience: 8/10

 

Paul Dano is one of the most unusual performers currently working in Hollywood and his curious, slightly bruised, physical features and carefully mannered acting style made him a perfect piece of casting in this solid adaptation of Jonathan ‘Bored to Death’ Ames novel. At first the curious rose-tinted period vignette at the beginning of the movie threw me. I momentarily thought I was going to be subjected to the kind of retro-irony to be found in Todd Haynes Far From Heaven. However I was pleasantly surprised to see the way in which this gentle comedy-drama wended its way between the various different New York eccentrics that Ames loves to fixate upon. In the end it brought to mind the John Hurt and Jason Priestley feature Love and Death in Long Island.

The directing and writing team of Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman previously brought Harvey Pekar’s curmudgeonly comic book genius to the big screen in American Splendor and they do a fairly good job  of capturing some of the inspired slapstick and pathos of Ames’ source novel. They are aided on this front by a wonderful performance from Kevin Kline as the contrarily Catholic upper-class gigolo Henry Harrison. Every time that Kline shared the screen with Dano, the younger actor seemed to significantly raise his game, in much the same way as he did in the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood.

The quietly affecting absurdism of the film’s central idea, namely the confused sexual identity of Dano’s Louis Ives, provokes some laugh-out-loud funny moments, particular a sequence in which Kline rubs a small lap-dog all over his body to try to transfer fleas to the mutt, but the general tenor of the movie is that of gracefully declining elegy and nostalgia. In some ways it is a companion piece to my last viewing of the night, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which similarly deals with a central character who feels woefully out of touch with modernity. The Extra Man is by no means a masterpiece but in its own minor manner it manages to cast a compelling spell upon the attentive viewer, that can induce tears of both joy and sadness from such quirky sights as two men dancing upon a beach in the Hamptons. It also manages to pose the question: why isn’t Katie Holmes in more films?

Film Rating: 6.5/10

Film Review:- Main Street (2010)

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Dir:- John Doyle

Starr:- Colin Firth, Ellen Burstyn, Patricia Clarkson, Orlando Bloom, Amber Tamblyn, Andrew McCarthy

There is clearly a trend toward a rather heavy-handed engagement with the economic crisis amongst the denizens of Tinsel Town. Main Street slots somewhere between the likes of Cedar Rapids and Larry Crowne, except without even the saving grace of a few light-hearted chuckles. The film was the brainchild of the late Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist Horton Foote, which only serves as yet another example of the massive divide between the disciplines of film writing and theatre writing. Despite being one of the slightest movies imaginable Main Street is laden down with some of the most portentous and tiresome dialogue ever consigned to celluloid. The script is so dire that for at least an hour of the running time a curious tension is present, as it seems improbable that any film would be so mundanely straight-forward and lifeless.

Absolutely no fault for this farrago of a film should be apportioned amongst the cast. Afterall, it is the wonderfully understated performances of Clarkson, Burstyn, Firth, Bloom (yes, even Orlando is working hard here) and Tamblyn that actually make this movie at all watchable. It would take performers of the calibre of Burstyn to make any sense of the character development and dialogue that Foote has bestowed upon this production. Clarkson, Firth and Bloom bring a quiet focus to their shoddily constructed roles, that for large parts of the film manages to paper over the heavily italicised and underscored pronouncements their characters find themselves making. Firth, who struggles at times to maintain his nondescript Southern American accent, is the actor saddled with the vaguest of the characters. In a scene close to the end of the film Firth admirably tries to make a town council speech about waste management seem as important as it should, even though he is given so little to work with. First time director Doyle apparently comes from a background in musical choreography, which would go some of the way to explaining the complete absence of a directorial ear on what is actually being said during the film. Doyle will certainly take the blame for the largely uninspiring visual work on the film, not even buoyed by the Empire Falls style snapshots of decaying small-town America. However, without wishing to seem unkind – as Foote died shortly before filming wrapped – the esteemed dramatist must be held most culpable for this mess.

Apparently Foote was inspired to write the script after a visit to Durham, North Carolina, where he saw first hand the dilapidated, ghost town quality of the central business and commercial district. Such civic concern is perhaps admirable in this corporate day and age in which so much industry and prosperity is focused on the large urban and suburban sprawls of cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago. There is also a chord to be struck with recent protest movements across developed countries, where much has been made of what career options are left open to people in large geographic areas of Europe and North America. Furthermore, American cinema has a strong tradition of movies that focus on the ideals of small-town living and the charm of tightly knit communities, running from It’s a Wonderful Life through to Doc Hollywood. Yet the sheer aimlessness of Foote’s script does nothing to enliven any debate about what is destroying smaller municipal areas like Durham, let alone entertainingly raise awareness of some issues surrounding the decline of the very idea of a ‘main street’.

The plot follows three main narrative strands with varying degrees of detail and satisfaction. First of all there is Harris Parker (Orlando Bloom), a young police officer who lives with his mother and is studying law at a community college supposedly to improve his career prospects, but also as a means of demonstrating he is a ‘winner’ to his ambitious, sometime girlfriend Mary Saunders (Amber Tamblyn). Mary works for a law firm in Raleigh and is conducting a tentative affair with her boss Howard (Andrew McCarthy, in a near pointless role), although she is unaware he is a married man. Both Harris and Mary are trapped in Durham, due to either family commitments or the difficulties of finding work, but both are also dreaming of ways to escape. A second plot strand revolves around Georgiana (Ellen Burstyn), who is a grand old dame living in a cavernous old manor house, running increasingly low on funds. Georgiana has lived in the house all her life and has a strong emotional bond with the property, something Burstyn manages to convey expertly in her highly strung moments at the start of the film. She doesn’t want to have to sell the property, but is about to do just that when Gus Leroy (Colin Firth) arrives on the scene looking to rent some warehouse space in the city. Leroy appears to be a slick, charming, snake oil salesman, who is looking to convince Durham to allow his company ESC (the level of ambiguity we’re dealing with here, Escape, get it) to process hazardous waste in the city. Disconcerted by her precarious financial situation Georgiana agrees to Leroy’s deal, but then gets her spinster niece Willa (Patricia Clarkson) involved in the proceedings, with both women becoming increasingly mistrustful of Leroy’s motives. A final plot point deals with Leroy’s interactions with the Mayor’s (Isiah Whitlock Jnr., in another variation on his bureaucrat schtick) office and the local council, in an attempt to try to interest the community in the job-creation and regeneration possibilities that would come from accepting ESC as a central business within the city.

Suffice it to say that by the end of the film each of these narrative elements has been brought together in an almost entirely arbitrary and deeply disappointing manner, reminiscent of the recent movie Café and its insistence upon the relative contingency of human interaction as a reason for not bothering to explore character in any recognisable manner. What Foote is getting at with the departure of Mary’s character for Atlanta, only for an accident to force an unconvincing love-inspired volte-face, is anyones guess. Perhaps, this is his none-too-subtle demonstration of how career-motivated migration hits places like Durham hardest. Or maybe it is just a means of setting up the film’s twee denouement, for want of something more substantial. Nothing is really made clear, despite the dialogue’s continued insistence on explicating almost everything (for example, Isiah Whitlock Jnr’s Mayor kindly pointing out to Firth’s Leroy that Durham is a conservative town). There is an interesting story to be told in there somewhere, one that has been done before during different times of financial strife, in films like Breaking Away and Hud. Oddly, the traditionally demonised corporate raider, that features large in most Hollywood films of this ilk, seems to be treated with a degree more equanimity and circumspection. If Main Street wasn’t quite so irritatingly signposted it could have been a thought-provoking and subtle take on how smaller American communities might adapt and thrive in the new century, or gradually fall apart.

Film Review:- Griff the Invisible (2010)

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Dir:- Leon Ford

Starr:- Ryan Kwanten, Maeve Dermody, Patrick Brammall, Toby Schmitz

This charming little Australian comedy-drama from the actor-director who played Edward ‘Hillbilly’ Jones in The Pacific, succeeds by investing its slight and saccharine plot with a stubbornly pragmatic realism. Shot in and around Sydney the film looks at once quirkily surreal and grittily unpretentious. This is a trick that Aussie cinema has been pulling off since Peter Weir sent his cars out to eat Paris, but it’s nonetheless a trick that bears repeating.

Ryan Kwanten, of True Blood celebrity, plays the eponymous title character. When playing Jason Stackhouse, Kwanten is a sinewy, muscled ball of unthinking sexual energy, so it comes as quite a surprise to see him so absurdly restrained, introverted and mannered, as Griff. Working in a dead-end call-centre job by day, Griff spends his nights imagining himself as Sydney’s very own dark avenger. His older brother Tim (neatly portrayed by Patrick Brammall) has had to come back from Adelaide to try to help Griff get his delusions under control. Whilst out at a restaurant one evening Tim meets Melody (played by the arrestingly beautiful Maeve Dermody), a frankly odd young woman, who quickly manages to worm her way inscrutably into Tim’s affections. Whereas Tim is a fairly rational, down-to-earth kind of guy, Melody is a troubled woman who talks in scientific abstractions, still lives with her parents and has the belief that if she concentrates hard enough she can align the spaces between the atoms in a wall with the spaces between the atoms in her body, allowing her to walk through the wall. From the moment then that Melody is revealed to be Tim’s girlfriend it seems unlikely that she is going to end up with anyone other than Griff.

The movie bears more than a passing resemblance to the Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson romantic comedy Benny & Joon. As with that movie the two protagonists of Griff the Invisible are adult-children who are having intense difficulties keeping a handle upon reality. Likewise the relationship between Griff and Melody has the potential to trivialise the rather  more serious problems of mental illness. The mildly predictable nature of the action is, however, almost inconsequential here, as the film is not really about the originality of its plot, but rather the entirely unique detailing of Griff and Melody’s relationship.

During the day Griff works in a dull open-plan, cubicled office, making and answering sales calls, whilst being generally harassed by the office bully Tony (played to odious perfection by Toby Schmitz). His work colleagues see him as being a bit of a ‘weirdo’, whilst his middle-aged boss, Gary (David Webb), tries to give him tips on fitting in (basically, chat more). Ford does a good job of depicting the workplace as a dull, soulless, life-sapping, colour-drained place. In fact throughout the film the use of location and the attention to colour is superb. Sydney emerges as a grimy, post-industrial metropolis, with the constrictive feel of a small-town. Whilst the colours tend toward the bland end of the spectrum, except for those moments when Griff and Melody are engaging in some kind of fantasy play, at which point Ford introduces radiant, bold elements of primary colour (such as Griff’s strikingly yellow rain Mack).

Griff’s home space is likewise muted and worn, although he imagines himself the proud possessor of a hi-tech miniature Bat-cave. Ford does a good job of shifting seamlessly between the alternate planes of reality created by the imaginations of his central characters. Initially the film has the feel of a cheap, knock-off Kick-Ass derivative, until the point where Griff creates an invisibility suit for himself using lemons and baking soda. When the ‘reality’ that is at the centre of the movie so clearly resists indulging Griff’s fantastical delusions, it makes for some absurdly funny sequences (Griff’s being caught breaking into his workplace), interposed between some crushingly harsh reality-checks (the bluntness of the Police Officer’s assessment). Although the film strays frequently into overtly twee terrain, it always leaves itself the capacity to pull back from the brink of all-out-slush, and usually does just that.

The perfect storm that’s created by Griff and Melody’s coming together, forms the crux of the story. Separately they are two oddball individuals struggling to make sense of the world on their own terms. Together they are a deluded force for change, that at times seems capable of redefining reality. During one of their first encounters Melody tells Griff of her theory about people happening to exist upon multiple planes of consciousness. Later on she demonstrates to Griff her commitment to her particular take on existence, by telling him about how she does surveys about surveys and protests against protests. These self-contained little assaults on ‘normal’ behaviour, or upon the mundanity of life’s possible options, strike a chord with Griff, who, more than anything, requires a sense of an audience to make his fantasies a more plausible ‘reality’. Despite the narrowness of the film’s concerns, it does actually raise some thoughtful points about when normalcy becomes mundanity, and how ‘normal’ can become an almost totalitarian term of confinement, restriction and limitation.

To some degree Leon Ford succeeds in making Griff the Invisible just about strange enough to justify its main themes. He is aided and abetted in this task by the gently, goggle-eyed scattishness of Dermody’s performance and the utterly convincing turn by Kwanten, who never quite lets the audience accept he’s just a loon. Alongside these strongly textured central performances there are  some wonderfully dead-pan supporting turns, which is where the movie derives much of its quiet power in the final third. Ford is still capable of the occasional misstep, using that tired old whore of a cinematic cliché, which is the visual representation of a character’s thoughts of violent rampage. However, overall this is a downbeat, quirky and wilfully obscure little offering that might well develop a suitable cult following in years to come, particularly amongst like-minded “experimentalists”.

Film Review:- Public Speaking (2010)

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Dir:- Martin Scorsese

Feat:- Fran Lebowitz, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Serge Gainsbourg

Having finally won his Best Director Oscar, Martin Scorsese could be forgiven for sitting back and surveying the cinematic scene, assured of his place as the grand old master of American film. It is intriguing then to see that now Marty literally has nothing left to prove, he is proving insanely busy, particularly in the documentary form.

As far back as 1974 Scorsese had taken to the cinematic medium of documentary with an unbridled joy in photographing conversationalists doing what they do best. Italianamerican, one of Scorsese’s best films, was a 50 minute short feature that examined the home life of Scorsese’s parents Catherine and Charles. It’s an excellent film because it is a deeply personal trawl through Scorsese’s heritage, that focuses on the oral present and the infectious chatterbox personality of Catherine. It also manages to clearly demonstrate where Marty developed that machine-gun, staccato delivery that has served him so well in his histories of American and Italian film.

In terms of documentary style Scorsese has given over a lot of time to conversation in his movies. Aside from the concert films that he has made, the large majority of his documentaries are simple talking head set ups, that embrace a raconteur, or gifted storyteller and find a comfortable setting in which to wring every last anecdote, or bon mot, from them. All the way from his 1978 encounter with road manager and yarn-spinner Steve Prince (American Boy: A Profile of Steve Prince), which took place in a hot-tub, through to yet another personal exploration of a cinematic icon in his archive-footage assembled Letter to Elia, Scorsese has been obsessed with finding people who are excellent verbal communicators and allowing the camera to be seduced by their every word.

It seems odd to think of Scorsese in such terms, given how visual a filmmaker he clearly is, but of all the modern American cinema auteurs Scorsese is perhaps the most beholden to the power of the word. In fact when even considering Scorsese’s features some of his strongest sequences have been predicated on the verbal (think of Steven Prince’s cameo as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver, or Catherine O’Hara’s bizarre neighbourhood watch turn in After Hours, not to mention Joe Pesci’s schtick in Goodfellas). Furthermore, there is a pattern within Scorsese’s films of an anti-hero whose major failing is often an awful inability to verbally articulate their frustrations (Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Travis Bickle – particularly during the embarrassing diner conversation with Betsy – in Taxi Driver, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy).

It is clear then that Scorsese holds the art of engaging conversation in particularly high regard, which is why his latest documentary is a real gem. Picking writer and raconteur Fran Lebowitz as a subject would seem rather an unusual thing for any filmmaker to do. Lebowitz is notoriously the writer who has become America’s most famous non-writer. Having published two highly successful collections of satirical essays, Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), by the age of 31, Lebowitz has since published only the occasional piece of copy and a children’s book entitled Mr. Chas and Lisa Sue Meet the Pandas (1994). Yet what has kept Lebowitz floating around in the public consciousness is her non-stop round of interviews, on television or in public institutions, where she exercises her razor-sharp wit and her monumental ability for crafting the sneering put-down.

The centrepiece of Public Speaking is a lengthy interview carried out in Lebowitz’s favourite NY haunt, Ye Waverly Inn. This interview focuses entirely upon Lebowitz, with only occasional acknowledgement that both Martin Scorsese and, most likely, Theodore Bouloukos are engaged in a conversation with the writer. Scorsese then splices in archive footage of various influential individuals (Picasso, James Baldwin, James Thurber), as well as old interviews of Lebowitz and background footage of a public interview hosted by Lebowitz’s friend, the Nobel-prize winning author, Toni Morrison. As with many of Scorses’s previous documentaries there are a few carefully constructed inserts, such as the footage of Lebowitz driving her subtly shaded ‘pearl grey’ Checker car, which references, both musically and visually, Taxi Driver.

Being a New Yorker by choice, having originally come from small-town New Jersey, Lebowitz is also the perfect subject around which Scorsese can continue his own cinematic love affair with the city. The closing shot of Lebowitz wandering out of the Inn and down the street toward the heart of Manhattan allows a breathtaking pull-back view of the bustling modern metropolis, without too many obvious signs of that tourist-culture which Lebowitz has blamed for, in some way, ruining the city. Lebowitz proves an engaging raconteur, someone who has mastered that ability of speaking intimately about inconsequential things, as if they are letting you in on the most scandalous of secrets. Her conversations range across discussions on: artistic creation, genius, consumerism, racism, homosexuality, the gentrification of Manhattan, manners, celebrity, new technology, smoking and laziness. Deliberately adopting a forthright manner of addressing issues, and appearing to utilise the comic timing of a particularly shrewd late-night stand-up, Lebowitz says things like, AIDS wiped out all the interesting people in New York leaving us with fourth-rate thinkers and artists, and manages to get away with it. Her default setting tends toward the outrageously flippant, yet rather uncomfortably astute. At many points throughout the film she reduces Scorsese to tears of laughter, with the director occasionally allowing his head to rock forward into the shot convulsively. Not only does she do this to Scorsese, but her urbane wit has a similar effect upon her public audience, be it at a grad school session, or on a television interview spot. The quips and anecdotes literally roll off of her tongue (which is frequently circumnavigating the edges of her sizable mouth, as if she herself can’t quite believe what tasty tidbit she’s going to drop next) to the extent that by the end of the film they must easily be counted in triple figures.

Like the best of Scorses’s work the film is stylish, but with sufficient substance and depth. As Lebowitz roves over her encounters with Warhol (who she blames for making ‘fame famous’), the influence of Baldwin and Thurber on her work, her experience of the gay scene in 1970’s NY and the creation of Time Square as a mecca of hollow ‘spectacle’ tourism, the viewer is being given an education in the popular and intellectual culture of the very recent American past. One of Lebowitz’s pet peeves is with the overreach of ‘Democracy’ in American public life, which seems to insinuate itself into culture as a destructive levelling force and a vituperative anti-intellectualism. For Lebowitz elitism within culture is a perfectly valid thing, as long as it adheres to an elitism of ability. Democracy should be utilised as a governing principle, but that should be the extent of its influence, else, it is assumed, art ends up becoming artless, discussed with a benign relativism, in which all endeavour is treated equally. When Lebowitz lets fly like this it is hard to disagree with her, particularly when she is fixing you with those mischievously beady eyes. However, certain subjects she chooses to discuss are a little less obviously amenable, such as her assertion that second-hand smoking is most likely a fallacy. Although her ideas about the modern demonisation of smoking are valid, her assumptions about the harm of second-hand smoking seem a little too vested in her own self-interests (something so very Randian in her and in fact so very acceptable, by and large).

Lebowitz is notoriously reluctant to share herself with an audience. Whilst more than happy to talk at length about almost any topic under the sun, she noticeably blanches at giving any significant details about her own life. Yet Scorsese, as a director, knows that he needs to find some point of access to the person. Masterfully Scorsese, by allowing the camera to document everything and then by making certain subtle jump-cuts in editing, manages to elicit more about Lebowitz than it might at first be realised. Early on Lebowitz shares a few select comic gobbets about herself: how she wanted to be a Cellist but ditched that ambition soon after she realised she could never be the best; how she realises that her personality conforms with the negative associations attached to being an only child, because people are always asking her if she was an only child; how her preferred mode of discourse is to tell, rather than to talk. These help to form a picture of Lebowitz, as Lebowitz would like to be seen.

Her domination of the conversation suggests she is happiest when projecting. Scorsese knows this about his subject and he studiously underscores her assertions of self with little sequences that allow the viewer to penetrate the protective carapace of conversation that permanently and animatedly surrounds her. Two excellent examples of this technique are, firstly, when Lebowitz talks about the coldness that wit requires and, secondly, when she talks about the need for the writer to know something. In the first instance Scorsese later inserts a piece of archive footage where Truman Capote talks about the need to apply a certain coldness to something you have felt to be either funny or painful, to enable you to write about the experience, so that others might feel it. This casts some light upon the issues of why Lebowitz may have chosen wit as her particular forte and why she has failed to produce anything of real substance in the aftermath of the AIDS-epidemic. In the second instance Scorsese jumps between the Morrison interview and his own interview seamlessly, with Lebowitz in mid-conversation. This highlights what is often forgotten about someone like Lebowitz, namely the strongly rehearsed nature of their performance. Life and art have been so fully integrated in Lebowitz that she bizarrely comes across as an even more hollowed out husk of a person than the fifteen-minute celebrities that Warhol’s idea factory has spawned.

As incredibly entertaining as her conversations are, it is this slightly bleak note, that Scorsese strikes most often via visual references in the feature, that proves most memorable. The capacious emptiness of Lebowitz’s old-fashioned vehicle seems to accentuate a certain isolation, that is beyond the intrepid posturing of Serge Gainsbourg in his New York USA video. The peripheral positioning of Lebowitz in the Ye Waverly Inn mural, close to an escape route, only adds to this sense of her remoteness being what goes unsaid. At the movies end all Lebowitz wit, style and urbane charm cannot mask the manner in which she ultimately dissolves into the New York street scene, a figure perhaps destined to only ever be of the moment, but never fully in the moment.

Film Review:- Mistyfikacja (2010)

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Dir:- Jacek Koprowicz

Starr:- Jerzy Stuhr, Maciej Stuhr, Ewa Błaszczyk, Karolina Gruszka, Ewa Dalkowska, Wojciech Pszoniak

In terms of twentieth century Polish art and culture Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (or Witkacy as he was better known) is perhaps best thought of as the enfant terrible, or chief prankster, of the first half of the century. Since his bizarre suicide in 1939, as the Nazi’s came marching into Poland, Witkacy has become an increasingly significant figure in literature, painting, photography and theatre. Very much an anarchic polymath, Witkacy seemed to revel in a certain degree of notoriety within his own lifetime, which has been only amplified thanks to the influence he had on late-twentieth century Polish cultural icons, such as Tadeusz Kantor. Even after his death Witkacy was still capable of creating a scandalous scene, as in 1994 it was discovered that his body was not buried at the site in which the Communist regime had claimed to have buried him in Zakopane.

This latest movie by Łódź filmmaker Jacek Koprowicz, who was responsible for directing the suitably macabre and almost wholly unique 1985 Polish horror Medium, explores the myth-making and fabulations that swirled around Witkacy, long after his death, in a quirky and absurdly comic manner, that isn’t too far from the tone of some of Witkacy’s own works. The movie is predominately set in 1960’s Communist Poland, around the period when the regime was apparently lending a little legitimacy to many eccentric rumours about Witkacy’s death (which some have suggested was merely to drown out the suspicious suicide of political activist and writer Jerzy Zawieyski). Maciej Stuhr, plays a student and bureaucrat, called Łazowski, who has become obsessed with Witkacy, making him the subject of his failed academic thesis. Increasingly convinced that the great artist is still very much alive, Łazowski begins to investigate the domestic life of Witkacy’s last love Czesława Oknińska (played with a real mania by Ewa Błaszczyk), who attempted suicide with Witkacy in 1939, but survived. Oknińska seems to lead a rather subdued and reclusive life in a suburb of Łodz. Only occasionally  does she venture outside the confines of her small flat, that is maniacally covered in Witkacy paintings and drawings.  One particularly ritualistic scene in the film involves Oknińska’s’s ordering of a beer in a restaurant called Giewont (which references the mountain upon which Zakopane is located), but aside from that the other sequences involving her seem to be culled from elements of Witkacy’s literary and theatrical work, in particular The Madman and the Nun and The Crazy Locomotive.

Within Polish cinema Jerzy Stuhr (best known to international audiences for his lead role in Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (Amator) and a supporting turn in the same director’s Three Colours: White) is very much cinematic royalty. As the star of the hugely popular Polish comedy Seksmisja, Stuhr is one of the most familiar faces from Polish cinema of the last three decades. Whilst among the younger generation of Polish actors Stuhr’s son Maciej has risen to increasing prominence in recent features such as Testosteron. Father and son have worked together five times in total, but Mistyfikacja is the first time that Maciej has appeared alongside his father in a film, not directed by Jerzy, since Maciej’s debut performance in Kieslowski’s 1989 Dekalog series of short features.

Stuhr Senior seems to really enjoy himself as the lascivious, exhibitionistic Witkacy, who has had to come to terms with the dramatically reduced circumstances of a pokey Soviet-era flat. Koprowicz never clarifies whether we are to read Witkacy’s appearances within Oknińska’s flat as real, or rather the wild imaginings of her diseased mind. This narrative trickery manages to simulate some of the mood of the times, with many people being convinced by Witkacy’s elaborate posthumous pranking. The gently absurd comedy of these domestic scenes, are underscored with a touch of pathos when considering just how terrifying a prospect Soviet rule would have been for an individualist like Witkacy. In amongst these domestic hauntings, there is a scene that reoccurs at the films close, involving Witkacy painting a portrait of a barber’s young bride, and being unable to keep his hands off the woman who is the subject of the picture. It gives a minor role to the veteran Polish character actor Wojciech Pszoniak (one of the stars of Wajda’s wonderful Łódż drama Ziemia Obiecana), but also serves to further fracture and fragment an already slightly convoluted chronology.

Mistyfikacja follows the pattern of movies like The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, by reimagining and fictionalising a historically, or culturally, significant individual’s biography. Yet Koprowicz perhaps has more purpose to his fictional tangents, as Mistyfikacja serves both as a biographical ‘what if…?’ and an atmospheric account of a peculiar incident in recent Polish history. Although what Koprowicz shows is a stylised rendering of events, much of the history is accurate, as Witkacy’s lovers really did receive mail from Witkacy posted after his death and there was a real sense that Witkacy had in fact been conducting the ultimate practical joke. However, as with much of modern Polish cinema that focuses on the recent Soviet past, there is the problem of specificity when it comes to international audiences. Witkacy is a remarkable Polish cultural figure, but despite some prominence during the 60’s and 70’s within theatrical and avant-garde art circles, his international reputation is somewhat low-key. It is difficult to imagine that too many non-Polish audience members would pick up on some of the more subtle references within the film, which could make the plot seem confusing for all the wrong reasons.

Ultimately, though, this issue of a national cinema’s reach shouldn’t detract from the relative merits of a motion picture. Mistyfikacja has none of the exotic visual texture of Medium, but it does manage to establish a fairly intriguing and mysterious atmosphere. The principal performers all deliver, with Błaszczyk, in particular, seeming to embrace the mannered style of performance frequently associated with Witkacy’s work. Whilst the movie may lack the substance of a more detailed biopic, it does still work quite entertainingly as an introduction to its subject, and even though it fails to offer as stimulating an experience as Koprowicz’s debut masterpiece, it does have an engaging, free-wheeling energy that makes it mildly diverting at the very least.

Film Review:- Café (2010)

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Dir:- Marc Erlbaum

Starr:- Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alexa Vega, Jamie Kennedy, Michaela McManus, Daniel Eric Gold

The tagline for Café should serve as a warning of the ninety-plus minutes that are to follow. It asks, ‘What if the world you lived in weren’t real?’ and then proceeds to offer up an answer to that particular Philosophy 101 question that is so interminably twee and dull that it makes a years worth of Dawson’s Creek re-runs seem instantly preferable.

The film opens obliquely on a shot of the café that will serve as its sole location, just as it is being approached by four armed police officers. The clientele are evacuated from the premises and then a burst of gunfire sounds out, the scene cuts to the movie title and then the irritating, oft-repeated, motif of a section of butterfly wallpaper. It is no spoiler to mention that the film ends on this same shot, as the butterfly design comes to life and takes off. Quite what Erlbaum is intending with this shot doesn’t reward closer scrutiny. This is the key problem with quirky ensemble pieces like Café, they tend toward presenting some facile allegorical narrative, replete with cod-philosophising, that gradually untethers the characters from any semblance of reality. Occasionally such plot and character abstractions are a conscious product of the director’s story choices, with the mood evoked being worth sacrificing any attempt at verisimilitude. The resulting film may be difficult to watch, but at least it remains aesthetically coherent (3 Backyards for example). Erlbaum’s movie, however, in spite of all its myriad pretensions, comes across as a particularly callow and naive cinematic work, that explores its character’s lives with all of the acuity and perspicacity of a self-absorbed, twenty-something, art student.

It could have been so much better, as for the first twenty minutes the film develops an intriguing rhythm, shuffling through the various conversations of the easygoing coffeeshop community. In these initial exchanges it appears to be playing out like a well-lit, Starbucks sponsored rendition of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, but, oh how quickly such comparisons are forgotten. Veering away from a freewheeling, dialogue-heavy, eavesdropping approach to the café clientele, Erlbaum tries to crowbar ill-fitting plot dynamics into the limiting space of his single location (a feat that further demonstrates the ingenuity of a film like Buried). Before long the film becomes a series of non-events involving a handful of loyal customers, spread out over the week preceding the opening scene.

The most awkward role in the entire movie belongs to comedian Jamie Kennedy (looking somewhat paunchier than he used to), who seems thoroughly bored as the most unconvincing drug-dealer this side of The Trip. Whatever talent Kennedy possessed has long since evaporated and here his presence is the first significant indicator that Erlbaum’s film will ultimately disappoint. At the centre of the ensemble cast is the relationship between Daniel Eric Gold’s Todd and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Claire. They appear to be the sole employees of the café, with one covering the morning shift, and the other the evening shift. Todd is a guileless young musician who is absolutely smitten with Claire. Throughout the movie he tries to overcome his romantic ineptitude and express how he feels, but Claire is already shacked up with an all too possessive boyfriend. Claire appears to be setup as an ‘interesting’ collision of recklessness and compassion (she has tattoos, buys starving junkies food and gives charitable donations from her tips), but, despite some reasonable work from a slightly world-weary JLH, the character never really develops beyond the level of cliché. Erlbaum does manage to elicit one powerful scene from Gold and JLH, when Todd finally verbalises a little of his attraction to Claire and they share a brief, but surprisingly tender, kiss.

The employees are unaware of who their boss, Mr. Green (played by English actor Richard Short), actually is, but it comes as no surprise when he is revealed to be an almost parodic representation of the coffeshop writer and pseudo-intellectual. Erlbaum clearly desires Green to signify some metafictional, God-like presence (something that Madeline Carroll’s precocious Elly ultimately fulfills), but once more the glaring obviousness of the script is not up to the task of subtly delineating a ‘magical realist’ reality in which this role might be invested with a faint whiff of profundity. An even worse offender, in this regard, is the geekish, obese, mentally unstable man, played by Hubbel Palmer, and referred to as Avatar. This character first sees the teenaged Elly on his laptop, where she appears to be talking to him on Skype, or some other video-call technology. Elly tells him that she is a programmer who has invented the world and all those people within it, thus Avatar, as this name might suggest, is no more real than a Sim. It is through Palmer’s Avatar character that we see the café breakout into an absurd dance routine, as well as hear an animated butterfly sing him the lyrics of Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’. These moments of visual eccentricity have been done to death within American independent cinema and as with the wallpaper motif, they offer little of even poetic depth. Avatar and Elly are also the central players in the risible concluding sequence, which attempts to suggest that unselfish self-sacrifice is the way toward enlightenment.

A further significant strand of the plot is taken up by three black Philadelphian characters – the film is nominally set in Philadelphia, although you’d barely know it. One of these figures is Kevin C Walls’s Officer Hesler, who is a patrol officer and cousin to the troubled junkie Tommy (played by Garett Hendricks). Once again Erlbaum fails to establish a meaningful relationship between these two supposed relatives. Tommy’s backstory is briefly outlined in supremely functional dialogue exchanges with both Jamie Kennedy’s Glenn (a friend from college, now turned dealer) and Cecelia Ann Birt’s patronisingly titled Earth Mother. This latter figure is interviewing young people to assist in some kind of inner city outreach mentoring scheme. Perversely some of the best sections of dialogue are given to this character, which helps to distract the viewer from further crude characterisation, in the shape of those people she interviews for the post.

Café seemed thoughtful and a little intriguing when it pencilled in the initial dialogue exchanges between the various members of its ensemble cast. However, by the time these figures come around for a second day of conversation, the dialogue is already running out of places to explore in this absurdly circumscribed non-existent world. Unlike the two moviegoers that engage in a momentary attraction to one another and opt to see the same film again as the foundation of their second date, it is doubtful there will be many repeat viewers of this aimless little failure of a film.

Film Review:- Insidious (2010)

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Dir:- James Wan

Starr:- Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell

The sheer volume of awful Jigsaw-obsessed sequels may well have distorted the relative merits of the original Saw movie in my imagination. Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s first movie together, wasn’t the technically proficient opening chapter in a hugely successful horror franchise, but rather the low-budget Australian horror Stygian, from which the core plot of Insidious is derived. Wan and Whannell as a writing/directing team (in Stygian Whannell was just an actor) have now come up with three horror movies that place a major emphasis upon the meticulously masked face (be it a doll’s head, a papier-mache mask, or a painted visage). With Insidious the movie actually opens up on a rather chilling and highly effective bedroom prelude, in which a young child is shown to be watched over by a rather hideous ghost-like figure. Wan and Whannell clearly aren’t one-trick ponies and for the first hour of this movie they show themselves to be potential modern masters of the tense horror narrative.

Aside from a particularly strong cast the most impressive aspect of Insidious is to do with Wan’s marshalling of his cinematographers Brewer and Leonetti. The film is yet another example of the technical ingenuity of the horror genre, as Wan and his cameramen create a wholly new way of seeing the horror shot, which relies predominantly upon decentering the focus of the lens in almost every non-close-up shot. Not only is each shot decentered, but Wan, Brewer and Leonetti then utilise a focal lens that appears to balance every aspect of the frame, so that no one detail is given greater weight than an other. This subtle transformation of visual space is actually very important as it allows Wan to populate not just the periphery of the shot with creepy visuals, but also the parts of the shot that would normally be in plain view and therefore usually ineffective and wasteful sites of suggestive and subtle horror. The extent to which this visual effect works can be felt in the inescapable sense, throughout the film, that there is stuff going on underneath the shot that is somehow eluding, and thus tantalisingly taunting, the audience.

The narrative is straight out of classic haunted house territory, with heavy references to recent Spanish-helmed efforts like The Orphanage and The Others. The central technical conceit, discussed above, is similar to that deployed by Robert Wise in the classic spine-tingler The Haunting, whilst the garishly baroque tone set by the hellishly red titles is reminiscent of Hammer Horror flicks from the late sixties. Finally, through the casting of Barbara Hershey in the supporting role of Patrick Wilson’s mother, the movie most obviously draws parallels with the 1982 demon-rape adaptation The Entity (even making an explicit appeal to that movie in the family chronology on display here). Despite however many Amityville’s there is still something inherently frightening about haunted houses and Wan and Whannell’s script takes the tried and tested approach of focusing most of the fear in the story upon the young children within the family. Patrick Wilson and the excellent Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, who have just moved in to a new home at the start of the movie, an imposing tri-gabled structure that stops just short of Psycho and Amityville cliché. The couple have two young sons Dalton and Foster, as well as a baby daughter. Of the two boys Dalton appears the more adventurous and strong-willed, so it comes as no surprise when he ventures up into the attic space at the top of the house and has an accident that ends up putting him in a coma. With their son needing constant round-the-clock attention Josh and Renai become increasingly aware that something in the house clearly has a malevolent agenda that involves Dalton in some way.

The whole of the first half of the film is an intense exercise in steadily escalating dread. Rose Byrne’s Renai is a musician and is thus frequently at home when odd things begin to happen. First of all her box of music scores vanishes, only to reappear in the attic. Then the baby monitor begins to pick up the kind of whispering conversations that are never a good thing in horror movies. Most impressively Byrne’s character begins to be directly visited by strange interlopers, first of all a woman at a window, then a young giggling kid who seems to want to play hide and seek and finally a menacing male figure who seems to wish her harm. Unlike with other films of this ilk, the family don’t put up with the strange goings-on in their new home, but instead move back into the family property they stayed in prior to the big move.

One of the thoughts that surfaced in my mind whilst watching these middle sections of Insidious was just how expressive of anxiety the haunted house movie may well be. Nowadays one of the biggest financial commitments most families will make is to own their own property. As a result a significant pressure is put upon a couple to make the right choice of home, of neighbourhood, of district, in which to raise their children. If the bricks and mortar that you have sunk your savings into suddenly become the sight of horrific goings-on then it places an impossible burden upon the family unit, as most people can’t simply walk away from a financial loss of that magnitude. Thus the haunted house in some ways becomes a reflection, an outward manifestation, of all the doubts and tensions a couple might have over property ownership.

All the hard work expended on constructing a simply terrifying atmosphere is somewhat undone by the arrival on the scene of Lin Shaye’s mystic Elise Rainier (along with her Ghostbusters duo, one of whom is played by Whannell himself). In every good haunted house movie there comes a point where the director has to choose whether to reveal the bogeyman at the heart of the horror, or whether to stick with suggestions and allusions. Insidious actually has some genuinely scary imagery at its core, which deserves a little flaunting (particularly the demonic figure in full flow that looks a little like the beast from Jeepers Creepers crossed with Darth Maul), however the final thirty minutes of the film sees Wan and Whannell overplay their hand somewhat, whilst resorting to moments of parody that wouldn’t seem out-of-place on Most Haunted.

As in Stygian, the movie is in essence about two conflicting plains of reality, and how certain people can cross from one to the other. Such an idea is immensely appealing when you have a whole array of demons lined up on the other side of the divide ready to burst through. However, this underworld can also detract from the real strengths of the movie and it is notable that whereas the creepy presences of the early part of the film had been made all the more effective by not being sign-posted in the traditional horror score/POV shot manner, at the conclusion of the movie the demonic presences clearly adhere to this formula and are all the worse for it. By the time Lin Shaye wanders around in the gas mask from My Bloody Valentine, whilst Whannell and Angus Sampson (as the two ghost hunting assistants) get tossed around like human skittles, Insidious has drifted far away from the subtle powers of its title. It’s a great shame, as for long periods this is a superb horror film and even in the OTT light show at its climax there are moments of quite unique terror, such as the manic expressions on the ‘further’ family’s faces, or the almost entirely black wanderings Josh has to go on to try to find Dalton (never has darkness felt quite so oppressive and menacing). Insidious confirms that Wan and Whannell are technically proficient horror-film auteurs, who with a little more discipline may well be capable of the 21st century’s first truly frightening American horror movie, we horror enthusiasts can but hope.

NOTE:- I did enjoy the little chalk image of Jigsaw scrawled upon Josh’s blackboard in the classroom sequence.

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