Monday, June 30, 2014

Code Black, Begin Again, A Coffee in Berlin, Citizen Koch, Manakamana

Code Black
Begin Again

A Coffee in Berlin

Citizen Koch

Capsule reviews on three docs and two features from the weekend in cinema:

Three truths emerge from the new documentary "Code Black," about emergency room doctors at L.A. County Hospital (which pioneered emergency medicine as contemporarily practiced and at which more lives have been both lost and saved than anywhere else in America): 1.) the high-stakes adrenaline rush of the ER engenders not only a unique camaraderie among the doctors but a blinders-on purposefulness that brings out their best work; 2.) way too much of their workday is consumed by the completion of bureaucratic forms with an eye to potential future lawsuits or administrative second-guessing; and 3.) director Ryan McGarry and fellow ER stud Dave Pomeranz are almost comically great-looking. You might not mind a bout of botulism if it got you in to see them…Rightly or wrongly, there's a limit to how much willfulness audiences will accept from the leading lady in a romantic comedy, a tipping point between self-assurance and stridency. As Gretta, an English singer-songwriter who's put her aspirations on hold to support the rocketing career of her self-absorbed rocker boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) in "Begin Again," Keira Knightley straddles that line successfully most of the time. Mark Ruffalo - daring to be downright scuzzy - plays Dan, a New York music exec who, not having signed a star in several years, loses his job as the movie opens and makes his way to the bar where Gretta reluctantly lets her best friend Steve (James Corden) push her onstage for open mic night. When she sings, Dan, in his stupor, imagines the drums and piano playing themselves behind her: "I want to make records with you," he tells her, "but I'm gonna need you to pay for these drinks." I like that director John Carney allows his characters - there's also Dan's resentful daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and ex-wife (Catherine Keener in peak form) - to emerge with their integrity intact. I like the unexpected humor Carney brings to the script, and the witty way in which several scenes end. Mostly, though, "Begin Again" gets two-and-a-half stars because Knightley is so winning, you just want Gretta to make it through her American adventure safe and sound…Jan Ole Gerster's "A Coffee in Berlin," which swept the German Oscars, would have made one of the all-time great shorts; at 88 minutes, it has just enough mordant laughs to merit recommendation. The movie tracks one day in the aimless existence of Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a totally unmotivated college dropout in his twenties. The through line is Niko's quest for a cup of coffee, which proves much tougher than it sounds. Gerster constructs some very clever mechanisms by which Niko remains deprived of this simple pleasure, but the gimmick doesn't get in the way of interesting encounters with, for instance, Julika (Friederike Kempter), a grade-school classmate who comps him tickets to her performance art show, some street toughs and a chatty barfly…"Citizen Koch" is Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's intermittently compelling, frequently meandering documentary on the outsize importance of Super PAC money in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, through the prism of the gubernatorial election (and failed recall) of Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker. Deal and Lessin bring liberal righteous indignation but not the urgency of their best work, the Oscar-nominated Katrina doc "Trouble the Water." You may find their clandestine audio recordings less amusing and incendiary than they do - not to mention less ethical…I'm quite sure, without looking, that "Manakamana" will be one of my friend Chris Long's favorite films of 2014. It consists entirely of eleven nine-minute rides up (or down) a cable car transport from a Nepali foothill to an ancient mountain temple to a Hindu goddess. Some will find the images of parties riding in silence contemplative and meditative. Others will prefer the people who actually talk to each other, as two old ladies who laugh as their ice cream bars melt all over them. I think many will question whether directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez might have left more interesting footage on the cutting-room floor. And, as my friend said, "When it's just the goats, I'm going to the bathroom."

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