Friday, July 11, 2014

Life Itself, Gabrielle, The Pleasures of Being / Out of Step, Violette, Beyond the Edge, Venus in Fur

Life Itself

The Pleasures of Being / Out of Step

Beyond the Edge
Venus in Fur

I'm way behind on last week's movies, so these will have to be very short capsules:

The pick of the litter by far is Steve James' intimate portrait of Roger Ebert, "Life Itself." The film is intentionally difficult to watch at times, neither man shying away from the physical pain of Ebert's cancer. But it's also joyous, generous of spirit, often hilarious. My main quibble is that James goes into great detail in most areas of Ebert's career, but makes no mention of the guest critics who auditioned for Gene Siskel's chair or the one who won it, Richard Roeper, or of the short-lived movie review show Ebert re-launched on PBS. (James also refrains from showing clips from the end of Siskel's tenure, when the effects of his brain condition became sadly apparent to all.) I'd seen all of the outtakes James uses, but if anything he cuts them off too quickly, missing out on some great banter between Siskel and Ebert. Still, this is a must to see for any lover of film and film journalism. You'll leave with a lump in your throat for certain… Love - the longing for love, actually - among intellectually disabled young adults is the subject of Louise Archambault's sweet and sensitive "Gabrielle," with a highly endearing lead performance by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard (herself developmentally challenged) and equally guileless and enchanting work by Alexandre Landry as her friend from choir, kept from her by his mother. Your tolerance for the 104-minute runtime, though, may depend on your taste for French-Canadian alt-pop… What I like best about journalist David L. Lewis' biodoc "The Pleasures of Being / Out of Step," about the longtime Village Voice jazz reviewer and free speech advocate Nat Hentoff, is Lewis' insistence on cross-cutting between Hentoff's two passions, never allowing either one to dominate. Just when we're really getting into one, he'll go to the other, like Hentoff's mind itself. Hentoff views his role less as a jazz critic than a missionary for jazz, and his writing (including dozens of legendary liner notes) has the kind of immediacy that, as one editor says, "makes you have to listen to the record this very minute." Stanley Crouch: "Asking about Hentoff's reputation in the jazz world is like asking about the Bible's reputation in church." On free speech, Hentoff wisely focuses his articles on the speakers themselves and the real-world costs of voicing unpopular opinions, lessons that couldn't come at a more opportune time… Emmanuelle Devos throws herself into the title role of Martin Provost's "Violette," about the tortured, at once self-loathing and self-aggrandizing French writer Violette Leduc. The crux of the film is Leduc's relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, which the press notes call "intense" and "tempestuous." Unfortunately, what's onscreen is tepid and inert, with a detached performance by Sandrine Kiberlain as de Beauvoir, alternately counseling the distraught Leduc to buck up and flat-out ignoring her… As mountaineering movies go, "Beyond the Edge" is no "Touching the Void," but it's far superior to 2008's "North Face." Leanne Pooley's respectful 3-D documentary on Sir Edmund Hillary's conquering of Mount Everest incorporates video footage from 1952, audio interviews with the expedition party and their families (as well as other climbers), and seamless re-enactments to re-create the fearsome and majestic awe of an ascent that had killed all those who had previously attempted it, that so deactivates the brain as to render the simplest calculation (as of remaining oxygen) nearly impossible. You really feel like you're there with Hillary and his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, at each (below-) freezing camp and outpost, and I also like the glimpse into the office politics. Hillary wanted very badly for their leader, John Hunt, to select him for the historic final stage… After making my top-ten list with his 2011 adaptation of Yasmina Reza's great "God of Carnage," Roman Polanski trips over himself adapting David Ives' Broadway play of "Venus in Fur," about Thomas, a writer-director (frog-faced Mathieu Amalric), and Vanda (Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), the actress who shows up for an audition after everyone else has gone home and proceeds to take Thomas on a sadomasochistic thrill ride. The movie doesn't work on any level. Its thoughts on the shifting power dynamics involved in S&M sex play might come from a C student's Psych 101 paper. And it's not titillating, either; Seigner's not ugly like Amalric, but she's twenty years too old for the part. By the time Vanda chains Thomas up in high heels, lipstick and a blonde wig, I couldn't refuse my friend's entreaty to walk out.

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