In a world where religion and politics often divide folks quite nastily, sports — and of course in particular sports heroes — can serve to unite and uplift people, especially if their field of competition is international, and therefore allows for a degree of nationalistic fervor to creep into play. Such was certainly the case with Ayrton Senna, a fiery and hard-charging Formula One racing star who rose to prominence and a certain level of domination in the sport in the 1980s and early ’90s, serving as a rare beacon of pride and hope for his homeland of Brazil. A new documentary bearing his name — and the not undeserving stamp of Audience Award prizes at both the Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals — tells his story, in a unique and interesting way that doesn’t necessitate an abiding occupational interest in racing. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Universal/ESPN Films, PG-13, 104 minutes)
A cinematic smart-bomb of heavily processed yet still not entirely inescapable sunny uplift, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie mixes almost two dozen energetically pitched musical numbers from the hit FOX series’ recent spate of concert dates with laudatory audience testimonials and footage of three different teenage fans for whom the show’s embrace of diversity and individualism has made a difference. The movie is chiefly just a cash-grab hymnal to the choir, but briskly paced enough to still remain inoffensive to those outside of its prescribed demographic. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (20th Century Fox, PG, 83 minutes)
Coming off the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, author Ken Kesey in 1964 set off on a road trip across the United States with a bunch of like-minded friends — a renegade group of counter-culture truth-seekers known as the Merry Pranksters. The ostensible target or end-point destination of their journey was the World’s Fair in New York City, but in truth this, ahem, trip was as much about the hedonistic experience of the open road as it ever was about getting to the other side of the country. Poised somewhere between the beatnik and hippie generations, Kesey and his clan — including Neal Cassady, the central figure immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — intended to make a documentary about their expedition. Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place is a rangy, messy sort of snapshot memoir of that unfinished work, pieced together under a spate of new and collected interviews by filmmakers Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood.
A presentation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Magic Trip is most notable as a historic document, since as a stand-alone movie it mainly succeeds in just making one never want to do drugs. At Stanford in 1959, Kesey volunteered to take part in what would later be revealed to be a CIA-funded study of psychoactive medications at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. He would trip through LSD, Psilocybin, mescaline and alpha-Methyltryptamines, among other substances, and some of the reel-to-reel audio recordings of those post-dosage discussion sessions (including one in which Kesey pontificates about the tape recorder’s reel serving as its brain) make for a trippy, slurry delight. The build-up to the road trip, too, is interesting, as Kesey and his pals purchase a big school bus, name it “Further,” remodel the interior, deck it out in wild colors, and even retrofit it with an exterior storage appendage and a sort of turret.
Soon we’re off, and on the road. Well… sort of. Kesey and company, totaling about 14 or 15 in all, run out of gas at the end of his property, which is perhaps an inauspicious and somewhat telling opening to their voyage. They finally get going, though, and the 16mm footage of their progress is often wild and weird. Since no one on the trip really knew how to use the camera (or the sound equipment, which was a big obstacle and the chief reason that their planned documentary never happened), there’s a decided lack of stuffy formalism or composition to the captured footage; it’s wildly subjective, but offers sometimes quickening glimpses into the mindsets (and maybe even souls) of those operating the camera at any given moment — zooming in on a fellow traveler’s ample bosom (presaging the “free love” movement, there was plenty of partner-swapping along the way), a befuddled gas station attendant, or the swirling detritus in a pool of water.
Possessing a handful of these sorts of unique moments, Magic Trip connects intermittently as a fascinating piece of captured history, a sort of “prima facie” document of the cresting impulses that would eventually take take form in the hippie movement of later in the 1960s and ’70s. Overall, though, it’s just a self-indulgent and kind of boring mess. Gibney and Ellwood don’t show their interview subjects, and while this tack sometimes works to the benefit of the material — most recently in Senna, for instance — here it has a distancing affect. Since so many culled interviews are from participants we see on screen in the captured footage, failing to show them robs the movie of a chance to carve out more discrete personalities. As a slice of Americana, there’s some measure of value to Magic Trip, but mostly it’s just another artifact of boomer self-obsession, and a reminder of their heavy hand in our current national predicaments. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Magnolia/History Films, R, 107 minutes)
Anselm Kiefer and the notion of the venerated artist more generally is celebrated in Sophie Fiennes’ documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, a kind of ethereal, meandering nonfiction look at the aforementioned German painter and sculptor. Attempting to mine greater meaning out of the minutiae of artistic production, this glacially paced film will hypnotize some with its often beautiful compositions and mesmeric rhythms, but mostly confound general audiences, and those desiring a pinch more of a conventional biographical hook upon which to hang the hat of their captured interest.
Kiefer isn’t necessarily what you’d call a widely known commercial or pop artist, but casual art world viewers expecting a lot of insight or contextual explanation of Kiefer’s work will be sorely disappointed. Narrated by Klaus Dermutz, Fiennes’ film is an almost oppressively removed and arty thing in and of itself. Save for a mid-film segment in which Kiefer submits to queries from an art historian, the movie is otherwise composed largely of shots and sequences that track around its subject’s work.
Fiennes’ movie is supposed to kind of ironically showcase the gritty and often mundane processes required to transform elements into art, into something grander than their mere parts, and in doing so at such an emotional remove (perhaps?) serve as a parallel commentary on cinematic creation. But the sad fact remains that this is just a brutally unengaging forced expedition. Some of the images themselves are quite attractive to look at, but when people attack the ivory-tower elitism of academic treatises, it’s works like Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow about which they are speaking. One leaves with the rather remarkable but unpleasant feeling of simultaneously having not learned much, and yet also having contempt for what they have gleaned. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Kino Lorber, unrated, 105 minutes)
When critics use the shorthand phrase “festival film,” in either praise or derision, they essentially mean movies like writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s feature debut, Gun Hill Road. From its evocative title and kind of self-consciously gritty style to its blowout emotional moments and hook-y social issue conceit transposed to a working-class familial setting, the film seems constructed in moralizing fashion to pull dramatic levers and kick-start off-screen dialogues, so it’s no particular surprise that it played in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Its failure to land a top-tier indie distributor, however, speaks to the movie’s familiar qualities and the unfortunate fact that — despite some engaging performances — its narrative just doesn’t have enough oomph to leave a lasting impact. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Motion Film Group, R, 87 minutes)
The differences between French cinema and Hollywood studio offerings are various and sundry, but perhaps best illustrated by something like Rapt, a sprawling and inventive kidnap drama which doesn’t so much deliver an adrenaline shot of nervy thrills as steadily ooze disquieting tension over the course of its two-hour running time. Watching this superb high-wire balancing act unfold, one is struck by the myriad ways American thrillers typically angle for car chases and other jolts of immediacy, even if it doesn’t always make sense within the confines of the narrative. So when word of a planned English-language remake of Rapt broke not long before its slotting at the City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Festival in 2010, it elicited both tingles of anticipation (it’s rich material) and knowing sighs of all the misguided compromises and tweaks that would almost certainly distill the grim effectiveness of writer-director Lucas Belvaux’s morally grey film.
Nominated for four Cesar Awards in its native France, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Film, Rapt was inspired in part by the real-life 1978 kidnapping and rescue of businessman Edouard-Jean Empain. Its story centers around Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal, above), a wealthy, powerful and politically connected industrialist/CEO with a couple dark secrets (a mistress, an affinity for gambling) that a group of criminals may have used as leverage in their plot. On the eve of a trip abroad with the French president, Graff is kidnapped in a brilliantly executed snatch-and-grab on a city street. His kidnappers want cash, and lots of it, so they promptly cut off his middle finger to show the police and Graff’s wife Francoise (Anne Consigny) that they mean business.
While the particulars of the ransom are being hashed out, the man charged with overseeing Graff’s corporation in his absence, Andre Peyrac (Andre Marcon), tries to walk a tightrope between legitimate concern and the protection of broader, multi-national business assests. As tabloids threaten to get hold of some of the less than flattering particulars of Graff’s personal life, Peyrac worries about how it will impact the value and worth of the company. The police, meanwhile, often seemed more concerned with merely apprehending the kidnappers and holding them up as a public example than actually ensuring Graff’s physical well-being.
What’s most remarkable about Belvaux’s film is the way it habitually avoids pat judgments about its characters, while also coming up with interesting story twists and simultaneously burrowing deeper and deeper into its characters’ individual emotional states. No one gets off easy here. It spoils nothing, really, to say that Graff is separated from his kidnappers much earlier than the film’s final reel, leaving his family and others to grapple with the changes in their lives, and the fact that this act is not some discrete threat to be overcome and shelved away, but rather a stone thrown in the placid pond of their privileged existences, with ripples spreading farther and father after the fact, and in unknown directions.
Attal gives a superlative performance, morphing from cocksure captain of industry to an emaciated and ruminative victim of prey, and Marcon and the rest of the cast are similarly effective in projecting the interior monologues of their characters. It will be interesting to see who plays the role of Graff in Rapt‘s American remake, but it’s almost certain that the film will be injected with the sort of muscular, pop-out set pieces that chip away at the opportunity for the sort of unique nonverbal connection that Rapt affords. It may yet land in the right hands (witness the artful Swedish film Let the Right One In and its equally beautiful American counterpart, Let Me In), but Rapt should definitely be given a chance by American fans of quality arthouse cinema. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Kino Lorber, R, 120 minutes)