Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Films in Brief

Tamara Drewe
Directed by Stephen Frears
Opens October 8, 2010

Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Posy Simonds’ graphic novel Tamara Drewe starts out inauspiciously. With a frisky comic attitude in telling the story of a young woman returning to her tiny hometown as a successful (and hot-looking) journalist who drives local men (and, by extension, women) crazy, Frears’ slapdash slapstick early on looks suspiciously like desperation, as if the director didn’t trust the material to work as a leisurely human comedy.

Luckily, Frears rights himself, and Tamara Drewe becomes a rollicking but ultimately bittersweet romp about small-town attitudes and big-city pretensions. He’s helped immensely by an energetic cast led by Gemma Atherton (pictured above), whose Tamara is the ultimate in charming, clever and curvy hometown beauties made good. The girls who are simultaneously a Greek Chorus and a sort of deus ex machina (making the comic twists and misunderstandings happen) are played to pimply teenaged perfection by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie. The biggest drawback is the script: characters are rarely plausibly intertwined and there are meager real laugh lines. But Frears’ cast saves the day.

Directed by Simone Bitton
October 8-14, 2010
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue

Simone Bitton’s bitterly provocative study of the death of American activist Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003 is a model of how a documentary can become a fair-minded, wide-ranging investigation of injustice. Bitton interviews Corrie’s fellow activists from the U.S. and Great Britain, Palestinian family members who looked at her as one of their own, Israeli police and military officers who took part in the action that led to her death and the official inquiry afterwards, and her parents and teachers in Olympia, Washington.

Bitton—speaking in French, English and Hebrew—asks pointed questions and gets equally pointed answers from her subjects, creating a vivid portrait of an idealistic activist (the excerpts from her diary reminds us that she was just 22 years old) who, however misguided or uninformed, was swallowed up by a never-ending cycle of death and destruction while trying to change things for the better.

Nowhere Boy
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
Opens October 8, 2010
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street

John Lennon's life has been exhaustively covered in books, movies and TV programs, but Sam Taylor-Wood’s first feature, Nowhere Boy, covers the Beatle’s lightly-touched teenage years, when he lived with his straitlaced aunt Mimi because his free-spirited single mother Julia isn’t reliable enough to handle him while she flits from man to man. When Julia dies in a car accident, John—in the process of leading his new rock band, the Quarrymen, which features fellow future Fab Fours Paul McCartney and George Harrison—loses his innocence in more ways than one.

Although a certain familiarity reigns, Conceptual artist Taylor-Wood gets things right like the suitably grimy look of 1950s Liverpool or the hotheaded Lennon who’s always front and center (an invented punch to Paul McCartney’s face that Sir Paul himself quibbled over is a sly touch). The acting is uniformly fine: Aaron Jackson (pictured above, with Anne-Marie Duff) splendidly enacts the confusion of a teenaged John, who’s nevertheless ever aware of his budding charisma and talent; Anne-Marie Duff’s Julia is vibrant without ever becoming strident; and Kristin Scott Thomas’s Julia is another understated gem of a portrayal to add to this accomplished actress’ resume.

Picture Me
Directed by Ole Schell and Sara Ziff
Opens September 17, 2010

Model Sara Ziff and boyfriend Ole Schell’s Picture Me, a film bout the fashion industry from Ziff’s POV as she poses for magazines and walks in runway shows, presents her discussing the perks and problems associated with being a high-paid fashion model. Too bad that the novice filmmakers turn the movie into the cinematic equivalent of a YouTube video: initially watchable, but soon unbearably self-centered.

Other models talk about sexism in the industry, but all come across as robotic and pampered; that the industry itself may have made them that way is never brought up. Ziff, who seems exceptionally smart, eventually attends Columbia: but we end up thinking that modeling made her wealthy enough to attend college, which I doubt is what she and Schell wanted to say.

Kings of Pastry
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
In theaters nationwide

Rarely has a movie looked tastier than Kings of Pastry, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s delectable account of the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF) competition in Lyon that pit’s the greatest French pastry chefs against one another. This entertaining movie is more than a Gallic “Top Chef”: the 16 contestants are true artists who create spectacularly towering sculptures that are also edible. (It’s telling that the head judge’s eyes well with tears when announcing the winner, saying he wishes he could present 16 first prizes.)

We follow one contestant, Jacquy Pfeiffer, who with his coach (and past MOF winner) Sebastien Canonne runs the French Pastry Institute in Chicago. Through trial and error, Pfeiffer selects various desserts as his entries. The theme of the competition is Marriage, and Pfeiffer comes up with a raspberry caramel cake shaped as a dome. Ultimately, whether Pfeiffer or anybody else is named Best Craftsman is less urgent than the culinary genius on display. Despite a glut of food shows on television, it’s doubtful such a competition would receive the same amount of notoriety in America; thank Hegedus and Pennebaker for training their accomplished lens upon it.

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