Friday, March 23, 2018


A busy movie weekend full of interesting stuff here in the Valley:

November--As far as I'm concerned, American filmgoers don't see nearly enough Baltic supernatural period dramas in breathtaking black and white. Happily, this weekend FilmBar does its part to make up this deficit by bringing us, on the first weekend of spring, November, Rainer Sarnet's strange and splendid Estonian gothic.

Adapted from Andrus Kivirahk's novel Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barney aka November), the movie focuses on a community of serfs sometime in the 18th or 19th Century. The atmosphere calls to mind Bergman's medieval nightmares The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal, with hints of Dreyer and maybe of Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba, yet it has a weird intensity and heart all its own.

The central plot strand is a sort of gritty fairy tale: peasant beauty and shape-shifting werewolf Liina (Rea Lest) is in unrequited love with lusty young Hans (Jorgen Liik), who in turn is smitten with the somnambulistic young German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) living in the handsome estate nearby. Both Liina and Hans are willing to resort to supernatural means to get what they want.

Around this core storyline, however, November weaves subplots and episodes involving witches, ghosts, a hidden treasure, a romantic, poetic snowman, a manic, gibbering Devil at the crossroads, bread with feces in it, and the Plague personified as a goat, a pig and a blonde beauty. Sarnet presents these folklore motifs in such a matter-of-fact manner that they're startlingly believable--a series of dark yet nonchalant miracles. Pagan and Christian forces mix freely; the peasants regard Jesus as just another powerful deity, secretly spitting out the communion wafers the priest gives them to use as bullets when hunting.

Most astounding are the "kratts," monster farmhands with spindly bodies pieced together from household junk or animal skulls, then endowed with souls bargained for with--or, sometimes, cheated out of--that aforementioned Devil. I couldn't decide whether the kratts in this movie were accomplished by CGI, practical puppetry or some combination of the two, but in any case they're jaw-droppingly convincing, the most thrilling special effect I've seen in a movie in years. If you told me the filmmakers employed real kratts, I'd be inclined to believe it.

The Death of Stalin--As a kvetching Kruschev, Steve Buscemi hilariously leads an ensemble that includes Jeffery Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, as they frantically jockey for power (and survival) in the aftermath of the title passing. Adapting a French comic book, the Scottish director Armando Ianucci offers us a compressed and cartoonish but essentially defensible version of the history, played in the style of a latter-day American TV sitcom (Ianucci is the creator of Veep).

The result is both brilliantly and sometimes disturbingly entertaining. It's also a troubling dramatization of how often sweeping historical shifts are directed not by the clash of lofty ideologies but by opportunism and petty grudges.

By the way, the Russian Ministry of Culture has banned the film, according to The Guardian, on the grounds that it's a "planned provocation" and might be a "western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society." Riotous as The Death of Stalin is, it doesn't contain a single joke quite as funny as that.

Flower--Erica (Zooey Deutch) is a subrban-L.A. 17-year-old who tempts older men with oral sex so that her friends can get video for purposes of extortion. She's trying to raise money, you see, to bail her dad out of jail. Nice to see a movie about a teenager with some initiative.

When the troubled son (Joey Morgan) of the dorky boyfriend (Tim Hiedecker) of Erica's Mom (Kathryn Hahn) moves into the house, Erica forms an odd but touching bond with him. The two, along with Erica's previous cronies, enter into a plot against a creepy schoolteacher (Adam Scott), and the film, with its bright teen-comedy repartee, takes an increasingly noir turn, as if Gun Crazy had been rewritten by Diablo Cody (the script is by Alex McAulay, Matt Spicer and director Max Winkler).

I couldn't decide, and I still can't, if Flower is a work of transgressive feminism or of adolescent male wishful thinking and sentimentality. I also can't decide if it's morally valid or reprehensible. In either case, however, it's perfectly executed, and Zooey Deutch's Erica is a star-making performance.

Itzhak--Alison Chernick's portrait of the Israeli-American violin great Itzhak Perlman is a pleasure to watch, because the title character seems so happy. He's an intelligent, funny, thoughtful guy, yet his happiness seems uncomplicated and unembarrassed. He's a riveting artist, but this doesn't stop him from being the quintessential cheerful, gabby, affluent Manhattan mensch, watching the Mets and eating Chinese food.

Like Pamela Tom's 2015 Tyrus (about the painter and Disney animation artist Tyrus Wong), this is a theatrical version of an American Masters documentary. As filmmaking it's straightforward, but the subject is so extraordinary, both musically and personally, as to make it a must-see. In archive footage and photos, we see Perlman on The Ed Sullivan Show in the '50s, and performing and socializing with everybody from Zubin Mehta and Pavarotti and Yo-Yo Ma to Sinatra and Johnny Carson. We see him comparing childhood polio stories with Alan Alda. We see him meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and rehearsing with Billy Joel. We get to know his adoring wife Toby, his kids, and his dogs.

Delightful as all of this and more is, it's not what makes Itzhak unforgettable. But throughout the movie, we get to hear that sound: Perlman's technically masterful yet raucous, peerlessly soulful renderings of Mendelssohn and Bruch and Bach and Schubert and Wieniawski and Vivaldi and Strauss, and "Allentown" and "We Didn't Start the Fire," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

At one point Perlman tells how, just after he and his wife had taken out a loan to buy a house, he learned that his beloved Stradivarius had come up for sale, and his wife told him they'd just have to take out another loan. "We're still paying it!" he exclaims. Money well spent, as far as the rest of us are concerned.

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