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Review: My Summer of Love


The title of Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film, like the movie itself, has the iconic power of an old, but unforgettable, memory. My Summer of Love is a tale of teenage romance stripped down to its essentials — two girls, one rich, one poor. But despite trading in archetypes, Pawlikowski’s film seems full-fleshed and vital, thanks to galvanizing performances by his leads, Emily Blunt and Nathalie Press.
    Blunt plays Tamsin with a privileged girl’s cool, appraising gaze. A one-upping name-dropper (“Have you read Nietzsche?” she purrs) she’s intrigued with the prole hottie she’s met in the Yorkshire hills. As Mona, Press uses her keen eyes to tell of her character’s hunger to escape her lot — her mother has just died of cancer, and she’s living with her ex-con brother, a born-again Christian who clings to the cross a bit too fiercely. Pawlikowski’s two heavenly creatures bond over their sadness, swim, laze about, and enter into a relationship that reflects the director’s landscapes — part golden idyll, part roiling undercurrents.
    Pawlikowski occasionally abuses his painterly sensibility, as when he has the gall to film one character gnawing on an apple as she plots her prey’s sexual downfall. But for the most part, the film lulls with its languor and its menacing beauty, which makes the character’s awakenings all the more shocking — and satisfying — in the end. — Noy Thrupkaew

Review: Batman Begins
Anybody attempting to make a Batman movie must quickly come to the stomach-churning realization that the biggest stumbling block is going to be Batman himself. A superhero with no special powers apart from his ability to withdraw the GNP of Luxembourg from multiple bank accounts, the Caped Crusader employs sheer aesthetic intimidation as his primary weapon. Basically, he needs to look badass — fine if he’s merely ink on paper, caught in a series of dynamic, stroboscopic poses, but problematic for the poor actor who has to swoop and strut around with his big fat chin sticking out of the cowl. Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher mostly ducked the issue, relegating Batman to a supporting character in his own movies and allowing a series of charismatic, over-the-top villains to hog the spotlight. So the best and the worst thing about Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious attempt to reinvent the franchise, is its stubborn, old-school emphasis on the title character.
    It helps that this is the origin story, which means that Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) doesn’t develop his alter ego until the movie is already half over. Indeed, it’s some time before we even see Gotham City, except in flashback. Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) clearly gets a kick out of disorienting the audience, and Batman Begins opens with Wayne ensconced in a Bhutanese prison — ostensibly to learn the secrets of the criminal mind, though to the layman it looks more like garden-variety masochism. Sprung by an enigmatic dude in a sinister goatee (Liam Neeson), Wayne receives extensive martial-arts training and pompous self-help lectures from a subterranean organization called the League of Shadows, but ultimately rejects their Nietzchean worldview and returns to Gotham, determined to bring justice to its blighted streets with the help of intrepid family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Wayne Enterprises science whiz Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and soon-to-be-Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman, superb in the squarest role of his career).
    For all his gifts, Nolan isn’t much of a visual stylist; those expecting the extravagant Art Deco expressionism of the Burton pictures will be disappointed. Instead, Batman Begins revels in engaging quotidian detail, with attention devoted to such niceties as the minimum number of bat-accessories one must commission from overseas in order to avoid triggering bat-suspicion. So committed are Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer to making everything seem at least vaguely plausible that those unfamiliar with Batman’s history may not even recognize the supervillains when they appear. At times, you might even forget that you’re watching a comic-book movie — at least until Bale finally dons his mask and cape, striking fear into the hearts of costume designers everywhere. Obscured by a blizzard of quick cuts during fight sequences, Batman remains imposing only so long as he remains hypothetical; seen in shadowy repose, speaking in an affected basso rasp, he’s just a dork who got lost on his way home from Worldcon. Which doesn’t bode well for the inevitable Batman Continues, but oh well. One good movie was more than we could expect. — Mike D’Angelo
Review: Wheel of Time
Most people probably know director Werner Herzog as the crazy sonofabitch who wound up in a Mexican standoff with Klaus Kinski, or the obsessive who hauled a steamboat over a mountain while making a film about an obsessive hauling a steamboat over a mountain (1982’s Fitzcarraldo). Either way, he’s not the kind of guy you’d imagine making a film about Buddhist serenity and inner peace. But that’s precisely what makes Wheel of Time, his lovely, mysterious document of the elaborate ritual ordaining of Buddhist monks, so fascinating. Herzog’s documentaries (two more of which, The White Diamond and Grizzly Man, are also hitting screens this year) have a clinically inquisitive air to them. While his camera gets into his subjects’ faces, peering and prying, the bemused lilt of the director’s own narration betrays a sense of unease with what he’s filming. He’s constantly questioning, probing, wondering — as if he doesn’t quite understand his own subject.
    It’s this sense of mystery that makes Herzog’s films so different from what you might find on, say, the Discovery Channel. The director readily cops to his own ignorance — he’s interested in exploration, not exposition. He’ll give us the harrowing sight of a Buddhist pilgrim journeying for thousands of miles while constantly kneeling in prayer, or the paradoxical image of the Dalai Lama surrounded by a security cordon of men in suits. But he won’t really be able to tell us why. And somehow, we love this wildly talented madman auteur all the more for it. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Nomi Song

Director Andrew Horn’s documentary about late New Wave weirdo Klaus Nomi doesn’t reveal much about the German émigré beyond his reticent Martian theatrics (Kabuki-style face paint, regal sci-fi capes, vinyl tuxedos and white Mickey Mouse gloves) and alarming countertenor. As a nostalgic snapshot of a musical outsider, The Nomi Song offers great archival concert footage, chronicling Nomi’s salad days in the late ’70s East Village performance art scene, his collaboration with David Bowie and Joey Arias on a 1979 Saturday Night Live performance of “The Man Who Sold the World,” his unlikely popularity in France and his death from AIDS in 1983. Most fascinating is the story of how producers and promoters tried to hoist Nomi from downtown cult status into mainstream pop music. Needless to say, the wasted patrons of a New Jersey rock club didn’t quite know what to do with Nomi, whose persona was some combination of C-3PO, Nosfaratu and Maria Callas.
    Recommended for fans of outrageous performance artists like Leigh Bowery, German singers similarly obsessed with life on other planets like Nina Hagen, or the post-punk vaudeville scene of ’70s New York City, The Nomi Song, is an often touching portrait of a singing space cadet. — Matt Hickman

Review: The Great Water

Ivo Trajkov’s grim historic film The Great Water is set in a Macedonian gulag for orphans of “saboteurs” — the wealthy, religious, and freethinking citizens deemed a threat to Tito’s Communist state. Based on the novel by Zivko Cingo, it treats a totalitarian regime’s assault on the minds of its youth from 1945 to 1948, and shows how love and decency can be warped by brutality.
    Begun with a scene of a contemporary crisis — an elected Macedonian leader suffers a heart attack — the film toggles between shots of the aged Lem Nikodinoski (Meto Jovanovski) fighting for his life, and flashbacks to his twelve-year-old self being chased through the countryside by Tito’s soldiers.
    Seized and brought to a Soviet-style “orphanage,” the young Lem (Saso Kekenovski) finds himself trapped in a merciless system devoted to the indoctrination of its wards. “It was a dungeon,” the older Lem says of the prison, formed by a crumbling castle isolated from the mainland by a vast sea. And “I,” he recalls, “was a frightened little mouse.”
    The orphanage is run by a creepy headmaster called “Daddy”; he secretly practices a banned Christianity but denies his charges sleep if they believe in “that retired God” (an ironic phrase turned by the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel before his murder by Stalin’s goons). Daddy’s second-in-command is a pathological young woman, Olivera, who is capable of freezing to death a group of girls she suspects of stealing her Party-awarded gym shorts. Olivera worships Stalin, and soul-kisses a ceramic bust of him that she erects in her room.
    Lem’s one friend is thirteen-year-old Isak Keyten (Maja Stankovska), an exquisite boy with surreal self-possession. Fond of rites that involve burning hair and drinking blood, Isak resurrects a cat electrocuted by a sadistic guard and nearly retains his Christlike integrity.
    But Trajkov falls off his narrative axis when he tries to force an affair between Isak and Olivera, just to push Lem’s love for his friend to a point of tragic jealousy. In the ensuing melee, one boy is plucked from the prison by human hands, while the other is magically liberated.
    Its absurdities aside, The Great Water is a grossly disturbing film, one fixed on the fallout from betrayed faith and an old man’s guilt at his boyhood rescue from a horrific and systemic depravity. — Susan Comninos

Review: Edvard Munch
Those looking for a lush, stirring historical epic about the life of the dude who painted “The Scream” should do everything they can to avoid the current rerelease of Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch. Watkins, the maverick Brit genius best known for his legendary 1965 mock-documentary about atomic warfare, The War Game, just isn’t that kind of filmmaker. And the Norwegian Munch wasn’t really that kind of painter. He was a tormented introvert, obsessed with stripping away all decorative frills in his disturbing paintings, sometimes reducing his brushstrokes to desperate scrawls, the better to depict the anguish of his soul. (Did I mention he was Norwegian?)
    Although this 1976 film is epic (running nearly three hours) and densely packed with historical and biographical detail, it is, in its own way, as intensely unnerving as its subject’s paintings. Watkins eschews traditionally scripted scenes, shaking things up by using fake documentary interviews, anachronistically quizzing his characters about their circumstances, or dry narration, laying on the historical detail and telling us what else was happening in Europe at the time. The soundtrack is full of incidental noise, people breathing and chattering in the background. The camera shakes and zooms, trying to catch small details and faces. These devices all suggest attempts at realism . . . and yet, the result is anything but. Much like Munch’s own paintings, as Watkins strips away surface flash and convention, what remains is distinctly otherworldly, and haunting. — Bilge Ebiri
Date DVD #37: The Bette Davis Collection
There should be a few minor critical catfights this week, as two divas battle it out again on the box-set rack. The five-disc Joan Crawford Collection is a very mixed bag: The Women (1939) is a fun, antic social-scene satire, but her overwrought half-musical Humoresque (1946) is too over-the-top, even for Crawford. Possessed (1947), a favorite of Crawford devotees, catches a wild-eyed actress at peak insanity, but The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) is a pale noir at best. And the best film of bunch is that quintessential melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945), in which Crawford’s striking performance as a self-made woman with a impertinent daughter revived the actress’s endless career with her only Oscar win.
    The better Bette Davis box collects Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), Now, Voyager (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and The Star (1952). The set misses great Davis performances from Jezebel to All About Eve, but there are two stunning performances, perfect for a date: Davis’s heroically romantic turn in Now, Voyager (in which she plays a neurotic woman who breaks free from the domineering influence of her evil mother), and her swoony, legendary toughness in Dark Victory (in which she plays a socialite who is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and juggles two men: her reliable old friend and her dashing brain surgeon). The two films are among cinema’s greatest romances — proof that terrific romantic films aren’t impossible, and a reminder that Hollywood’s dull course of casting nothing but sweethearts (Ashley Judd, say) in modern romances is killing the genre. — Logan Hill

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