Two x Two x Two

Two Dramas Lebanon Directed by Samuel Maoz

This unremitting, visceral film is based on the director's own experiences as a 20 year old novice IDF grunt serving for Israel during the 1982 Lebanon war after repeated and persistent missile- and incursion provocations. Using his own claustrophobic recollections, he brings rapt viewers inside an Israeli tank during the first 24 hours of the '82 Shalom Levanon invasion, Maoz restricts the film's action entirely to the tank's interior. He shows us the outside world only as the four tremulous soldiers themselves see it–through the lens of a periscopic totoch, tank gun sight. A brilliant film every bit as captivating as HURT LOCKER was last year.

Written and Directed by David Michod

If you liked The Sopranos, you'll eat up ANIMAL KINGDOM, whose very name is as clever as the rest of this outstanding Aussie film. A sober teen, Josh (expect more from James Frecheville), goes to live with his outlier Melbourne kinfolk after his mother dies suddenly in front of the telly. This family is a festering nest of explosive malignancy, each uncle and cousin a study in quirky hatreds and malevolence. Who takes the cake for closest kin to Lady MacBeth is Jacki Weaver, hands down the creepiest, most formidable colossus baddie the screen has seen for a dog's age. And as she destroys anyone who crosses her petty con thug-sons, she smiles and tilts her head in a deceptively winning rictus. One detective (Guy Pierce) stands out as honest among a slew of cops. The title is well chosen: These are human animals, and they kill or are killed. Lest you think the film intolerable, it is lensed balletically, gorgeous in its rhythms and bardeaux, sometimes slowed, sometimes over-exposed, sometimes hectic. The police in this exurban Australia are as corrupt and unapologetic as the cons. Not to be missed.

Two danceterias

STEP UP 3D Directed by Jon Chu

STEP UP is, well, fun. If you are in the mood, or want a popcorn two-hour-filler while you wait for the main course. It's hip-hop at its jaw-dropping best, taking place in various venues including the Village, NYU University and a remarkable midtown grungy but flabbergasting studio for a loose configuration of 'dancers' who jiggle, pose, skimper and scamper in athletic pas de quatres and variations of what we all love to watch as we go into the Apple store for a new iPad. The 3D is exceedingly fun, too, though not quite needed, since the film is rich with pyrotechnics and romance and adorable talent making your eyes pop. It's two dance gangs competing for honors and a prize; but what drives the 'story' is less potent than the spectacular movement and exhilarating cast of raw energy peopling the screen.

It is a lot more fun than the overproduced comic favorite, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. Which is also in 3D, but even as a comic book come to life, takes itself too seriously. If you liked Batman on TV, this will evoke it for you: THONK! GRrrrr! SPPPLIFFF!

MAO'S LAST DANCER Directed by Bruce Beresford

On a nobler note, but disarmingly gorgeous, is this "true story" of a 1970s Han Chinese country boy, shanghai'ed from his farming family, selected by Maoist committee to be one of the likeliest body types to shine, with enough education and training. He tries, he fails. He practices in secret, determined to succeed. His beloved teacher is removed to the equivalent of the gulag for recommending and admiring the dances of the West. Impolitic in the PC (Practice being Chinese!) spy cadre evident even in ballet school. At a performance of "Swan Lake," a party member watches with a stony expression, thence to ask, "OK, I guess, but where are the guns? Where is the shooting?" The rest of the audience watches her reaction, and does not applaud when she is clearly displeased. The ballet must be molded to the Revolution, even if the bodies of dancers rebel at the harshness and ugliness of the military 'dance' form. Li Cunxin's skill is sparkling enough, with the right partner, to get him sent as a dance emissary to the US. This must be voted on: Is he strong enough to withstand the pollution of the West? His teacher solemnly says he is strong enough. His loving family, where he is known simply as Son #6, is told. "My son will fly on an airplane!" exclaims his proud mother. The music and dancing while he falls in love, and dances immaculately with American companies, are sublime, though several critics thought it all too pat, unlikely or exaggerated. We loved it, and it satisfied our love of theatre, dance and spectacle–even if I neither saw nor heard anything about this celebrated dancer when I lived there. Maybe that's what you get for living in the sticks, near a pig-farm, bison and goats in one city, and among peasants and blue-collar workers in other towns. And since Li and his dancer-wife live in the States, maybe it is understandable why the Chinese don't make that much of a fuss.

Two romances

CAIRO TIME Written and Directed by Ruba Nadda

Patricia Clarkson, who shines in this delicate, unforced film of an attractive American abroad, Juliette, trying to meet up with her husband, is not a youngster. She is in that awkward time for Hollywood that gaps from LOLITA right to DRIVING MISS DAISY, the great desert for even extraordinary actresses who aren't named Meryl or Glenn or Angelina. But Clarkson is a steady, luminescent being who brings delight, verve and nuance to all her many roles. Here, she effects a dreamy, intelligent but buzzed-out, almost medicated essence to her voice that is in keeping with the fuzzy glow of the Cairene cityscapes and Pyramids. She has chosen just right for this marvel of an actual film made for non-teens. CAIRO TIME is emollient with pregnant pauses and the radiant, meaningful development of unintended affection. This deep sensibility grows between handsome, somber Egyptian Tariq (Alexander Siddig), a ringer for popular British actor Hugh Laurie [House], a former official with Clarkson's husband in the UN. Husband is alas doing something in Gaza for untold weeks, and she has come to visit with him after a long absence–this elegant, charming, cautious, intelligent lovely mature woman played by Clarkson. Aside from one gratuitous and irritating scene demonizing an Israeli military unit stopping a bus en route to Gaza, which ought to be softened and made more reasonable and truthful, the movie is one of the most enjoyable two hours in the theatre in recent memory.

Again, one of our companions thought it another in the long and provocative skein of films that feature sexually adventuring American singles hunting for the exotic Javier Bardem or Antonio Banderas in foreign climes. This romance/drama however is not sexual tourism, now so much the rage in the Caribe islands. Clarkson's character, a dutiful wife, is not chasing anyone, and loves her husband. She keeps her wits about her, despite some funny (and true!) scenes of being on her own among the natives in Cairo. One felt very close to the story unrolled in this old-time entertainment, an update of SUMMERTIME with Katie Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi.

My companion asked me if it is really so rapacious a city for solo women: From experience, yes, the wolf-pack does indeed gather and importune every unaccompanied female.

Directed by Nicolas Pereda

Part of Hispanic Film Festival ongoing at the Walter Reade Theatre of Lincoln Center

Two dufus-y amateur movers in their shabby truck in Mexico City wait every morning for somebody to contact their cells to move their effects, then navigate around people in stress. They move in and out of oddball couples, people on the run, lunatic relatives, random heartbreaks and family dust-ups in this teeming city of 13 million. As a device to show characters without getting to learn very much about them as they hire our protagonists, this is a serviceable McGuffin. The occasional situational humor, however, is often overtaken by the underlying sadness of so many lives, including the main characters'; the young guys in their truck, playing baskets between gigs, have no idea what or why any particular contract is undertaken. Their short-term clients live their existential lives, stitched by beers, cigarettes, hopelessness, unsated lust, the hope of meeting a hottie in their next move around town, and coping with their mothers' expectations. Engaging overall, even amusing for long stretches, even if the resolution leaves one hanging. Too many close-ups, maybe. And the cinematographer leaves the film running too long too often, when there's no one in the frame, and nothing doing.

Could you get a better name for this kaleidoscope on the move? Young director Pereda has shot five films in only three years, and this feature won Best Mexican Feature at the Guadalajara Film fest.





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