Articles by

<Elina Mishuris>

06/17/15 8:14am
photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

A Borrowed Identity
Directed by Eran Riklis
Opens June 26 at Lincoln Plaza

A Borrowed Identity is this film’s US title, adopted to circumvent the kind of cultural misunderstanding the film itself is meant to be about. The source material—a semi-autobiographical novel by Arab Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua—is called Dancing Arabs, and that’s the title Eran Riklis’s movie bore when its screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival was postponed, last year, in light of recent events: the killing of three Jewish Israeli teenagers, the retaliatory killing of a Palestinian teen, the bombs and rockets splitting the sky all summer. The guiding fear, at home and abroad, seems to be that onscreen fictions will look either too real or too distorted when projected onto actual carnage; either way, somebody may complain.


05/20/15 8:30am
photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios
Opens May 20 at Film Forum

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter—so whenever the trio at the heart of Güeros listens to a certain tape, this antic movie stills, and we hear not music but the scrape of spinning spools. The tape is an old recording of a folk singer named Epigmenio Cruz—the man who made Bob Dylan cry, goes the legend, which only the teenage Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) and his older brother Federico, called Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), seem to know. Sent to stay with Sombra in Mexico City, Tomás finds his brother in a state of devolution; there’s a student strike at UNAM, where Sombra studies, but he spends his days at home with buddy Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), stealing electricity from the neighbors, listening to his strike-leader crush Ana (Ilse Salas) on pirate radio, and trying to stave off a panic attack.

Like Jan-Ole Gerster’s 2012 German hit A Coffee in Berlin—but with New Wave rather than New York DNA—Alonso Ruizpalacios’s first feature is shot in mostly handheld black and white, and after that apartment interlude, rambles all over the capital of a country struggling to get past a past that’s often present. Both movies gleefully aim their slingshots at their national film industries; at a hotel-roof party where only the well-born Ana is at home, Sombra complains that grabbing a bunch of beggars and shooting in black and white is how they make art movies in Mexico. Soon after there’s a nighttime stroll with a raving man—the point being wry complicity just as much as a reminder that there’s hardly a place in the Distrito Federal without beggars.

Ruizpalacios isn’t really interested in lessons. His movie starts with a water balloon dropped onto passerby, swivels past a brick ditto, abandons another potential ending on the highway, and looses Ana back into the strike. In reality, the 1999 UNAM strike lasted eleven months before being broken up by federal police. But why make revolution when you’ve got a set of wheels, and, like Tomás, a camera to play with? The world is too variously beautiful. The soixante-huitards mostly let us down. But if this promising director continues taking his cues from Godard, it’s possible he’ll find himself committed to something other than indecision.

04/08/15 6:24am
Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild

About Elly
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Opens April 8 at Film Forum

A seaside ballet of tension and disquietude, About Elly has just made it to the States, though the drama won Asghar Farhadi a Silver Bear for Best Director back in 2009. Since then, the Iranian filmmaker’s A Separation and The Past have impressed both critics and audiences here—and rightfully so. Farhadi’s training in theatre comes across on the screen as an abiding interest in time, itself his chosen medium. All three of the recent films render the complicated choreography of married life precisely, accounting for drastic missteps—divorce, death, miscellaneous destruction—which seem increasingly inevitable as tangled personal histories come to light. From Paris to Tehran, all of Farhadi’s married and unmarried characters are balancing on a broken ankle.

In this iteration, eight friends—three married couples, the recently divorced, mostly expatriated Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), and Elly, a schoolteacher—are heading for a weekend at the Caspian Sea, small children in tow. Vivacious Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has persuaded Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her son’s teacher, to join them. But though the couples are all youngish professionals, not far removed from more carefree days—they joyride through tunnels, play charades, are casual enough about their plans that their accommodations end up being a dilapidated, isolated villa—Elly is even younger, unmarried, and previously unknown to all the rest. She’s also visibly unsure of the role she’s supposed to play here, and the first one she ends up taking on is that of wife—this is Iran, so unrelated singles like Elly and Ahmad can’t officially stay together in the villa.

Matchmaking Sepideh seems to hope the lie, told to their landlords, is temporary; a prophecy rather than a deception of the kind urbane Iranians engage in daily to circumvent a constricting code of laws. But stranded among grown-ups unwilling to make grown-up decisions, Elly must ultimately play the victim—left alone with the kids, she disappears, and a boy nearly drowns. Mutual recriminations rend the group, and literally suck the color out of Sepideh—she pales, stumbling between sea and shore like a wraith. As anxious men and women waltz in and out of shots, the ocean drones on the background: a passionless reminder that the tide will always rise at its set time.

03/25/15 8:06am
photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq
Directed by Guillame Nicloux
Opens March 25 at Film Forum

A face like Michel Houellebecq’s deserves depiction. A caricature of the French writer donning a wizard’s hat was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo this January, on the day gunmen shot up its offices. Twelve people were killed, and Houellebecq canceled activities promoting his new book, Soumission, about a near-future France run as an Islamic state. Before the tragedy, however, came the farce. In 2011, Houellebecq briefly disappeared; rumors abounded, and The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq takes one of them and spins it into a neat, handheld mockumentary tale of a wasting intellectual revived by his earthy kidnappers’ joie de vivre.

Tiny and gaunt compared to the pair of bodybuilders and their tubby boss who nab him, Michel (starring as himself) manages not only to put one of his new friends in a headlock during a mock wrestling match, but to partake (twice!) of the services of a prostitute kindly provided for him. She’s a local girl named Fatima, in case there’s anyone provokable who’s left to be provoked. The kidnappers chain Michel to a bed sometimes, and shots of one or the other muscleman chatting with their demanding victim (about literary technique, of all things) include a child’s doll standing in the corner, propping up the trendy, matter-of-fact absurdity this flick requires. Though the director, Guillaume Nicloux, is also credited for the script, the concerns are all his subject’s. There’s no prejudice here—only passionate, equal-opportunity scorn.

In The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq’s second novel and the one that started all the noise, one character suggests “literary fame is a poor substitute for real stardom.” But Houellebecq has certainly done better than most Anglophone authors in drawing the world’s attention. Here, with his invisible upper lip, his stoop, his glass of wine, his cigarette perpetually gripped (or begged for) between third and ring finger—and with the whole movie predicated upon his persona, the tireless mourner of the twilit West—Houellebecq is a white dwarf, the posthumous remainder of a star. Everyone falls for him, even the migrant worker who lives out back, in a shipping container. The film is a success—it’s funny—but only because the whole thing is a little sad.

03/18/15 6:00am
Image courtesy of Monument Releasing

She’s Lost Control
Directed by Anja Marquardt
Opens March 20 at the IFP Made in NY Media Center

A lot of city life is lived by proxy. Self-designated professionals write online dating profiles for clients. The cooking, tax-filing, cleaning, and gift-buying are done largely by other people; doulas are engaged to speak for mothers in delivery rooms; hospice workers manage at the other end. Only death itself, so far, cannot be outsourced. And if life alone is hard, life with other people is particularly arduous. When intimacy with those others seems impossible, a sex surrogate may be brought in. Thus Ronah (Brooke Bloom), a scrubbed brunette grad student, businesslike, a woman whose sessions with clients (referred to her by a psychiatrist) begin with paperwork and a quick-response test for STDs.

Early reviewers have stuck She’s Lost Control, Anja Marquardt’s first feature, in the middle of a spectrum, between The Sessions and The Girlfriend Experience—this one’s neither treacly nor titillating, they say. It’s certainly quite cold. Moving through a pale and featureless New York—some orange subway seats, toward the end, are a relief—Ronah avoids what she has by way of family, lives alone in a blank apartment, is unenthused by her thesis (amen, Ronah), extracts and stores her eggs. Like her distant cousin in A Teacher, she runs a lot, and takes a lot of baths. When recalcitrant redhead Johnny (Marc Menchaca), a nurse who puts people under for a living, doesn’t seem to be responding to therapy, Ronah develops an actual interest. “I want to crack it,” she says, and we know she will. There’s that prophesying title after all.

Bloom’s Ronah speaks in therapeutic jargon with her clients and snaps at everyone else; we hardly need her bathroom pipes to burst (they do) to sense the coming tidal wave. In a film as scrubbed of identifying marks as its heroine, the joints of plot look even more nakedly obvious—it’s as though the hanging gun were the only thing on stage. “I’m completely present,” Ronah tells the men, but it’s impossible to believe her, and almost impossible to believe the choreographed denouement. The movie asks us to concede that our interior bulkheads fail, that city stories in which nothing happens can be fascinating. But the burden of proof will have to be borne by someone else.

02/27/15 6:55am
Photo courtesy of First Run Features

Eastern Boys
Directed by Robin Campillo
Opens February 27 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

A lesser movie—or a more coherent one—would have ended with murder. The first of Eastern Boys’s four chapters begins menacingly enough: a gang of youths pace their territory outside the Gare du Nord in Paris. They’re Russian-speaking, but not necessarily Russian; they’re petty criminals, but avoid any real hassle with the police. Cinematographer Jeanne Poirie shoots the boys from above, and in the wide open light of late afternoon they trail long shadows. So does natty, middle-aged Daniel, heading home after work but stopping to pick up Marek. Marek is probably legal, age-wise, but only just; he’s almost certainly a sans-papiers. He’ll do everything, he explains in English, for 50 euro.

What follows in chapter two is almost a neat colonial parable. Just as Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) has finished strapping on clean white sneakers, all of Marek’s friends—but not yet Marek (Kirill Emelyanov)—enter his expensively cluttered flat. They open Daniel’s liquor, turn on music, and as Boss (Daniil Vorobyov) both mocks and hypnotizes Daniel—here’s youth, forever lost, here’s beautiful blue-eyed recklessness—they dance in the living room and carry out all of his belongings. Eventually Daniel, too, begins to dance. He wakes on his own couch, in an emptied apartment strewn with broken glass. He does not call the police. He returns to work. Later, he buys a few pieces of Ikea-style furniture. His home stays stylishly empty through the next two acts—in which Marek, perhaps out of a vague sense of guilt, returns to fulfill his 50-euro promise.

The parable is necessarily inexact, because Robin Campillo, who directed, wrote and edited, seems interested primarily in the nature of exchange. Daniel and Marek’s evolving relationship progresses the way H. Humbert’s with his ward would have, had he succeeded in taming or tamping down desire. But what would those family dinners have been like? Daniel, happy to pay his lover’s way, retreats into a sexless, fatherly position—and Marek needs one, it turns out, his family having been destroyed in the Chechen wars. The film is suffused with deep, tranquil, natural light, but any claim to rectitude is troubling. In one late scene an entire immigrant ecosystem is destroyed for Marek’s sake. For your Rights of Man, who pays?

12/31/14 9:00am
Photo Courtesy of Music Box Films

Beloved Sisters
Directed By Dominik Graf
Opens January 9

A movie about Schiller—the German playwright, philosopher, and poet—and the two sisters who agreed to share him, body and soul, is likely to attract an American audience more interested in the sharing than the poetry. Director Dominik Graf has similar aims, but is less prurient (apologies, Americans) and keeps the first hour of the theatrical release—there’s also a longer, two-part TV version—sort of sedate. A ménage à trois remains a complicated proposition even in the age of Meetup polyamory, but instead of fleshy tones, Graf focuses on the glossy surfaces of 18th-century wine glasses and salons. His actors halt in large, half-empty halls, tremble in tableaux vivants, hang out of the open windows of long country houses, and run through sunlit Nature (and away from husbands who wish Schiller’s ideas of human freedom were less appealing to their wives).

Like those wives, Beloved Sisters throws open the familiar, lavender scented embrace of the period drama. A pretty Wikipedia page, it wants to scrutinize the Personal Life and where necessary sketch a précis of the actual Life’s Work. Therefore, before willowy, angelic Schiller (Florian Stetter) shows up, the von Lengefeld sisters, Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzspring) often embrace each other. The older, Caroline, has married a rich but apparently repulsive man—who persists in being not really repulsive, here—to help support quiet Charlotte and their widowed mom. Charlotte, who loves Schiller, and loves her sister not a scintilla less, marries him after a summer the three spend frolicking and writing coded notes. She is prepared to be a bridge, she says, between her genius husband and her ambitious sister—a writer whom even Schiller, not fond of lady scribblers, respects. But Caroline doesn’t want Charlotte to be a living sacrifice, and flees. Schiller is sad, but shrugs. His other hopes likewise go sour—the French Revolution, in which he had such faith, gets summed here in a shot of blood flowing over the cobblestones (perhaps appropriately, subtle as a guillotine). The real Caroline wrote a biography of her brother-in-law after his death; no family affairs were mentioned. We may only have Meetup for a model after all.


12/17/14 4:52pm
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Opens December 25

Remember—Leviathan is not a documentary. Foreign films released—and widely seen—stateside run the risk, in our large and guileful land, of being mistaken for nonfiction, although nobody who saw them took Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first two tries, The Return and The Banishment, as commentary on Russia today. Both were set in a Someplace, Europe, where Russian is spoken but people are preoccupied with purely personal—let’s say supranational—concerns: faith, fidelity, filial and familial dues.


12/03/14 4:00am
Photo courtesy of Zeitgeist Films


Zero Motivation
Directed by Talya Lavie
Opens December 3 at Film Forum

When Sam Mitnick, one of Keith Gessen’s Sad Young Literary Men, travels to Israel to write his great Zionist novel, he instead arrives—prompted by a freewheeling IDF tank—at the realization that the Palestinians may be idiots, but the Israelis are fuckers, “and when Sam saw an idiot faced with his natural enemy, the fucker, he knew whose side he was on.” Talya Lavie’s Bored Young Military Women embrace being idiots and fuckers both, though they’re all young Israelis doing punishingly monotonous mandatory service in the admin office of a desert base. Lavie says she channeled classics of military malaise like M*A*S*H and Catch-22 when she was writing and directing her first feature, but the film quickly marches into Full Metal Jacket territory: it’s all pranks and paper shredders until a jilted fling takes a boxcutter into the bath.


08/13/14 4:00am

Love is Strange
Directed by Ira Sachs

There’s been a lot of lamenting lately about the dearth of American films made for grown-ups. Budgets are either micro-minis, which only look good on, and to, those new New Adults, or looming monuments to Mammon, thundering with the power of Almighty Dolby: ENJOY. OR ELSE. Who’s got the eardrums for that kind of entertainment? So here’s a movie written and directed by Admitted Adult Ira Sachs, about mature and married love, family relations, and an apartment search in New York that doesn’t involve a meet-cute—except maybe with the Reaper, as a newly homeless, increasingly desperate couple are told to look into housing for the aging. The gerund is terrifyingly acute: once the process ends, presumably you won’t need a place as much as a plot.

It isn’t only painter Ben (John Lithgow) and his partner of nearly forty years, music teacher George (Alfred Molina) who’re getting on; the New York State Assembly, for instance, has wised up enough to finally recognize relationships like George and Ben’s as marriages. Not so the local diocese: after pictures of their Petra honeymoon surface on Facebook, George loses his job as choir director, and the two are forced to lodge separately with friends and relatives while George looks for an affordable 1BR. Ben goes to Brooklyn, where his filmmaker nephew lives with a writer wife and petulant teenage offspring; George goes down a floor of their old building and bunks with two gay cops.

Because Lithgow and Molina are themselves old hands at the moving picture stuff, their love becomes the opposite of odd. For their friends and family it is the apex and the standard; for Ben and George it is life’s necessary and sufficient quality, equal parts tenderness and tolerance, an unshakeable edifice from which they can never be displaced. But Sachs’s movie ends up being a curious picture nonetheless, what with all New York’s representative types wedged in: the writer who cannot find a quiet corner, the variably Eastern European household help, thieving teenagers, etc. All these act and react just the way you knew they would; their contribution to the movie is, indeed, unfathomable.

Opens August 22