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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Short Takes – Recently Seen

Performance; Lucifer Rising
One of the most bizarre movies ever released by a big studio, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance has flashes of brilliance. Its very best scene looks like an MTV music video of the eighties (the movie was released in 1970): “Memo from T,” a song performed by Mick Jagger. James Fox is effective as the sadistic gangster who takes refuge in the home of Jagger’s reclusive rock star. The photography and editing are engrossing. The script, attempting some sort of counterculture Persona, is uneven and often very bad. The hallucinatory atmosphere is the most noteworthy accomplishment.

Performance was preceded in a recent New York showing by Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, a short film from 1982. The two are well matched – hallucinatory, sometimes effective, often risible. The Anger film has no dialogue and its performers are not professional actors, to say the least. Some of the visions, ranging from Egyptian deities to UFOs, are both entrancing and a bit silly. The degree of campiness intended is not entirely clear.

Notes on a Scandal
Effective as a black comedy, especially in its first half. Judi Dench can bring the house down with the inflection she gives a single word: “Biscuit?” Cate Blanchett is also perfectly cast, and in fact all the actors are fine. But the material deals with such scabrous behavior that it inevitably veers toward self-seriousness. So the last half hour is a bit of a chore to sit through.

The Last King of Scotland
The fact-based story is vividly told by director Kevin McDonald, but something seems lacking. James McAvoy, as the fictionalized young Scot doctor who gets swept up in the Idi Amin government in Uganda, is in nearly every scene. The true historical events come forward to shock him repeatedly, but they inevitably seem to recede while we watch his story, which is less interesting. The fast pace of the film keeps it engrossing but leads to a sketchiness in historical detail. Forrest Whittaker’s fine performance as Idi Amin is technically a supporting role, but he dominates every scene he is in. Worth seeing, but it may send you to other sources for a more complete picture of those horrific years in Uganda.

The Italian
The Italian is a Russian film dealing with a fascinating, heart-wrenching and very topical subject: the effect that the adoptions of Eastern European children by wealthy Westerners have on the local culture – a corrupting, distorting effect that may not immediately be apparent to Western observers. The movie uses a neat point-of-view trick to make its case vividly. A six-year-old boy, soon to be adopted by a well-to-do Italian couple (thus acquiring the nickname that is the movie’s title), becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother instead, and goes to surprising lengths to do so. At first the audience roots against him and for the adoption – but by the end one’s opinion is likely to have swung 180 degrees (at least). A splendid movie with excellent performances, including a really remarkable one by Kolya Spiridonov as the boy.

“They don’t make ‘em like that any more,” said someone at the end of a recent New York revival screening of this 1964 Oscar nominee. Whether this is something to be sorry about or grateful for is a matter to contemplate. The material gets a rather too heavy and reverential Hollywood treatment, but the photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret) is often very beautiful, and the scenery-devouring performances by Richard Burton and, especially, Peter O’Toole, make the film well worth sitting through (it runs 2 and a half hours).


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