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1001 Grams Is a Strong Romantic Drama About Science

Deeply ambitious, Bent Hamer’s 1001 Grams deserves recognition for pure nerve. Earning its place in the Gutsy Premises Hall of Fame, it’s a straight-faced drama about a seminar on the kilogram held in Paris by the Bureau of International Weights and Measures. The seminar takes “pure kilograms” that have been constructed by various nations’ measurement calibration organizations and uses them to construct an international standard for how much a kilo actually weighs.

Representing Norway is Marie (Ane Dahl Torp), a scientist going instead of her father, Ernst (Stein Winge), a revered figure in the community. Ernst is ailing, and during the conference Marie finds her grief over her father’s impending death inspiring her to reflect on her own loneliness. It isn’t long before a potential love interest emerges: fellow conference-goer Pi (Laurent Stocker), all Gallic charm against Marie’s Scandinavian coldness. Hamer’s probing of this rarely seen community is admirable, but the results are alternately touching and sentimental.

As Marie reflects upon her own loneliness, 1001 Grams quickly takes shape as a familiar — though not ineffective — tale about a closed-off thinker forced to engage more thoroughly with life. Some of the observations within, linking the idea of measurement to broader existential concerns — “What is the weight of the soul?” Ernst asks — veer toward pop-philosophy, and it becomes apparent the central topic could have been more sophisticatedly explored.

Nevertheless, this portrait of an introverted soul brought out of her shell is not without its charms.

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In the Courtyard Is One of the Funnier Films About Depression

Thoroughly nonjudgmental in its observations, Pierre Salvadori’s In the Courtyard ranks as one of the funnier films about victims of depression and mental illness.

The afflicted are Antoine (Gustave Kervern) and Mathilde (Catherine Deneuve), and their chemistry provides the dynamic that powers Salvadori’s idiosyncratic portrait. Antoine is a singer who no longer takes pleasure in music; a deeply depressed insomniac, he needs a change. He ends up working as a janitor in the apartment building owned by Mathilde and her husband, Serge (Féodor Atkine), and his misguided, hapless attempts to do his job provide the basis for much of the narrative.

Weathered down by life, Antoine is too despondent to enforce the complex’s rules: He’s soon smoking crack with one of the tenants (Pio Marmaï) and allowing a homeless man, Lev (Oleg Kupchik), to live there illegally. Salvadori’s refusal to judge Antoine lends a detached, almost comical air to the proceedings, building to a hilarious sequence where a fastidious architect tenant’s model building is eaten by Lev’s mutt.

The narrative turns with Mathilde’s own mental issues: After a crack appears in her wall, she begins to suspect the foundation’s stability may be in danger, and mounts an investigation into the structure’s integrity that begins to erode her mental health. As her sanity slips and her marriage strains, the broken Antoine provides emotional support for the increasingly harried Mathilde. It’s in the portrait of these compromised individuals’ relationship that the film finds its emotional heft.

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Hal Hartley Anchors His Humor to a Genuinely Thrilling Story in Ned Rifle

Hal Hartley is nothing if not the progenitor of his own carefully cultivated cinematic world: the Hartleyverse, always filled with comically affected characters, allusions to other works of art, and dry social commentary.

It’s all there in Ned Rifle, the final entry in Hartley’s trilogy that, starting with Henry Fool, examines one deeply eccentric family. Eighteen-year-old Ned (Liam Aiken) is on a quest to murder his notorious criminal father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), for getting Ned’s mother, Fay, sent to prison as a result of Henry’s terrorist associations.

Ned has spent the past ten years in foster care, and has grown into a pious young man with a religiously fervent sense of morality — a welcome contrast against the more ethically malleable souls who surround him. The most Hartleyesque touch: Ned’s uncle Simon (James Urbaniak), a former poet laureate who now makes stand-up comedy videos for YouTube. Ned sets out after his father, accompanied by a fan of Simon’s (Aubrey Plaza) who, in a gag that can’t help but recall Whit Stillman, is perpetually referred to as “winsome.”

Hartley and Stillman emerged on the American indie scene simultaneously, and much like his confrere, Hartley is a gifted practitioner of mannered, dry comedy; but what emerges during Ned’s journey is, unexpectedly, a narrative tension that moves the film almost into thriller territory. Hartley’s humor and intellectual musings are, as always, fully present, but by anchoring them to a genuinely compelling story of familial retribution, he’s made his best film in years.

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Underdog Movie Boychoir Struggles to Be as Interesting as Dustin Hoffman’s Performance

The Mid-Atlantic Accent, that most self-conscious of acting choices, can still provide a good self-aware laugh. A particularly snooty variant appears early in François Girard’s Boychoir, by way of Eddie Izzard playing a teacher at a Boy Choir school with maximum haughtiness.

In a different film this might be delicious, but, symptomatically of Boychoir‘s larger problems, this character uncomfortably skewers the tone: Though Izzard is going full camp, Boychoir is incredibly earnest — at times, it veers into the garden-variety sentimentality of underdog sports movies, a subgenre to which it effectively belongs.

Stet (Garrett Wareing) is an impoverished youth who, upon the death of his alcoholic mother, is sent by his absentee father (Josh Lucas) to an elite Boy Choir academy — though Stet may be uncouth, his singing talent is formidable. The academy’s top teacher is Anton Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), who, naturally, will reform Stet as the film goes on, pushing his musical gifts to ever-higher levels.

In addition to the tonal confusion, Boychoir frustrates in its lack of characterizing Stet’s development — while we see his singing improve, the film withholds more substantive insight into the effects of his instruction.

Boychoir does hit one deeply poignant note, as one character comments upon the ephemeral nature of Stet’s talent: Once he hits adolescence, his singing will never be of the same quality. And Hoffman, naturally, makes his character interesting in the way that genius actors always do. Yet the film’s storytelling struggles to match his level of skill.

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Architecture Offers Clues to the Past in La Sapienza

In Eugène Green’s La Sapienza, a refugee identifying as a member of the long-disappeared Chaldean nation remarks that eventually his ethnic group and their language (Aramaic) will vanish. Regardless of whether the refugee is meant to be a vision, a ghost, or something else entirely, his point casts its shadow across this stirring film.

So much human history vanishes, so in the present we strive to understand the past through whatever totems we can find. The totemic focus of Green’s film is architecture. Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) and Aliénor (Christelle Prot Landman) are a French couple on holiday in Italy; he is a venerated architect reconnecting with the works of Francesco Borromini.

The couple meets teenage Italian siblings Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro); Goffredo, an architecture student, ends up accompanying Alexandre throughout Italy while Aliénor stays with Lavinia, bonding with the younger woman as Lavinia recuperates from an illness.

The men’s journey is the more engaging, with Alexandre and Goffredo visiting gorgeous churches whose pasts are preserved within their architecture, a point articulated in Alexandre’s speeches. The film may sound like a story of emotional bonding between different generations, and while that isn’t entirely incorrect, Green is after something more complex.

Since Green has his actors employ a detached, affected mode of performance — paging Brecht! — viewers are directed toward the intellectual content of the discussions as much as along the emotional current between the characters. The result is a picture that balances heart and mind with nuance.

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Ballet 422 Is a Stirring Portrait of Deep Focus in Creative Work

It seems as if, for every ten issue-oriented documentaries that essentially function as long-form magazine articles with images attached, we get perhaps one doc that exemplifies the methods of “direct cinema” — the observational mode of documentary filmmaking that allows audiences to observe from a detached remove. That mode is utilized to enlightening effect in Ballet 422, the second feature doc from director and ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (his lensing credits include Martha Marcy May Marlene and Afterschool). Lipes’s talent as a cinematographer (he shot this film as well) is of no minor significance — unlike those journalism-with-pictures docs that fail to offer images of significance, Ballet 422 is more visually sumptuous than most narratives you’re likely to see this year, featuring careful compositions that make watching the film an aesthetic experience as much as an intellectual one.

Lipes’s subject is the New York City Ballet’s production of Paz de la Jolla, the 422nd new work the company has put on; its choreographer is 25-year-old Justin Peck, a dancer in the NYCB’s most junior group — the corps de ballet — who won enough acclaim in the company’s choreography program to be chosen to mount a new production. Ballet 422 studies the mere two months he was given to put Paz de la Jolla together.

Crucially, Lipes does not hang the success or failure of his film on viewers’ knowledge of ballet-centric minutiae. While the film is dominated by images of Peck embroiled in his process — writing and revising choreography, working with dancers, consulting with costume designers or lighting technicians — having a specific understanding of just what he’s up to at each moment, or even a general understanding of ballet, is not essential to engaging with what’s onscreen. Watching Peck build his world, decision by decision, I recalled a sublime insight from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: As humans, our specific interests are beside the point — it’s the fact that we’re interested in something — anything! — that matters. The real focus of Ballet 422 is not the ballet consuming the lives of Peck and his collaborators, but the intensity and focus that they bring to their task.

Scene after scene features professionals discussing creative decisions — should the costumes have a sash? What is the best way for this dancer to hold up that dancer? — with a gravity that suggests each is of life-or-death importance. Few things are as compelling to watch as a person deeply, intensely
focused on their work.

Lipes’s craft decisions suggest that he works with a similar focus, as his exacting compositions make it a pleasure to watch the long takes play out, which allow the audience to see Peck’s creative thought
process working in real time. In Ballet 422, the craft evidenced by the filmmaker mirrors that of his subjects.

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Something, Anything Is a Sure-Handed Portrait of a Woman’s Attempt to Feel Alive

A perspicacious examining of intimate moments, Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything artfully circumnavigates narrative expectations in the manner of only the most thoughtful stories. Veering from relationship drama to romance to a coming-of-age film about an adult, Something, Anything refuses to pledge fealty to any particular genre, making itself at home instead as an astute study of one woman’s path to self-actualization.

The woman is Peggy (Ashley Shelton): She is married to Mark (Bryce Johnson), a not-particularly-considerate young professional, and pregnant with his child. That pregnancy turns into a miscarriage, which leads to the couple’s separation. Peggy’s one bright spot amid her loneliness is a bereavement note, filled with compassion, sent by Tim (Linds Edwards), a guy she knew in high school who is now, of all things, a monk.

As Peggy attempts to deal with her grief, she finds herself becoming interested in monasteries, reconnecting with Tim, and finding some greater purpose in her own life. She quits her job as a realtor and soon takes one at a library — books used to be a passion of hers.

It may sound a tad cute or quirky, but Harrill’s delivery of the material is utterly sincere, and the understated, respectful manner of his storytelling allows the intricacies of Peggy’s personal evolution to come across as engaging and authentic, never feeling contrived for the audience’s benefit. This is a sure-handed, complex portrait of one woman’s attempts to feel alive.

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If You Don’t, I Will Intelligently Portrays a Marriage in Crisis

Perceptive and subtle almost to a fault, Sophie Fillières’s If You Don’t, I Will gingerly metes out insights against their dramatic payoffs.

While you may be left craving more emotional fireworks than you get, Fillières’s intelligent film is accomplished in its portrayal of a marriage in crisis, the union’s last gasps rife with poignant exchanges. Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos are, as always, superb; they play Pierre and Pomme, a married couple whose fire seems fully extinguished.

In one crushing moment, Pierre asks Pomme why she slept in the study the previous night; when Pomme replies that she actually slept in bed next to him, a surprised Pierre explains that he had no idea. Fillières manages plenty of comic touches as well: After Pomme finds earrings she believes belong to her friend, Pierre forlornly informs her that they’re Pomme’s — he gifted them to her years ago. Incredulous, Pomme reminds Pierre that she doesn’t have pierced ears, to which he responds: “That’s why they were a bad gift.”

The film falters somewhat with a prolonged section in which Pomme decides to remain in the forest after hiking with Pierre, choosing to live in the woods rather than return home — the gesture’s metaphorical significance feels vague. Viewers may wish the third act paid off its affecting dramatic setup more explosively, but that aside, this feels like a breakup — painful, funny, deeply complex.

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1960’s The Passionate Thief, a Prototypical ‘One Crazy Night’ Adventure

On the surface, Mario Monicelli’s 1960 comedy The Passionate Thief bears similarities to contemporary entries in the one-crazy-night genre. There is a limited-timeframe narrative (one night), a uniting event (New Year’s Eve), an episodic structure, and, naturally, lovelorn characters looking to make a connection.

Yet what separates The Passionate Thief from its descendants is the sympathy it brings to its central characters, Tortorella (Anna Magnani), a movie extra, and Lello (Ben Gazzara), a thief. Through a circuitous turn of events, Tortorella is ditched by her friends on New Year’s Eve in Rome, which means she’ll spend the evening with a backup, her old friend Umberto (Totò), an actor and sometime con artist.

The problem is, Umberto — unbeknownst to Tortorella — has been engaged to assist Lello, a pickpocket who will be making a killing with the city’s intoxicated residents on this night of revelry. Sexual tension arises between Lello and Tortorella, complicated by the fact that she doesn’t understand the nature of the friendship between the two men.

This odd trio find themselves falling into mishaps, with a narrative of interlocking vignettes (none more entertaining than a sequence in which the group winds up in a mansion teeming with German aristocrats). But while the madcap adventures provide plenty of entertainment, it’s Monicelli’s sympathetic portrait of complex individuals — a thief who is both romantic and a control freak, an aging actress who longs for adventure but also fears the unknown — that wins viewers over.

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Despite Missteps, Four Moons Provides Compelling Drama

Watching Sergio Tovar Velarde’s Four Moons can feel like witnessing a young musician performing with an emotional intensity that heavily outweighs her technical skill. The film is earnest and nobly intentioned, though its execution doesn’t measure up.

The narrative comprises four stories of gay males struggling with their individual sexualities, desires, and responsibilities, in a multi-character setup that, thankfully, does not contrive to converge. The strands: A married poet (Alonso Echánove) falls for a male prostitute (Alejandro Belmonte) at the sauna; a gay couple (Alejandro de la Madrid and Antonio Velázquez) become strained by infidelity; two childhood friends (Cesar Ramos and Gustavo Egelhaaf) reconnect at college and begin secretly dating; and a young boy (Gabriel Santoyo) develops feelings for his cousin (Sebastián Rivera).

Characters with secrets often make for compelling drama, and the film smartly gestures toward the connections between having to obscure one’s sexuality as a child and choosing to engage in further obscurantism as an adult. In Velarde’s world, gay men battle between the pain of withholding their true selves from loved ones and the apprehensive fear and shame of making themselves known.

Unfortunately, the film falls short of matching its emotional perspicuity, with woefully underdeveloped sound design (one public environment after another is distractingly quiet) and frame composition that trades in the point-the-camera-straight-at-the-character simplifications of sitcoms. Overlook those distracting formal missteps, however, and you may find a film that engenders resonant empathy.