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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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The Rapturous Flamenco Flamenco Offers Just What It Promises

The magnificent dance film Flamenco Flamenco begins, as it must, with a lady in red. Scarlet red, the dress clings to the impossibly lithe body of Sara Baras, Spain’s preeminent female dancer, who stretches her long arms to the sky, and then, with a slight hitch of that dress and an inward smile, begins tapping her thick high heels against the floor, hard and fast, and then faster still, in a rhythm that is, all at once, the sound of power and sex and hope.

Flamenco, whose roots date back to 18th-century Spain, embodies life’s core themes, so it’s no wonder 82-year-old writer-director Carlos Saura can’t get it out of his system. Of his 40 films, 10 have been designed around flamenco music and dance, including the musical dramas Blood Wedding (1981) and the Oscar-nominated Carmen (1983). The narrative-free Flamenco Flamenco, filmed on a Seville soundstage and photographed by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor), contains 21 untitled three- to six-minute musical performances. A viewer may not connect, emotionally, with every number, and may even dislike a few, but that, too, the film suggests, is the nature of flamenco. We bring to it whoever we are in the given moment.

There are male dancers and singers in Flamenco Flamenco, including a joyous two-man, two-piano musical duet, and a dazzling solo by Israel Galván, which finds the minimalist master using side-stepping staccato-speed heel-work and snapping fingers as his only musical accompaniment. But it is the women who own the screen and stir the soul. Early on, six young dancers, covered from head to toe in gorgeous blue veils, perform a formal, synchronized “prayer to the Virgin Mary” only to return later in sleeveless, contemporary dresses, their pony-tailed hair whipping in time to the firm tempo of their steps, and their attitude, too, which seems to be declaring an official break from the burdensome expectations of the past.

Celebrating the traditions of flamenco while exulting in its boundless possibilities is what appears to drive Saura. The work of young renegades like Galván and Rocío Molina is juxtaposed against numbers by legends such as the 79-year-old singer María Bala, whose stunning, pain-etched vocal solo will stand as her last filmed performance. She died earlier this month.

In Flamenco Flamenco the performers are set against painted backdrops that literally radiate the turbulent passions of the music and dance — blues and browns and purples so breathtaking you may long to ask the projectionist to freeze the frame, so that the image can be studied like a painting. Saura’s cinematographer, the 74-year-old Storaro, would surely reject the idea of his lighting design as an end unto itself. His job is to enhance the artistry of each performer; to illuminate the themes in their every note and step. Storaro and Saura have worked together many times, and here, as always, the cinematographer serves the director’s vision, yet it must be said: Flamenco Flamenco is the most beautifully photographed film in recent memory. Come for the dance, stay for the light.

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SOUL SURVIVOR

As a nomadic people, the Jewish community relies on strong cultural ties to preserve its history. Food is a big one. Jews all over the world have come to influence cuisine in their respective locales, but in New York especially. Author Janna Gur has made it her mission to collect and document these “Bubbe-approved” dishes in Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh. The cookbook mixes historical background with practical recipes, some of which are on the verge of extinction. Learn how to make Bukharan pilaf or a mean Yiddish salsa with its meticulously researched recipes. Gur sits down with food critic Jayne Cohen to discuss her journey this afternoon.

Sun., Nov. 23, 2:30 p.m., 2014

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PASSPORT TO POLAND

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first free parliamentary elections in Poland, the Museum of the Moving Image’s all-digital series Ways to Freedom: Polish Film and the Rise of Democracy offers a program of over a dozen films (some of them shorts) that doubles as an in-depth account of recent Polish history. Andrzej Wajda, perhaps the country’s preeminent filmmaker, is represented here with a screening of his 1981 Man of Iron (November 16); another highlight is Ryszard Bugajski’s 1989 Interrogation (November 14), which attacks Poland’s Stalin years so frankly that it was banned from public viewing for nearly a decade. Tonight’s opening-night event, meanwhile, enticingly pairs a showing of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s towering Blind Chance (1987) with an introduction from Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf (author of Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski).

Nov. 13-23, 7 p.m., 2014

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The Singular Story of My Death Has a Dazzling Vitality

Introducing Story of My Death at the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year, Catalan director Albert Serra proclaimed his film to be unlike any other — a film without precedent or influence. “I tried to make an original thing,” he later elaborated, “based in my own universe, my own imagination.”

Serra is hardly the first filmmaker to declare his sensibility unique. But this is more than merely aggrandizement: Story of My Death is a singular work, and its originality is apparent in every frame. This is in large part a consequence of Serra’s methods, which are wholly unconventional.

The 144-minute film was culled from nearly 450 hours of footage — not one second of which, owing to Serra’s distaste for multiple takes, was repeated. In order to create a simple conversation, Serra might shoot three hours of improvised dialogue; in editing, he would assemble an exchange using unrelated sentences, resulting in a sequence that seems to emerge spontaneously onscreen.

It’s an audacious technique, but an effective one: This is a film of dazzling vitality and animation. Serra draws from traditions of literature and art history, but reconfigures them into something new. His hero is Casanova (Vicenç Altaió), here found puttering around a castle in 18th-century Switzerland, indulging himself grandly.

The action soon shifts to Romania, where none other than Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) contrives to enjoy certain indulgences of his own. Serra has described this as an “eternal dialectic fight”: the sensual desires of the libertine on one side, the violent desires of the vampire on the other. Story of My Death attempts something like a reconciliation.

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Stellar Doc Red Army Showcases the Height of Soviet Hockey

Sport is a natural metaphor for war. Two sides in two colors face each other on a field, each with their pride and their physical safety at risk. Their leaders scheme plans of attack, drawing arrows toward the enemy’s flank. And backing the teams in the stands — or, more often, on TV — those of us too frail (or lazy) to fight ourselves scream, hiss, and cheer.

But there are times when sport isn’t a metaphor — it’s simply war, a skirmish of ideals. Think Jesse Owens running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Nelson Mandela supporting the Springboks, and the fascination around the sheltered North Korean team and its hired Chinese “fans” in the 2010 World Cup. Or the longest battle of them all: the Soviet Union’s rival-crushing Cold War hockey team, which between 1978 and 1992 won three Olympic golds and eight World Championships. On and off the ice, the Russians triggered such panic that Ronald Reagan pleaded with the American team to win for the sake of global politics. “They’re a microcosm of their society,” Reagan insisted of the Soviet team, and if they triumphed, so did communism. If we won, of course, so did everything decent in the world. When U.S. coach Herb Brooks managed to win a game, he called then-president Carter and beamed, “It proves our way to live is the proper way.”

Gabe Polsky’s fascinating and funny documentary Red Army opens with Reagan’s bellicose speech, and tracks how both countries fought their PR wars on the rink. Polsky couldn’t have scored a better centerpiece subject than Soviet team captain Slava Fetisov — even if, at the start, we’re not sure the brusque Fetisov will tell him a damned thing. When Polsky begins to film him, Fetisov, still imposing and broad-shouldered at 56, makes Polsky pause while he takes a phone call, dismissing the director as cavalierly as he might a barista at Starbucks. Polsky fills the time by flooding the screen with a list of Fetisov’s awards and achievements, from the gold medals to the Order of Lenin to the asteroid named in his honor. We get it. We’ll wait.

Fetisov rewards our patience with an interview that surprises with its candid emotion. Watching him tear up about how hockey and politics collided in his life is at once terrifying and awesome, like seeing an iceberg melt. The way he tells it, he had no choice but to become a hockey god. Growing up, three families shared his 400-square-foot apartment. There was no running water and no space to relax — he had to go outside to play. Which, in freezing-cold Moscow, meant hockey, not just because of the winter weather, but because in Russia, hockey meant everything. The army ran the hockey club and touted it with posters screaming, “Real men play hockey! Cowards don’t play hockey!” and the even more brusquely militaristic “Serve your country!”

Red Army is a riveting look behind the Iron Curtain. Fetisov’s beloved first coach, Anatoli Tarasov, trained his athletes with tactics from the best of Russian culture: the Bolshoi ballet, chess, and gymnastics. Just as importantly, the team was steeped in selfless collectivism. Though Fetisov was the star, he’ll never admit it. “We were the same,” he smiles, suggesting a five-man puck-passing unit that shared one mind. (By contrast, he found the NHL players disorderly and ego-driven.) Fetisov’s second coach, however, represented the worst of Russia. Viktor Tikhonov, an army general hired by the chief of the KGB, treated his players like conscripts. They lived in barracks 11 months a year, practiced until they pissed blood, and were denied permission to see their families. If the team traveled abroad, Coach Tikhonov was so fearful of defections that he locked up their passports. And with good reason: The first time the Soviet team saw a North American grocery store, they were agape. Fruits and vegetables in winter! This must be paradise.

When Fetisov was invited to play for the New Jersey Devils, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Alas, the Russian government refused on his behalf. Fetisov was furious, but simply speaking out against being treated like property was enough to get him punished and shunned, even by his teammates. The country’s propagandistic hero became its prisoner. (And, one suspects, Fetisov would have had it even worse if he weren’t so famous.)

Our inclination, naturally, is to root for Fetisov to champion the American way of life. And he did eventually attain stateside Stanley Cup glory, with the Detroit Red Wings. But Red Army has laid the groundwork for something more complex: It reveals the strengths of the Soviet athletic program and the weaknesses of our own — a star-driven, money-flaunting braggart that, er, shares the same flaws as capitalism.

We are our sports teams, after all. And with Fetisov eventually returning to Russia to become Vladimir Putin’s Minister of Sport, the score is still tied.

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Archival Reels Capture Life During Wartime in Warsaw Uprising

In August of 1944, the Soviets halted their march to Warsaw. Residents were up in arms within the walls of Poland’s German-occupied capital city, fighting to liberate their home. The insurgents had timed the revolt to coincide with the arrival of the Red Army, hoping that the ensuing chaos would work to their advantage, but instead found themselves spending 63 days under siege, and ended up in defeat.

Those days are the focus of the new film Warsaw Uprising by Jan Komasa. All footage in the film comes from original archival reels made by reporters and documentarians during the uprising. Colorized and tinted toward realism, backed by dialogue derived from expert lip-reading, and voiced-over with commentary from fictitious U.S. airmen and reporters, Warsaw Uprising quickly becomes hyper-real, a fast-moving photograph of idyllic street scenes — pinkened lips, sepia stone — that turn to rubble.

The end of the film — and of the uprising — is no surprise. What is: The lovers giggling and teasing one another while discussing the war with a reporter is not staged, demonstrating that life continues despite war and deprivation, that it includes these things. Despite its context in a global conflict, Uprising is a strangely intimate film.

The imposed commentary by reporters and airmen, though occasionally stagey and self-conscious about the idea of film and documentation, is also messy and tender. This film is an important reminder for us to remain so.

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The Mekons are Still Here, Still Great — and in a New Doc

In Richard Lester’s 1965 Help!, two proper English matrons, dressed in balmacaans, gloves, and old-lady hats, wave to their neighbors, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, who, in the movie’s fantastical universe, live in a communal Beatle pad on an ordinary London street. “Lovely lads, and so natural!” says one to the other, noting how remarkable it is that success hasn’t gone to the boys’ heads. Her friend agrees: “Just so natural! And still the same as they was before they was.”

In real life the Beatles could never be the same as they was before they was. The Mekons, on the other hand, have pulled it off. What began in 1977 as a five-member punk band at the University of Leeds has survived against the odds for more than 35 years, by morphing into a sort of rock ’n’ roll collective that long ago pushed off the shores of punk to navigate the even wilder and more expansive waters of folk and country. Its members live on three continents, mostly supporting themselves by holding down random day jobs and doing side projects; they come together to write songs, rehearse, record, and tour. The shape, texture, and focus of the Mekons’ music may have changed over the years, but their vitality is a kind of miracle. As filmmaker Mary Harron says in Joe Angio’s jubilant new documentary, Revenge of the Mekons, “I never imagined that 30 years later I would be talking about the Mekons, and they would still exist.”

Harron first wrote about the band, in an earlier life as a rock critic, in the late 1970s for Melody Maker, taking note of their intensity, their free-flowing lefty ideology, and their incompetence as musicians — you really couldn’t miss that, as any of the Mekons’ founding members would freely tell you. In Revenge of the Mekons, original lead singer Mark “Chalkie” White — who started the band with present-day Mekons Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh, along with erstwhile Mekons Kevin Lycett and Andy Corrigan — talks about the moment he realized his bandmates had actually learned something about playing music, even as he had cultivated “no musical ability whatsoever.”

White left the band in 1983, and its members have shifted and reshuffled over the years, though Langford and Greenhalgh — both singers and guitarists — remain constant. The Mekons as we know them today, and as Angio captures them in all their ragged, rough-and-tumble splendor, count among their eight or so members vocalist Sally Timms, a devil-elf with a wildwood-rose voice; multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, who, when he isn’t on Mekons duty, travels through Central Asia, helping musicians preserve and record their local folk music; and preternaturally elegant violinist Susie Honeyman, who also co-runs the Grey Gallery in London, which purposely doesn’t focus on the hot young things of the art world. She started the gallery with her artist husband because, as she says, “We were so sick of the emphasis on new and emerging artists.”

You may be wondering how this gloriously ragtag troupe keep body and soul together in a world where making astonishing records (as the Mekons still do) and touring (as they also do) never seems to make the right people rich. Angio — whose previous projects include a 2005 documentary about inventive multitasker Melvin Van Peebles — allows his subjects to explain: Bassist Sarah Corina, who lives in London, manages to find jobs that give her the flexibility to tour. As Honeyman hops into her car to drive to her gallery, she informs us brightly that it cost “350 quid on eBay” — and that the band’s van was sourced from eBay, too. Timms, who lives and works in Chicago, says that the Mekons sometimes do make a little money when they go on tour, which only means that the band members get to pay themselves for a change. Langford, Greenhalgh, and singer and accordionist Rico Bell are all fine artists, respected and accomplished in their own right, though no one would identify painting as a path to easy riches.

What Angio captures, beautifully, is that the Mekons make great music because, together and apart, they’re so alive to the world around them. Over the years the band has been signed, for a quicksilver second or two (and in times when such a thing could make a difference), to one major label or another, but they’ve never lived in a rock-star bubble. Their earliest recorded songs, from 1978 — “Never Been in a Riot,” “Where Were You?” and “32 Weeks” — were, as Greil Marcus describes in his wild and woolly 1989 punk history Lipstick Traces, “preposterously rough, left-handed screeches about, respectively, a wish for trouble, a wish for affection, and the number of weeks of low-wage labor required to pay for various household objects, like refrigerators.” Revenge of the Mekons includes early performance footage of those songs, and they’re thrilling, purely of and in their moment, lightning bolts of fury being hurled by impossibly young, impossibly skinny guys.

But Angio offers not a jarring juxtaposition but a sense of continuity when he shows us more current footage, like a performance of the 2007 “The Hope and the Anchor” — a ballad that’s like a half-hopeful, half-despairing letter in a bottle, bobbing along on the silvery-blue waves of Timms’s voice. During another performance, Langford — not really the Mekons’ leader, but the charismatic hillbilly-by-way-of-Wales Buddha who keeps the whole enterprise together — performs a wiggly dance that’s part sailor’s hornpipe, part snake charmer’s exhortation, with a little twist-and-shout thrown in for kicks.

The Mekons found a new direction when they began to explore American country music — though as their friend John Gill, a musician, recording engineer, and sort of low-key musicologist, once pointed out, they’d been playing a kind of folk music all along. As Marcus says in Revenge of the Mekons, “The surprise is not that they’re still here. It’s that they’re still able to play as if they’re discovering their music.” Nothing is too far out, or too far in, for the Mekons. Have eBay touring van, will travel: Their job is the everyday hunt for poetry.

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Don’t Try Decoding the Singular Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

It’s no small feat that Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga lives up to the singularity of its title, cramming a dizzying array of aesthetic strategies into its 73 minutes: fairytale animation, documentary footage of post-communist Eastern Europe, and recurring narration that blends philosophical deliberation with first-person recollection.

The quick, three-shot prologue, which moves in on an open window, introduces an idea that resonates across the film: “Culture imagines an inherent advantage over the wild and builds high walls to keep it out.” Images of wasted buildings and Weekend-style tracking shots past traffic-stalled vehicles illustrate the serious toll of human activity on nature. But such gloom is hardly the defining tone. Elsewhere, DP Sean Price Williams’s 16mm images achieve a serene beauty: one standout scene, which Oreck overlays with traffic noises (an enigmatic choice indicative of the movie’s surprising soundscape), offers extreme close-ups of a woman applying makeup.

The animated segments, using still drawings and a second narrator, are equally striking, relaying the eponymous Slavic folktale, in which a grotesque witch takes in two stray children and assigns them tasks. A cat with gleaming orange eyes and a ghostly soldier (whose body, as it’s being buried, appears to melt into the trunk of a tree) are among the visual highlights of the Ivan Bilibin–inspired animation.

On first encounter, it may be futile to decode the shape of a movie like this — it feels both intricately structured and off-the-cuff. It would probably play differently on each subsequent viewing, something to wish that more films — even less essayistic ones — dared to strive for.

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JEEPERS CREEPERS

Who is Nell Zink? It’s a question that’s been on many literary-oriented minds, and one that we’re determined to get to the bottom of. This release party will surely enlighten. The expat, bunkering down just south of Berlin, drops her debut novel, The Wallcreepers, tonight. She’s already received glowing praise for this story (about two American bird-watchers who become accidental eco-terrorists) from a number of notable intellects like Keith Gessen — “there are some jokes in here that a young Don DeLillo would kill to have written” — and Jonathan Franzen — “[her work] raised the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world you think you know.” The latter introduces tonight’s reading and interviews the enigmatic Zink, followed by a wine reception.

Wed., Oct. 15, 7 p.m., 2014