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Save a Piece of Your Heart for ‘60s Pop-Music Doc “Bang! The Bert Berns Story”

You know the tunes but maybe not their source. Though Brett Berns and Bob Sarles’ film boasts appearances by Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, it’s (mercifully) not another boomer-rock hagiography; they’re the draw to get you into the theater for a film honoring their inspirations, the likes of Solomon Burke and the Isley Brothers — and the man who wrote many of those artists’ best songs.

Early on, the documentary argues that Jewish and black kids in 1960s New York had a natural affinity for the same kinds of music; though not the primary theme here, that seems like a topic ripe for further exploration. Berns became a hitmaker at 31 and was dead at the age of 38, felled by a heart defect. One of his biggest hits, “Piece of My Heart,” is literally about his condition; many of his other tunes (“Cry Baby,” “Cry to Me,” etc.) similarly evolved from his sense of imminent mortality. (An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bearns has had an Off Broadway musical, Piece of My Heart, based on his life.)

Blending stock footage, vintage audio, re-creation, and many testimonials from heavy hitters from Ben E. King to Van Morrison, Berns’ son Brett keeps things visually lively, and not as morose as may be implied: The origin story of “I Want Candy” is hilarious, and Berns’ mob-adjacent associates play like forerunners of Suge Knight. Best of all is the story of how a young Phil Spector so ruined the original Top Notes version of “Twist and Shout” that it drove Berns to learn production so he could do it better one day.

Bang! The Bert Berns Story
Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles
Abramorama
Opens April 26, IFC Center

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Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” Lays Bare the Costs of Thriving in a Corrupt Society

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about corruption. That’s true despite the fact that Mungiu underplays the typical elements found in tales about this subject: You won’t find many fast-talking crooks, sinister cops or elaborate sting operations here. Or a looming sense of justice and judgment, or even tragedy. You’ll just find mostly good people doing what they think is right, and then the acute mess that they find themselves in.

Mungiu’s primary vessel for exploring this world is Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a respected Cluj physician and upstanding pillar of the community whose high-school-senior daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) has secured a conditional college scholarship to study in Britain; all she has to do is pass her final exams. But an attempted assault outside the school leaves her injured and shaken right before the day of her first test. Believing that an education in England — far from the despair and deception of daily life in Romania — is the girl’s best and only chance for a better life, Romeo finds himself becoming what he hates most: someone who tries to game the system.

But it happens slowly, without him quite realizing it. Romeo first has to convince the school officials to let the girl take her first exam with a cast on her hand. That violates the rules, as kids have been known to cheat using such devices. But Romeo is Romeo, he knows the right people, and he has a way of softly talking his way into things. Then, when Eliza’s grade on that test winds up unsatisfactory, his police captain friend (Vlad Ivanov, a face unnervingly familiar to anyone who’s seen Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) arranges for Romeo to talk to Bulai (Petre Ciubotaru), a local bigwig who needs a liver transplant and who can arrange for the school authorities to give the girl the necessary grade; all Romeo has to do is put Bulai at the top of the liver transplant list.

Such a cursory description of the plot does no justice to the casual, organic way that Mungiu allows Romeo to consider forsaking his values — or at least what Romeo thinks are his values. He fancies himself an idealist, above deceit and graft until misfortune suddenly strikes his family. He reflects plaintively about how he and his wife Magda returned to Romania from abroad to try and make the country a better place. Driving through the city’s drab, desolate streets in his fancy sedan, listening to Baroque music, Romeo imagines himself in a cocoon of honesty, when in fact, it’s one of privilege. Not for nothing is one of the film’s earliest images a rock thrown against his windshield. We eventually realize that Graduation is partly about how people like Romeo have always benefited from cutting corners, from the insular security of their connections and their status.

At the same time, Mungiu refuses to condemn these characters. We sense throughout Graduation that what we’re watching is a way of operating that has insinuated itself into daily life because, unlike everything else, it works. Institutions are inadequate: Eliza’s assailant might be an escaped convict, so the law has already failed her; meanwhile, the school’s stringent policies are ineffective at dealing with a student’s very serious crisis. Romeo and his friends are merely taking advantage of the existing order of things. But what about those less fortunate — a group that includes Romeo’s own mistress, whose son needs a speech therapist but whom the good doctor, ever so certain of his rectitude, refuses to help?

Graduation is about relatively mundane occurrences, but as Romeo is pulled further and further from his moral certainty, the film becomes incredibly gripping and unsettling. Mungiu’s subtle visual style also enhances the suspense, plunging Romeo further into darkness as he falls deeper down the well. One evening, thinking he’s seen his daughter’s assailant on the street, he jumps out of a bus in pursuit of the man. Romeo runs into an empty slum, the night pitch black around him, and finds himself alone, out of breath and afraid. He looks around in bewilderment, like someone who’s experiencing night, solitude and uncertainty for perhaps the first time in his life. It’s an indelible image: a good man forced to confront his own fallen soul.

Graduation
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Sundance Selects
Opens April 7, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas

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“Five Came Back” Illuminates the Art and Fate of Great Directors in WWII

Unpromisingly, Five Came Back, a series that surveys the military service of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler — who cut off their Hollywood careers to serve in the Second World War and were thereafter irrevocably changed both in profession and in life — opens with footage of the Academy Awards. There, in brisk montage, are the five moviemakers, all dressed up and receiving Oscar statuettes, as if upfront evidence of prestigious hardware were required to grasp the attention of fast-scrolling Netflix subscribers. It seems a weirdly superficial entry into a narrative — adapted from critic and journalist Mark Harris’s history Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) — of carnage, horror, and trauma. Harris concluded that exposure to humanity’s capacity for evil challenged these men’s grasp of the world and altered their work. Watching this version, you might wonder: Should such a metamorphosis mean having to care about Academy Awards?

For the first of its three hour-long episodes (which are playing on the big screen at the IFC Center), Netflix’s Five Came Back numbs the strength of its source material with broad-overview contextual introduction and a sometimes navel-gazing quality. (There are a few too many vintage photographs of macho Golden Age directors sucking on cigars.) Beneath the airy seriousness of Meryl Streep’s narration come helpfully colored maps of Europe diagramming the spread of Nazism. We’re subjected to innumerable examples of sounds-good-but-says-nothing generalizations that proliferate in easily consumable televisual series of this mode. When Paul Greengrass, no doubt sincere, observes of Ford’s World War I–themed Four Sons (1928), “What it was was the beginning of Ford trying to address reality,” it seems about as helpful as saying, “The Searchers is a movie with John Wayne.” Greengrass is but one of the coterie of name directors — also Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro — dishing out commentary on his forebears.

Fortunately, as the series progresses, the profit of translating Harris’s thorough and engrossing text into the footage-rich format of the docuseries materializes. If Harris, who wrote the adaptation himself, and Laurent Bouzereau, who directed, gloss over ambiguities in their hurried setup, their interests snap into focus when their narrative catches up to the war. The U.S. enters the global conflict, and the storied moviemakers dedicate their craft to the cause. Like the day-to-day business of their Hollywood gigs, the men’s wartime work was defined by compromise and negotiation, their artistic aspirations being fought at each step by powerful overseers with concrete interests. The U.S. government had even more restrictive demands than the studio bosses: It wanted short, professional docs made to persuade American boys and men to enter the fight.

The transition into the theater of war also inspires the talking heads. No longer saddled with reciting backstory, the five directors speak with specificity and power about individual movies. Ford ventures into the Pacific and makes The Battle of Midway (1942), a plunge into combat on the open water. Greengrass is marvelous as he relates the power of Ford’s document, speaking of “the image distressing” and emphasizing the “accidental” nature of some of the shots. Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945), at the time presented as legitimate pictures of combat, was years later revealed to have consisted largely of staged re-creations. Coppola comes alive as he explains Huston’s ingenuity in instructing soldiers to look at the lens — a totally artificial gesture that, onscreen, instead produces an effect of reality.

Spielberg delivers sobering testimony regarding The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), for which Wyler climbed into actual B-17s to grab footage during air missions. Spielberg pauses on a struck enemy aircraft making a “slow spiral” downward, marveling at Wyler’s refusal to turn away from the carnage, the sedate pace of the plane’s descent suggesting something almost dreamlike. Capra and Stevens, while invested in the plight of the soldier, developed work that reaches beyond, into larger geopolitical tensions. Capra embarked on his ambitious, seven-part “Why We Fight” series, whose first entry, Prelude to War (1942), cemented for many Americans the intensity of the totalitarian threat. (Another Capra Army project, the 1945 Know Your Enemy: Japan, co-written with Huston, proffers risibly racist characterizations of the Japanese people.) And Stevens, remaining in Europe after the close of the conflict, brought his camera into the grounds of Dachau; his subsequent Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) provided instrumental evidence in the Nuremberg hearings.

The quintet, surrounded by death, faced frequent danger at the front, mostly due to their insistence on getting close to the action: Ford came out of Midway wounded by shrapnel, while the noise of one of Wyler’s airborne missions left him deaf (his hearing was later only partially restored). That experience shaped their postwar work back in the States. Stevens, in the Thirties a leading exponent of “light entertainment,” turned to dramas like A Place in the Sun (1951). Wyler made the smash hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), one of whose three main characters, each a returning vet, has a hook for a right hand.

Not all their war-informed work was celebrated. Capra’s sometimes despairing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) did poorly on initial release, to the grave disappointment of its maker. And while Huston achieved later triumphs, his proto-PTSD doc Let There Be Light (1946), now a fixture in university film programs, was disparaged by the government and held from wider circulation until the Eighties. Set in a hospital for returning vets, the movie, in Coppola’s persuasive estimation, exhibits “a bigness of soul.” It also exhibits one of the fresher revelations of Five Came Back, which is that many of classic Hollywood’s greatest directors, when stranded outside the artifice of the backlot, possessed impulses that gelled toward the documentary. Huston, like his four contemporaries, was seeing things he didn’t understand, and his response at that hospital was simply to watch.

Five Came Back
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
Netflix
Opens March 31, IFC Center

 

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‘Kiki’ Takes the Pulse of New York’s Ballroom Culture

A street sign, quickly glimpsed in the first few minutes of Kiki, Sara Jordenö’s adroit documentary on the new generation of those in the ballroom and voguing scenes, nimbly serves as cultural, historical, and geographic semaphore. Two of the young people featured in Jordenö’s chronicle — most of whom are in their teens and twenties, and are black or Latinx and gay or trans — stop at the corner of Christopher and Hudson streets in the West Village, an intersection that has been officially known since 2005 as Sylvia Rivera Way. The crossing’s namesake, who died in 2002, was a transgender activist and co-founder, in 1970, of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). The spot is roughly equidistant from two landmarks of the LGBTQ movement: The Stonewall Inn sits two blocks to the east; the Christopher Street piers, three to the west.

I mention all this because that flash of street signage signals part of what Jordenö successfully — and non-didactically — communicates in Kiki: the gradual acknowledgment of queer and trans history in the city (and elsewhere) over the past decade or so, a history continuously being made and remade by the adolescents and young adults whom she filmed between 2012 and 2015. Kiki is an update of sorts on Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning, a canonical portrait of New York ball culture in the 1980s that endures, though not without complications, as an essential investigation of queerness, race, class, and stardom — and a work that noticeably goes unmentioned in Jordenö’s film. For all its significance, a taint of “exploitation” and “voyeurism” has clung to Paris Is Burning over the past quarter-century (several principals in the film sued Livingston’s production company after Paris was released in 1991). Born in Sweden and currently based in New York, Jordenö, like Livingston, is a white cis queer woman, but she preempts the charges that have bedeviled the Paris director; Kiki is much more of a collaboration between filmmaker and subjects than its predecessor.

Through an earlier project, Jordenö met Chi Chi Mizrahi and Twiggy Pucci Garçon, luminaries of the kiki (ballroom argot meaning “to have a good time”) scene, who, crucially, invited her to film their milieu; Pucci Garçon has a co-writing credit on the film. There is no voiceover narration, and intertitles are used sparingly. Kiki demands that its audience pay attention and listen to its seven main interlocutors, who, in addition to Mizrahi and Pucci Garçon, include Gia Marie Love (shown before and after her transition), the speaker of the film’s most sobering assessment: “Our community is on very intimate terms with death.” In workshops, at home, at the piers and other places, interviewees discuss high rates of HIV infection and suicide; in other colloquies, kiki kids reveal virulently disapproving parents and long episodes of homelessness. These brutal truths inform celebrations taking place in various drop-ceilinged spots throughout the five boroughs: voguing competitions in which the dizzying finesse of rapidly moving limbs matches the élan of ball-culture nomenclature (House of Unbothered-Cartier, Opulent Haus of P.U.C.C.I., to name two favorites). Yet Jordenö, in a recurring motif, honors the kiki denizens the most when she captures them motionless, staring directly into the camera, regal and indefatigable.

Kiki
Directed by Sara Jordenö
Sundance Selects
Opens March 1, IFC Center

 

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Sylvie Verheyde’s ‘Sex Doll’ Is a Sex-Work Drama Minus the Male Gaze

Sex Doll’s lurid title suggests a Russ Meyer exploitation fest, but in truth the film offers a toned down, occasionally bland look at sex work. Prostitution has long been a cinematic fixture, and writer/director Sylvie Verheyde seeks to offset the unrealistic depictions by male directors by showing prostitution in a detached fashion.

Virginie (Hafsia Herzi), the protagonist, is first seen lying in bed with an impassive expression as an older businessman type thrusts and grunts unappealingly. Virginie gives an impression of blasé professionalism — she does her job, collects her money and doesn’t get emotionally involved. There’s only the briefest glimpse of nudity, and Virginie’s self-presentation is telling: She favors black clothes and thick, 1960s-style false eyelashes, her severe outfits suggesting a seductive but impenetrable armor.

Her world is soon shaken by Rupert (tattoo-covered male model Ash Stymest in his debut role), an enigmatic stranger with whom she starts an affair. His dozens of tattoos and unclear intentions project sleaze, and the businessmen Virginie beds for money, some of whom have physically abusive tendencies, are even sleazier. In the world of Sex Doll, men are not to be trusted.

For all that, Verheyde allows some sly humor. Virginie jerks off a man while the camera stays fixed on her bored face. In the next shot, she washes her hands — this is work, and it’s not titillating. The penultimate line may well serve as a pointed mission statement: Virginie turns to Rupert and asks, “Aren’t you tired of rescuing whores?” Sex Doll, flat though it may sometimes be, is shrewdly aware of the countless clichés surrounding sex work.

Sex Doll
Written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde
IFC Midnight
Opens February 10, IFC Center

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‘This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous’ Offers a Charming Exploration of a YouTube Star’s Transformation

This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous is an intimate and engaging exploration of gender dynamics and the curious, uniquely 21st-century alchemy of YouTube stardom.

Veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple captures Gigi Gorgeous, a young, indefatigably sassy transgender YouTube star who first gained notice on the platform as Greg, a gay high school boy adept at applying mascara and offering heartfelt advice to his many viewers. Kopple follows Greg’s transition into Gigi, combining YouTube excerpts, interviews with Gigi’s family and fly-on-the-wall footage of Gigi going through landmarks of her transition. She makes for so affable a subject that those not already familiar with her should still enjoy hearing her confidently deliver her life philosophies.

Gigi’s relationship with her father is presented with complexity: He expresses initial hesitation in learning to embrace the fact that his son is now his daughter. Kopple eloquently captures not just Gigi’s physical transition but her father’s emotional one as he comes to accept his daughter and take care of her after her surgeries. (The film doesn’t dwell on the other adversity Gigi faces: A scene of discrimination at an airport in Dubai at the end feels too quickly tacked on, and the painfully negative YouTube comments are only briefly addressed.)

In perhaps the most poignant moment, Gigi, having just received breast implants, goes to Victoria’s Secret and, surrounded by bras, acts like a kid in a candy store — a consumerist sign of womanhood becomes a sign of victory. Anonymous haters on YouTube can say Gigi is fake, but her enthusiasm here, and the enthusiasm her teen girl fans have in meeting her, is totally genuine.

This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous
Directed by Barbara Kopple
Now playing, IFC Center

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Real-Time Romance ‘Paris 05:59’ Is at Its Best When the City of Light Does the Talking

Told in real time, Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo devotes the first 18 of its 93 minutes (not including credits) to the frenzied fun happening during the wee hours in the red-light-bathed basement of a gay sex club in Les Halles. It is there that Théo (Geoffrey Couët) and Hugo (François Nambot), among the slightest of the writhing, moaning, mostly ephebic figures, lock eyes while mounting other partners, soon to be ditched so that these two can be more fully intertwined with each other.

Filmmakers Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau cleverly capture the codes and customs that guide even extreme Dionysian milieus — the lube and condom dispensers, the coat/clothing check and settling of drink tabs that follow the group rutting — with an attention to detail that keeps viewers engaged when the bland, acharismatic central couple, who cycle, walk, talk, kiss, and fight in a pre-dawn City of Light, fail to.

Recalling other cine-duets, both straight (Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise) and gay (Andrew Haigh’s Weekend), Paris 05:59 distinguishes itself by seamlessly including a lesson on HIV post-exposure prophylaxis: The protocol is outlined by an imperturbable doctor at a hospital in the Tenth Arrondissement once the men discover, minutes after leaving the club, that they have discordant serostatuses and failed to follow safe-sex practices. These medical facts, along with the delights of Paris particulars — the Canal Saint-Martin in the dead hours, the faces of early-morning Métro riders — give the film ballast when Théo and Hugo’s getting-to-know-you patter grows too precious. 

Paris 05:59 Théo & Hugo
Written and directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau
Wolfe Releasing
Opens January 27, IFC Center

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Beyond the Monolith: A Kubrick Retrospective Introduces a New Documentary on the Man Behind the Myth

It isn’t every day that you’re asked to drive a giant dick across London. But for Emilio D’Alessandro, a young Italian émigré, erstwhile race-car driver, and full-time cabbie, it was just another job: It was December of 1970, a blizzard was on, nobody else was around, and the object — a massive sculpture of a phallus — had to be delivered quickly to a company called Hawk Films on the other side of town. Speedy, careful, and prompt, D’Alessandro got it there safely and on time. The recipient, impressed, offered him a regular job. And that’s how Emilio D’Alessandro became Stanley Kubrick’s personal chauffeur.

He was, in truth, more than that. Transporting the director around, and being the guy responsible for getting things to and from him, effectively made D’Alessandro a personal assistant and even secret sharer for Kubrick, who saw the car as an extension of his office and his work as an extension of his life. Alex Infascelli’s documentary S Is for Stanley foregrounds the engaging D’Alessandro himself as he talks about both his fondness for and frustration with Kubrick, who needed him constantly and for all sorts of tasks.

One of the film’s odd pleasures is seeing and hearing Kubrick’s many, many memos — sometimes handwritten, often typed via a variety of newfangled machines — requesting things like birthday party supplies for his kids, thermometers for every room, and medications and food for his many pets. (Clive Riche’s vocal impression of Kubrick doesn’t quite sound like the director, but it does have the right gentle authority.) And while Kubrick’s death in 1999 took everyone by surprise, D’Alessandro reveals that the director was in poor health beforehand, occasionally needing oxygen tanks and sometimes faltering physically; one of the film’s most touching moments comes when Emilio recalls the difficulty Stanley had, just prior to his death, breaking a tablet for one of his cats.

It’s a subtle but important strength of S Is for Stanley that D’Alessandro’s reminiscences reflect on both the bad and the good; the movie is neither hagiography nor exposé. Kubrick was, no doubt, the kind of boss whose demands would consume you. During the production of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, D’Alessandro was often flying four times a day, transporting key items between the set and London, never even getting holidays or weekends off. Things got bad enough that he came close to splitting with his wife, Janette, who was concerned that the job left him no time to be with his own family. D’Alessandro also tearfully recalls his retirement in the early 1990s; he gave Kubrick three years’ notice, and even then it was impossible to let go. Just a couple of years into retirement, he wound up returning to work — and even got a cameo in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Infascelli’s film manages to stake compelling ground between the matter-of-fact and the full-on geek-out. D’Alessandro and his wife live in Italy now, and somewhere in their home they have a meticulously kept collection of Kubrickiana — not just the memos, but a small trove of items accrued over a lifetime of work. (The driver even has one of the director’s signature green jackets.) But D’Alessandro is the furthest thing from a film buff; he reveals that he and his wife didn’t catch up on viewing his boss’s actual movies until late in life, and it was only then that the man’s genius became apparent to them. That refreshingly undaunted spirit may have helped attract Kubrick to D’Alessandro in the first place; it’s also what makes this modest driver such a captivating guide through a career working for one of history’s great artists.

S Is for Stanley is but one of a number of works that have focused on Kubrick the man since his death. We’ve had personal reminiscences from friends, family, collaborators, and others. These films and books may be of varying levels of artistry — S Is for Stanley is one of the more accomplished — but they have all helped to demystify the filmmaker in certain ways. It’s remarkable to think back to how private Kubrick was in life: You could go a decade without hearing a word about what he was working on, or with whom, and his sets were shrouded in national-security-level secrecy. All of that helped feed the myth of the cool, calculating artist, the Great Mind always thinking several moves ahead of the studios, audiences, critics. It fed skepticism about him, too: To some, the secrecy was a sign of pretension and grandiosity, proof that Kubrick made films less like an artist and more like a general or politician.

That impression may have helped turn Kubrick into a mythic figure, but it also clouded many critics’ ability to see the personal in his work. A new retrospective of his films at IFC Center, coinciding with the release of S Is for Stanley, may help correct this misguided notion. For lurking beneath the careful surfaces of these movies lies a distinctly personal stamp.

Kubrick never fell prey to sentiment, but he understood emotion. He knew that it was something that occurred not necessarily on the screen, but between the viewer and the film itself. Some took the calm, robotic voice of the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey to be, spiritually speaking, the voice of the director, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Observe the melancholy mood of that film, the sense of slow-motion bewilderment and outrage at a world where humans had become alienated from their feelings and from one another — that’s Kubrick, as both artist and human, speaking to us, intimately and subtly. Look beneath the Olympian satire of Dr. Strangelove and you’ll see something similar: The movie asks us to laugh at the spectacle of nuclear annihilation, but it knows that we will soon be choking on that laughter, that at some point — either during the film or on the way out of the theater, or maybe even later, in the middle of the night — we will break out in a cold sweat at the monstrous plausibility of it all. (And anyone who doubts that film’s prescience may want to take a gander at the news nowadays.)

And there’s a case to be made that many of Kubrick’s later films are attempts to work out issues of personal significance. Is it so far-fetched to see a connection between his being the father of three young girls in a society that was becoming more and more depraved and violent, and his decision to make A Clockwork Orange? Or to look at Barry Lyndon‘s Irish renegade trying to insinuate himself into the upper levels of British society and not sense an echo of Kubrick himself, a Jew from the Bronx who wound up living among the landed gentry? And what to make of The Shining‘s portrait of isolation and creative crisis causing a writer to go mad, to say nothing of Eyes Wide Shut and its portrait of a marriage derailed by jealousy and lust? The movies may endure long after the man, but it’s sometimes through the movies that we get a true picture of the man. Through its subject’s unique recollections, S Is for Stanley helps contribute to that conversation by re-establishing that vital connection between Stanley the human and Kubrick the god.

‘Stanley Kubrick’
IFC Center
Through February 2

S Is for Stanley
Directed by Alex Infascelli
Opens January 27, IFC Center

 

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Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare’ Dancers Look Back in ‘Strike a Pose’

The male backup dancers for Madonna’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour assume the foreground in the documentary Strike a Pose: The six surviving members of the original seven are always excellent company, though Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s film at times seems frustratingly under-researched.

The now middle-aged men are frequently juxtaposed with their younger, most fabulous and famous selves as they revisit clips from Alek Keshishian’s immensely pleasurable vérité backstager/concert doc Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991). In present-day sit-downs, they offer cogent and clear-eyed reflections on being unofficial ambassadors of queerness — all but one of the dancers is gay — during the height of the AIDS crisis (the disease that killed Gabriel Trupin in 1995, remembered by his colleagues as their boss’s “unofficial favorite child”). The same holds true for their thoughts on Madge herself, whose absence here is conspicuous though by no means detrimental.

There are tears, regrets, and, for some, like Carlton Wilborn, scorching self-rebuke, but no displays of score-settling or self-pity, no matter how straitened their circumstances may be today. Yet for many in this sextet, the specifics of their lives — jobs, relationships, hopes, plans — since their early-Nineties zenith remain too little explored by Gould and Zwaan.

“We carried our flamboyance as a warning,” Luis Camacho — who, along with fellow House of Xtravaganza member Jose Gutierez, was most responsible for teaching Madonna the intricacies of voguing — tells the filmmakers early on. What provided their armature over the past 25 years?

Strike a Pose
Directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan
Bond 360
Opens January 18, IFC Center

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Anarchic Adventures With Alain Guiraudie

In Staying Vertical, as in nearly all of French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s tonically unorthodox work, the emphasis is on the abundant possibility of pairings and practices when people get horizontal.

Filled with quite literal chubby-
chasing, Guiraudie’s sexually anarchic romp The King of Escape (2009), for
example, centers on a middle-aged gay man who falls in love and runs off with a sixteen-year-old girl, only to conclude with an all-male gerontophilic foursome. While the XXX action in the taut cruising-ground thriller Stranger by the Lake, the first of Guiraudie’s movies to receive stateside release, may be exclusively man-on-man, the meat-rack habitués in this 2013 film
are refreshingly varied in age and BMI. Often the fluidity of desire matches the protean nature of his narratives, a quality that’s especially apparent in Staying Vertical — a film that braids in, sometimes too desultorily, fairytale-like
elements and surreal logic.

Like its predecessors, Staying Vertical is shot (primarily) in rural southern France. Yet Guiraudie’s latest also atypically includes detours to a city: Brest, the port town that itinerant Léo (Damien Bonnard), a screenwriter who’s months past a deadline, returns to from time to time. As the film opens, Léo, whose creative-class profession distinguishes him from Guiraudie’s usual farm-laborer or blue-collar protagonists, is motoring through the winding byways of Lozère in a run-down Renault. He approaches a curly-haired young guy he sees on the side of the road: “Have you ever thought about a movie career?” It’s a dopey come-on, one made even more artless by Léo’s awkward posture, and coolly rebuffed by Yoan (Basile Meilleurat), who lives, as we later learn, with the ancient Marcel (Christian Bouillette) as the geezer’s vaguely defined custodian and likely catamite.

In Guiraudie’s erotically elastic scenarios, though, rejection doesn’t sting for long. Hiking through the hills, with the brutal pastoral beauty of the region accentuated by the widescreen compositions, Léo spots Marie (India Hair), a flinty shepherdess who lectures him on the constant dangers posed by wolves, the totem animal of Staying Vertical. All the lupine talk serves as turn-on: In an abrupt and funny extreme close-up, Marie’s hand is soon on Léo’s dungareed crotch. Just as quickly and unceremoniously, he becomes one of the ménage, settling in to the farmhouse that Marie shares with her two towheaded little boys and her ogreish father, Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry), who suggests the unfortunate son
of John C. Reilly and André the Giant.

The couple’s bedroom scenes often begin with a screen-filling shot of Marie’s vulva, a clear nod to Courbet’s notorious painting The Origin of the World. Those adoringly, classically framed genitals, however, soon resemble a gruesome crime scene: Footage of a newborn being pushed out of its mother’s vagina spares no blood, excreta, or goo. This blast of trying body horror is immediately followed by that once-viscous-covered creature now as a cute, onesie-clad baby boy, dandled by Léo, who’ll shortly be the unnamed infant’s sole caretaker after Marie departs with her two older kids.

For a while, there’s a kind of order to Léo’s increasingly shambolic existence, signaled by the recurrence of through-the-windshield shots as the ungainly scriptwriter drives back and forth, his kid usually in tow, from the home he now uneasily occupies with Jean-Louis to the fractious residence of Yoan and Marcel to a micro-hotel room in Brest — where, in one of several dreamlike scenes, he’s mobbed and denuded by a horde of homeless men. Léo’s also a king of escape, but one who can never fully assume the throne. In his most outré odyssey, he slowly paddles down a stream, his baby an incongruous bundle on the floor of a canoe, for an appointment with a yurt-dwelling shaman, Dr. Mirande (Laure Calamy), a healer with a terse bedside manner.

That fluvial episode exemplifies the pleasures of Guiraudie’s unpredictable scenarios; the setting, thick with vegetation, recalls both the promise and the menace that imbued the arcadian grove where sex is sought in Stranger by the Lake. As always with Guiraudie’s films, Staying Vertical shrewdly (and often hilariously) captures both the seriousness and the absurdity of sex, particularly when Léo obliges miserable Marcel with a dying wish: The younger man tenderly, but no less resolutely, barebacks the old guy, Léo’s determined thrusting scored to ludicrously loud prog-rock noodling. But while overwhelmed Léo tries to maintain the position of the movie’s title — standing upright amid so much chaos or remaining erect with his various bedmates — some events are defined not by the exhilaration of libidinal lawlessness
but by fatiguing whim. Plug-ugly Jean-Louis’s late-act blunt propositioning of Léo, for instance, comes as no surprise — Guiraudie’s movies are often populated with such age- and beauty-discordant potential pairings — but now seems
almost de rigueur for the director.
But while I grew restless in Staying Vertical‘s final thirty minutes, my fear that Guiraudie was beginning to rely too heavily on the same propriety-pushing situations was quelled by Staying Vertical‘s knockout ending — one that imagines a different, almost certainly doomed, communion between two different species.

Staying Vertical
Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie
Strand Releasing
Opens January 20, Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center